Public Safety

Recalling the Michelle Martinko case: killing shook the community

Retired detective, reporter recount early days before case turned cold

Flowers and candles are laid Dec. 20 at Michelle Martinko's headstone at Cedar Memorial in Cedar Rapids. She was a high school senior when killed in 1979. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Flowers and candles are laid Dec. 20 at Michelle Martinko's headstone at Cedar Memorial in Cedar Rapids. She was a high school senior when killed in 1979. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAIDS — “Thank God for DNA.”

That’s what former Cedar Rapids Detective Harvey Denlinger had to say about the arrest of Jerry L. Burns, 64 of Manchester, who is accused in the 39-year-old stabbing death of Michelle Martinko.

 

A 18-year-old Kennedy High School senior, Martinko’s body was found early Dec. 20, 1979, in her family’s Buick in a parking lot at the Westdale Mall. Police said she had been stabbed in the chest and face.

For nearly four decades, the case had investigators stumped. Then last week, the Cedar Rapids Police Department announced it had used DNA evidence to link Burns to the crime. Police have declined to say when or how Burns, who is jailed facing a first-degree murder charge, emerged as a suspect.

Denlinger was a young detective at the time Martinko was killed. He and others worked on the case for about two months before the investigation was handed off to a specific team.

“I remember it was all hands on deck when she was first found,” he said. “Everybody was working on that case for quite a while, and then it narrowed down to a few investigators.”

Denlinger said “it was really cold” the night she was killed. At the time, the now-retired detective said he was working a 4 p.m. to midnight shift, and after work he went to a Christmas party.

The next morning, he said, he learned of Martinko’s killing.

“Seeing someone that young killed, it’s always hard,” he said. “It’s very difficult.”

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Denlinger said he played a small role early in the investigation, mainly running leads and trying to get what information he could.

“When it happened, we did a lot of searching the area and taking statements from people,” he said. “I did a lot of interviews — I talked to a lot of her high school friends and people who had seen her at the mall. There were a lot of difficult and emotional conversations. It was shocking to her friends and those who knew her, and also to the whole community.”

None of the leads or interviews panned out.

“I remember it profoundly affected not only the community, but also those investigators in the police department,” said Kurt Rogahn, a former Gazette reporter who covered the case. “It got under their skin — they wanted answers as much as everyone else did.”

At the time, Rogahn was a fairly new reporter for The Gazette, having joined the newspaper about a year earlier.

Rogahn said he learned of the murder the morning Martinko’s body was found. At the time, he said, The Gazette was an afternoon paper “so I probably had until about noon to get a story together for the front page.”

From the beginning, it was clear police didn’t have many leads, he said.

“There was just so much that police did not know about this, and I got the sense at the time that they were telling me as much as they knew,” he said.

Back then, Rogahn said video surveillance systems were not as prevalent as now, which meant investigators relied heavily on what people saw or heard.

“It was a lot different investigating cases then,” he said. “We didn’t have the technology then that we have now — there were no cellphones or cameras all over the place, there was no DNA analysis, we didn’t have the computer software and programs we have now.”

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And, because there was so little information, Rogahn said “speculation ran rampant.”

“I remember in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, there were a lot of urban legends about kidnappings or attempted kidnappings at shopping malls, and the Martinko case sparked similar urban legends here,” he said. “It was a horrible act and it really haunted the community. At that time, we believed whoever did it had managed to escape detection. We didn’t know how they did it or why.”

While covering the case, Rogahn said he had to do a lot of difficult interviews with people devastated by the news. But the most emotional interviews — the ones that have stuck with him — were conversations with Martinko’s parents.

 

“I remember I spoke to her mother and she was just beyond upset. She said they had gone looking for Michelle the night before, when she didn’t come home, but didn't find her. The mother was just beside herself with grief,” he recalled.

Rogahn said he also sought to talk to Martinko’s father at work.

“He was a jeweler at Smulekoff’s — that was a department store that sold mainly furniture ...,” he said. “I remember I felt really uncertain about walking into the store. I remember walking up to him and attempting to interview him and he just looked exhausted. He didn’t really want to talk much, but I remember the most he would say was, ‘How would you feel if something like this had happened to your daughter.'”

Now, with a suspect in custody, Rogahn said he can’t help but think of the people who died without answers.

“It saddens me that the parents and investigators on the case never got the answers that we are getting now,” he said. “I think her death profoundly affected everyone, and I learned in subsequent years that her mom was really severely affected. She was devastated. It devastated both parents, really. I know they would have wanted to know what happened to their daughter.”

Denlinger retired from the department about 18 years ago, ending a 30-year career. But the Martinko case has continued to weigh on his mind.

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“I wish we had been able to solve it at the time,” he said. “I wish we could have done that for her parents.”

Now, nearly 40 years later, Denlinger’s son, Matt Denlinger, is an investigator for Cedar Rapids police and has worked the Martinko case for the past four years, ultimately helping bring it to a close.

“It’s sort of neat that I was on the case when it started and he got to finish it,” Denlinger said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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