Michelle Martinko’s murder ‘haunted’ the Cedar Rapids community for 40 years. Now, her suspected killer is set to go on trial.

Michelle Martinko, before her death in 1979. — courtesy of Robert Riley

Update, Feb. 24, 2020: Within hours of the trial’s closing arguments, a Scott County jury has convicted Jerry Burns of first-degree murder in the death of Michelle Martinko.

Update, Oct. 14: The trial for Jerry Burns has been officially delayed, and is now temporarily set for Feb. 10, 2020.

Update, Dec. 11: Burns’ attorney’s request to have the trial moved out of Linn County has been approved. Citing “pervasive and prejudicial pretrial publicity,” District Judge Fae Hoover agreed yesterday to relocate the Feb. 10 trial to the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport.

Dec. 19, 2018. Like every year, local news stations ran anniversary pieces describing the cold case of Michelle Martinko, an 18-year-old woman stabbed to death in Cedar Rapids in 1979. The facts of the case were recounted. A tip line scrolled across the bottom of the screen. The weather report would be next, and Martinko’s story would be retired for another year.

But the Cedar Rapids Police Department had a busy day — perhaps their busiest since they began investigating the homicide nearly four decades ago. They recounted their exploits at a 7 p.m. press conference, and the next morning’s headline emerged right away: At last, a suspect has been arrested in the murder of Michelle Martinko.

This Dec. 19, which marks the 40th anniversary of Martinko’s death, news stations will be telling a much different story.

* * *

Martinko was a senior at Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School in 1979. She had blonde hair, always styled to Farrah Fawcett-like perfection. She excelled in the classroom as well as in extracurriculars, making the twirling squad as a sophomore, which was nearly unheard of. She twirled her baton during halftime shows at football games, sang in the Kennedy women’s choir and Concert Choir and performed in theater productions. She planned to study interior design at Iowa State University after high school.

The evening of Dec. 19, after attending a choir banquet at the downtown Sheraton Hotel, Martinko headed to Westdale Mall on the southwest side of Cedar Rapids, which had opened less than two weeks prior. She had $180 on her, and was shopping for a new winter coat. She asked her close friend and fellow twirler Jane Hansen if she’d like to join, but Hansen declined; she had some homework to catch up on.

People reported having seen Martinko at the mall that night. However, nobody remembers seeing her after 8 p.m., when she was last spotted outside of a jewelry store. When she hadn’t returned home by 2 a.m., Martinko’s parents started to get worried. They called the police, and immediately, officers went out searching for the teenager.

At around 4 a.m., they found the Martinko family’s 1972 tan Buick in the northeast corner of the Westdale Mall parking lot, near JCPenney. Martinko was inside. She had been stabbed to death.

* * *

Michelle Martinko wearing her rabbit fur coat. — courtesy of Robert Riley

Charles Jelinek was made captain of the CRPD’s Detective Bureau in 1979 and was one of the responding officers in Martinko’s case. He broke the news to the victim’s parents that she had been found murdered. Charles died in 2017, but his daughter, Sue Jelinek, said she remembers her father’s description of the crime scene.

“Michelle had been wearing a rabbit fur coat,” Sue said, “and there was bloody rabbit hair all over the car. They found Michelle lying on her back, slumped over the passenger seat of the Buick, and leaning against the car door.”

Martinko had been stabbed 21 times in the face, neck and chest. Her hands were ravaged with defensive wounds, which investigators saw as her trying to fight off her attacker. No murder weapon was recovered; the medical examiner said that it was “sharp-pointed, but we’re not even sure it was a knife.”

The victim hadn’t been robbed or sexually assaulted. Based on the location and number of stab wounds, officers described the crime as “personal in nature.” The murder happened while she was in the Buick, investigators reasoned, as there was no blood on the outside of the car or on the pavement. And since the killer left no fingerprints behind, police presumed they wore gloves.

* * *

The Gazette

“I was one of the ones that got the 4:30 a.m. phone call from Janet, Michelle’s mom,” Hansen said. “I was 17. I wasn’t even allowed to watch R movies yet. That sort of violent crime was not even within the realm of my thought process.”

