Court fight begins over key DNA evidence in Michelle Martinko killing

Defendant Jerry Burns wants court to toss main evidence against him

Jerry Burns arrives Friday in Linn County District Court in Cedar Rapids. Burns, of Manchester, is charged with first-de
Jerry Burns arrives Friday in Linn County District Court in Cedar Rapids. Burns, of Manchester, is charged with first-degree murder in the 1979 death of Michelle Martinko, 18, in Cedar Rapids. He appeared with defense attorney Leon Spies for a pretrial hearing on a motion to suppress evidence and admissibility of evidence. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — A father-son lunch more than a year ago at the Manchester Pizza Ranch yielded a key piece of evidence that is now part of a legal fight to determine the strength of the case against Jerry Burns, 65, who is accused of murdering Michelle Martinko, 18, over four decades ago.

Friday in a courtroom, a Cedar Rapids police investigator described how in October 2018 he sat in the pizza restaurant at a table in front of Burns. The Manchester man was having lunch with his son, but the officer said he could keep track of which one was drinking out of which glass.

Investigator Matthew Denlinger testified he saw Burns drink several sodas out of a straw, and later secretly snatched the straw so a DNA comparison could be made.

Burns, charged with first-degree murder, is asking the court to toss out DNA evidence linking him to the fatal Dec. 19, 1979, stabbing of Martinko at the Westdale Mall in Cedar Rapids.

In a previously filed motion, his attorney argued authorities didn’t have a warrant when they allowed the private Parabon-NanoLabs of Reston, Va., to upload a DNA profile developed from blood stains on Martinko’s dress and gearshift of her car to the public genealogy database GEDmatch — the first step in connecting the DNA with Burns.

Defense attorney Leon Spies also argued that the warrantless seizure and search of biologic specimens and DNA from Burns’ brothers and other relatives during the investigation violated his “expectation of privacy in familial DNA,” according to the motion.

Another investigator began to testify Friday after Denlinger was finished, but 6th Judicial District Judge Fae Hoover said because of scheduling issues, the hearing would continue next week. A date for that wasn’t set Friday.


Burns — who walked into the courtroom, not using a wheelchair as he had at the last hearing — didn’t speak.

Denlinger didn’t reveal much new information that already hadn’t been made public.

But he did say there were “multiple spots” in the Martinko family’s 1972 Buick — where the teen’s body was found — that had been wiped or cleaned. They included door handles inside and outside the car.

Denlinger testified that showed this was a premeditated act — a killer who tried to conceal evidence.

The DNA — from blood found on the gearshift and on the back of Martinko’s black dress, which she was last seen in as she was shopping for a coat that night — was the only other evidence found in the car, Denlinger said. No fingerprint evidence — which was the primary source for evidence back in 1979 before DNA technology advancements — was found, he said.

Denlinger, who didn’t join the department until 2015, said there were several possible suspects at the time but none were linked to the killing or considered for charges.

In 2001, Cedar Rapids police renewed efforts on the cold case. As DNA evidence became more common, blood from the gearshift and dress were sent to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, he said. A partial male profile was developed from the gearshift and a more complete profile came from blood stains on the dress. A report in 2006 showed both profiles could be from the same person.

Investigators collected DNA from the list of suspects, but their profiles didn’t produce a match with known felons in a nationwide police system. Denlinger said 125 or more suspects were eliminated.

Denlinger said investigators in 2016 also pursued Parabon’s use of Snapshot DNA phenotyping service — where DNA is used to generate the possible physical appearance of a suspect. The department showed the resulting images to the public and got hundreds of tips — but no suspect.


Denlinger said he became aware of Parabon’s advancements after he joined the department and started working on the cold case. Lab officials he had talked with suggested he call the company. Denlinger thought it could help generate leads and narrow down suspects.

In May 2018, investigators decided to use Parabon’s genetic genealogy service. The suspect sample was uploaded to GEDmatch, a public website, to look for potential relatives of the profile that police had from the phenotyping.

One person was identified from the profile — a possible second cousin once removed: Brandy Jennings, 40, of Vancouver, Wash, Denlinger said. Parabon then created a family tree of Jennings. They believed the suspect was a relative of a great-great-grandparent on the tree.

Denlinger then had to find which branch of the tree would include the suspect. He started researching the family histories and in August 2018 found a first cousin in Lisbon who could be related. He met her and she agreed to provide her DNA — which then led the investigator to Burns and his two brothers.

Denlinger conducted covert surveillance on Burns’ brothers to collect DNA samples.

Then on Oct. 29, 2018, he conducted surveillance on Burns at his business in Manchester and at the Pizza Ranch.

After Denlinger collected Burns’ straw, he obtained a search warrant to collect a buccal swab from Burns to confirm the straw’s DNA, which showed that fewer than 1 in 100 billion unrelated individuals could have the same profile.

He also obtained a search warrant for DNA from Burns’ brothers, which confirmed their elimination as suspects.

The evidence hearing will continue next week.

Burns’ murder trial has been set for Feb. 10.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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