Murder of Michelle Martinko
1979 murder of American woman Michelle Martinko
The murder of Michelle Martinko occurred in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on December 19, 1979. It was a cold case until 2018, when familial DNA identified her killer 39 years after the crime.
Martinko, an 18-year-old high school student, was found stabbed to death in her family's car in the parking lot of a local mall, where she had gone to buy a new coat. The murder was closely followed within her community, and the police received more than 200 tips in the weeks following her killing. However, the case gradually grew cold as the investigation stretched on.
In 2006, a cold case investigator discovered unidentified blood, presumably belonging to the killer, while he was reviewing case files. A DNA profile was developed from that evidence and entered into the national Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), but no matches were found. In 2017, a company specializing in DNA phenotyping was hired to produce a new approximation of the killer's appearance based solely off the DNA sample. In 2018, the company entered the DNA data from the case into the public genealogy website GEDmatch, where it found a familial DNA match.
In October 2018, DNA was covertly collected from an Iowa man, Jerry Lynn Burns, and was found to match the sample discovered on Martinko's clothing. Burns was arrested and, on February 24, 2020, was found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Martinko. On August 7, 2020, Burns was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Michelle Marie Martinko (October 6, 1961 – December 19, 1979) was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Martinko was the younger of two daughters of Albert F. Martinko and Janet Martinko (née Zillig). She attended Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School, where she was an above average student and well regarded by school officials. She was also a talented performer, joined the twirling squad as a sophomore, and performed in choirs and theater productions. She did not have many close girlfriends or confidantes, which was speculated to be caused by jealousy from other students over her beauty and stylish clothes or conflict over a boy she had dated. Martinko, who was a senior in high school when she was killed, had plans to attend Iowa State University to study interior design.
Jerry Lynn Burns
Jerry Lynn Burns (born December 23, 1953) was 25 years old when he killed Michelle Martinko in December 1979. He grew up in Manchester, Iowa, and graduated from West Delaware High School in 1972. He lived in Manchester at the time of his arrest in 2020 and owned a powder coating business in the city. He had worked for John Deere and co-owned a truck stop. Burns had previously been married to Patricia Burns, who died in 2008 from suicide. Burns's cousin, Brian Burns, went missing on December 19, 2013 and has not been found. Although Burns's arrest in the Martinko case raised questions about the two incidents, police do not believe Burns was involved in either one.
Murder and investigation
On the evening of December 19, 1979, Martinko attended a banquet for the Kennedy Concert Choir at the Sheraton Inn in Cedar Rapids. She wore a black jersey dress and black scarf, black tights and heels, and a waist-length white and brown rabbit fur jacket, and she carried a brown leather purse. After the event, she asked her friend and twirling squad teammate if she wanted to join her on a shopping trip to the Westdale Mall, which had recently opened, where Martinko worked. Her friend declined and so Martinko went alone carrying $180 and intending to purchase a new winter coat. Once there, she perused the stores and spoke with friends and other people she knew who worked there. She was last seen at 8 or 9 p.m. outside of a jewelry store in the mall. At 2 a.m., since Martinko had still not returned home, her father reported her missing. He began to search for her, as did the police. At 4 a.m., police found the Martinko family's tan and green 1972 Buick Electra in the northeast corner of the mall parking lot by a JCPenney. Martinko was found inside collapsed over the passenger seat and stabbed to death.
Martinko had been stabbed 29 times in her face, neck, and chest. Her hands bore defensive wounds, which police said to indicate that she had fought back against her killer. Police determined from the lack of blood outside the car that Martinko had been killed while in the car, and the medical examiner later estimated she had died between 8 and 10 p.m. The murder weapon was "sharp-pointed" but not definitively a knife, and the medical examiner could not determine its size. The killer left no fingerprints, which led police to believe they had worn gloves. A police spokesman said that "everyone's instinct is to say it was a guy", but they were not sure of the gender of the killer. Based on cash found in Martinko's purse, police concluded that she had not been robbed. She was fully dressed, and the medical examiner determined she had not been sexually assaulted. Police considered the killing to be "personal in nature" based on the number and location of stab wounds.
Police had few leads and appealed to the public for tips. A police spokesman estimated that in the week after Martinko's murder, more than 200 people responded to the detectives' appeals in the news for information concerning the case. Police interviewed numerous people, and several were cleared of suspicion through use of a polygraph. A juvenile found carrying a knife was interviewed and ruled out in her murder, as was a shopping center employee who had told police that he enjoyed following women and ogling store mannequins. Rumors began to circulate about the crime. Some thought that Martinko had received harassing phone calls before her death, but police stated that they did not think so. Another rumor emerged that a second stabbing had happened in the following days and that police were keeping it secret, which police denied.
For some time, a prime suspect in Martinko's murder was a man who had, the month before, broken into a Cedar Rapids home, raped a woman at knifepoint, and threatened to kill her children. He was never charged with the Martinko murder, he denied the accusations, and DNA evidence, found later, did not match his DNA. In 2012, while serving a life sentence for an unrelated attack, the man died in prison from colon cancer.
Controversy arose five months after the murder; a woman who was driving by the mall parking lot in the early hours of December 20 came forward with information. She had looked into the parking lot as she drove by to check for her daughter's car because her daughter worked at the mall and had had car trouble before. She claimed to have seen two cars in the lot, one of which was Martinko's, and a man standing next to the open driver's side door of Martinko's car. She was unsure her information would be of any use because she had read that the murder happened between 10 p.m. and midnight, and it was 2 a.m. when she drove by. The woman communicated her information to the daughter of the secretary of the Public Safety Commissioner and believed that it would be passed on to police if it was important. The police never received the information, and the woman did not contact police until months later, when they reissued a call for any information connected to the murder. Detectives considered charging the Commissioner with failure to pass along the information to police, but no charges were pursued.
On June 19, 1980, police released a composite sketch of a man believed to have killed Martinko, which they formed from descriptions provided by two witnesses under hypnosis. They described a white man in his late teens or early 20s, around six feet tall and weighing 165–175 pounds, with brown eyes and curly brown hair. In the year after the killing, the number of people interviewed by police reached the hundreds, and up to 30 people were interviewed under hypnosis. As the investigation dwindled, a $10,000 reward was offered for information that would lead police to the killer.Psychics were also consulted early on in the investigation.
As time went on, the case grew cold.
In the mid-1980s, Martinko's father filed a lawsuit against the owners of the Westdale Mall and claimed negligence in not providing "reasonable security" on the night of the murder. The case was appealed and was eventually decided by the Iowa Supreme Court in favor of the mall owners.
Martinko's father, Albert, died in 1995. Her mother, Janet, died in 1998.
Resumption of investigation
In 2006, 27 years after Martinko's killing, a new cold case investigator working for the Cedar Rapids Police Department received a tip connected to the case. Although the tip did not lead to any suspects, the investigator discovered what he believed to be the killer's blood while he was reviewing the case files. From that, police were able to build a partial DNA profile. Documents concluded that fewer than one in 100 billion people would match the DNA profile. The results were entered into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), the national DNA database, but no matches were found. Eventually, more than 125 people would have their DNA swabbed and compared against samples taken from the scene. Out of more than 80 potential suspects that had been identified over the years, more than 60 people were tested and cleared of suspicion.
