Jerry Lynn Burns is behind bars for the murder of Michelle Martinko, whose body was found inside a vehicle that was parked behind a mall in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
On Dec. 19, 1979, Martinko, who was an 18-year-old senior at John F. Kennedy High School, used her parents’ vehicle, a tan 1972 Buick, to attend a school event at the Sheraton Inn, according to the Des Moines Tribute.
She later called them and said she was going to go to the Westdale Mall to pick up a coat that had been put on layaway. She was going to head home afterward, but she never arrived.
Her friends said they last saw her at the shopping mall around 8 p.m., and they had no idea what happened to her after that.
One witness claimed to have seen her shopping in a jewelry store.
At around 2 a.m. on Dec. 20, 1979, Martinko’s parents called the Cedar Rapids Police Department and reported her missing, which prompted a search by law enforcement.
Two hours later, Martinko was found dead.
When a police officer went to the shopping mall, he spotted Martinko’s family vehicle parked behind JCPenney. Upon looking inside, he found Martinko’s body in the passenger seat.
According to the pathologist’s testimony, Martinko was stabbed 29 times in the face and chest, but “the fatal wound was to her sternum, which penetrated her aorta, and she bled to death.”
Martinko also had defensive wounds on her hands.
A preliminary investigation showed that Martinko died around 9 p.m. the previous night.
After searching the vehicle, investigators realized that Martinko’s killer tried to conceal his identity by using rubber gloves. They found a print in dirt on the outside of the vehicle as well as a print in blood inside.
What the killer didn’t anticipate was leaving behind his own blood on the gearshift as well as the black dress Martinko was wearing.
However, police officials weren’t able to identify Martinko’s killer. They initially suspected Martinko’s ex-boyfriend, but he was cleared after having his DNA tested.
“We’re talking to friends and to her teachers, but so far we have no leads,” Chief Ray Baker said in 1979. “We’re hoping somebody saw something or knows something that will be of assistance to us.”
On December 19, 2018, nearly 40 years after Martinko was killed, Burns, who was 66, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. He was booked into the Linn County Jail, where he was held on a $5 million cash-only bond.
During an interrogation, Burns denied having anything to do with Martinko’s murder, yet he was unable to explain how his DNA got inside her family’s vehicle.
He said, “If I was there, I don’t know. As far as I know, I was not there.”
Then he told the detective to test his DNA to see if it was a match, but they had already collected his DNA from a straw he left behind at a restaurant.
After finding Martinko’s killer, detectives tried to figure out a motive. They had already ruled out robbery, as $180 was found inside her purse and she wasn’t sexually assaulted.
When the detective asked Burns why he killed Martinko, he said, “We’ve got to prove I was there first.”
In a statement, Burns’ family said, “The charge against Jerry comes as a complete shock to us, and we are doing our best to carry on with our lives. During this difficult time and as the justice system runs its course, we ask that our privacy be respected.”
“The family of Jerry Burns would like to thank our friends and the Manchester community for the support we have received since Jerry’s arrest. We would also like to extend our sympathy to the Martinko family.”
In February 2020, a jury deliberated for three hours before finding Burns, who reportedly showed no emotion during the trial, guilty of first-degree murder.
That same year, in August, Bruns was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
After his sentencing, he said, “Somebody else” killed Martinko that night. Burns then turned to his family and thanked them for supporting him.
First Assistant Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks said, “Mr. Burns will have the rest of his life to ask for forgiveness and beg for mercy on his soul, but if he doesn’t, at least he won’t get to block it out anymore.”
“Because this moment has finally come. This is the moment of reckoning for him and the moment, long awaited, of resting peace for Michelle.”
He later filed an appeal after his attorneys contended that “investigators violated the constitution” when they collected his DNA from the straw.
Despite their claims, the appeal was denied.
Burns is serving his sentence at Anamosa State Penitentiary in Anamosa, Iowa.