CEDAR RAPIDS — It has been nearly 39 years since 18-year-old Michelle Marie Martinko was found stabbed to death in the parking lot of Westdale Mall, and the Cedar Rapids Police Department still is looking for answers.
Martinko, a Kennedy High School senior, was found dead in her family’s 1972 Buick Electra on Dec. 20, 1979, after being reported missing by her parents. Investigators said there were no signs of robbery or sexual assault, but she had wounds that indicated she fought her attacker.
For nearly four decades, the case has gone unsolved, but it is far from forgotten.
For Cedar Rapids Police Investigator Matt Denlinger, who has been working the Martinko case for about four years, the answers lie in the memories of local residents.
“I really thought we’d have it solved by now,” he said. “I believe that someone in this community knows something about this case. There is someone here who either knows more than they are willing to admit or knows something that they don’t realize is important. We need those people to come forward and give us that information so we can bring closure to this case and to Michelle’s family.”
Martinko’s case is one of 18 cold cases that are more than five years old the Cedar Rapids Police Department is investigating, but it’s the one that lingers in Denlinger’s mind the most.
“I just keep poring over these reports — there’s probably 11,000 pages of documents in this case — hoping the answer is somewhere in these pages,” he said. “We’ve ruled out roughly 150 people, including family members, friends and boyfriends. We’ve interviewed probably just as many people. And the more I re-examine these reports, the more I think someone in the community has the answer.”
In October 2006, police investigators announced they developed the suspect’s DNA in the case. The DNA was uploaded to the national Combined DNA Index System — also known as CODIS — but it did not produce a match.
Then, about two years ago, investigators took a chance on some little-known technology.
Using the services of a Virginia-based company that uses DNA to predict the physical features and ancestry of a suspect, the Cedar Rapids Police Department produced images of a man who may have killed Martinko in Cedar Rapids on Dec. 19, 1979.
Denlinger said the images are not of a specific person, but a likeness dictated by the suspect DNA profile that was collected at the crime scene.
When those images were released in 2016, Denlinger said hundreds of tips poured into the police department, but unfortunately “everyone who called in said the images resembled a different person.”
“There was no consensus,” Denlinger said. “Of course we followed up on those tips, we checked driver’s license photos and mug shots and we talked to anyone that appeared to have even a slight resemblance to the images, but unfortunately none of those leads panned out.”
Now, Denlinger said, the well is running dry and he worries that Martinko’s case is fading from the public’s memory.
“I’m hoping to refresh the community’s memory,” he said. “I want to see Martinko’s case resolved and to do that I think we need to stir up interest in this case again and see if that leads to something that can help solve the case.”
For years, Denlinger said he has pored over the thousands of pages of interviews and reports, thinking he would find the suspect in those documents. But now, he said, he’s thinking about Martinko’s case differently.
“I thought the perpetrator would be in the reports,” he said. “But the more I re-examine these reports, the more I think the person who did it did not have a clear connection to Michelle.”
Denlinger said he believes the suspect is someone who lived in the area or had an immediate family connection to the area at the time Martinko was killed. And though it appeared Martinko was not robbed or sexually assaulted, Denlinger said he believes either of those crimes could still be the motive.
“Even though neither of those things happened, one or both could still be the reason she’s dead,” he said. "It’s possible that circumstances prevented those things from happening but resulted in her being killed. It could be something as simple as a stranger approaching her, startling her and when she starts screaming, he kills her. We just need someone to come forward and tell us what they know.”
Until that happens, Denlinger said he will continue to work the case.
“Every case I see on the news or read about, I pull from for this case,” he said. “I’m constantly looking at other cases and thinking about what was used or done in those cases that I might be able to apply to this case and open up new information or a new suspect pool.”
There’s still time to solve this case, Denlinger said.
“Michelle was young when this happened,” he said. “That means most of the people who knew her or might know something are probably still alive. It’s time for them to come forward and talk to us so we can finally put this case to rest for Michelle and for her family.”
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