Over 40 years ago, teenager Michelle Martinko was stabbed to death outside a mall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Her case went cold for decades until DNA testing finally brought her family some peace and put her murderer behind bars. Ahead of the Dateline NBC episode about her death, here’s what you need to know about the crime, the perpetrator, and what sentence he received at trial.
Martinko was 18 Years Old When She Was Murdered Outside Westdale Mall
In December 1979, Martinko, a high school senior who was on the twirling squad at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, went to the recently opened Westdale Mall after her choir banquet at school to buy a new winter coat. She was seen inside the mall by friends and coworkers because Martinko worked in the mall. But by 2 a.m., her father called the police because she had not returned home.
Around 4 a.m., Martinko was found inside her family’s Buick Electra. She had been stabbed 21 times in the face, neck, and chest. The medical examiner later determined that she died between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. She had not been robbed or sexually assaulted, and defensive wounds were found on her hands, indicating she fought back. The police considered the murder “personal in nature” based on the manner of death, according to Little Village magazine.
The victim was the younger of two daughters of Albert and Janet Martinko. In a brief interview with the Cedar Rapids Gazette in 1980, Janet said of her daughter, “She loved music. She was a beautiful singer, and I miss all this. I miss all her singing and her beautiful music. … 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.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get over this,” Mrs. Martinko added. “I am a brokenhearted mother.”
The Case Went Cold for 40 Years
Police looked at numerous suspects during the initial investigation, including a man who raped a woman at knifepoint and later died while in prison for that crime, but DNA testing ruled him out.
However, in 2006, a tip came into the Cedar Rapids police department. While that tip did not yield any new leads, it did cause Det. Doug Larison to reexamine the file and find what he believed to be the killer’s DNA in blood found on Martinko’s dress that was not her blood.
The sample was put into a national computer database and was used to clear more than 70 of Martinko’s acquaintances, according to NBC News. Then in 2018, DNA phenotyping company GEDmatch, a public genealogy website that famously helped catch the Golden State Killer, started creating a family tree based on the killer’s DNA. Familial matches let them narrow down the suspect list to three brothers from Manchester, Iowa. Investigators placed the three brothers under surveillance in an attempt to covertly collect their DNA, according to The Gazette.
In October 2018, an investigator was able to snag a straw used by one of the three brothers, Jerry Lynn Burns, and tested it against the sample, getting a match. When the police executed a search warrant for Burns’ home and office, they found a computer search history that included “blonde females, assault, rape, strangulation, murder, abuse and rape of a deceased individual, and cannibalism.”
Burns pleaded not guilty at his February 2020 trial but the jury deliberated just three hours and returned a guilty verdict. He was convicted of first-degree murder and received the mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole. He was also ordered to pay $150,00 in restitution to Martinko’s estate, according to KWWL.
Unfortunately, Martinko’s parents did not survive to see her killer brought to justice. Her father died in 1995 and her mother died in 1998. But her sister Janelle and Janelle’s husband John Stonebaker were present at Burns’ sentencing. According to KWWL, at the sentencing, Stonebaker said that Burns “stole those 39 years and many more from a sweet smart, talented girl who never got her chance at college, a career, marriage, children and by now, even grandchildren.”
He also wished the Burns family well, saying they now have to pick up the pieces of their lives just like the Martinko family did.