Is Iowa teen's murderer linked to missing news anchor Jodi Huisentruit?
Curiously, Michelle Martinko's murderer references Jodi Huisentruit 's name in his police interview. Is it nervous banter or something sinister?
Late June 1995, Jodi Huisentruit, a young anchor on KIMT television in Mason City, Iowa, vanished from her apartment building's parking lot on the way to work, never to be seen again. The case gained national coverage nationally, but remained an unexplained mystery for the next 25 years.
Now, resolving another long-cold case — a young blonde woman killed in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, two hours away could shed new light on Huisentruit 's disappearance and suspected murder.
Michelle Martinko 's murder at Cedar Rapids' Westdale Mall parking lot has some odd ties to the Huisentruit investigation. And the key relation is Jerry Burns. "Murder at the Mall: Michelle Martinko Case," reported by contributor Jamie Yuccas, on Saturday, November 7 at 10/9c on CBS.
Martinko was 18, a high school senior in 1979, when she was accosted when she approached her car on a cold night in December during a ride to the mall. A struggle followed in which Michelle was hacked and slashed with a knife about 30 times in a gruesome murder that the police originally claimed was a passion crime.
"It looks intimate, it's a lot of stab wounds, it's overkill," Department of Police Detective Matt Denlinger said. "It's always the boyfriend, the girlfriend, the husband — somebody close to the guy."
Whoever the murderer was, was prepared. Police noticed impressions of rubber gloves within and outside the vehicle, meaning that the attacker actually plotted his assault and intended to flee unidentified
In 2015, Denlinger took over the investigation, part of a second generation of cops working for decades to solve this almost insolvent murder. Indeed, his father Harvey, now 85, was one of the original officers on the case 40 years ago. Yet detectives stymied. Over the years, they had prosecuted more than 100 people, all dead ends.
What started turning the case around was the late 1990s advent of DNA as a forensic instrument for crime fighting. The primary evidence investigators had to go on was blood on Michelle's dress and on the car's gearshift, eventually identified as male DNA in 2005.
Police submitted blood samples to CODIS — the national DNA database obtained from convicted offenders — but wasn't struck. They then began to find all the individuals they first interviewed in the case, gathering DNA samples from over 100 different people.
Denlinger had to imagine a stranger's murder of Michelle. And he had the overwhelming job of trying to find out who might be, armed with an anonymous blood DNA sample.
After hearing about the Golden State Killer case in 2018, in which Joseph James DeAngelo's serial killer was eventually found through a long trail of DNA, Denlinger had an epiphany: maybe he should use the same new strategy to solve the Martinko case. "Big national news," Denlinger said. "I read the report about genetic genealogy, and I went 'bingo.'"
Denlinger started calling genealogy firms to help locate a family tree that might connect to the person whose DNA matched the crime scene found. He started experimenting with Parabon NanoLabs, now a pioneer in helping police solve crimes by genetic tracing.
He found that a woman named Brandy Jennings had uploaded her DNA to a website service to trace her own family tree. It revealed that she was a distant relative of the person whose DNA was discovered in the crime scene — a second cousin removed once. Thus Denlinger drawn up an intricate genealogy map returning to Brandy 's grandparents to sleut a track that might lead to the killer's DNA
Parabon helped him narrow the search down to three middle-aged brothers in Iowa who would have been young men back in 1979: Ken, Don and Jerry Burns. Denlinger clandestinely followed each brother around, waited for them to dump an object containing their DNA, and then sending the gathered samples to the crime lab. Ken and Don weren't a match — but Jerry Burns' DNA was a match, to near-perfect scientific certitude. Denlinger found the haystack needle.
"I was speechless," says Denlinger, remembering when the lab told him the findings.
He then interviewed Jerry Burns, who denied knowing or meeting Michelle Martinko. Yet the jury considered DNA connection persuasive and Burns was acquitted of first-degree murder following a nine-day hearing. The case was solved, but Jerry Burns had unanswered concerns.
Police searched his machine after arresting him and discovered a history of searches on nefarious topics like the death of blonde women, and pornography featuring blonde women. This testimony was inadmissible at trial, but was the subject of a hearing for public suppression.
In his video interview with police right before his arrest, unsolicited Burns listed Jodi Huisentruit 's name when he was being questioned on Martinko 's case. As Denlinger told Burns that Michelle had been killed in 1979, Burns said, "It was a huge deal. I don't know precisely what happened to Jodi Huisentruit lately."
The comparisons were eerie — two pretty, young women, both meeting their final fate in Iowa parking lots, 16 years apart, in decades-long unsolved cases.
There is no established evidence of DNA linking Burns to the Huisentruit case and no evidence he knew Jodi Huisentruit. Mason City police won't say whether or not they're looking at Jerry Burns as a suspect in that case.
Will Jerry Burns commit murders outside Michelle Martinko's? When asked by "48 Hours," Denlinger answered, "I don't know the answer. My gut tells me there's definitely something more out there."