Transcribe your podcast

I'm Lester Holt. Tonight on Dateline. She was 18 and loved to sing. The night she was murdered was ice cold, after four decades so was her case.


This was the Christmas choir banquet. She was dressed up to the nines.


As a young girl catches his eye.


She caught everyone's eye.


She didn't come home that night. There was blood everywhere. There is blood spatter all over the inside of the car. It was a very frenzied attack.


The theories were just awful, drug rings, prostitution rings.


The entire town was going crazy. I thought eventually if we swabbed enough people, we're going to come across our suspect.


It was fascinating how they went about the investigation.


We got a call. We've got three brothers. We think one of them is the killer.


But they didn't know which one.


So you got a live one here.


We got a live one here.


What do you think at that moment?


We're ecstatic. We're ready to go. He was sitting at a booth right by the window there.


You're in the next booth over.


Yeah. It's hard to enjoy your food when you think you're staring at the killer.


Here is Dennis Murphy with And Then There Were Three.


It was an act of unspeakable violence.


It was a really horrific crime. Everybody was scared.


A murder that shattered a family.


My parents were devastated. My mother eventually did not go out of the house.


A whodunit that grabbed hold of a city and wouldn't let go.


It's been kind of a dark cloud hanging over the community for 40 years.


A case that touched generations of investigators who refused to quit until the killer's found.


They cared about this family, they cared about solving this murder. They weren't going to give up, and they didn't.


Curt Thomas says he was a lucky kid. He got to grow up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.


It was a magical bubble. We didn't know anything but fun.


A lot of that fun happened at the mall. For teenagers, it was the place to shop, eat and hang out. That's where the kids hung, huh?


It was a place you could go at any time, and it was a big deal.


High school senior Michelle Martinko was no mall rat, but she did shop and work at one near her home. Michele was a top student, a gifted baton twirler, and sang in the school choir along with her friend Jane Hansen. Why do you think you guys hit it off as well as you did?


Gosh. We had a lot of things in our life that were very parallel.


Was she what they used to call girly girl or was she a little bit of a tomboy? How do you remember her?


Oh, no she's a girly girl.


December 19th, 1979, was a big night for Michelle. It was her school choir's Christmas banquet at the Sheraton, with her hair done up to perfection and decked out in her favorite black dress and rabbit fur coat, she looked like an angel, a Charlie's angel.


Her nickname was Farrah.


John Stonebraker is Michelle's brother in law.


It was Farrah Fawcett Major's time, Farrah Fawcett hair with a hairdo with the hair, you know, so. So she was Farrah.


Though it was a school night, after the banquet Michelle asked Jane to go with her to the mall, but Jane had homework to do. So when Michelle said, let's go to the mall tonight, Jane, that wasn't going to work for you, huh?


Correct. I turned her down.


So going solo, Michelle got in her parents 1972 Buick Electra and headed off to the brand new Westdale Mall on the southwest side of town. She had one hundred and eighty dollars cash on her to pay for a coat her mother had picked out. Curt was also at the mall that night, working a shift at the Chess King mens store.


Saw this beautiful girl in a rabbit fur coat, black dress, high heeled shoes, blonde hair. Then I was like, that's Michelle.


Curt and Michelle were friends from school. She joined him for his break and they went for a stroll. At one point, passing by a shop girl Curt had a crush on. Teenage drama at the mall.


And it pops in my head, well I'm never going to get a dance, you know, dance with that girl because I just walk by with


a Miss America here on my arm.




Curt says he and Michelle spent his entire break catching up until he had to get back to work. He walked her to an exit.


And that's when we're saying our goodbye. And she said, well, don't be a stranger.


Did you think you'd see her again?


Yes, of course I did.


Since there was school the next day, it wasn't a night to stay out late. So when Michelle hadn't returned home, even well after the mall had closed, her sister says their mother, Janet, started to worry.


My parents started calling around to see with her other friends, what the situation was.


And why is she not back here home?


And Janet did call the police as well. The police say, well, you know, we can look after every teenager who's missing for a couple of hours. And Janet resisted that. She said, no, no, no, she's very dependable. She should be home. She has a test tomorrow. She has to study.


Michelle's mom kept making calls late into the night. At two thirty AM she dialed Michelle's friend, Jane.


I was sound asleep, and my dad came and woke me up and, you know, said it's Mrs. Martinko on the phone.


Those are not good calls.