In 2017, a company specializing in DNA phenotyping was hired to create additional images of the killer based solely on DNA clues about facial appearance and ancestry. The images looked considerably different from the 1980 composite sketch and showed a man with blond hair and blue eyes. The company also produced approximations of how the man would have aged in the years since the crime. In a press conference during which the new image was shared, a former classmate of Martinko exclaimed that the face looked like another one of their classmates, but that classmate had been investigated and was cleared based on a DNA swab several years before. The police received more than 100 tips following the release of the new images.
In 2018, the DNA phenotyping company took the data they had collected the year before and entered it into GEDmatch, a public genealogy website that has been used by law enforcement to solve other cold cases, most famously that of the Golden State Killer. GEDmatch returned one person who shared DNA markers with the suspect in Martinko's murder, and it determined her to be likely the killer's second cousin once removed. The company created a family tree starting with four sets of the woman's great-great-grandparents and reported that the killer was most likely descended from one of those couples. An investigator with the Cedar Rapids police department contacted, DNA-tested members of two of the branches of the family tree, and eliminated those branches as containing the killer. He then contacted a member of a third branch, and a DNA test determined that they were first cousins with the killer. That narrowed the suspects down to a set of three brothers, who had grown up in Manchester, Iowa. The brothers were placed under surveillance, and investigators began to attempt to collect their DNA secretly.
Arrest and trial
On October 29, 2018, an investigator observed one of the brothers, Jerry Lynn Burns, drink multiple sodas using a plastic straw. When Burns disposed of the straw, the investigator collected it and tested it for DNA. Tests eliminated the other two brothers as suspects, but the DNA from Burns' straw matched the blood found on Martinko's clothing. On December 19, 2018, investigators went to Burns' business in Manchester, Iowa to interview him. He refused to voluntarily provide a sample of DNA, but was compelled to do so with a search warrant. His hands and arms were also examined for scars possibly left by the assumed cut sustained during the attack. Burns maintained that he did not know Martinko and was not there when she died, although an investigator later testified that Burns did not specifically deny killing Martinko. He was not able to provide an explanation for why his DNA would have been present at the crime scene. According to the investigator, "Burns showed almost no emotion during the interview, even when he was eventually told he was being arrested." When asked if he had killed someone that night in 1979, Burns repeatedly told investigators, "Test the DNA". When the DNA sample was tested, it matched the blood sample found at the crime scene.
Arrest and pretrial events
On December 19, 2018, exactly 39 years after Martinko's murder, Burns was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. He entered a plea of not guilty. His trial was originally scheduled for October 14, 2019, but in September the defense requested a delay in order to gather more evidence and interview witnesses. The defense also requested the trial be moved out of Linn County based on the amount of attention the case had received over the past four decades, as well as "pervasive and prejudicial pretrial publicity". The prosecution did not resist either request, and the trial was rescheduled for February 10, 2020 in Scott County.
In pretrial hearings, Burns' attorneys claimed that police needed a search warrant to gather his DNA from the discarded straw, but the judge determined that discarded property cannot reasonably be considered private. The defense also requested that evidence pertaining to Burns' cell phone browser history be suppressed. Investigators had reviewed Burns' 2018 internet searches and found that he regularly visited websites showing blonde women being raped, stabbed, and strangled, and which depicted sexual intercourse with murder victims. The judge determined the search history was not usable in the trial due to the decades of time separating the murder and the searches.
After two days of jury selection, the murder trial began on February 12, 2020. The prosecution emphasized the unlikelihood of the DNA evidence matching someone other than the person who left it at the scene. The doctor who performed Martinko's autopsy and investigators in the original case, all now retired, took the stand to testify to how the investigation was conducted, and to Martinko's cause of death. The defense argued that DNA evidence had been mishandled, and that different articles of clothing from the scene should not have been stored together in one evidence bag. Prosecutors also played a video of a police interview of Burns, in which he denied being at the crime scene on the night of Martinko's murder, and could not explain how his DNA had been found at the scene. They also played a later recording, after Burns' arrest, in which Burns questioned whether he could have blocked out the memory of committing the crime.
The defense brought only one witness, a self-described forensic DNA consultant, who testified on the possibility that police could have mishandled the evidence. He stated that Burns' DNA could have been at the scene due to secondary transfer (such as skin cells transferring to an article of clothing when someone brushes up against another person), although he clarified that it was not his opinion that this was the case with Burns' DNA. Prosecutors called a criminalist to contradict the defense's witness; the criminalist said that the storage of Martinko's clothing was not unusual.
Burns' defense team objected to the wording of one of the prosecution's questions, which they claimed implied unequivocally that Burns' blood had been at the scene. The defense requested the case be declared a mistrial as a result, but the judge denied the request and asked the prosecutor to rephrase the question.
On February 24, 2020, after three hours of deliberation, the jury found Jerry Lynn Burns guilty of first degree murder of Michelle Martinko. Iowan law mandates a life sentence without the possibility of parole for first degree murder. On May 29, 2020, Burns' attorneys filed a motion asking for a new trial, claiming his constitutional and state rights were violated and that the court made a mistake in overruling the request for evidence to be suppressed.
On August 7, 2020, Burns was sentenced to life in prison without parole. In September 2020, Burns filed a notice of appeal. Burns is currently imprisoned in the Anamosa State Penitentiary.
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40-year-old murder cold case solved with new DNA evidence in California
A California man was arrested Saturday and charged with a 40-year-old murder after investigators used new DNA testing capabilities to tie him to the case.
Michael Glazebrook, now 65, is accused of killing Sonia Carmen Herok-Stone in 1981 in Carmel-By-The-Sea, the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office said in a Facebook post.
Herok-Stone was 30 years old when she was found dead in her home. Glazebrook, a neighbor in the beach town about 85 miles south of San Francisco, was charged with her murder at the time.
However, his trial ended with a hung jury, and the district attorney decided to dismiss the case instead of refiling charges.
Monterey County detectives began reviewing Herok-Stone’s death in late 2020 and used new DNA testing technology to reexamine evidence from the crime scene. That new evidence matched Glazebrook’s DNA, cops said.
Glazebrook still lived in Monterey County, and officers arrested him Saturday night without incident when he drove away from his home, according to police.
Herok-Stone was a single mother who worked at a Levi’s jeans store before she was killed. Police said the Monterey County officers who arrested Glazebrook on Saturday all wore Levi’s jeans as a tribute to Herok-Stone.
Just after 10:30 the chilly night of Jan. 16, 1980, Englewood police officer Richard Welbourne looked at a Polaroid photograph of a woman with a thousand-watt smile, turned it over, and wrote out a shorthand-description in a ball-point pen.
- 5’ 100, Brn, Blue,
- Blue Coat
- Lt Tan Cord Type Pants
- Grn Sweater Over White
- Turtle Neck.
- Lace Type Brn Shoes
The woman in the picture was 21 years old. Her name was Helene Pruszynski. She was a senior at Wheaton College in Massachusetts who had come to Denver with a classmate after they’d both been selected for internships. Helene, an aspiring journalist, was working in the news department at K-H-O-W radio. The day before, she’d covered a big story – the aftermath of the fatal shooting of a Secret Service agent inside the Denver field office.
Her shift at the radio station had ended at 5:30 p.m. Responsible and punctual, she followed the same routine every day. Walk two blocks from the radio station’s office to the corner of 14th Avenue and Broadway. Climb onto an RTD bus for the trip to Englewood. Get off in front of Frank the Pizza King near the corner of Union Avenue and Broadway. Walk six blocks to the home of her aunt and uncle, where she and her classmate were staying.
She should have been home by 6:30 p.m.
