Teen Michelle Martinko was brutally murdered in 1979: It took 40 years to bring Jerry Burns to justice

Michelle Martinko poses for a family portrait
The 18-year-old Michelle Martinko was brutally stabbed to death in December 1979. Pic credit: Investigation Discovery

On The Case with Paula Zahn travels to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to investigate the 40-year-old murder of young Michelle Martinko, who was brutally stabbed in her parents’ car outside a shopping mall.

The identity of the killer remained a mystery for nearly 40 years until pioneering technology in genetic forensic science led to investigators arresting Jerry Lynn Burns in December 2019.

The body of 18-year-old Michelle was found curled up in the passenger footwell of her parents’ Buick in the parking lot of Westdale Mall in Cedar Rapids early on the morning of December. 20, 1979.

She had suffered more than 20 knife wounds and had cuts to her face and chest. Michelle had numerous defensive injuries to her hands, meaning she had fought hard against her attacker.

Investigators were able to construct a partial male DNA profile from a bloodstain on the gear shift and a small amount of blood on the back of Michelle’s dress.

Jerry Burns was identified using genetic evidence

Detectives ran the DNA through a commercial genealogy website and were able to identify the family tree of the killer. They were able to narrow the murderer down to three Iowa brothers, and eventually pinpointed it to Jerry Burns when he left his DNA on a straw at a pizza restaurant.

The DNA sample from the pizza restaurant was taken covertly by investigators, which has since led to a debate surrounding the possibility that detectives violated privacy laws.

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Burns’s attorney has also argued that his client’s DNA could have been transferred to Michelle through a variety of different means.

However, on February 24, 2020, Burns was found guilty of first-degree murder; he is due for sentencing in August and can expect to face a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

More from On The Case With Paula Zahn

Follow the links to read about more murders investigated by crime journalist.

Martin Johnson was a sexual predator who preyed on young teenage girls in Oregon. He would ply them with alcohol and drugs before attempting sex. Police believe that when 15-year-old Heather Fraser refused to cooperate, he murdered her and threw her body into the Columbia River.

Police believe that in 1979, Dennis Eagle followed Betty Elias back to her apartment in Oakland, Ca., where he raped and murdered her. He evaded justice for the crime for a staggering 37 years before DNA evidence finally caught up with him.

On The Case With Paula Zahn airs at 10/9c on Investigation Discovery.

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