She wanted to know if I knew where Michelle was.


But Jane didn't know. Nobody did. So in the middle of the night, in a panic, Michelle's mom called the police again. This time they dispatched an officer. Jim Kinkead got the call at 4:00 a.m.


They sent me out to the mall to see if I could locate this car.


Just hours earlier, the mall was bustling with Christmas shoppers. Now it was dark, deserted. In the distance, Officer Kinkead spotted a car in the far reaches of the parking lot, a long walk from the entrance to the J.C. Penney.


It seemed to match the description of the one I was sent to find.


Looking from your vehicle, could you see what had happened there?




Couldn't see in the windows?


Couldn't see in the windows, they were frosted over. I open the back door. I could see that there was a woman slouched down. At first I thought just an intoxicated person. So I walked around the car and looked in the passenger side front window. And obviously it wasn't an old woman drunk.


Could you tell she was gone?


Yes. There were no signs of life. She was obviously deceased.


Beautiful, vivacious high school senior Michelle Martinko was dead, she was just 18 years old. For her family and close friends, the Christmas season and life as they knew it ended that night, and the brand new Westdale mall had become a crime scene.


What had happened to Michelle when we come back.


Very frenzied attack, there was blood everywhere.


Michelle had really deep defensive wounds on her hands. She put up a fight.


Against a killer who knew what he wanted.


The officers found glove prints on the outside of the car.


So the killer came to do business.


Oh, yeah.


On a dark, ice cold morning, Cedar Rapids detectives were called to the mall parking lot to begin a murder investigation. The body of Michelle Martinko and her black dress and fur coat was slumped halfway off the passenger seat of the family's Buick Electra.


She had multiple stab wounds.


Doug Larrison was a college freshman when Michelle was killed. Matt Denlinger only in kindergarten. But years later, as Cedar Rapids police investigators, they'd come to know every detail of this case.


Very frenzied attack. There was blood everywhere. There is blood spatter all over the inside of the car.


Did the killer leave a blood trail away from the scene? Did you get lucky in that way?


No, no. There's no blood trail away from the scene. But the killer did leave some signatures. The id officers found glove prints on the outside of the car, in the dirt on the door handle. They look like dishwashing gloves from the late 70s, early 80s that everyone would have in their house.


So the killer came to do business.


Oh, yeah, the killer came to do business. Michelle had really deep defensive wounds on her hands. She put up a fight.


The blood told them the struggle took place mostly on the passenger side. But...


The gearshifts got blood on it. The steering wheels got blood on it. And we know Michelle's not driving the car.


So what does that suggest to you? What's the connect the dots thought there?


Well, the connect the dots thought that Doug and I both had is that the killer's touching these things after he's murdered Michelle.


They thought the killer might have cut himself during the attack, leaving his own blood behind, but linking that blood to a suspect in 1979, almost impossible.


Back then, they didn't have the DNA analysis to go by. They used blood typing, you know like Type A blood or Type B blood, which doesn't really narrow it down very much.


Still, police collected the blood for analysis. There wasn't much else at the scene to point to a who or why behind the killing.


There was no obvious signs of a sexual assault. We really didn't have a good a good foundation for deciding what the motive was at that time.


That left investigators back in the day hanging.


It's almost like this is the heartland of the country and no place is safe anymore.


We got the call about six o'clock in the morning, maybe five o'clock in the morning.


Jenelle Stonebreaker, Michelle's sister, says her parents broke the awful news to her through sobs and pleas to hurry home.


They were just devastated.


Even then, she sensed her parents might never recover, given how hard they had willed Michelle, their second and last child into this world.


This is my mother and father's miracle baby. You know, she's the child that they had tried to have for all those years.


A child who grew up in 1960s and 70s, Midwest America, hanging out at the roller rink, going to the lake. In middle school, a back brace for scoliosis turned her into a shy pre-teen. But by high school, she'd done a 180.


When she got her brace off, that's when she just kind of blossomed.


Gail McCammon-Dawson and Mike Wyrick roamed these same halls with Michelle, three close high school friends.


All the time that she spent not wanting to be noticed. Then she spent to be noticed, you know, and that's when the hair changed and she got into her fashion or style.


The Farrah hairdo worked for Michelle and she in turn worked it. She was a head turner, right?


She was a head turner. There's no way you can not notice her.


Because she had gone through that more difficult period in junior high school. I think she knew what it was like to be on the other side of that and she would go out of her way to be kind to everyone.