Worry quickly overtook Helene’s aunt and uncle and her friend, Kitsey Snow. They’d driven to the bus stop, driven up and down Broadway, and called the radio station. They’d called the police. They’d walked the nearby streets, looking for something – anything – that might tell them where Helene was. Back at the house, Kitsey had written in her journal.
"Poor Helene. What is she going through? Where is she? Is she alright? … I can’t believe this is happening. I keep telling Aunty Wanda not to worry or imagine the worst which is of course what I am doing."
Helene was four hours overdue when Officer Richard Welbourne arrived to take a missing persons report. Nobody – not the people who loved Helene, not the generations of detectives who would work to solve the case – could have imagined it would be nearly 40 years before there would be an answer.
And it was an answer that would only come after decades of advances in forensic science, and only because creative detectives figured out a new way to use it.
Baseball, music and journalism: Helene's early years
Helene Pruszynski spent the first part of her life in South Huntington on Long Island – the youngest of three children of Chester Pruszynski, an Army veteran and engineer, and his wife Henrietta. Her sister, Janet, was nine years older; her brother, Chet, 12 years older.
Helene fell in love with baseball, rooting for the New York Mets, memorizing all the team’s players and their positions.
Then her father took a new job in 1972, and moved the family to Hamilton, Mass., at the time a town of fewer than 7,000 northeast of Boston.
Helene traded in her love of the Mets, adopting the Boston Red Sox.
In high school, she was active in music and stage.
At Wheaton College, she studied journalism – and was thrilled when she landed that radio station internship.
“She just was an eager beaver, go-getter in college, you know?” her sister would say many years in the future. “She was a strong person and she got involved – she made things happen.”
PHOTOS: 40 Years in the Dark: The 1980 Helene Pruszynski murder case
'There's a body out there': Promising crime scene turns cold
Around 9 a.m. the morning after Helene’s disappearance, a woman driving along Daniels Park Road in northern Douglas County heard her 13-year-old son call out: “Mom – there’s a body out there.”
She glanced into the lonely field of brown scrub with patches of snow here and there. It did look like a body.
The woman flagged down the operator of a road grader, who went to investigate.
When he was 10 feet away, he knew. It was a woman, and she was dead.
Over the next two hours, investigators from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation swarmed the field.
Almost immediately, they knew the woman had been brutalized – sexually assaulted and stabbed to death, her hands bound behind her with nylon straps. Her identity was settled nearly as quickly – an Arapahoe County sheriff’s deputy, who worked part time at K-H-O-W, arrived at the scene. He knew he was staring at the body of Helene Pruszynski.
Detectives worked the scene carefully, looking for evidence. In the dirt along the edge of the two-lane road, they noticed tracks left by a vehicle, and footprints – two sets of them in the snow leading out into the field; one set, apparently from cowboy boots, returning.
They gathered everything they could find that might help them figure out who did such an awful thing: an empty milk carton, a hunk of bread, an old can. They snapped photographs and made plaster casts of the tire tracks and the footprints.
After the news broke, a woman came forward with a remarkable story. She’d been driving along Daniels Park Road around 10:20 the night Helene disappeared and had seen a man in the area where her body would be discovered. She provided a detailed description – 20 to 30 years old, possibly Caucasian, medium-length brown hair “over the ears,” possibly wearing a mustache. Under hypnosis, the woman recalled more details. An artist drew a remarkably realistic composite of a possible suspect.
Detectives also had a theory. A woman had been raped not far from where Helene should have gotten off the bus a couple weeks earlier. The very night she vanished, another woman had been accosted in the street. It seemed likely that those cases might be related to Helene’s disappearance and murder.
But the investigators also faced a huge handicap: Helene had been in Colorado less than three weeks, and it was likely she was attacked by a stranger – the most difficult kind of case to solve.
“We’re doing everything we can to run down leads,” said Carl Whiteside, deputy director of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. “But after that, you know the way it goes. Especially when the victim is new in town.”
The following year, the investigation into her murder went cold. It lay dormant for nearly two decades.
No match: Case re-examinations turn up no leads (at first)
When Helene Pruszynki was murdered in 1980, the idea that the killer had left behind DNA that could identify him was still years in the future. By 1998, that future was in full bloom.
That year, Tony Spurlock, now Douglas County’s sheriff, Holly Nicholson-Kluth, the current undersheriff, and Capt. Bill Walker re-opened the investigation. They formed a task force that included investigators from the Englewood Police Department and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation who went through all the evidence, learning that none of it had ever been tested for DNA.
That testing yielded a genetic profile of the killer. But after it was uploaded to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System – a repository of millions of profiles from both known criminals and unsolved crimes – there was only disappointment.
The case was re-examined again in 2000, 2005, 2010 and 2013, when that DNA led to eight women who may have been related to the killer. The follow-up investigation went nowhere.
In 2017, detectives began yet another look at the case, hoping for a breakthrough.
A DNA revolution: Home DNA kits bring new leads for investigators
Beginning with its widespread use to solve crimes in the late 1980s, detectives found DNA both tantalizing and defeating.
If they put a profile in the FBI database and got a hit, or tested a sample from a crime scene against a suspect and got a match, they were almost always on the doorstep of solving the case.
If they didn’t, it was just another piece of evidence that they couldn’t fit into the puzzle before them.
This happened even as science marched on and DNA could be extracted from smaller and smaller samples – eventually even from a hair, and then from a few skin cells. But even with those advances, cases often stalled out when they couldn’t find a match.
Then came the home DNA kit revolution – millions of people testing themselves, hoping to learn about their ancestry, track down long-lost relatives or find birth parents. And eventually, investigators realized that even if they couldn’t take DNA from a crime scene and find a killer, they could use the sample to find the killer’s relatives.
Genetic genealogy was born.
Here’s how it works: Detectives take a DNA sample from an unsolved crime and upload it into an open-source database, such as GEDmatch. If they’re lucky, they’ll be provided a list of people related in some way to the killer. From there, they build a family tree – and, if everything goes well, they’ll end up with the killer somewhere in the mix.
Then it becomes a matter of old-fashioned detective work. Is a suspect the right age? Was he in the area where the crime occurred and when it occurred? Does he have an alibi?
That’s the work that Douglas County sheriff’s investigator Shannon Jensen pursued, beginning in 2019
It can be daunting – when Jensen first ran the killer’s DNA through the genealogy site GEDmatch, she got 3,000 hits – 3,000 people who shared some genetic connection to the man detectives had been hunting for nearly four decades.
“There are some that are so far back – you know, eighth generation, seventh generation, sixth generation,” Jensen said. “They’re important, but they’re not very useful to a detective in solving a case like this.”
But as she worked her way down the various branches in the massive group of people, she got to people closer to the killer. She reached a distant cousin, who had access to profiles for family members Jensen had not found.
“I was able to contact those people who had already done an Ancestry or a 23andMe DNA kit,” Jensen said. “They were willing and able to upload those to that public database.”
That took her closer – to two relatives in particular. Jensen, who had never been on a case like this one before, worked with – and learned from – a genealogist, Joan Hanlon of United Data Connect.
There were false starts. She and other detectives went to Arizona to follow one possible suspect. Jensen, working undercover, saw the man toss a water bottle into a trash can, grabbed it later and sent it to the lab. No match.
Later, she zeroed in on a man named William White Jr., a man with a history of “deviant sexual behavior.” The DNA from Helene’s body and clothing was compared against White’s. Again, no match.