Along with her grief and disbelief, Hansen said she carried a sense of guilt over the fact she didn’t join her best friend at the mall that night. There was also fear of the unknown. Who could have killed Michelle? Where were they now?

“I always wondered, was some freak watching the baton twirlers? Would he be after me?” Hansen said. “It was a scary time. It changed the community. We were so independent. Michelle worked at the mall and she’d come and go. I was a cashier at Target; I’d close it down at 10 and walk to my car. Every teenager was like that in Cedar Rapids at the time. All of a sudden you have to have security walk you to the car.”

The Gazette, June 19, 1980

CRPD had little in the way of leads. In June of 1980, they released a composite sketch based on descriptions from two supposed witnesses (questioned using hypnosis), which showed a white man in his late teens or early 20s, about six feet tall, with dark, curly hair.

Tips flowed in at first, but soon trickled out. In the following months and years, CRPD practically begged the community to come forward with useful information. A $10,000 reward was set.

* * *

No one was more motivated to find justice for Michelle Martinko than her parents, Albert and Janet.

In the mid-’80s, as the homicide investigation went cold, Albert Martinko filed a lawsuit against the owners and operators of Westdale Mall, arguing they failed to provide “reasonable security” the night his daughter was killed.

The case was appealed all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court, where, on Sept. 17, 1986, the justices ruled in favor of Westdale Mall.

Albert Martinko died in 1995. Janet Martinko followed in 1998.

* * *

The first real break in the case came 27 years after Martinko was murdered, with the discovery of new forensic evidence.

In 2006, investigators re-examined evidence, and found blood DNA from an unknown male on the Buick’s gear shift and the back of Martinko’s dress. CRPD theorized that the killer bled from injuries sustained during the attack — that, as he stabbed over and over, the murder weapon became slippery, causing him to cut himself through his gloves.

Police worked closely with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation’s crime lab to acquire a DNA profile of the suspect from these blood samples. According to the lab reports, the DNA recovered was complete enough to form a profile, which was then uploaded into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), the national DNA database.

Unfortunately, there were no hits. The years continued to pass.

A tip made in 2013 through Linn County Crime Stoppers led investigators to a credible suspect, perhaps their first since the investigation began. However, the suspect’s DNA did not match the crime scene DNA on file.

* * *

“We were kids, struggling hard to pretend we were older,” said Blair Gauntt, another friend and classmate of Martinko’s. (Gauntt is a freelance artist for Little Village.) He wistfully shared the memory of holding her hand on the choir bus, “clandestinely” and a bit awkwardly, as she was seated in the row behind him.

“At that age, to get exposed to death is one thing, but man, a brutal murder — that’s what’s had the long-lasting, really traumatic effect on me.”

In November of 2013, Cedar Rapids resident and Kennedy High School alum Robert Riley created a Facebook group called “Michelle Martinko Cold Case 1979” for people to share and discuss information about Martinko and the circumstances of her death.

“My goal early on was to find out who Michelle was as a person,” Riley told me in a 2017 interview, his hands folded in his lap. “This has brought on a lot of people that knew her and are willing to talk and create a picture.”

With breakthroughs in the police investigation lacking, Martinko’s classmates mined their memories and imaginations for leads, proposing their own theories: Was her ex-boyfriend involved? Might she have met her killer at one of the local bars frequented by Kennedy students? Could her murder be part of a conspiracy involving the Kennedy High administration?

Riley shared every tip and theory with CRPD, though it’s unknown whether any proved fruitful. “The police have told me that [the Facebook group] is probably the biggest source of active leads that they get,” he said. “Many people … would consider it a personal victory to get justice from this case.”

Gauntt and Hansen said they joined Riley’s group near its start but didn’t last long, finding the conjecture and sensational speculation distasteful. “They would treat her like the shows I watch,” Gauntt said. He’s a fan of true crime media, but never saw Martinko’s case that way. “I was too close to it personally,” he said. “It’s just a tragedy.”

