What we know: Key moments in the Michelle Martinko cold case murder investigation

Friends and other community members gather for a vigil at Michelle Martinko's gravesite at Cedar Memorial in Cedar Rapid
Friends and other community members gather for a vigil at Michelle Martinko’s gravesite at Cedar Memorial in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019. Martinko was killed in 1979, and DNA from a public DNA database led to the arrest of Jerry Burns in 2018. Burns’ trial has been moved to Scott County and set to begin Feb. 10. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — On the 40th anniversary this month of Michelle Martinko’s death, family and friends gathered at her grave to mourn her.

She had gone Dec. 19, 1979, to the newly opened Westdale Mall to buy a winter coat — and vanished. Early the next morning, the body of the popular teen was found in the family’s Buick in a mall parking lot. She had been stabbed to death.

Without viable leads, the case languished. It was 27 years later that technology provided new avenues for investigators who had never given up hope of unraveling a killing that shocked and haunted the community.

But it was another 12 years beyond this that a suspect was arrested. Now, after four decades, a jury’s judgment may be just two months away.

A recap of key factors in the cold case murder leading to this point:

Police knew little about what happened

The Kennedy High School senior was stabbed to death Dec. 19, 1979. Police found her body at 4 a.m. in the family’s tan 1972 Buick Electra. The car was parked in the northwest section of the Westdale Mall parking lot, behind the J.C. Penney’s store.

According to a medical examiner, she had numerous stab wounds to her face and chest, and she had defensive wounds that showed she fought her killer.

The teen was fully clothed and wasn’t sexually assaulted. No weapon or fingerprints were found. An autopsy was scheduled that day.


Whereabouts were known up to 8 p.m.

Kennedy High principal Michael Clover said Martinko was at the annual Concert Choir banquet at the Sheraton Inn until about 7 p.m. that night. She was seen at the shopping mall about 30 minutes later.

It appeared that Martinko, who worked at a mall clothing store, went from store to store, speaking to friends and acquaintances.

Jan. 25, 1980: Police pursue new theory

Assistant Police Chief James Barnes said investigators identified a second area in the parking lot, in the front of Penneys, where the car may have been seen earlier in the night Dec. 19. They asked that anybody who parked in either area between 7 and 11 p.m. and may have seen activity to contact police.

Authorities also released more details about what the teen was wearing that night. She had on a black V-neck, jersey-material dress with a matching black scarf tied around her neck. She was wearing dark hose and black, high-heeled open-toed shoes, with straps across the arch and ankle. Police also said she had a waist-length white and brown rabbit-fur hooded jacket, and was carrying a brown leather purse.

Police release a sketch of a suspect

Several months later, on June 19, 1980, authorities distribute a composite sketch of a man they believed killed Martinko.

Police developed the sketch based on descriptions provided by two potential witnesses. The sketch was of a white man in his late teens or early 20s, about 6 feet tall and weighing between 165 and 175 pounds.

During the investigation, detectives compiled a list of more than 80 potential suspects, according to police. More than 60 were eliminated.

Grieving mother speaks to The Gazette

Janet Martinko said in a phone interview her daughter loved music and was a “beautiful singer.”


“Our lives revolved around Michelle,” the youngest of her two daughters, she said. “She never had any school problems. She had goals for herself, things she wanted to do with her life, and she would write them down and achieve them.”

The mother said she was “brokenhearted” and doubted she would ever “get over this.”

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

Indeed, both of Martinko’s parents died not knowing why their daughter was killed

Janelle Stonebraker, Martinko’s older sister, said her parents never recovered from the killing. She said it “destroyed” her mother, and her father was “consumed with anger, wanted to get the person.”

They went into painful seclusion and suffered health problems. Albert died in 1995 and Janet followed him in 1998.

Her parents died believing an ex-boyfriend of Michelle’s was involved, Stonebraker said.

After 27 years, investigator gets a tip

In October 2006, Cedar Rapids police cold case investigator Doug Larison took a tip about a suspicious person with possible connection.

The tip didn’t produce any solid leads, but it gave Larison another chance to look over the cold case. He saw something that got his attention: the killer’s blood.

Larison said in an interview he thinks the blood came from a cut on the killer’s hand. A DNA profile was developed and uploaded to the national Combined DNA Index System — known as CODIS.

But it didn’t produce a match among known felons in the system. Possible suspects were tested and none was a DNA match. The ex-boyfriend was exonerated.


