CEDAR RAPIDS — A Vancouver, Wash., woman, trying to find out more about her father’s side of the family, never expected that her DNA would help catch an Iowa man accused of killing Michelle Martinko 40 years ago.
“I uploaded my DNA to GEDMatch,” a public database used to research family trees, “and forgot about it,” Brandy Jennings, 40, told The Gazette in a phone interview Friday.
Jennings is a second cousin twice removed, through her paternal great-grandparents, to Jerry Lynn Burns, 65, of Manchester, who was charged in December with fatally stabbing the 18-year-old in 1979.
Jennings was mentioned in a search warrant obtained last week by The Gazette, but Jennings only learned about the connection a few days ago after people on a Facebook group devoted to the Martinko case called or messaged her about it.
She remembered talking to her brother, who lives in California, when she decided to upload her DNA to a public database. He had concerns because that’s how the suspected Golden State killer, Joseph DeAngelo, was arrested last year.
Her brother told her he wasn’t sure he would want to be responsible getting a family member arrested.
“I don’t know … I feel OK about it,” Jennings said. “I want someone to have to do time if (he/she) did something like that. I don’t regret it now.”
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Jennings, a home health care assistant, said her parents divorced when she was child and, when her father died in 2009, she realized she didn’t know much about his side of the family.
When her mother learned about the arrest of a distant relative in Iowa, she joked it was Jennings’ “claim to fame” — helping catch a murder suspect.
“I guess it’s not surprising because your family can be a whole range of people,” Jennings said. “Some do well, and others don’t. Some struggle with different things.”
Neither Jennings nor her mother know any of the Burns’ family members, and they have no ties to Iowa. Jennings was born in New Mexico and has lived in Arizona, California and Oregon. Jennings and her two daughters, ages 11 and 13, have lived in Washington since 2010.
Cedar Rapids police learned in May they could use genetic genealogy from Parabon-NanoLabs in Reston, Va., according to the warrant affidavit. Investigators then uploaded DNA taken the suspect’s DNA — from a blood stain on Martinko’s dress — to the site about the same time Jennings uploaded her DNA. Investigators received a report July 7 from Parabon saying DNA on the site — from Jennings — showed shared DNA with the suspect.
Parabon officials told Cedar Rapids police investigator Matthew Denlinger the lab had been able to create a family tree with four sets of great-great grandparents at the top, according to the warrant.
Denlinger collected DNA samples from living relatives of each set of grandparents, so Parabon could identify which branch of the family tree belonged to the suspect. Two branches were eliminated but, on the third branch, a first cousin was identified as sharing DNA with the suspect, the warrant shows.
Parabon officials concluded the suspect was likely was one of three brothers, which included Burns and his two brothers.
Investigators covertly collected DNA from items handled by the three brothers.
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In October 2018, Denlinger watched Jerry Burns drink several sodas at a restaurant using a clear straw. He collected the straw after Burns left the restaurant.
Two brothers were eliminated as potential matches, but a Nov. 5 Parabon report showed Jerry Burns’ DNA matched the suspect’s.
The probability of finding Burns’ DNA profile among unrelated individuals would be less than one in 100 billion, according to the document.
Jennings said it’s hard to believe that someone could commit a murder and continue living a normal life. Since she found out about Burns, she said she’s read news articles about Martinko and her death.
The discovery, she said, has taught her to pay attention to the “fine print” before submitting something to a public site because she didn’t know law enforcement could access the DNA without her knowledge.
Martinko was found stabbed to death in her family’s Buick on Dec. 19, 1979, in the parking lot of Westdale Mall. The Kennedy High School senior had left a school choir banquet that night and driven to the mall to buy a new winter coat.
Burns, who has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, remains in jail on a $5 million, cash-only bail. His trial is set for Oct. 14 in Linn County District Court.
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