Then Jensen turned her attention to his younger brother, Curtis Allen White – a man who’d been convicted of raping a woman at knifepoint in Arkansas in 1975, who’d come to Colorado in 1979, and who’d started going by a new name in 1982: James Curtis Clanton.
As Jensen put together the details of his life, she was sure she had found Helene Pruszyinski’s killer. She went to Lt. Tommy Barrella, an experienced officer new to cold case work.
“We have this thing,” Jensen said. “He has to have his coffee before he can really talk to anybody, and I was shaking with adrenaline, and I said, 'I know who he is.' And he's like, 'What?' I said, 'I know who he is.'”
At that point, Jensen needed only one thing: A sample of Clanton’s DNA.
In November 2019, Douglas County deputies went to north-central Florida and followed Clanton for days, waiting for him to unsuspectingly leave his DNA on something. They finally got their chance when he went to a bar not far from his home outside Lake Butler, 30 miles north of Gainesville.
Clanton ordered a beer, poured it into a mug and drank. Then he did it again. After he left the bar, detectives grabbed that mug and brought it back to Colorado for testing at CBI.
'We do have a warrant': A carefully orchestrated plan results in killer's arrest
A few minutes before 2 o’clock in the afternoon on Dec. 11, 2019, Douglas County sheriffs Sgt. Attila Denes and Det. Mike Trindle stood along a quiet road outside Lake Butler, Florida, waiting for Jim Clanton.
He rumbled up in his big rig and got out.
“Your name came up initially as a suspect in a major securities fraud case out of Colorado – we’re talking a multi-million-dollar case,” Denes told him. “We started digging into the case. What we actually think happened is someone has assumed your identity back in Colorado.”
Denes asked Clanton to come in for a recorded interview so “we can get your side of what’s going on, make sure you’re not involved.”
None of it is true. Instead, it was a carefully planned cover story aimed at getting Clanton to lock himself into specific details — where he was living when Helene was killed, what kind of car he drove, whether he had a girlfriend.
Their aim: to get him on the record with facts they knew to be true so that he couldn't later claim, for instance, that he’d had a fling with Helene but had nothing to do with killing her.
Once in a small office at the Union County Sheriff’s Office in Lake Butler, Denes and Trindle questioned him for an hour. It all seemed innocuous enough.
Finally, Trindle got to the point.
“You can probably tell by now that there’s more to this than this financial case, right?” he said. “I don't really care about stolen cars in 1980 in Colorado. But we do care about a young woman in Colorado in 1980, and I wanna, um, I wanna show you a picture and see if you recognize her."
Trindle pulled a photo of Helene from his notebook and slid it across the table.
“No, sir,” Clanton responded. “I think I want an attorney now. You accusing me of something else, I know.”
“I do have to advise you of a couple things,” Denes said.
“I’m under arrest?” Clanton asked.
“We do have a warrant for your arrest, for first-degree murder and kidnapping,” Denes said.
“First-degree murder and kidnapping,” Denes said.
“You got the wrong guy,” Clanton protested.
“We actually have your DNA in her, and on her,” Denes replied.
Then a Florida officer handcuffed Clanton and led him to jail.
'I did it': James Clanton admits to killing Helene
At his court appearance the next day, Clanton waived extradition, agreeing to fly back to Colorado to face charges. It was something of a surprise.
But the biggest surprise came as he rode to the airport with Barrella. Clanton said he wanted to talk. Barrella got out his phone and began recording as he read Clanton his rights. Then he started asking questions.
Video below: Audio of Clanton's chilling confession to Helene's murder while riding to the airport.
“OK,” Barrella said. “So, when we contacted you the other day and we were interviewing you about, uh, your time in Colorado, did you have an idea of what we were talking to you about?”
“OK. And what did you think that was about?”
“About murder,” Clanton said.
“OK. Why, why did you think we were talking about murder? Did anybody – did either of the cops mention the word murder to you or, um?”
“No,” Clanton said faintly.
“No,” Barrella replied. “OK. So why did you think was about murder?”
“‘Cause, I knew that was gonna come up and get me one day,” Clanton said.
“Why, why was it going to come up and get you – did you murder someone?”
“‘Cause I did it,” Clanton said.
“OK, you did what?” Barrella asked.
“I killed the girl they’re accusing me of killing,” Clanton said.
And there it was – a month shy of 40 years since a man grabbed Helene Pruszynski off an Englewood street, sexually assaulted her, walked her out into a field and stabbed her in the back nine times – a confession.
Clanton kept talking – in the car, during the flight back to Colorado. While on a drive with Douglas County investigators, he answered investigators’ questions about the attack on Helene.
How he approached her after she got off the bus.
“I told her I had a knife,” Clanton said. “She says, ‘I see it,’ and I said, ‘Well, let’s go.’ And she said, ‘OK, I’ll go.’ She wasn’t gonna fight.
“I just opened the passenger door, told her to get in the floorboard. I went around and got in the car and took whatever it was I used to tie her hands up and went that way somewhere.”
What he told her while driving to a wood shed where he would rape her.
“She asked me what I was doing, and I told her I was kidnapping her for money,” Clanton said. “And she said, ‘Well, my parents don’t have any money,’ and stuff like that. I didn’t tell her what I was really doing until we got into that woodshed.”
What he did after pulling to the side of Daniels Park Road.
“We got out of the vehicle, and walked through the field – crossed the fence and walked in through the field,” he said. “And … I told her to get down on her knees and said, I said, ‘You gonna have to walk home from here. So don’t get up until after I leave.’”
After a pause, Clanton continued.
“And, as has happened with me on several occasions, for some reason or another,” he said, pausing before continuing, “I just kind of step out of myself and watch myself do that.”
By “that,” he meant plunging a knife into Helene’s back nine times.
He spoke of a disjointed childhood – being abandoned by his mother, spending time in foster home with a pedophile. And he spoke of a rage inside him he never understood.
“When I was 8 years old, I started with insects, and putting them in red ant piles,” he said, “and went up to amphibians and other small animals. And when I was 8 years old, I hung a cat in a tree and beat it to death with a tree limb. Couldn’t understand why a kid that old could get that kind of rage. That rage has always stayed with me, I mean, it’s – I think every time something hurts me that bad that I can’t deal with it, I learned anger covers up pain. That’s pretty much the basis of everything I’ve ever done. I’m just mad all the time.”
Videos below: Raw body-worn camera footage of James Clanton's confession while on the plane flying to Colorado.
In late February, after prosecutors agreed to take the death penalty off the table, Clanton stepped into Judge Theresa Slade’s courtroom in Castle Rock and pleaded guilty.
'The sunshine of our lives': 40 years later, family & friends get justice
On July 1, Clanton was finally back in front of District Judge Theresa Slade, virtually at least. The hearing had been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Clanton appeared over video from the Douglas County Jail.
Everyone knew the outcome before it happened: By pleading guilty, Clanton had agreed to a life sentence.
But a sentencing hearing is about more that announcing how long a defendant will be behind bars. It’s about giving him – and the victims – a chance to have their voices heard.
Clanton passed, letting his attorney issue an apology on his behalf.
But more than a dozen people who loved Helene didn’t let the opportunity go.
Forty years is a long time. But it wasn’t long enough to dull the pain for those close to Helene – or their cherished memories of her.
“We idolized her,” her sister, Janet Pruszynski Johnson, told Judge Slade. “She was the sunshine of our lives. We adored her and came to realize she was a special light in our family and in the world around her.
