Michelle Martinko's sister: Decades of heartache before hope

'We started realizing how much time we had missed with her . part of our lives without her'

Janelle and John Stonebraker are interviewed Wednesday at the Cedar Rapids Public Library. Janelle's sister, Michelle Ma
Janelle and John Stonebraker are interviewed Wednesday at the Cedar Rapids Public Library. Janelle’s sister, Michelle Martinko, was murdered four decades ago by Jerry Burns of Manchester, who was convicted Monday by a Scott County jury. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Her sister-in-law told her that grief doesn’t end. It is “endured and accepted” as part of life, which Janelle Stonebraker slowly came to learn after her only sibling, 18-year-old Michelle Martinko, was fatally stabbed Dec. 19, 1979.

Janelle, 70, of Bonita Springs, Fla., said Christmas seasons were annual reminders of her sister’s slaying — and the fact that nobody had been arrested in all that time.

In 2018, she was pleased that Jerry Burns, 66, of Manchester, was arrested on a murder charge for the death. But then she started dreading the trial — going through all the heartaches over four decades.

Prosecutors needed photos of her sister for the trial. So she and her husband, John Stonebraker, 74, started “digging through bins” of photos, but couldn’t find any of Michelle.

“We started realizing how much time we had missed with her … part of our lives without her,” Janelle, almost tearing up, told The Gazette on Wednesday during an interview about her sister and the first-degree murder trial of Burns, who was convicted Monday.

Sadness and Loss

Janelle said she never went through an anger stage. It was more “profound — extreme sadness and loss.”

“We (herself and mother Janet Martinko) missed her so much. I guess we didn’t have room for that. My father (Albert Martinko) was truly angry.”

She didn’t know what her father would do if he found the killer. He died in 1995 without knowing the case would be solved, as did her mother in 1998.

Janelle said her mother had to identify Michelle’s body Dec. 20, 1979, after police found the teen about 4 a.m. She had multiple stab wounds and was on the front passenger side floor of the family’s Buick parked at Westdale Mall.

Michelle, who was described by friends as “sweet, pretty, kind, funny, smart and friendly,” attended a choir banquet and then went to the mall to pick up a coat her mother had put on layaway.

A public genealogy database led authorities to Burns after he was identified as a DNA match to blood found on Martinko’s dress and the gearshift of the Buick.

Burns was arrested Dec. 19, 2018. He denied killing Martinko but had no explanation of how his DNA was found at the crime scene.

He declined this week to be interviewed by The Gazette.

Unfathomable Death

“We found out she had 29 stab wounds, … To see how personal it was,” Janelle said, a pained look on her face.

According to trial testimony, the stab and cut wounds were mostly to her torso area. A fatal stab wound was to her sternum, which penetrated her aorta, and she bled to death, a pathologist said. Michelle also had defensive wounds to her arms and hands.

“That part was wrenching,” John, putting his hand over his heart, said. “She was probably stabbed after she was dead. He (her killer) enjoyed it.”

Janelle said she couldn’t “fathom” that much personal anger toward her sister.

“And it hurt. It really hurt,” she said.

Sisters’ Relationship

Janelle said she and Michelle were 12 years apart but were still close.

It was difficult to see Michelle as much after Janelle started at the University of Iowa and later moved to Davenport. In Janelle’s freshman year, she met John, who was in law school. They met around Christmas, got engaged that next May and married in August. They’ve been married 51 years.

They moved to Davenport in the 1970s and usually would see Michelle on holidays and birthdays. Janelle and Michelle would write each other letters — in the old days when long distance calling was expensive and email didn’t exist.

Janelle said she missed out on a lot, but noticed Michelle’s letters changed from topics about tests and music in junior high to boys in high school. Although at the end of those, Michelle still would go back to worrying about tests.

“She seemed to be a normal teen girl,” Janelle said. “It was nice meeting her friends at the trial because they kind of filled me in about her life.”

Michelle did go through a rough time when she was younger. She was diagnosed with scoliosis — sideways curvature of the spine — and had to wear a brace that went from hips to the neck, Janelle said. She was restricted on what she could do for a number of years. She became quiet and didn’t interact as much with other kids.

John said there was another health scare when she was about 12 and they thought she had leukemia. But after doctors did a bone marrow extraction, they determined she didn’t.

Boyfriend Suspects

Janelle said her family thought the killer was one of Michelle’s boyfriends. They were tested and none were a match.

They “lost hope” when those suspects were cleared, though Janelle said she feels badly about their suspicions then. Even John’s DNA was tested.

Two former boyfriends testified during the trial. They had seen Michelle at the mall that night before the murder.

Janet Martinko, in the only interview given, told The Gazette in 1980 she was “brokenhearted” and doubted she would ever “get over this.”

“I don’t think it will ever be solved,” she said.

John said Janet changed after the boyfriends were ruled out. She went from having some hope to knowing authorities had no further leads.

Revived Hope

The speculation and hopelessness went on for years. In 2005, Doug Larison, who at the time was a Cedar Rapids police investigator on the case, called the family. He had some blood scrapings and was going to upload a profile to CODIS, a database of known felons and offenders, in hopes of getting a match.

“We had kind of given up,” John said. “Then we had a revived sense of hope with this.”

Later they would learn nothing much came from this lead — at the time.

It wasn’t until 2018, when they were driving to Maryland to see their newborn granddaughter, that they received new hope from Matthew Denlinger, a Cedar Rapids police investigator.

He said authorities had narrowed down the suspect to “three brothers in a nearby town.”

He meant Jerry Burns and his two brothers, but didn’t give those details at the time.

“This was a miracle,” John said. “We didn’t know anything was in the works.”

Trial Worries

The Stonebrakers were confident in the investigative work of Denlinger and the many generations of solid police work, as well as First Assistant Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks’ touch of pulling the details together and organizing the case.

But John, as a lawyer, was thinking of everything that could go wrong. And Janelle was worried about how, maybe, one juror wouldn’t believe the DNA evidence — which was the only thing that linked Burns to the crime.

When the jury came back in less than three hours, the Stonebrakers were relieved for the first time in months.

“We really do feel relieved,” Janelle said. “It’s been so intense for those two and a half weeks. Not sure if we would be relaxed, but we really are now.”

Janelle said her daughter-in-law, who also was at the trial, had a “wonderful thought” about the outcome.

Michelle tried to fight off her killer and in the struggle, caused him to cut himself. His blood was found on the back of her dress, which eventually led to his arrest and conviction.

“Michelle caught her killer,” Janelle’s daughter-in-law had said.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com