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How a DNA match from a straw solved murder case 39 years later

How a DNA match from a straw solved murder case 39 years later

Michelle Martinko was killed in the car park of her local mall

On 19 December 1979, high school student Michelle Martinko was found stabbed to death in her family's car. Almost 40 years later, a DNA match on a straw revealed the identity of her killer.

Michelle was born and grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in the 1960s, and became known as a beautiful and talented girl with an interest in singing, theatre productions and twirling.

When she was 18 years old, Michelle attended a concert with a friend before driving her parents' car, alone, to the Westdale Mall to buy a new coat. She carried $180 (£156) with her, and was seen inside the mall that evening.

Michelle's family's car was found in the mall car park.
charistoone-images / Alamy Stock Photo

The student is said to have often hung out at the shopping centre until about 10pm, but when that time came and went on 19 December with no sign of her returning home, Michelle's parents became concerned.

They reported the missing teen to the police, and in the early hours of the next morning the family's car was located in the mall car park, with Michelle's body inside. She had been stabbed multiple times and had defensive wounds, indicating she'd fought back against her attacker.

Though hundreds of people responded to the police's appeals for information, an investigation into the case went cold when no new suspects came to light.

Fast forward to 2006. The case had gone unsolved for 27 years, but technology had improved and allowed a cold case team to build a partial DNA profile off blood found at the scene which didn't belong to Michelle. Unfortunately, however, no matches were found.

Michelle was just 18 years old when she was killed.
Law&Crime Network

It wasn't until 2018 that a company specialising in DNA phenotyping entered the DNA into a genetic genealogy website to build a family tree and attempt to trace the ancestry of the sample. This time there was a hit, returning a result of three male relatives living in Manchester, Iowa.

The males were brothers, and an image of the suspect created with the DNA helped rule out two of them, while the third was placed under surveillance.

After Jerry Lynn Burns was identified, police tracked him to a restaurant and managed to get hold of a plastic straw he'd used there after he threw it in the bin.

The straw was tested against the DNA from the car, and it was a match. Following a two-week trial, Burns was convicted of first-degree murder, 39 years after Michelle was killed. Unfortunately, the reasons behind the killing remain a mystery.

In 2021, Burns hired Making A Murder lawyer Kathleen Zellner to help represent him, with Zellner announcing plans to appeal his conviction.

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Featured Image Credit: Police Handout/Shutterstock

Topics: Science, Crime, US News