Oh, yeah.


That mix of beauty and sweetness made Mike, a year ahead of her in school, fall for Michelle. How serious were you with her?


Well I was really serious, was my first girlfriend. You know, this is the most serious relationship I'd ever had.


But it ended when he went to college. Michelle had plenty of admirers, though. She dated and broken up with a guy named Andy. Her friends thought this Andy had a hard time letting go, which may have prompted this exchange.


She was a little bit weepy in class that one day when I asked her what was, you know, what's going on, her response was that she just is tired of belonging to somebody.


By her senior year Michelle was focused on college.


She definitely conveyed to me she was ready to put high school in Cedar Rapids behind her.


Curt Thomas, the boy she hung out with the night she was murdered, is certain Michelle was preparing to leave the building when they said their goodbyes.


You don't think that person's going to walk out the door and you're never going to see him again.


Curt says he still feels guilty about how he handled that goodbye.


I could have walked her to the car. I could have done something.


We're standing where her vehicle was found.


Now more than 40 years later, the account of Michelle's final steps to her car is mostly guesswork.


And just around the other side of J.C. Penney's would have been the public entrance that she exited from.


I'm thinking she's got a long walk in the cold to get to her vehicle.


Yeah it's it's a long walk.


It's a good 100 yards or so, huh?


It's mid-December. It's dark. The lot's probably not real well lit in 1979. Yeah, she's got a long walk.


A long walk through a dark lot. Now, police were eager to speak to one of the last friends known to have seen Michelle Martinko alive.


Coming up, a possible suspect.


It was just like they do it on TV. This guy leaned over and said, why did you kill her? Talk about deer in the headlight looking kid?


And an ugly rumor.


The theories were just awful. I mean, it went everything from drug rings to to prostitute rings.


When Dateline continues.


Even now, decades later, Kurt Thomas remembers the moment; that morning at school, the principal showing up in his classroom and looking straight at him. Trouble.


The principal turned and said, Mr. Thomas, need to talk to you. OK, and I get up and when I walk there, he said, I need you to go out in the hallway and talk to these gentlemen.


These gentlemen were the two detectives first assigned to the case. Curt says he didn't know why they wanted to talk to him because he hadn't heard about the murder yet. Soon, he was inside an interrogation room answering questions about the previous day.


Go through the night, Curt. What time did you get off school, did you drive from school? You know, they're intent on starting a timeline, very factual.


They want a timeline.


Very factual


He says after hours of back and forth, the detectives finally told him Michelle had been murdered. The unhappy fact was that you were the last person in her circle of associates known to have seen her alive.


That realization hit me like a brick.


That's not a good place to be in.


Oh, no. At that point, I was somewhere in shock.


Then he says they hit him with it.


It was just like they do it on TV; this guy wheeled around and put his hands on the desk and leaned over and said, Why did you kill her?


Now is the time to give it up and do yourself some good.


Oh, talk about deer in the headlight looking kid.


But then his store manager from the mall was on the line. She told detectives Curt had gone on break, returned to the store at around 9:30 and helped her close up shop about 10:00. Police believe Michelle left the mall sometime in that half hour.


This detective said, Mr. Thomas, you can go. I didn't know what that meant, as stupid as that is to say, can I really go?


For the moment at least, Curt was in the clear. In fact, Michelle's brother in law, John, already had someone else in mind for her murder, her old boyfriend, Andy.


He was very possessive. After they broke up, he parked down the street to see if she was going out with someone else. He'd drive fast around the block. So I was pretty sure it was Andy. You know, if I can't have her, nobody can have her type of thing.


Sure enough, Andy was brought in for questioning. Matt Denlinger and Doug Larison understood why the first detectives had taken a hard look at Andy.


Andy was at the mall that night.


What was his story? Why did he say he was there?


Well, he was there to buy her a Christmas present.


Her, the girlfriend, his ex girlfriend?




The night she's killed, he is at the mall to buy her a present, even though they're no longer a boyfriend girlfriend?


Correct. Yep.


I mean that sounds curious even now, just saying it.


It does. A lot of the detectives thought that might be too much of a coincidence.


Andy recounted his movements for detectives. He and a buddy bumped into Michelle at the mall around 8:30. He said he had no idea Michelle was missing until her mother called his house about 3:30 AM. He told detectives he and his mom jumped in the car to go searching, but couldn't find her. So was the early thinking we're going to get with this young guy Andy and we're going to have a solved case here.


