Michelle Martinko

Michelle Martinko

by Chilling Crimes September 10, 2021

"She wasn't crying so much as gasping, choking. She could hardly speak.”

-John Stonebraker, Michelle's brother in law, describing the call he got from Michelle's mother on the 20th of December 1979

It was the 19th of December 1979. A Wednesday. Eighteen year old Michelle Martinko went to the Westdale Mall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, United States after her choir banquet. She told her mother, Janet Martinko, she would collect a coat that Janet had put on layaway for her for Christmas. Michelle had planned to pay it off and then go home after the mall but she never made it home. Her father, Albert Martinko, reported her missing at 2am and he went out to look for her with police. 

In the early hours of the next morning, at 4am on the 20th of December, Michelle's body was found in the front seat of her parents' Buick, which was parked near J.C. Penney at the mall.

Michelle had been stabbed and cut 29 times. Most of the wounds were to her face and chest.

Her mother Janet called Michelle's sister Janelle and her husband John Stonebraker and told them she had just identified the "bloody, torn, broken body of her beautiful daughter." John recalled that she "wasn't crying so much as gasping, choking. She could hardly speak.”

Janet Michelle Martinko

Janet and her daughter Michelle Martinko

Police discovered that Michelle went into the mall that night, the night of the 19th of December, saw a few people she knew who were also shopping there, had food with a friend in the food court and went to the store to collect the coat. Michelle had $186 with her in cash for the coat but when she saw the coat, she realized that she didn't want it so she didn't purchase it. Michelle purchased a few other items at the mall. Her car wasn't parked close to the door of the mall so Michelle would have had to walk alone in the dark for a few minutes. She told someone earlier that evening that she was nervous as she felt that somebody was watching her. She was last seen at the mall at around 9pm. 

Police believed that she got into her car and someone got into the car next to her and stabbed and cut her to death. A robbery was ruled out as the money Michelle had with her for the coat was still in the car along with the items she purchased at the store.

The Autopsy confirmed Michelle had been stabbed to death. A pathologist said the fatal stab wound was to her heart and as a result, she bled to death. It was also determined that she was not sexually assaulted but police believed the motive may still have been a sexual one and Michelle had fought so hard that the perpetrator may not have been able to follow through on their original plan. Michelle had defensive slice wounds on her hands and body. Police had to establish if the killer was known to Michelle or a complete stranger. 

Police believed that the killer wore gloves as they found rubber glove impressions on the outside of the car in dirt and inside the car in blood. No fingerprints were found. Even though police obtained blood scraping from the inside of the car on the gearshift and a spot of blood was found on Michelle's black dress, DNA in 1979 wasn't as advanced as it is now.

Michelle Martinko dress

Michelle Martinko's black dress

Even though Michelle was seen by multiple people inside the mall and she parked at the mall, no witnesses came forward to say they saw her inside her car or that they saw someone approach her. 

One of the first people to be questioned by police was Michelle's ex boyfriend Andy Seidel. Michelle met Andy when she was fifteen years old at a roller skating rink. He was just a year older than her and they dated for two years. Michelle ended the relationship and her friends thought Andy didn't take it too well and they told police that he wanted to know her every move and who she was dating. 

Police discovered that on the 19th of December, Andy met Michelle at the mall. When police asked him about it, he told them that he went home afterwards and his mother confirmed that he was home that night and had returned shortly after the mall closed. Andy told police that he was on good terms with Michelle and they had just grown apart and that was why the relationship ended. 

But despite suspicions and rumors, police had no actual evidence against Andy and he was not arrested or charged. He left Cedar Rapids after high school and joined the Navy. Even after he left, many believed that he was responsible for Michelle's murder and wondered if there would ever be enough evidence to charge and convict him. The case went cold.

Andy Seidel and Michelle Martinko

Andy Seidel and Michelle Martinko

In 2005, a new team took a look at the case. Detective Doug Larison took a look at the file and observed that another detective had sent the blood scrapings found on the gearshift of the car out for testing but there were no results recorded on the file. Detective Larison obtained the results and discovered that the gearshift had male DNA on it. The spot of blood on Michelle's dress had a full male DNA profile that was consistent with the male DNA profiled on the gearshift.

The blood samples were shipped to CODIS, the nationwide database of DNA of those convicted of a crime. No match was found.

Despite that, the investigation continued and people in Cedar Rapids were interviewed again and DNA samples were taken. Police asked Andy to provide a DNA sample. He did so voluntarily and he was eliminated. It wasn't a match. After almost thirty years, Andy was finally cleared. 

Matt Denlinger took over as lead detective in 2015 and asked Virginia's Parabon NanoLabs if they could assist. They created a picture of the potential suspect based on the DNA sample that the police had. They determined that the suspect was likely a white male with blonde hair and blue eyes. They created different sketches, each with a slightly different look, as to how he may have looked at the time of Michelle's murder.

Parabon NanoLabs

Parabon NanoLabs

Based on those sketches, police received a number of tips from members of the public but it was only when they followed the case of the "Golden State Killer" that they got a real break in the case. In that case, Joseph DeAngelo was charged with murder and rape in cold cases based on the use of genetic genealogy.

Genetic genealogy involves the charting of DNA from one family member to another. It creates a DNA family tree. 