“We knew Helene was going places. Her warm personality, friendly nature and strong convictions gave us pride in all she did. We knew she was destined for great things in the future.”
That was a future that ended on the cold ground along Daniels Park Road.
“Everything was taken from her on Jan. 16, 1980,” said a college friend, Monique Shire. “She was deprived of what she would have accomplished. The world was deprived of what she would have contributed to make it a better place. Her family and friends were deprived of sharing with her all that life had to offer.
“For me, the brutal act of taking her life is unforgivable. The terror and pain that she experienced haunts me every day. I have learned to live with my sorrow and anger, but will never be able to reconcile how such a horrible thing could have happened to such a wonderful person.”
“After Helene’s death, I had bad dreams for a long time,” said her high school boyfriend, Jonathan Shailor. “I would see her in her casket, her eyes struggling to open. And then I would wake up and have to relive the shock of remembering she was gone. I dreamt that I was at the kitchen table with her parents, we were grieving together, and then they’d tell me that she had somehow survived that brutality, that she was in her bedroom down the hall. But I was not permitted to see her, no one was.
“Eventually the bad dreams ended, and only the aching loss remained. I still think of Helene every day.”
And then he played a slideshow of photos of Helene, covered with a recording of her college a capella group, the Wheatones, singing, Helene’s voice mingling with the others, the final words a fitting description for those who knew her and cared for her as they emerged from 40 years in the dark.
There's a light in the depths
Of your darkness.
There's a calm at the eye
Of every storm.
There's a light in the depths
Of your darkness.
Let it shine
Oh, let it shine.
Contact 9Wants to Know investigator Kevin Vaughan with tips about this or any story: [email protected] or 303-871-1862.
Editor’s note: This story is based on reports from the Englewood police department, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, and the Douglas County Coroner's Office; crime scene photographs; family photographs provided by Janet Pruszynski Johnson; 1980 news reports from 9NEWS, the Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, the Associated Press, and the Castle Rock News-Press; press releases issued in 1980 by the Douglas County Sheriff's Office and KHOW radio; audio recordings of interviews with Jim Clanton and other witnesses conducted by Douglas County sheriff’s investigators; body camera footage of Douglas County sheriff’s investigators interacting with Clanton; court documents, including the arrest affidavit for Clanton; statements made at Clanton’s court appearances, including his sentencing hearing; information provided by Kitsey Snow; and interviews with Janet Pruszynski Johnson, Douglas County sheriff’s Lt. Tommy Barrella, Douglas County sheriff’s Sgt. Attila Denes, and Douglas County sheriff’s Detective Shannon Jensen.
40-Year-Old Cold Case of South Dakota Baby Ends With Conviction
Decades after a baby was found by the road, DNA testing led to criminal charges. On Friday, a woman entered an Alford plea in the case, accepting a guilty plea for manslaughter without admitting to the crime.
A South Dakota woman was convicted on Friday in the death of her newborn son, according to court documents, ending a cold case that began when the boy’s body was found near a cornfield four decades ago.
The woman, Theresa Bentaas, 60, of Sioux Falls, entered an Alford plea, which allows defendants to enter a guilty plea without admitting to the crime, to first-degree manslaughter in an agreement with prosecutors in which they dismissed two murder charges, according to the Second Judicial Court in South Dakota.
Ms. Bentaas had previously pleaded not guilty to the three charges.
Lawyers for Ms. Bentaas declined to comment on Monday. The Minnehaha County State’s Attorney office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.
The charges against Ms. Bentaas drew from the discovery of an infant’s body on Feb. 28, 1981, when a driver near Sioux Falls spotted a pile of “wine-colored” blankets by the road, he said decades later in an interview with a local newspaper, The Argus Leader. The driver pulled over to look at the blankets because they looked new, he said.
Inside the bundle was a dead baby, and traces of blood were found on clothing nearby, according to the arrest affidavit for Ms. Bentaas.
An autopsy found that the baby had been born alive, most likely the day before, and had probably died of exposure, according to the affidavit.
Investigators were unable to find the baby’s mother and relatives. After about 50 residents attended the baby’s burial at St. Michael Catholic Cemetery, the case went cold. The baby became known as Andrew John Doe.
In 2009, as DNA analysis grew widely accessible and spread into criminal investigation, detectives picked up the Sioux Falls case and obtained a court order to exhume the body for testing. The remains were taken to the University of North Texas Health Science Center, where a DNA profile was obtained, according to the affidavit, which noted that the baby’s remains were reburied in 2010.
Through advanced DNA testing, a family tree was produced, leading investigators to a residence in Sioux Falls where Ms. Bentaas had been living, the affidavit said.
Detectives found DNA in the trash at her residence, and analysts determined that it “could not be excluded” from a profile of the baby’s biological mother, according to the affidavit.
In March 2019, the Sioux Falls Police Department announced that investigators had, through DNA testing and genealogy databases, finally tracked down the baby’s mother, naming Ms. Bentaas. She was arrested on murder charges.
On Feb. 27, 2019, Ms. Bentaas told investigators that in 1981 she was “young and stupid,” according to the affidavit. She said she had hidden her pregnancy from family and friends, and given birth alone in her apartment. She then drove the baby to the place by the road where he was later found, the affidavit said.
The affidavit said that Ms. Bentaas recalled feeling “sad” and “scared,” and that she continued to think of that night when she drove by the spot.
She is scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 2, according to court records.
Susan Beachy contributed research.
Old murders solved 40 year
[This story previously aired on November 7, 2020. It was updated on August 7, 2021.]
In the early hours of December 20, 1979, the body of 18-year-old Michelle Martinko was found in her car in the parking lot of a mall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She was stabbed multiple times. The murder baffled investigators for several generations. CBS News Correspondent Jamie Yuccas explores the unrelenting quest to solve one of Iowa's most haunting cases and how Michelle Martinko may have helped them solve her own murder.
A HORRIFIC SCENE
Just before Christmas in 1979, every single police officer in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was called to work on the horrific murder in the parking lot of Westdale Mall -- including, now-retired Detective Harvey Denlinger.
Harvey Denlinger: I had never seen anybody stabbed that many times. ... Something like that was unheard of around here..
Michelle Martinko, an 18-year-old high school senior, had been found violently stabbed in the front seat of her car. Her killer was unknown, confounding generations of investigators.
Harvey Denlinger: We couldn't come up with anything … and we just kept plugging away.
Jamie Yuccas: How old were you?
Det. Matt Denlinger: I was 5 years old.
Jamie Yuccas: Do you remember the case?
Det. Matt Denlinger: No, not from when I was little.
Matt is Harvey's son.
Det. Matt Denlinger: But every single year on Dec. 19th … the local news would have a Michelle Martinko segment … So, it was really hard to miss the severity of it.
2006 NEWS REPORT: Michelle Martinko was a bright eyed, blonde … 27 years ago her life was cut short …
Decades later, Matt — now a detective himself — joined the investigation into Michelle Martinko's murder 36 years after his father had begun working the same case.
Det. Matt Denlinger: Wouldn't it be something if I could find our suspect and my dad is still alive?
And as he dug into the thick files, the son went to his father to help him make sense of it all.
Det. Matt Denlinger: I wanted someone to talk to about it and I wanted someone that really understood it.
The crime had stunned this small city of 110,000.
Tracy Price: It scared the hell out of us.
Tracy Price went to high school and sang in the choir with Michelle.
Tracy Price: It just hit me like a brick … Why? [shakes head]
Mike Wyrick [Shakes head]: It was just shocking.
