Who was Michelle Martinko? High school senior's killer convicted using DNA techniques 40 years after murder

Jerry Lynn Burns was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for the 1979 murder of the 18-year-old

                            Who was Michelle Martinko? High school senior's killer convicted using DNA techniques 40 years after murder
(Cedar Rapids Police Department)

A cold-blooded killer was brought to justice using modern DNA techniques for the murder of a high school senior almost four decades ago. Last month, Jerry Lynn Burns was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for the 1979 murder of 18-year-old Michelle Martinko. Investigators used groundbreaking DNA technology to trace the suspect and obtained samples he left on a straw after drinking a soda.

Michelle had gone to Westdale Mall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa to pick up a winter coat on the evening of December 19. She reportedly bumped into some friends there and didn't return home until 2 am the following day, prompting her parents to alert the authorities. Police immediately launched a search for the 18-year-old, releasing details about what she 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," per The Gazette. "Police also said she had a waist-length white and brown rabbit-fur hooded jacket and was carrying a brown leather purse."

Tragically, her body was found in the parking lot of the mall early on the morning of December 20. Reports at the time noted how Michelle was curled up in the passenger seat footwell, drenched in blood after being stabbed more than 10 times in the face and chest. Investigators said wounds to her hands indicated she had managed to fight off her attacker. Hundreds of people, including tens of suspects, were interviewed by the authorities. A $10,000 reward -- a substantial amount of money at the time -- was also announced for information leading to the attacker. The following year, police released a sketch of a possible suspect - a white man in his late teens or early twenties, around 6ft tall, who had reportedly been identified by two witnesses. However, over 60 suspects were eliminated and the case eventually ran cold.

What we know about Michelle 

Speaking to the Gazette at the time, Michelle's mother Janet Martinko remembered how her daughter loved music and was a “beautiful singer.” “Our lives revolved around Michelle,” who was 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.”

Janet said she was "brokenhearted" and wasn't sure she should ever "get over this."

“I don’t think it will ever be solved,” she said of the case at the time.

Michelle's parents both died in the 1990s - not knowing who was responsible for the death of their beloved daughter. However, the police hadn't given up the case. Following decades of technological advancements, experts were eventually able to reconstruct a partial male DNA profile from the blood that was found on the stick shift of the car, as well as a bloodstain on the back of Michelle's dress. USA Today reported how investigators turned to commercial genetic genealogy site GEDmatch and were able to narrow down their suspects to three brothers in Iowa. According to the report, genealogy constructs a "family tree" of people who have genetic similarities. Upon further study, two of the brothers were eliminated as suspects and Jerry Lynn Burns became the prime suspect.

Burns was subsequently put under surveillance and detectives successfully matched the DNA profile at the crime scene to the sample he left behind on a straw after consuming a soda at a Manchester Pizza Ranch. Burns was 66 when he was arrested at his business on December 19, 2018 - which marked the 39th anniversary of Michelle’s death. He pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, but after almost two weeks of testimony, the court convicted Burns and sentenced him to life in prison without parole last month.

"We don't exactly know the whys and some of the details, but we definitely know who did it, and that was terribly important to us," Janelle Stonebraker, Michelle Martinko's older sister, said after the verdict. "I wish my parents could be here to see this."

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