Michelle Martinko in her Kennedy High School twirling uniform. — courtesy of Robert Riley

Martinko was no more than an average high school girl who’s life was cut short, Hansen asserts. She said she hasn’t spent her days dwelling on the intricacies of her old friend’s life, or the crime that ended it.

“I went to college like Michelle wanted to. I got a career. Moved to Dallas for that career. Moved to New York City at one point. Married, divorce, married, divorced. It didn’t stop me from living, and it wasn’t on my mind daily,” Hansen said. But Martinko has always been present in her heart.

“When my niece was little, I went to the toy store to buy her a Christmas present and I found this Skipper [Barbie] doll that was a baton twirler,” Hansen said. “I ended up buying that darn Skipper doll for myself. It looks like Michelle, the big blonde hair. I still have it on the shelf at my home office.”

“She was a very special person to me.”

* * *

In May of 2017, investigators contacted Parabon NanoLabs, a Virginia-based company that provides DNA phenotyping services to law enforcement organizations. Parabon can predict an organism’s phenotype — including their physical appearance and biogeographic ancestry — using only genetic information from DNA. The U.S. Department of Defense contributed about $2 million to help develop Parabon’s Snapshot DNA Phenotyping Service.

Parabon generated photo-realistic illustrations of Martinko’s killer using the 2006 DNA profile: a white male with blond hair and blue eyes (quite a different look from the original 1980 sketch composite). The company included images estimating the man’s appearance in 1979 as well as 2017, when wrinkles and a receding hairline would likely have set in. The “snapshots” set CRPD back about $5,000.

Parabon Nanolabs created rendering of Michelle Martinko’s suspected murderer at the ages of 25 (top two images) and 50. CRPD released the images to the public on May 16, 2017.

Investigators released the images to the public in a press conference. Gauntt was watching.

“As they pulled out the young 3D rendering of the guy, someone in the back — one of my classmates, and nobody will tell me who — says, ‘Hey, that’s Blair,’” Gauntt recalled with a sense of dark, weary humor. “I was like, ‘oh, shit.’”

Gauntt had been visited and interviewed by police several times since 1979, including once by the FBI, and agreed to let investigators swab his cheek just a few years earlier. Gauntt’s DNA eliminated him as a suspect — as did the cheek (buccal) swabs of more than 125 others.

* * *

A distant cousin and a plastic straw were the keys to identifying the man most likely to have killed Martinko all those years ago.

In 2018, Parabon offered to take the raw data from Snapshot and upload it into the public DNA database GEDmatch. Unlike Snapshot or CODIS, GEDmatch was not designed as a law enforcement aid, but a public genealogy site, much like or 23andMe: Users submit their DNA voluntarily in order to test their ethnic background and find biological relatives.

But this vast database of genetic information has proved a treasure trove for crime solvers. Investigators may use GEDmatch to track down a suspect’s relations through his DNA sample, a huge step towards naming the suspect himself. Scores of victims and perpetrators have been identified using genetic genealogy, making 2018 “the year to crack cold cases” — most famously, the Golden State Killer case, in which law enforcement used GEDmatch to catch Joseph James DeAngelo 44 years after his alleged crime spree began.

Michelle Martinko in high school. — courtesy of Robert Riley

Parabon found one person through GEDmatch who shared a useful amount of DNA with CRPD’s suspect: Vancouver, Washington resident Brandy Jennings, who Parabon estimated to be a second cousin once removed from Martinko’s killer. They were able to create a family tree with four sets of Jennings’ great-great-grandparents at the top; the suspect is likely a descendant of one of those four sets of grandparents, they reported. If investigators could get buccal swabs from the living descendants of each set of grandparents, they could identify which family the suspect belongs to.

CRPD Investigator Matt Denlinger located a woman named Janice Burns. He interviewed and collected DNA from her, which was then processed. The results came back shortly — she was first cousins with the suspect. This narrowed the suspect pool down to three brothers: Donald Burns, Kenneth Burns and Jerry Burns.