Mike Wyrick had dated Michelle in high school, and says her murder shattered the city's All-American image.
Mike Wyrick: If that could happen and the person wasn't caught, anything could happen.
Janelle Stonebraker is Michelle's big sister — 12 years older. Michelle was the flower girl at her wedding. She and her husband John say nothing could have prepared them for the horrible news they got the morning after Michelle was killed.
Janelle Stonebraker: We just hugged and we couldn't believe she was gone. … my dad was very stoic about it, but he was angry. My mother was just brokenhearted [emotional].
It was a devastating blow to parents who had been through so much with Michelle already.
Janet Martinko had suffered five miscarriages and was 44 years old when Michelle was born.
Janelle Stonebraker: It was great, I mean, it was just so exciting when my sister was born … and she was the "miracle baby."
When she was 12, Michelle was diagnosed with scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. She had to wear a brace that went from her neck to her hips.
Janelle Stonebraker: She felt very different, very self-conscious. She couldn't move around like other kids could move around, so that was a tough period.
But at age 14, she was able to shed the brace and then, Janelle says, everything changed for Michelle.
Janelle Stonebraker: Farrah Fawcett was in with the hair and my sister always had the long blond hair. So, she thought, "OK, I can do the hair."
John Stonebraker: Michelle was blissfully unaware of all this attention she was getting from men.
She caught the eye of Andy Seidel, who, at 16, was a year older than Michelle.
Gail Dawson: We met him roller skating.
Michelle's friend Gail Dawson remembers him.
Gail Dawson: There was this flashy, sports car guy, you know.
Michelle and Andy were together for two years, and then broke up. Friends say she didn't want to be in a committed relationship—and Andy apparently didn't take it too well.
John Stonebraker: After they broke up, he wanted to know her every move, who she was dating, why she was dating that particular person. He would talk to her friends … he just wouldn't go away.
Police learned Andy had run into Michelle at the mall that fateful night. They brought him in for questioning.
Jamie Yuccas: Did he have an alibi?
Det. Matt Denlinger: Andy did have an alibi—Andy was at home shortly after the mall closed … and his mom provided an alibi. The problem with Andy's alibi though is that moms would say a lot to protect their children.
Gail Dawson: Every male that knew her was a suspect they had to clear.
Jamie Yuccas: You must have been a suspect?
Mike Wyrick: I was.
Mike Wyrick was questioned as well. And even though he was more than 100 miles away at college when Michelle was murdered, police knew he had also dated her.
Mike Wyrick: All of it was a little intimidating. It was hard. It was scary.
Mike says the police were tough on him.
Mike Wyrick: At one point they thought that I wasn't telling them everything, and they laid the crime scene photos out in front of me. And it was hurtful.
Mike was never considered a serious suspect because he was not in Cedar Rapids at the time of the murder — but Andy was. And Andy's behavior at Michelle's funeral only reinforced many people's suspicions about him.
Gail Dawson: He was almost in the casket. He was so emotional. He had his arms around her, and he was just sobbing …he said to me— "I have to know who she loved when she died. …Did she love me, or did she love Mike? Who did she love when she died?"
But police had no hard evidence pointing to Andy Seidel. He left Cedar Rapids soon after high school and joined the Navy.
Gail Dawson: There's a large amount of us that were convinced that he did kill her.
John Stonebreaker: I thought it was just a matter of time before he was arrested and charged.
Janelle Stonebreaker: There was no one else. There really wasn't another suspect.
BLOOD THE KILLER LEFT BEHIND
As police investigated those closest to Michelle Martinko looking for potential suspects, they were also looking at the possibility that Michelle may have been killed outside the mall by a stranger.
Tracy Price: She was out there, and she was looking for a coat that her mom had put on layaway for her for Christmas, and she was gonna pay it off.
Michelle had a $186 with her to pay for the coat, but ultimately decided she didn't want it. Tracy Price had run into her at the mall that night and gave her a protective warning when he saw her holding the cash.
Tracy Price: "Put that away," you know … "don't be flashing money out here in the middle of everybody. "
Tracy only learned later that Michelle was a little anxious that night.
Tracy Price: She was nervous about going out to the mall by herself and that she told someone she felt like she was being followed.
Jamie Yuccas: You didn't notice anybody watching her, paying close attention her?
Tracy Price: I never got that feeling.
Michelle headed to her car in the dark.
Jamie Yuccas: So, she was parked pretty far away.
Det. Matt Denlinger: Yeah, she was parked a ways out here. … I think she gets in, I think she turned that car on by herself and was warming it up to get the frost off the windows … and I think in that moment before she puts it in drive and leaves, he's at the door, pops it open, pushes her over and climbs in.
Jamie Yuccas: Sounds like a robbery?
Det. Matt Denlinger: On the surface it would sound like a robbery, but she did have the cash on her, it wasn't taken. She did have a bag with some items she had purchased in the back seat, those weren't taken.
Jamie Yuccas: So, is it a sexual assault?
Det. Matt Denlinger: It very well could have been the plan.
Although the autopsy showed she was not sexually assaulted, Michelle had defensive slice wounds on her hands and body.
Det. Matt Denlinger: You have to assume that pretty much any motive you can think of was a possibility and that Michelle decided she wasn't gonna allow that to happen. She fought.
Whatever the motive, the assailant had come prepared.
Det. Matt Denlinger: They found rubber glove indentations on the outside of the car in dirt. They found them inside the car in blood … it was clear that the person was trying to conceal their identity.
Investigators had no fingerprints, no witnesses and few leads. Although they had a blood-soaked crime scene, DNA technology was still years away.
Det. Matt Denlinger: It's frustrating -- by 1986 this case is sitting on ice, it's that cold … no one can think of anything more to do at that point.
Michelle's family was even more frustrated.
Janelle Stonebraker: It seemed that everyone had been looked at.
John Stonebraker: We thought the case was pretty much dead in the water.
It would take almost two decades, but the case would come alive again. In 2005, Detective Doug Larison was in charge. Coincidentally, he had gone to high school with Michelle. Although they weren't close, her murder had deeply affected him.
Jamie Yuccas: So that had been on your mind since you were 18 years old -- how do we get this solved.
Det. Doug Larison: Right. … I felt a responsibility toward my classmates actually to get this case solved.
In the years since Michelle's murder, DNA had emerged as a forensic tool.
Det. Doug Larison: Technology changes, science changes. … So, I wanted to proceed and move the case forward.
And Larison did just that. He was reading Michelle's file when he discovered that sometime earlier, another detective had sent blood scrapings found on the gearshift of the car out for testing. But nobody had followed up on the results.
Jamie Yuccas: And it just stays in the file until somebody finds it?
Det. Doug Larison: And it can get lost in the file.
Jamie Yuccas: … and until somebody sits down and reads the file do they go, "Oh wow, we have DNA. "
Det. Doug Larison: Those different investigators don't necessarily network with one other.
But Larison found that lab report, and it showed that not only did the gearshift have DNA, but it was male DNA.
Det. Doug Larison: He had probably cut himself and that's how his DNA and his blood got mixed with her blood in the gearshift selector.
Larison then sent Michelle's dress -- which had been safely tucked away in an evidence locker -- to the lab for further testing.
Jamie Yuccas: What did they find?
Det. Doug Larison: A spot of blood on her dress with a full male DNA profile. And it was consistent with the male DNA profiled on the gear shift selector.
Larison had identified a crucial piece of evidence.
