MICHELLE MARTINKO

At murder trial, friends recount seeing Michelle Martinko for the last time

Wednesday marks first day of testimony in first-degree murder trial of Jerry Burns

Curtis Thomas, now of Bartlesville, Okla., testifies Wednesday at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport. He saw Miche
Curtis Thomas, now of Bartlesville, Okla., testifies Wednesday at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport. He saw Michelle Martinko at the Westdale Mall the night she was killed. He would later learn he was the last to see her before her body was discovered the next morning. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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DAVENPORT — Curtis Thomas clearly remembers the night of Dec. 19, 1979, over 40 years ago, when he saw Michelle Martinko leave the Westdale Mall near closing time, he testified Wednesday.

He would later learn he was the last to see the 18-year-old before she was attacked and stabbed to death in her family’s Buick, which was parked at the mall.

Thomas said his memories aren’t “colored or exaggerated. I remember her smile. The goodbye smile,” he said as his voice cracked.

He was able to tell investigators the next day about that night. He didn’t know her well, he said, so it was “about facts — something you just remember.”

A timeline of what led up to Martinko’s death that night was pieced together by Thomas and nine other witnesses who testified during the first day of testimony in the murder trial of Jerry Burns, 66, of Manchester.

The trial, moved to Scott County District Court because of pretrial publicity, started Monday with jury selection. The trial is expected to last two weeks.

Gazette reporter Trish Mehaffey will continue her live coverage from the courtroom Thursday on thegazette.com. Followers can ask questions and provide comments.

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First Assistant Nick Maybanks, in his opening statement, told jurors they were “going on a journey back in time” to learn about this “girl about town” who people regarded as mature, sweet and kind, and to retrace her activities that fatal night.

He also revealed a few more details of the attack. Martinko’s body, found by police in the Buick about 4 a.m. Dec. 20, 1979, was on the passenger side floor and had been stabbed multiple times. There were two stab wounds that penetrated her lungs. Her aorta was pierced and she lost a “third of her blood capacity,” he said.

Evidence shows her attacker pushed her down on her back, Maybanks said. She had defensive wounds, and the suspect cut himself during the assault — which eventually gave authorities the DNA evidence they say matches Burns.

A DNA profile was developed from blood on Martinko’s dress. Prosecutors say fewer than one in 100 billion of unrelated individuals would have the same profile.

Defense attorney Leon Spies, in his opening, raised doubts about the accuracy of the investigation. He asked jurors to consider how strangers’ “DNA trails” are left behind when they touch a door handle or shake another’s hand.

Spies said DNA doesn’t tell the whole story. The evidence will show that Burns isn’t guilty of first-degree murder, he said.

During testimony, witnesses said they saw Martinko that night at the Kennedy High School annual choir banquet or later when she was at the mall to pick up a coat her mother had on layaway.

They each said she was a “sweet, friendly, outgoing, upbeat” girl who didn’t have issues or problems with anyone. Most had been in school choir or plays with her.

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Martinko’s night started out at the choir banquet. Jane Hansen, now of Plano, Texas, a Kennedy classmate, said she talked to Martinko at the banquet and tried to get a ride home from her. But Martinko was going to the mall, and Hansen had to go do homework.

Hansen didn’t remember Martinko’s dress but did remember her wearing a rabbit fur coat and platform style heels that were popular in the 1970s. She described the teen as a “head turner” who would dress up when she went out.

Martinko planned to attend Iowa State University and was interested in interior design, Hansen said.

When Martinko did not come home that night, Hansen said she got a call from Martinko’s mother in the middle of the night. She sounded “frantic” and asked if Hansen knew where her daughter was.

Hansen thought Martinko must be in trouble. But she did not find out until the next day at school that she was dead.

Tracy Price of Cedar Rapids said he had known Martinko since elementary school. He and three friends were going to see the movie “The Jerk” that night after the banquet, but first went to the mall about 7 p.m. and ran into Martinko. She told them she was picking up a coat.

Todd Bergen, who was with Price, said nothing seemed out of the ordinary with Martinko, except for the “wad of cash” she had to pay for the coat. That was unusual because teens didn’t usually have that, he said. Martinko showed them the cash, but otherwise kept it in her pocket, Bergen said.

Charles “Andy” Seidel, who now lives in Maryland, said he dated Martinko for a short time. But in December 1979, they were just close friends. He ran into her that night at the mall. He said he was there to buy her a Christmas present — a light.

Seidel said he first met Martinko while “struggling” to roller skate. She asked him if she could help. They started going out when they discovered their “shared passion for pizza.”

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At the mall, Seidel told her he was going to buy her a present and not to follow him. She asked if she could call later. He said she seemed happy.

Spies, on cross examination, asked if Seidel remembered what he told prosecutors back in 1981 — about Martinko saying she was being followed or watched.

Seidel said he didn’t remember. After Spies showed him the transcript of the interview, he said he didn’t think of it as a perceived threat.

Phoebe Smith Porter, who now lives in Jackson, Miss., knew Martinko through her younger sister. She saw Martinko’s Buick in the parking lot after the mall had closed. She was an assistant manager at Pier One Imports in the mall and saw the car, parked out by itself, close to 11 p.m. when she took the store’s money to the bank drop box.

She reported it to police the next day.

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