I think so. Yes


We're going to sweat him a little bit and the story will come out.




But Andy's story never changed and police had no physical evidence to connect him to the murder. And without a quick arrest, the Cedar Rapids gossip mill started churning. As time slipped by, people became suspicious of Michele herself.


The theories were just awful. I mean, it went everything from drug rings to to prostitute rings.


That somehow this young girl brought it on herself. Right?


Because surely she had to be at fault in this.


Painful for your parents.


Horrible. It My mother eventually did not go out of the house. She just stayed at home.


Michele's death and the failure to find her killer also had a profound effect on the city where she lived.


People were really upset and traumatized by it.


Trish Mehaffey is the courts reporter for the Cedar Rapids paper, The Gazette.


Back in 1979, Cedar Rapids, it was it was smaller than it is even now. It was a close knit community.


Cedar Rapids in those days was very Mayberry like. And honestly, what happened to Michelle kind of stripped away not just our innocence, but the innocence of the whole town.


It settled over the city. The thought that Michelle's killer might never be caught. The 70s became the 80s and then the 90s, the dawn of DNA testing finally gave police new hope. In 1997, they sent scrapings from the gearshift of Michelle's car off to a state lab.


The lab was able to sort out all those DNA points, and it left a partial male DNA profile.


At the time, it wasn't enough to match to a suspect. But in 2005, Doug Larison took over the case. He wondered if anything else from the car might yield a more complete DNA profile. He sent Michelle's bloodstained dress back to the state crime lab.


Got the phone call from the lab analyst that they had found a full DNA profile on the dress, which was very exciting.


That's a are you sitting down phone call, huh?


That's correct. All we had to do was submit this profile to CODIS, probably get




It's a FBI computerized system that contains millions and millions of DNA profiles that have been collected from crime scenes, from jails, people who have been arrested.


Anything come back?


Nothing, no hit.


To Larison that met Michelle's killer was likely someone without any prior arrests or run ins with the law. That meant that people police had talked to back in the day had to be reconsidered.


So my thinking is, let's start going through this case. Let's start finding potential suspects and let's go get their DNA and start eliminating them from that partial profile.


So now are we back to Andy and all those other boyfriends?




Nearly 30 years after Michele's death, everything old was new again. Boys with alibis back in 79, were now middle aged men with something more valuable than a story to offer. They had their DNA.


Coming up.


You're going to take a molecule of human genetic material and turn it into an image of somebody?




Using DNA to paint a portrait of a killer and trace his family tree.


So you got a live one here at the bottom of this tree?


We've got a live one here, only 20 minutes away.


The decades old investigation into Michelle Martinko's 1979 murder had a new urgency. Detective Doug Larison had a DNA profile of the killer and the original list of suspects. One by one, he started asking for DNA samples, looking for a match.


Doug started with the really obvious suspects, all the ex-boyfriends, the Curt Thomas' of the world, all the high school buddies that had been at the mall.


At the top of that list was ex-boyfriend Andy.


I thought it was just a matter of time before Andy was found to be the killer.


But Andy's DNA was not a match. More than 25 years after he was first considered a suspect, he was cleared. Justice for Andy.


He had nothing to do with it, and he had to live with that cloud over him because so many people did think he was involved.


Curt Thomas, the last person in her circle known to have seen Michelle at the mall, was also tested. Police called his lawyer with a result.


They got him on the phone and said the DNA is not a match and they hung up.


But the headline was the DNA says it's not you. It's not a match.


Right. Right


Another possible suspect cleared, another setback for the Cedar Rapids P.D. But when Matt Denlinger took over as lead investigator in 2015, he still thought DNA would solve the crime. So he did another deep dive into a case file that had been built by so many before him.


Now we're just trying to find men who are listed in these reports that that could have possibly had a connection to her or men that would have had a connection to the mall. I thought eventually if we swab enough people, we're going to come across our suspect.


But after more than 125 tests, no one matched the killer's DNA; they were out of leads. And then Parabon comes into this. What is that?


So Parabon is a private lab and they're more of a think tank. They're not a beaker and solution type lab. What Parabon was offering is to take the genetic profile that we had and to create an image.


Create an image?


Yeah, an actual...


I mean like a up in the post office photo of be on the lookout for this guy.


Exactly. A computer generated police sketch.


Excuse me if I sound a little skeptical, that sounds like voodoo science fiction.




