GRAND RAPIDS, MI (TREE) — It’s been nearly 26 years since a delivery driver came across a woman’s body wrapped in a blanket in southern Kent County, Michigan.
Sharon Kay Hammack, 29, was raped, stabbed, bound and dumped on the side of 76th Street, west of Craft Avenue, near Caledonia.
Hammock, a mother of two, was one of a dozen women killed in the 1990s in and around Grand Rapids. Most of the victims, including Hammack, struggled with addiction and did sex work to support their lifestyle.
Regional law enforcement formed a task force in 1996 to investigate the string of murders to determine if they were the work of a serial killer. But investigators have been unable to come to any conclusions, and as of this week, no charges had been filed in any of the murders.
In some cases, only skeletal remains remained by the time the women were discovered.
But Sharon Hammack was found the same day she was killed, and her killer left his mark.
FLORIDA TRUCK WITH SAFE HISTORY ARRESTED
It was Kent County Sheriff’s Department detectives and advances in DNA that led to the arrest of Gary Dean Artman, a truck driver from Florida who was living in Michigan at the time of Hammock’s murder.
Artman, who is also suspected in the murder of a sex worker in Maryland, is being held in a Mississippi jail pending extradition to Michigan. According to jail records, Artman was arrested by the Mississippi Highway Patrol on Tuesday.
Artman is a truck driver with a long criminal record, including a rape conviction for which he served 11 years in a Michigan prison. Kent County court records show Artman has a current address in White Springs in North Florida.
On Friday afternoon news releaseThe Kent County Sheriff’s Department announced that Artman has been charged with open murder, criminal homicide and first-degree criminal sexual conduct in Hammock’s murder.
“KCSD is investigating the 1996 homicide of a local prostitute that occurred on 76th Street between Patterson and Craft,” a detective wrote in a probable cause affidavit filed Tuesday in East Beltline 63rd District Court.
“The victim was strangled to death among other injuries. The attacker raped the victim, leaving DNA vaginally and rectally, as well as DNA on other items, including the rope used to tie the victim. The assailant also stabbed the victim twice in the head with a knife,” the affidavit reads.
GENEALOGICAL TEST LEAD TO ARREST
Sheriff’s detectives previously sent crime scene DNA to Hammock for genealogical testing in an attempt to find relatives of the killer.
“In 2006, the Maryland State Police were investigating the murder of a well-known prostitute who had been raped and stabbed to death. The attacker left DNA on (this) victim as well,” a detective wrote.
“Family DNA was done on both the Grand Rapids (Hammock) case and the Maryland case. It was determined that in each case the assailant was in fact the same person,” the detective wrote. “Furthermore, DNA testing established that the person who committed each crime was from the same parents.”
The sheriff’s investigator explained that they traced the DNA to the parents of four sons.
“Further review revealed that only one son had any ties to Michigan and that was Gary Dean Artman,” the detective wrote. “By his own admission, Artman lived and worked near the scene of the murder and was present in the state of Michigan when the murder took place. Further investigation revealed that shortly before the murder victim (was found) in Maryland, she was in Ontario, California. Around the same time, Gary Dean Artman was found to be 20 miles from Ontario, California when he was cited by local authorities.
Detectives have not said whether they believe Artman is responsible for other murders in the Grand Rapids area.
According to a news release from the sheriff’s department, investigators will hold a press conference Monday morning regarding Artman’s arrest. Relatives of Hammock are expected to attend.
In the news release, the sheriff’s department thanked multiple law enforcement agencies for their assistance, including the Mississippi State Highway Patrol, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, the Forrest County Sheriff’s Office in Mississippi, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office in Alabama, the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, the Michigan State Police Crime Lab, the Kent County District Attorney’s Office and the US Postal Inspection Service.
“MOM WE HAVE JUSTICE FOR HER”
On Thursday, one of the detectives on the unsolved cases knocked on Terry Navitskas’ door in Walker. Navitskas is Hammack’s sister, and the investigator wants to make sure the family knows about the arrest first. He also got on the phone with one of Hammock’s other sisters, Tina DeJong.
“We got him,” DeYoung quoted the detective as saying as soon as she got on the phone.
DeYoung was stunned.
“It’s just an outpouring of emotions,” she told Nexstar’s WOOD-TV. “I’m happy, but I’m also sad.”
DeYoung said the news brings back the pain of losing her sister, but she’s thankful the Kent County Sheriff’s Department never forgot her sister.
Sadly, Hammack’s parents, Jacob and Lois Gross, have passed away.
“Mom, we got justice for her,” DeJong said Thursday night, looking skyward. “I’m sorry it didn’t happen before the good Lord took you, but justice will be served. You can celebrate with her up there.
WOOD has been working on an in-depth investigation into the 1990 murders and spoke with Terri Navitskas in mid-May.
“We would like to know who did this to her. It wasn’t right for any of the girls to do that to him. Just terrible,” Navitskas said through tears. “(Sharon) was a loving sister, a loving daughter and a loving mother of two and we miss her so much.”
Navitskas said her sister was 3-5 months pregnant when she was killed.
“So there’s a baby we don’t even know,” she said. “(Sharon) wanted everything in life for her children. I don’t know who she got into drugs with. When she first entered it, she wanted to clear herself for her children, but then she got so far into the crack that it took her down… It was just horrible to see her on the streets. I hated seeing her there.
Navitskas said the family worries about Hammock every day, especially when someone starts killing prostitutes in Grand Rapids.
Hammock, whose body was found on October 3, 1996, was the ninth woman killed in a string of 12 murders that began in March 1994 when the body of 25-year-old Lesa Otberg was found in Muskegon.
“My mom and I would drive up and down Division Avenue and (Sharon) would be right there behind a little motel near 28th Street. We could see her and when we would approach her and stop, she would run away because she didn’t want us to see her like that,” Navitskas said.
She said her mother tried to send Hammock to rehab, but Hammock was always kicked out because they didn’t have insurance.
“I think about her all the time,” Navitskas said. “What a wonderful sister she was. She was just so loving.”