Parabon assisted the investigation again in Michelle's case and searched a public national database, called GEDmatch, to see what they could find. GEDmatch is a database that allows people to submit their own DNA voluntarily to trace their family trees. 

That search led to a relative of the killer being found. The relative was a woman called Brandy Jennings and she lived in Vancouver, Washington. They determined that she was a distant relative, a second cousin twice removed, to the male whose DNA was found on the dress and gearshift. Genealogical records, birth records, gravestone records and internet searches helped police to build up her family tree and with the help of Parabon, the search was narrowed down to three brothers who lived in Iowa. Their names were Kenneth Burns, Donald Burns and Jerry Burns. 

In October 2018, police obtained their DNA without alerting them to the fact they were investigating Michelle's murder. They got their DNA without their knowledge. They followed them and obtained a straw that one brother had used, two straws from another brother and they found a toothbrush in the trash that a third brother had used. They sent them off to be tested to see if any were a match to the DNA profile they had on file. One came back as a match. Jerry Burns was an exact match. He was twenty five years old at the time of Michelle's murder.

Jerry Burns

Jerry Burns

Police went to Jerry's office and spoke to him. He told them that he had nothing to do with Michelle's death. When asked if he had ever been to the mall, he confirmed that he was at that mall before but could not recall when. He was arrested and charged with first degree murder on the 39th anniversary of Michelle's murder. 

Jerry was not known to the police, he had no criminal record, had a good business, a wife and three children. 

Jerry's Trial took place in February 2020. He pleaded not guilty.

The Prosecution's case centered mainly and almost exclusively around the DNA that was found on the gearshift and on Michelle's dress.

It was the Defense's case that Jerry was innocent and they told the Jury that DNA evidence isn't foolproof. His Attorney, Leon Spies, told the Court that there are a lot of misconceptions that surround DNA. He called Dr Michael Spence, a molecular biologist, to testify on behalf of the Defense. Dr Spence testified that the DNA found in the car belonged to Jerry and that wasn't in dispute. What was in dispute was how it got there.

Dr Spence testified that it could have been there due to transfer DNA.

Leon reminded the Jury that Jerry admitted he was at the same mall that Michelle had been to and that she sat down with a friend at a food court and that Jerry may have used that same food court.  

His Attorney did not put forward an alibi as to where Jerry was the night Michelle was murdered but he suggested that he was at the mall the night before Michelle was murdered with his family and as such, may have left behind DNA that later transferred to Michelle.

The Prosecutor disagreed and told the Jury that there was only one way Jerry Burns' DNA got into that car and on the dress. And that was when Jerry got into the car with Michelle, attacked her and cut himself in the struggle leaving a trail of blood. He told the Jury that Michelle had interacted with at least half a dozen friends the night of her death, including at the mall, and yet none of their DNA was found inside the car or on her dress. 

The Jury deliberated for three hours and found Jerry, who was sixty six years old at the time of his Trial, guilty of first degree murder.

Jerry Burns

Jerry Burns

Before Jerry was sentenced, he gave a short statement to the Court maintaining his innocence and told the Court that somebody else stabbed Michelle and he did not know who or why they did it. 

His Attorney made a motion for a new Trial on the basis, in part, that a private investigator had uncovered new evidence that wasn't available during the Trial. That new evidence was in relation to a music teacher, Kathryn Birky, who taught private piano and organ lessons, and said that she had a scheduled lesson with Michelle in the Westdale Mall the night of the attack between 8.30pm and 9pm. The Defense Attorney argued that this was a regular scheduled lesson that Michelle went to and she had one the same night every week. That meant that there was a possibility that her attacker was someone who was familiar with her routine and that if Jurors heard about it, they might have reached a different verdict. 

The Prosecution argued that that evidence would not have changed the verdict. 

The Judge, Judge Hoover, denied the motion for a new Trial and Jerry was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

It emerged that some evidence was not heard at Jerry's Trial. According to Court documents, a Judge ruled that details of an internet search history could not be used during the Trial. Searches were allegedly carried out for internet porn showing blonde women sexually assaulted and killed on a computer that Jerry had access to. 

There were many victims in this case including Michelle, her family who loved her dearly and Andy. Michelle's parents died before DNA linked Jerry to her murder. They died believing Andy was responsible. Andy lived under a cloud of suspicion for many years.

Questions have been raised as to whether Jerry was involved in any other murders or missing person cases. Jerry was married to his second wife at the time of his arrest. His first wife, Patricia, died by suicide in 2008. His cousin, Brian Burns, went missing on the 19th of December 2013.  Police have said they do not have any reason to suspect Jerry was involved in either case.

Police have not disclosed whether they are investigating Jerry in relation to the unsolved case of Jodi Huisentruit. When police questioned Jerry in relation to Michelle's case, he mentioned Jodi. Jodi was a news anchor who was believed to have been kidnapped near her car in a parking lot outside her apartment when she was on the way to work in 1995. She worked in Mason City, Iowa. Jerry lived two hours away.

Jerry has appealed his conviction and has retained the services of Kathleen T. Zellner & Associates law firm. Kathleen Zellner was the Attorney involved in the Netflix true crime documentary "Making a Murderer" due to her representation of Steven Avery.  




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