You're going to take a molecule of human genetic material and turn it into an image of somebody.




Three sketches were created from the DNA profile. The suspected killer imagined at age 25, another at age 50, and one with a typical 1979 haircut.


The images show a white male with blond hair and blue eyes. So that's what we got to work off of.


Police released the pictures to the public.


We were hoping that one hundred people would call in and say, that looks like person A. The problem is we got two hundred and fifty people call in and say it looks like one hundred people.


Oh, man. More needles. More haystacks, huh?


Yeah, a lot of rabbit holes we went down. I tracked down, you know, another 50 people and swabbed them each time hoping that this is we finally got our guy.


But with DNA test result, that hope was dashed. Still, Denlinger would not let go of the investigation. Then in 2018, an event that made headlines across the nation changed everything. A suspect in the Golden State killer case was arrested in California and charged with 13 murders.


He had been caught using the new technology called genetic genealogy. I got an email from Parabon saying, hey, check out what we just did.


Parabon offered a similar genealogy search for the Martinko case. Using the DNA from the crime scene, they would try to identify relatives of the killer by searching through genetic profiles on an online database. Denlinger gave them the green light.


We sent that in the spring of 2018. And by the summer they had sent us a report and they said that they had found a relative of our killer.


A relative of your killer?


Yeah. They hypothesized that she was a second cousin once removed from our killer.


Wow, there's a headline for you guys.




The person related to the killer was a woman living in Vancouver, Washington. Now, the trick was to build a family tree to see if police could link a family member to Cedar Rapids in 1979. Denlinger reached out to the woman. She agreed to answer all his questions.


We have to start building her family tree.


Denlinger traced the woman's family tree back to the early 1800's. So you're looking through old historical records and census data and






Tombstones, anything we could find.


Denlinger created four branches of the family going back to great great grandparents. The first branch led to someone living in Ohio. Denlinger got a DNA sample.


We sent their DNA back to Parabon and they recalibrated and told us that we can eliminate that branch of the family tree.


Don't waste your time on that track.


Don't waste your time on that. That person shares no DNA with your killer. This one here, we wound up in Nebraska and sent that one in. Same thing. Boom. Get rid of that one. We don't need to worry about that branch to the family tree.


On the next branch, Denlinger found a relative living in Iowa. So you got a live one here at the bottom of this tree?


We got a live one here. This was a gal in Lisbon, Iowa. She's only 20 minutes away.


She's not your killer, of course.


Definitely not your killer. We always knew the killer was a man. We took her DNA. We sent it to Parabon. Though she shares enough DNA with the killer to be a first cousin.


It turns out the woman shared DNA with three first cousins, three brothers. After four decades and so many disappointments, the suspect list had narrowed to three.


All three of them are still alive, still living in Iowa.


What do you think at that moment?


We're ecstatic. You can taste it at that point. We're ready to go.


Coming up, not a confession, but not a denial either.


What happened that night? Did you murder someone that night Jerry?


Test the DNA.


When Dateline continues.


And then there were three. After chasing down hundreds of leads over four decades, the suspect list in Michelle Martinko's murder had narrowed down to three brothers living in Iowa. When you run the computer check on them, criminal records, anything come up?




So they're leading respectable middle class lives, far as you can see.


Yeah, very much.


The family name was Burns, and all three brothers were adults in 1979, but did not seem to have any connection to Michelle Martinko. Investigator Matt Denlinger and two colleagues decided to secretly collect DNA from all three. So this is when you become a double O agent. It's really shifting gears here.


It is shifting gears.


They track the brothers one at a time, starting with middle brother Kenneth, a married father of three. He sold farm equipment in Manchester, Iowa, about a 50 minute drive from Cedar Rapids.


We collected his DNA from a straw and it immediately goes to the state lab. They told us, hey, he is not your suspect. The next brother was Donald.


Oldest brother Donald was a father of three and had five grandchildren. He lived in Davenport, Iowa, and was the manager of a lumber yard before retiring. Denlinger went to his house and staked it out surreptitiously.


The first item we collected was out of a trash bag he had sat by the curb. We found a toothbrush in there and collected some DNA off of that.


And what did the lab think about his genetic material?


They said the same thing.


He's not your guy.


He's not your guy.


It came down to the youngest brother, Jerry Burns, who like brother Ken lived and worked in Manchester. Denlinger did some intel on him.