Det. Doug Larison: I think it's just common sense that that's probably your killer right there.
Detectives had the lab work. Now, all they needed was the suspect.
Det. Matt Denlinger: We know we need just one person. We just need to get lucky. You know -- have the sun shine on us just one day when we find one person that matches that.
But it would take many days -- more than a decade. And it wasn't luck -- it was cops who wouldn't quit until they finally narrowed in on one very surprising suspect.
Janelle Stonebraker: So, we -- oh boy, this is it— we have finally gotten down to the wire on this.
SEARCHING FOR A SUSPECT
In America's heartland, for friends like Tracy Price who saw Michelle Martinko the last night of her life, for ex-boyfriend Mike Wyrick, and for close friend Gail Dawson, Michelle's murderer left a mark on all their lives.
Tracy Price: Every anniversary, it goes through your head.
Mike Wyrick: We were all victims in a way.
Jamie Yuccas: Your innocence was stolen.
Mike Wyrick: Yeah, exactly.
Gail Dawson: Then the fear set in. .. You're scared. You're afraid to go places.
The killer had vanished. But by 2005, investigators were onto something new: science and that male DNA profile on Michelle's dress and the DNA from the blood on her car's gear shift.
Jamie Yuccas: Would it be fair to say you found a needle in a haystack?
Det. Doug Larison: I think there's a lot of needles in a lot of haystacks in this case.
For lead investigator Doug Larison, old evidence suddenly had fresh potential. He shipped the blood samples to CODIS, the nationwide database of DNA collected from arrested offenders. If Michelle's murderer had a previous record …
Det. Doug Larison: … CODIS will give us a hit and tell us who matches the profile.
Jamie Yuccas: So, you send it to CODIS and what happens?
Det. Doug Larison: Well, we never got a hit.
It was a dead end. The DNA from Michelle's dress and car did not match up with anyone in the huge government file.
Det. Doug Larison: So, now we had a job to do.
Starting with locating all the people Cedar Rapids cops had originally interviewed.
Det. Doug Larison: We collected DNA samples from over 100 different people.
Cops had to convince them to take a DNA test.
Det. Doug Larison: It was time-consuming.
Mike Wyrick and Tracy Price were tested; both came up negative. At the top of Larison's list was Michelle's old boyfriend, Andy Seidel.
Det. Doug Larison: I think he was probably the main suspect from the very beginning of this case.
Andy Seidel had lived for 27 years with many in his hometown believing he was a killer.
Det. Doug Larison: I said, "listen Andy, if you give us your DNA, and it doesn't match. Then you're eliminated. You're cleared". … he voluntarily gave his DNA and he was eliminated.
But whoever ended Michelle's life, left a different, but lasting mark on Andy. Michelle's parents both died before that DNA test exonerated him. They likely went to their graves believing Andy was their daughter's killer.
Janelle Stonebraker: I feel really bad about that.
John Stonebraker: Andy was a victim himself because … many many fingers were pointing at Andy.
Larison moved on -- classmates, friends, family -- searching for a match with that male DNA.
Jamie Yuccas: So, you do a hundred people. What comes back?
Det. Doug Larison: Everybody's eliminated. No matches.
It had been 10 frustrating years for Detective Doug Larison.
Det. Doug Larison: I was kind of burned out. And so, I went to my supervisors and said, "I think you need to get somebody to replace me on this case." … And that's when Matt came in.
Matt Denlinger, Harvey's son, that second generation -- searching for Michelle's killer. In 2015 he took over as lead detective.
Facts hadn't changed. But DNA technology had once again advanced further, offering tantalizing possibilities.
Det. Matt Denlinger: We've got this DNA profile. How can we get more information from it? Can we find out eye color, hair color, race?
Denlinger reached across the country, to Virginia's Parabon NanoLabs.
Det. Matt Denlinger: And they said, "Yeah we know what you're trying to do. And guess what? We can make a picture of a potential suspect from that DNA sample."
Jamie Yuccas: Did you think that could be possible?
Det. Matt Denlinger: No, no. I had no good concept that that was possible. It sounded a bit sci-fi. … But I was ready to try. We had to do something.
The portrait was striking. Parabon called the technique "Snapshot." It put a face on a phantom.
Det. Matt Denlinger: What we learned from that is our suspect was probably a white male, blonde hair, blue eyes. And so, we had a press conference.
Investigators had narrowed down the suspect's genetics, but they did not know his age, or have a clue as to how he wore his hair. So different sketches were created, each with a different look.
A town hungry for justice, searched its memory for a match.
Jamie Yuccas: You get a lot of tip calls?
Det. Matt Denlinger: We got hundreds.
Jamie Yuccas: Any of them pan out?
Det. Matt Denlinger: It's every blonde haired, blue-eyed guy that ever walked the face of the earth and stepped foot in Iowa.
Jamie Yuccas: Are you just confused?
Det. Matt Denlinger: I was really confused. … And I did not know where to go next.
The answer came from an infamous, but totally unrelated case: California's so-called "Golden State Killer." Joseph DeAngelo was arrested in 2018, charged with a decades-long spree of serial murder and rape.
Det. Matt Denlinger: That was big news. That was big, national news then … I read the article and it talked about genetic genealogy.
Jamie Yuccas: And you went "bingo."
Det. Matt Denlinger: I went "bingo." Yep.
Genetic genealogy -- the charting of DNA, from one family member to another – a DNA family tree. Parabon was ready to test that same DNA one more time.
Det. Matt Denlinger: They said … we'll use the sample you already gave us for the Snapshot images. I said, "let's do it."
Parabon searched a public national database, called GEDmatch, of people who submitted their own DNA voluntarily to trace their own personal family trees.
Det. Matt Denlinger: And in July 2018, we got a report back from them. They said, "Good news. We found a relative of your killer."
Det. Matt Denlinger: Brandy Jennings is our gal in Vancouver, Washington.
Jamie Yuccas: She's the second cousin once removed.
Det. Matt Denlinger: Exactly.
Brandy Jennings, an office manager and single mom, was a distant relative to the male whose DNA was found on Michelle's bloody dress and car.
Jamie Yuccas: So, you start with her.
Det. Matt Denlinger: You start with her.
Denlinger spent months building Brandy's family tree all the way back to her great-great-grandparents.
Det. Matt Denlinger: We used genealogical records, birth records, gravestone records, anything we could find on the internet, anything we could find to fill in a bunch of these unknowns.
As more blood relatives of Brandy Jennings provided their DNA, a genetic puzzle filled in. And the detective reached out to Parabon once again.
Det. Matt Denlinger: And they recalibrated things and said, listen we think your best odds are these three brothers who live in Iowa.
Three brothers. All from Iowa. All likely sharing some DNA with the blood found in Michelle Martinko's car. A 38-year trail was heading straight back home.
Det. Matt Denlinger: Twenty minutes away. I was pretty excited about this one.
By October 2018, Detective Matt Denlinger's painstaking ancestry searches had narrowed the suspects down to three brothers in Iowa and all of them were still alive.
Det. Matt Denlinger: We immediately started doing research on these three brothers. They were Donald Burns, Kenneth Burns and … Jerry Burns
Denlinger and his team set up a plan. They would collect DNA samples from the brothers to see if any were a match, and they would do it without them knowing.
Jamie Yuccas: You think one of them is a suspect, you can't tell any of the three.
Det. Matt Denlinger: Not only can I not tell any of the three, but I was careful who I told in general. … Iowa is not the biggest state in the union. And you never know who knows who.