Investigators surveilled them, covertly collecting each of their DNA. On Oct. 29, 2018, Denlinger observed the 64-year-old Jerry Burns drink several sodas using a clear, plastic straw. Denlinger collected it after Jerry Burns left it behind for disposal.

Kenneth and Donald were eliminated as suspects. They could not eliminate Jerry.

* * *

Hours before their red-letter press conference on Dec. 19, 2018, investigators Denlinger and J.D. Smith went to interview their suspect at his business in Manchester, Iowa. Burns refused to give a buccal swab voluntarily, but when he was served with a search warrant, he had to give in. Assuming their perp would have scars from the attack, police also photographed his hands and arms.

The interview between the officers and Burns lasted over an hour, and Burns made and accepted calls and texts throughout, even after being informed of what case they were working on.

Burns insisted he had no recollection of commiting the crime. Police asked if he could explain how his DNA wound up at the crime scene. He said he could not. “Burns showed almost no emotion during the interview, even when he was eventually told he was being arrested,” Denlinger reported.

The crime lab tested Burns’ buccal swab. They found his DNA matched the blood sample on Martinko’s dress. The probability of finding Burns’ DNA profile among unrelated individuals would be less than 1 in 100 billion, according to court documents.

* * *

Flowers began appearing at Martinko’s grave in Cedar Memorial Park Cemetery in the days leading up to the 39th anniversary of her murder. News reporters dared the December chill to record anniversary segments outside JCPenney, one of the last remaining businesses in the increasingly destitute Westdale Mall.

At 6 p.m. on Dec. 19, 2018, CRPD announced a press conference, to be held in an hour. That evening, Hansen was braving storms on her way back to Plainview, Texas after visiting her parents in Cedar Rapids.

“I get home and I turn on my computer and start checking my emails, and I had a message from one of the former detectives. He said, ‘Turn on the news at 7 o’clock.’ I messaged him and said, ‘Is this just a fluff story … or is this a real development?’ He said, ‘It’s a real development.’”

Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman announces the arrest of a suspect in the Michelle Martinko case on Dec. 19, 2018. — video still

When 7 p.m. rolled around, Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman stepped up to the podium.

“Good evening, everybody, thank you for being here tonight,” he began. A chorus of camera shutters could be heard in the background. The chief’s voice was a bit raspy, and his words were long and drawn out.

“I am here to announce that the Cedar Rapids Police Department, with the help of the Linn County Attorney’s Office, has made an arrest … in connection with the homicide of Michelle Martinko.”

The outpouring of social media posts that followed this announcement was the digital equivalent of a collective gasp.

The press conference was 11 minutes long. After Chief Jerman dropped the arrest bombshell, he recapped the case, speaking haltingly. Those already familiar with it anxiously waited to hear a name. Finally, Jerman offered it: Jerry Lynn Burns.

“The tenacity, the dedication exhibited by these investigators and officers … is why we’re here tonight and why we can close this case, this tragic case that’s been haunting this community for 39 years,” Jerman said.

He turned over the podium to Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden, who reminded the public that as long as there’s litigation left to be done, the case remains active. “I have to make a disclaimer at this time, under the law,” he added. “The defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.”

A reporter asked if investigators had a clue of the alleged murderer’s motive. Vander Sanden declined to comment.

“There was no sleeping that night,” Hansen said. “My phone was ringing off the hook. My plans of taking a relaxing shower and going to bed were [done]. I was just in shock.”

Janelle Stonebraker, Martinko’s older sister, and her husband John released a statement: “Janelle and I are very pleased and grateful for the work of several generations of Cedar Rapids uniformed police and detectives in bringing Mr. Burns to justice. From the leadership on down, they never gave up.”

* * *

Jerry Burns’ high school yearbook photo. — courtesy of Robert Riley

Online, Burns was a ghost; there was little information to be found about him. He was best known as a respected businessman living a quiet life in Manchester, Iowa, a town of 5,000 about an hour north of Cedar Rapids. He grew up there, graduating from West Delaware High School in 1972. In 1975, he married his wife, Patricia Burns. She died in 2008. Burns owns Advanced Coating Concepts, a powder-coating business on the southside of Manchester.