In 1979 he had two young kids. He lived in Manchester. He sold farm implements, was in a bowling league.


So he's married with children. Nine to five guy.


Nine to five guy. Yeah.


On an October morning in 2018, Denlinger and his team set out for Manchester in three unmarked cars. So Jerry's place is right out here on the highway?


Yeah. We're going to pass it here in seconds. It's going to come up on us in no time.


Police followed him throughout the morning. Finally at lunchtime, an opportunity. Burns and his son had pulled into the Pizza Ranch restaurant.


He parked in the parking lot there and he went in and was sitting at a booth right by the window there.


Denlinger and his partners went in and sat in a booth. You're in the next booth over.


I'm as close to him as you and I are right now.


You got to be thinking, is this my killer? Right?


Yeah. It's hard to enjoy your food when you think you're staring at the killer.


Burns was drinking a soda from a straw. Denlinger didn't take his eyes off of it, making sure nobody else touched it.


Then he and his son leave. They drive away from the Pizza Ranch and we grab the cup off of his table. My partner put some gloves on, grabs the straw out of the glass, package it up and we disappear.


The sample was sent for testing. It was the moment of truth. Jerry was not only the last Burns brother, he was the last possible suspect. Denlinger will never forget the moment he spoke to his contact at the crime lab.


He says that's your guy.


He's the killer.


He's the killer.


The lab reported that the scientific probability was 100 billion to one. That meant the DNA from the crime scene belonged to Jerry Burns and not anyone else on Earth. Finally, it was the culmination of a relentless, decades long investigation. But Denlinger wasn't ready to make an arrest. There were just too many questions that needed answers.


It's time to go talk to him. He's not going to be ready, which is the best time to try to interview someone.


So on December 19th, 2018, Denlinger headed back to Manchester. He pulled up to Burns' place of business a little before noon. The door was open. Denlinger walked in, a hidden camera recorded everything.




Get back up?


We had a lot of backup. We had no good expectation on what to expect from him, what to expect from his behavior.


What's in his desk drawer?


Yeah, correct.


Denlinger's camera was hidden in a travel mug. He introduced himself and set the mug down on Burns' desk.


He sits there and he's petting his shop cat who's climbing all over the desk during the interview. We got a cat here, huh?




What's the kitty's name?




Denlinger handed Burns a business card and got down to business.


We're following up on an old case. It's a homicide that happened at Westdale Mall.


Then he described the computer sketch released to the public that was developed from DNA found at the crime scene. He said someone called in with a tip and that's how Burns' name came up. That wasn't true. But Denlinger wanted to see how he would react.


That's the picture we had created.


Boy looks a lot different than I look in the mirror. Do I look like that?


Well, I kind of think you do a little bit. Um. Enough that we bother to come up here and talk.


Burns remained calm and polite. He denied knowing Michelle, but didn't say much more. You're holding the major race card here.




Here's what science says. Do you confront him with that?


Well we did, we directly confronted him with that. We have your DNA at the crime scene and so we know you were there that night this happened. How would we get your DNA at the crime scene there, Jerry?


I don't know. Test it. See if it is.


No, no, no, no. We did. How would it be there, Jerry?


I don't know.


What happened that night? Did you murder someone that night Jerry?


Test the DNA.




Test the DNA.


It wasn't the confession Denlinger was hoping for, but he didn't think it was a denial either. So 39 years to the day after Michelle Martinko's murder, Jerry Burns was cuffed and placed under arrest.


You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.


The charge was first degree murder. For Jerry Burns' daughter, Jennifer, and his brother Donald, the news was a gut punch. Impossible to comprehend.


It almost seemed like a dream that it wasn't really, really happening, wasn't really true.


Could you believe it?


No. My brother had said dad's been arrested for murder. And just like who? I was so in disbelief.


The arrest just didn't square with the image of the devoted father, the good kid brother that they'd always known. They felt certain there was something wrong with that DNA evidence.


There's lots of other stories out there where there's a mistake of DNA found at crime scenes and there's an explanation for why it's there. Doesn't mean that whos ever DNA it was is the person that committed the crime.


There's nothing to substantiate when it came there, how it got there.


Today now you say, this just cannot be right.


No, it can't be right.


Jerry Burns' family was convinced he was innocent. Could prosecutors convince a jury he was guilty?


Coming up, a damning discovery.


There were files found on Mr. Burns' computer. I think it was described publicly as deviant pornography.


