CEDAR RAPIDS — It has been 39 years to the day since teenager Michelle Martinko left a school choir banquet and drove her family’s 1972 Buick Electra to the Westdale Mall in search of a new winter coat.
Early the next morning, police found the Kennedy High School senior stabbed to death in the Buick in a mall parking lot. Wounds on her hands showed she fought her killer, but the medical examiner’s office said Martinko was found fully clothed and had not been sexually assaulted.
Detectives found no weapon or fingerprints to identify a suspect, and said she wasn’t robbed.
After decades of asking who killed Martinko on Dec. 20, 1979, Cedar Rapids police announced Wednesday night investigators finally had an answer: Jerry Lynn Burns, now 64, of Manchester.
At a news conference, police Chief Wayne Jerman announced Burns was arrested Wednesday morning and faces a charge of first-degree murder in the killing. He is scheduled to appear in court Thursday.
Jerman said the arrest came after investigators collected a “covert” DNA sample from him and matched it to blood evidence that was taken from Martinko’s clothing and other areas inside the car at the time.
Burns was questioned Wednesday at his workplace in Manchester and then arrested and taken to the Linn County Correctional Center, where, according to the jail website, he is being held without bail.
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Police said Burns denied killing Martinko, but was unable to offer a plausible explanation for why his DNA was found at the crime scene.
She was 18. He would have been only a few days away from turning 26 at the time.
Police would not say Wednesday when or how Burns emerged as a suspect in the cold case. A criminal complaint against him giving an account of the events leading to his arrest had not been released by Wednesday night.
Several relatives of Burns declined to comment when reached by The Gazette.
A DNA profile was developed in 2006, according to Cedar Rapids investigator Matt Denlinger, who has been working the case for about four years. The profile was then uploaded to the national Combined DNA Index System — known as CODIS — but it did not produce a match from known felons.
Ten years later, investigators took a chance on some little-known technology to advance the case.
Enlisting a Virginia company that uses DNA to predict the physical features and ancestry of a suspect, Cedar Rapids police generated images of a man who may have killed Martinko.
Denlinger said the images were not of a specific person, but a likeness dictated by the suspect’s DNA profile that was collected at the crime scene. When those images were released in 2016, Denlinger said hundreds of tips poured in to police department — but none of the leads panned out.
On Wednesday, Chief Jerman said Cedar Rapids and Martinko’s family now could take comfort in knowing a murder arrest had been made.
“This case is a prime example that members of this department never gave up and they never will give up on any crime that has been committed against the members of this community,” he said. “The tenacity and dedication demonstrated by these investigators and officers, along with the ongoing assistance and direction of the Linn County Attorney’s Office is why we are here tonight and why we can close this … tragic case that has been haunting this community for 39 years.”
Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden said police and his office “will continue to treat this case as an active and ongoing investigation until the case is adjudicated in court.” He asked anyone with information on Martinko’s killing to come forward and share what they know with authorities.
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