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'He'll rot in prison': Family of murder victim relieved of suspect's arrest after 26 years

The man arrested and charged with her death is linked to another murder, and spent 11 years in jail for a sexual crime only years before Sharon's death.

CALEDONIA TOWNSHIP, Mich. — The family of a woman murdered in Kent County in 1996 is finally a step closer to getting justice after nearly three decades. 

29-year-old Sharon Hammack was raped and murdered 26 years ago, but it wasn't until now that they have the answers they've been looking for. A 64-year-old man, who is accused of another murder and said to have a long history of sexually violent crime, was arrested in connection with Sharon's death. 

"I miss you," said Joe Gross, Sharon's older brother. "She was a good sister to hang around with. We miss her."

On October 3, 1996, Kent County Sheriff deputies responded to an incident on 76th Street SE, between Patterson Ave and Kraft Ave in Caledonia Township.

That's when they found a deceased woman and determined she had been sexually assaulted and strangled to death. That woman was later identified as Sharon.

Gross is just one of several siblings, family members and two children that Sharon left behind. He said they were all close growing up.

"We all did stuff together," he said. "We'd go camping together with my family, and with her kids and stuff. We had a good time hanging around her."

Sharon was found lying in tall grass in a field, wrapped in some type of cloth. Authorities in 1996 said her panties were pulled down around her ankles, and her body was just 10 feet off the road. 

She was also four weeks pregnant.

"It was sad," Joe remembered. "The hardest part was going to the funeral."

THE MAN BEHIND THE MURDER

Earlier in the week, 64-year-old Garry Dean Artman, of Florida, was arrested in Mississippi. He is currently being held there, awaiting extradition back to Michigan with the Kent County Sheriff's Office to face charges for Sharon's murder. 

Sharon's family said she was a great sister and mother, and they've missed her everyday since she was killed. 

"I'm happy that she's in a good place," said her brother. "And I'm glad they caught the guy and he's coming back to Grand Rapids. I'm happy that he's going to rot in prison for it."

According to a probable cause affidavit from the Kent County 63rd District Court, Gary Artman has an extensive history of Criminal Sexual Assault (CSC) crimes, and spent 11 years in the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) for a charge of CSC 1st Degree. He was sent to prison in August of 1981, and then discharged on the maximum (meaning the MDOC had the ability but chose not to parole him), in June of 1992, just four years before Sharon Hammack was murdered.

The affidavit revealed that whoever had killed Sharon, raped her, leaving DNA vaginally and rectally. He also left DNA on the rope he used to hogtie her before he strangled her and stabbed her in the head with a knife.

"With DNA and genealogy testing, it's now more of a science, and not as much of an art as it once was, which I think is really good for solving cases," said Steve Thompson, an Assault Investigation Consultant and former CMU Professor who founded the school's Sexual Aggression Peer Advocates (SAPA) group. 

HOW DNA HELPED FINALLY FIND ANSWERS

According to the probable cause affidavit, Kent County Sheriff's detectives had taken DNA left behind at the scene of Sharon's murder and submitted it for genealogical testing to try and find any relatives of the killer. 

Maryland State Police were investigating the murder of a known prostitute who was raped and stabbed to death in 2006. The killer had left DNA on the victim.

"Familial DNA was done on both the Grand Rapids (Sharon Hammack) case and the Maryland case, and it was determined that the assailant was the same person," the affidavit read. "A DNA exam then found that the person who committed both crimes came from the same parents."

The affidavit went on to explain that Kent County Sheriff's detectives then traced that DNA to a couple with four sons. Further investigating showed that only one of those sons had any ties to Michigan, and that was Garry Dean Artman.

"Artman, by his own admission, was living and working near the murder scene and was present in the state of Michigan when the homicide was committed," read the affidavit. "Further investigation revealed that shortly before the homicide victim (was) found in Maryland, she was in Ontario, California. It was found that around the same time Garry Dean Artman was within 20 miles of Ontario, Ca(nada) when he was cited by local authorities."

IS ARTMAN LINKED TO OTHER MURDERS IN THE AREA?

Authorities confirmed that Sharon Hammack had a history of prostitution, and that at the time of her death, there were nearly a dozen unsolved murders of women over the previous 16 years. Of those, nine were confirmed to have been prostitutes. That had authorities worried they all might be linked to one suspect. 

"With the new DNA technology, and investigators being able to find some kind of signature of the killer, I would assume it would help solve those other murders," Thompson said. 

Garry Artman has never been identified as a serial killer, and investigators have never said if they think Artman was responsible for any other murders around West Michigan. 

Steve Thompson explained that for predators like Artman, they often have cycles and more often than not, those cycles are fairly predictable. 

"In their life cycle, there comes a time when they no longer get the gratification and they simply stop," he said. "There's a whole lot of serial killers out there right now. We don't know who they are, but they've simply stopped."

"And once they've stopped and a case becomes cold, what's catching them is the DNA and the genealogy," he added. "But if we didn't have that technology, this guy could be your next door neighbor, or a functioning member of society, and nobody knows it."

Thompson also explained that killers like Artman typically pick targets that he describes as "peripheral," meaning the killer likely assumes that person will not be missed. But in the case of Sharon Hammack, we know that certainly wasn't the case. 

"Killers may often also think that the intensity is not as great to find the killer of a prostitute or a runaway kid, as would be for somebody that's middle-upper class or more well-known," he added.

But for Thompson, he believes that no matter someone's profession or life choices, every victim deserves the same attention.

"The choice somebody makes, it's not up to me to judge it. "Thompson said. "But it is up to me to say that nobody has a right to kill or harm or, or exert power and control over anybody."

"I don't give a damn if they're a child, woman, man, or somebody identifying as whoever," he added. "Nobody has that right to do that, and that's what we've got to focus on."

ANY OTHER CONNECTIONS?

Earlier this year, detectives with the Ottawa County Sheriff's Office Cold Case Unit revealed that after nearly 27 years, they had identified a woman whose remains were found near Coopersville and had been an ongoing cold case. Shelly Rae Christian, or Shelly Rae Kephart, was found by rabbit hunters on November 6th, 1994.

Her cause of death was homicide, but with no identity, no charges were ever filed in relation to her murder.

On Friday, 13 ON YOUR SIDE asked Ottawa County investigators if Garry Artman might be connected to Shelley Christian's death. In a statement, they said the following:

"We are aware of the investigation by Kent County detectives and have been in contact with them regarding their case and any similarities to the Shelley Christian case. We continue to work on any and all leads that would help us solve the Shelly Christian case and provide justice for her and closure for her family. These types of cases take hours of tedious investigation and take a toll on the detectives that work on them.  We are grateful for the Kent County Team's hard work and relieved that Ms. Hammack's family finally has some answers."

LOOKING FORWARD

For Sharon Hammack's family, the news of the arrest brought up some closure, and some memories but also reminded them about how long it's really been.

"It's sad that the memories are gone," said Joe Gross. "We miss her."

The Kent County Sheriff's Office did not give a timeline on when Artman will be extradited back to the state, but announced that they will hold a news conference on Monday morning regarding Artman's arrest. 13 ON YOUR SIDE learned that relatives of Sharon Hammack are expected to attend.

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