And the risk of relying on DNA evidence.


I taught fifth grade. I know how hard it is to teach somebody something. You have to repeat it over and over and over again. I'm concerned about that.


Forty years after Michelle Martinko's murder, Cedar Rapids investigators were confident that a DNA match proved Jerry Burns was her killer. First assistant prosecutor for Linn County, Nick Maybanks was certain they had motive too.


There were files found on Mr. Burns' computer.


Extreme pornography fair to say?


I think it was described publicly as deviant pornography, violent pornography.


Featuring prominently young blond women?


Blond women were was a search term that was used.


Defense attorney Leon Spies filed a motion to bar the computer evidence from the trial.


It wasn't germane to the case. This material was found on Mr. Burns' computer 39 years after that, after the crime.


In a pretrial hearing, the judge agreed, dealing a blow to the state's case, which boiled down to a single piece of evidence against Jerry Burns, that DNA match.


Good morning, ladies and gentlemen of the jury.


The trial began in February 2020. Michelle Martinko's sister Janelle and her husband John traveled from their Florida home to attend, determined to see it through to the end.


Every day.


Every day


If the jury has to be there, we'll be there.


You examine the dress.


The prosecution put Detective Doug Larison on the stand to tell jurors the police followed sound practices when they handled Michelle's clothing.


We wore rubber gloves for one thing. We tried not to disturb the clothing items. Just get a quick look at them and then reinsert them back in their original packaging.


To extract the DNA.


DNA analyst Linda Sauer testified that the DNA collected from that evidence could only belong to one person.


The probability of finding two unrelated individuals is so small that it can be discounted.


But defense attorney Spies wasn't rolling over for the state's DNA case.


Jerry Lynn Burns is not guilty of the killing of Michelle Martinko.


The defense attorney went after the cops for the way they handled the evidence over four decades. Spies argued key items like Michelle's dress were jumbled up with her other clothing, tainting them forever.


When you opened up the original packaging of the dress, the panties, and the pantyhose, were the items all bundled together?


As far as I recollect, they were, yes.


And there was another reason to question the prosecution the defense attorney said, something called DNA transfer.


Trace DNA.


He quizzed his own expert witness.


Is it Doctor Spence, a plausible explanation that the DNA of Jerry Burns found on the dress, or on the gearshift could have come about by a transfer?


Yes, that's a distinct possibility.


The defense's DNA expert told the court Burns might have left his DNA at the mall innocently on a door, or a bench. After all, he told investigators that he had visited the mall.


Jerry Burns' DNA,


Jerry Burns, the defense argued, was a victim of coincidence and sloppy police work.


Ladies and gentlemen, the evidence has been submitted to you.


After eight days of testimony, the jury got the case. When it goes out to the jury, what are you thinking?


I mean, we're hoping for the best. If he wasn't guilty. Great. We have my dad home. If he was guilty, it just meant more work. More fighting for him.


Janelle was worried for a different reason. She knew the prosecution's case. The DNA testing, the genetic genealogy was complicated, dense with data.


I taught fifth grade. I know how hard it is to teach somebody something. You have to repeat it over and over and over again. I'm concerned about that.


Thank you.


As it turned out, the jury reached a quick verdict. Judge Hoover read the decision aloud.


We, the jury, find the defendant, Jerry Lynn Burns, guilty of the charge of murder in the first degree.


How did he take it? The verdict?


I think he was shocked, too. He was very much expecting to come home.


Don you're in court. The verdict, huh?


um hmm, I was surprised at the verdict. I had a hard time believing that the jury sat down and even reviewed the case.


Three hours.




Not even three.


I couldn't believe they came back with a verdict they did


Outside the courthouse John and Janelle were emotional.


To finally have the closure on this and to actually know, I wish my parents could be here to see this.


We left Cedar Rapids, but Cedar Rapids never left us.


I could feel the pressure of 40 years and countless police officers that have worked on this case, I felt like we as a team had finally done justice for the Martinko family.


Jerry Burns was sentenced to life without parole.


As we were looking through pictures, we realized that she wasn't part of that Christmas, she wasn't part of that birth, she wasn't part of that party, we kept going deeper and deeper into the box trying to find, where was Michelle? She had missed everything.


And the family album goes on, but she's not in it.


She's not in it.


No, she's only in the old photos, a girl smiling out into a world of possibilities stolen on a cold December night.


That's all for now. I'm Lester Holt, thanks for joining us.