39 years later, man charged in cold-case killing of high school student Michelle Martinko

Alex Ivanisevic and Luke Nozicka
39 years later, man charged in cold-case killing of high school student Michelle Martinko

DES MOINES, Iowa – Exactly 39 years to the day after Michelle Marie Martinko was killed and left in her family's car in a Cedar Rapids mall parking lot, police arrested an Iowa man and charged him with first-degree murder. 

Police arrested Jerry Lynn Burns, 64, of Manchester on Wednesday morning. Burns, who was about 25 years old at the time of Martinko's death, will make his first court appearance Thursday.

Police found 18-year-old Michelle Martinko dead inside a vehicle parked at Cedar Rapids' Westdale Mall on Dec. 20, 1979 with stab wounds to her face and chest.

Police found 18-year-old Martinko – her face and chest stabbed repeatedly – in her family’s tan 1972 Buick in Cedar Rapids’ Westdale Mall parking lot at 4 a.m. Dec. 20, 1979. The high school senior had driven to the mall after a school choir banquet to shop for a new winter coat.

Wounds on the teen’s hands showed she fought her killer, but the medical examiner’s office said Martinko was found fully clothed and had not been sexually molested.

Detectives found no weapon or fingerprints to identify a suspect and said Martinko had not been robbed. Based on the number of stab wounds – particularly to the young woman’s face – police considered the homicide personal in nature.

Using new technology, Cedar Rapids police were able to procure DNA evidence in 2006. Police said Wednesday that since that time, they covertly obtained DNA from Burns and it matched the DNA evidence they had on file from Martinko's killing.

Burns was being held Wednesday night at the Linn County Jail, records show. 

More: 1974 California cold case could be linked to suspect in Golden State Killer cases

In a statement announcing the arrest, police said Burns was questioned at his job Wednesday in Manchester and denied killing Martinko. He could not offer a "plausible explanation" for why his DNA was found at the crime scene, authorities said.

Police Chief Wayne Jerman commended his investigators' persistence in the case and their use of the technology that he said can "aid in the investigation regardless of how long ago the violent act occurred." He described Martinko's family as grateful for their efforts.

"The family never gave up hope that this case would be solved," Jerman said.

On June 19, 1980, police released a composite sketch, developed based on descriptions provided by two witnesses, of the man they believed stabbed Martinko. The sketch indicated a white man in his late teens or early 20s, weighing between 165 and 175 pounds, and standing about 6 feet tall.

During the original investigation, detectives compiled a list of more than 80 potential suspects. More than 60 were tested and eliminated.

Investigators later sought the services of a company that specializes in DNA phenotyping, which Cedar Rapids police described as the process of predicting physical appearance and ancestry from unidentified DNA evidence.

That company, police said, produced portraits for the associated person of interest. Predictions were made for ancestry and facial features, police said.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: 39 years later, man charged in cold-case killing of high school student Michelle Martinko