Burns was 25 at the time of Martinko’s death. Investigators report they have not found evidence suggesting Burns and Martinko knew each other.

CRPD investigator Jeff Holst was assigned the task of going through the suspect’s computers. In Burns’ business computer, Holst found evidence of internet searches and activity involving “blonde females, assault, rape, strangulation, murder, abuse and rape of a deceased individual, and cannibalism.”

* * *

Burns now sits in a safety jail smock at the Linn County jail, held on a $5 million cash-only bond, charged with first-degree murder; a criminal complaint alleges he acted with “malice aforethought, willfully, deliberately, and with premeditation.”

First-degree murder is a Class A felony in the state of Iowa, meaning that if Burns is found guilty, his sentence will be life in prison without parole.

Burns is represented by Iowa City lawyer Leon Spies, who has handled a number of high-profile cases — perhaps most notably serving as the defense attorney in Dustin Honken’s 2004 federal murder trial, Iowa’s first death penalty case in 40 years. (Honken was convicted of murdering five in 1993. He currently sits on death row.)

Burns has entered a plea of not guilty. His trial was set for Oct. 14, 2019 at the Linn County Courthouse, but on Sept. 17, the defense filed a delay request, citing the need for more time to gather evidence. The prosecution expressed no objections. As of publication time, the request is still pending.

* * *

“I am so happy that [John and Janelle Stonebraker] can get answers,” Robert Riley posted in his Facebook group after the police press conference. (Riley has since changed the name of the group from “Michelle Martinko Cold Case 1979” to “MICHELLE MARTINKO 1961-1979,” and has asked its more than 650 members to tone down the speculation out of respect for both the victim’s and the suspect’s families.) “I don’t believe in closure – because it doesn’t bring that loved one back – but justice and answers helps heal a little!”

Martinko’s former classmates expressed astonishment, relief and “happy tears” upon hearing of Burns’ arrest. Many have also said their initial joy gave way to fresh feelings of sadness and disorientation.

“I just started screaming,” Elizabeth Laymon, a high school friend of Martinko’s, told CBS2/FOX28. “I don’t know that I processed it for a while because it’s just unbelievable. Now that I’ve seen his picture — that I’ve seen him make an appearance in court — it’s just a different feeling. It’s a little more anger.”

Since their statement, the Stonebrakers have stayed quiet regarding the legal proceedings against Burns. “They understand the importance of letting the due process play its course,” Hansen said.

Hansen was surprised to learn that her first instinct about Martinko’s killer back in ’79 — that he was a stranger from out of town, despite the “personal nature” of the attack — is likely correct after all. She has “full confidence” in the detectives’ judgment.

Michelle Martinko. — courtesy of Robert Riley

“If Jerry Burns was the perpetrator, I’d like to see him put away. They don’t have capital punishment in Iowa like we have here in Texas, but if he is found guilty, I’d like to see him put in the penitentiary and the key thrown away,” Hansen said.

“If you read about Jerry Burns’ life, he got to do all the stuff Michelle never got to do. She never got to finish her education, she didn’t get to have a career, she didn’t get to get married or have children, or make the decisions not to. She didn’t get to live her life. She was just starting out, just starting to blossom as a young adult.”

Despite the encouraging progress made in the Martinko investigation over the last few years, Gauntt said the numbness he developed over the first three decades of the case is slow to fade.

“I should say I hope they nail that guy, but the whole bring-the-murderer-to-justice thing has never been a major factor when I think about the murder,” Gauntt said. “I can’t imagine ever having closure from this event. Because she’s gone. No matter what happens.”

Jen Moulton grew up in Cedar Rapids and attended Kennedy High School, as did her mother, who was a year older than Michelle Martinko. Jen is a University of Iowa graduate, and currently lives in the Chicago area. Emma McClatchey contributed reporting to this article, originally published in Little Village issue 272.

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