“It’s not hopeless, Larison told The Gazette at the time. “Having the killer’s DNA, having the killer’s blood, is like having the killer himself.”

Another 10 years, another technology

In 2016, investigators decided to use a little-known technology. A Virginia company called Parabon NanoLabs was using DNA to predict the physical features and ancestry of suspects for law enforcement. Cedar Rapids police turned to the company to generated images of what Martinko’s killer may have looked like, and showed them to the public.

Investigator has new theory on a suspect

Cedar Rapids police investigator Matthew Denlinger told The Gazette on Dec. 12, 2018, that hundreds of tips came in after those images were released. But none led to a suspect.

Denlinger, who had been working the case for four years, said he initially thought he would find a suspect among the thousands of pages of interviews and reports, but now believed the suspect may not have had a “clear connection” to Martinko.

He said the suspect may be someone who lived in the area, or had family connections here. And although it appeared Martinko was not robbed or sexually assaulted, Denlinger said he believes either could have been a motive.

Arrest on killing’s 39th anniversary

On Dec. 19, 2018, Cedar Rapids police Chief Wayne Jerman announced that Jerry Lynn Burns of Manchester, then 64, was arrested after investigators collected a “covert” DNA sample from him and matched it to blood evidence from the crime scene at the time.

Burns was questioned at his workplace, Advanced Power Equipment and Coating Concepts in Manchester. He denied killing Martinko, but was unable to give a plausible explanation for why his DNA was found at the crime scene.

In 1979, Burns would have been only days away from turning 26.

A Dec. 20, 2018, criminal complaint shows the arrest was the result of modern science and technology, similar to what was used to capture the Golden State killer.

Burns was charged with first-degree murder and jailed under a $5 million cash-only bail.


The criminal complaint showed that a partial male DNA profile was developed from blood found on Martinko’s clothing; fewer than 1 in 100 billion unrelated individuals could have the same profile. And another profile was developed from blood found on the gear shift of Martinko’s car.

Turning again to the private Parabon NanoLabs company, Cedar Rapids police used DNA genetic genealogical research to narrow down the profile to a specific pool of suspects, which included Burns and others, according to the complaint.

The technique involves comparing the suspect’s DNA markers with profiles uploaded by the public to the GEDmatch website, used to research family trees.

Police covertly collected DNA from Burns and other possible suspects. An Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation crime lab analysis showed Burns was a match to the DNA.

Distant relative leads police to Manchester

In April, The Gazette obtained a search warrant that shed more light on why authorities focused on Burns.

Brandy Jennings, 40, of Vancouver, Wash., a second cousin twice removed through her maternal grandparents to Burns, told The Gazette in March she didn’t know him.

She was trying to find out more about her father’s side the family and had uploaded her DNA to GEDmatch, then forgotten about it.

It was her DNA that helped lead police to Burns and his two brothers as possible matches.

His brothers were eliminated. But Burns’ DNA — secretly collected from a soda straw in October 2018 — was a match, records said.

Jennings said she had no regrets after finding out her DNA helped lead to an arrest.


A warrant also revealed that internet searches were run on Burns’ office computer for “blonde females, assault, rape, strangulation, murder, abuse and rape of a deceased individual, and cannibalism.”

Cedar Rapids police investigator Jeff Holst, in the warrant, noted Martinko was blond, attacked, assaulted with a blunt object and stabbed about 21 times.

Next up: A trial after all these years

Burns’ murder trial has been set for Feb. 10.

The defense asked the court to move the trial out of Linn County because of extensive pretrial publicity. Earlier this month, 6th Judicial District Judge Fae Hoover agreed to move the trial to Davenport.

This month, the defense asked the court toss out the key DNA evidence authorities say links Burns to the crime.

Defense attorney Leon Spies said in a motion that authorities didn’t have a warrant when they allowed Parabon-NanoLabs to upload a DNA profile that was developed from the crime scene to GEDmatch.

He also argued the DNA evidence taken from a drinking straw that Burns used to sip soda at a restaurant on Oct. 29, 2018, should also be tossed because it was a warrantless seizure and search.

Spies also is asking the court to keep out statements made by Burns during a Dec. 19, 2018, police interrogation when he was arrested. Any statements he made there were in violation of his rights against self-incrimination and of having a lawyer present, Spies argued.


The prosecution hasn’t filed a response to the motions and a hearing hasn’t been set.

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

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