They followed one brother to lunch and grabbed his straw; for the second, a toothbrush was collected from his garbage. And then the third brother, Jerry …
Det. Matt Denlinger: We drove up to Manchester. And we had already established kind of a pattern or some locations to try to find him.
After a couple of hours, he spotted Jerry Burns at a pizza restaurant.
Det. Matt Denlinger: He drank at least two sodas out of a glass with a straw.
All three brothers' samples were sent to the lab. Don and Kenneth were not a match, but the results showed Jerry Burns was an exact match. For Denlinger the message was clear.
Det. Matt Denlinger: I was definitely speechless. I'm almost speechless today thinking about it.
It turns out that Parabon sketch of the suspect was very similar to a young Jerry Burns. But Burns wasn't an obvious suspect.
Det. Matt Denlinger: We are not finding any ... connection to Michelle. No connection to that car.
Even more baffling, Jerry Burns' resume was the opposite of a cold-blooded killer. He had no criminal record and was even a respected businessman with a wife and three kids. Denlinger picked a particular day to interview Burns at his business: December 19, 2018 -- exactly 39 years to the day after Michelle was murdered.
Det. Matt Denlinger: I wanted to rattle him. I wanted to bring that up during the interview and see if that would do anything to him.
DET. MATT DENLINGER: Hey, how are you today? Jerry, my name's Matt with the Cedar Rapids Police Department.
Using a hidden camera inside a coffee mug, Denlinger tried to get a confession.
DET. MATT DENLINGER: The reality is 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?
JERRY BURNS: I don't know.
But Jerry acknowledged he had been to the mall with his family in the past.
DET. MATT DENLINGER: Did you go to Westdale Mall?
JERRY BURNS: Oh yeah. We've gone to Westdale Mall, sure.
Although Jerry couldn't remember when he was at the mall, Denlinger continued to press him.
DET. MATT DENLINGER: Jerry, what happened that night?
JERRY BURNS: I don't know.
Despite Burns' denials, the DNA was enough to arrest him for the murder of Michelle Martinko.
On the ride back to Cedar Rapids, a camera was rolling again -- this time in the police car, and Denlinger believes Jerry offered something revealing.
Det. Matt Denlinger: Well, he said a few things … about blocking stuff out -- traumatic events.
DET. MATT DENLINGER [in back of police car]: Do you think it's possible this happened and you don't remember any of it?
JERRY BURNS [in back of police car]: I'm sure something like that would be … Be possible to block out … you block things out of your memories.
Jamie Yuccas: You're a homicide detective. Your gut tells you something. What does your gut say?
Det. Matt Denlinger: My gut told me the second he refused to deny it or give me a plausible explanation that we had the right guy.
For Michelle's sister Janelle, news of the DNA match and the arrest signaled hope and a day she and her husband John thought would never come.
Janelle Stonebraker: We were just whooping and hollering, and we were just talking and talking. We were just so excited.
But for the Burns family it all came as a complete shock. Jerry's daughter Jennifer and his brother Don couldn't believe the man they know and love could ever be capable of such a gruesome act.
Jennifer Burns: We did not believe it. This cannot be our dad.
Donald Burns: He couldn't have done it. There was just no way. He was always there for his family.
Leon Spies: Circumstances just made it highly improbable from our perspective. First of all, there was no connection between Jerry and Michelle Martinko. None.
Leon Spies is Jerry Burns' attorney. He believes his client's demeanor during the police interview wasn't out of the ordinary.
Leon Spies: I challenge anybody to predict how any person is going to react, let alone react to being caught out of the blue with an investigator trying to attribute them to a horrible, horrible crime. … he did not commit this murder.
In February of 2020, Michelle Martinko's accused killer went on trial more than four decades after her murder. Due to the buzz surrounding the case in Cedar Rapids, the judge granted a venue change to Davenport, Iowa, an hour away.
NICK MAYBANKS [in court]: The evidence will show that Michelle Martinko was murdered that night by the defendant, Jerry Burns.
Prosecutor Nick Maybanks felt the weight of his hometown on his shoulders.
Nick Maybanks: There's a lot of eyes on this case. … There are generations that grew up with this story.
And the generation who lived through the horror and suspicion. Several of Michelle's friends were called to testify, including Michelle's ex-boyfriend and once prime suspect Andy Seidel, who says he and Michelle were on good terms the last time they saw each other.
ANDY SEIDEL [in court]: There was no reason for us to part ways in a bad way … We just kind of grew apart as we evolved growing into adulthood.
Mike Wyrick was also called and had to relive Michelle's murder all over again.
Mike Wyrick: This trial was hard on me. … for a lot of us brought it all back into focus in a way that it hadn't been in focus since those early, early days.
From the start, the prosecution faced a number of hurdles. The case and the evidence were decades old.
Nick Maybanks: Try to take 40 years of investigation and condense it into a story.
And a lot of things about this suspect didn't make sense.
Jamie Yuccas: What's that like for you? You have a suspect who has no criminal background that we're aware of, and this heinous crime that looks extremely personal. You have no story.
Nick Maybanks: I don't. Yeah. And after he was interviewed, we didn't have much of a story, either.
A story the Burns family believes was problematic from the start.
Jennifer Burns: They wanted an explanation of how his DNA got there. Well, how is he supposed to know from 40 years ago? You know, I can't remember what I did last week every day.
Jamie Yuccas: So, would you say it's impossible that Jerry murdered Michelle?
Don Burns: I'd say it is. There's absolutely no way it could have happened.
Jennifer Burns: I don't think there's any way that my dad could have done this.
The prosecution's case hinged on that one critical piece of evidence: Jerry Burns' DNA.
Nick Maybanks: We've got the science; we got the guy. … There's a one in 100 billion chance that it could be somebody else's. There's only 8 billion people or so in the world.
But Leon Spies argues the DNA evidence isn't foolproof.
Leon Spies: There's lots of misconceptions about DNA … It's not the silver bullet that law enforcement often portrays it to be.
As the state's case wound down, Prosecutor Nick Maybanks had one last card to play. He called a new witness, Michael Allison, a drug offender who had become friendly with Jerry Burns in jail.
MICHAEL ALLISON: I asked him directly –I asked him, "Jerry did you do the crime" and he said, "I can't talk about this."
But Burns did say something curious.
MICHAEL ALLISON: He feels like no matter what happens in his case that he wins, because he had the opportunity to be out there with his family all these years.
Allison said Jerry later made another comment while they were playing cards that disturbed him so much, he volunteered to testify.
MICHAEL ALLISON: He told me if I keep beating him at pinochle, "he was going to have to take me to the mall." … It disgusted me.
In his defense case, Leon Spies calls only one witness-- Dr. Michael Spence, a molecular biologist. He says while there is no doubt the DNA in Michelle's car belonged to Jerry Burns, how it got there was another matter.
LEON SPIES: Is it Dr. Spence, a plausible explanation, that the DNA of Jerry could have come about by a transfer?
DR. MICHAEL SPENCE: Yes, that's a distinct possibility.
Leon Spies: Every time you come into contact with something, you're shedding DNA, you're leaving a biological trail of yourself.
Leon Spies: She was in a shopping mall before she was killed, a shopping mall that the Burns family had used … she sat down with a friend at a food court -- a food court that Jerry Burns and his family may have sat at.
But how did Jerry's DNA end up on the Buick's gear shift? Jerry's brother Don Burns believes there could be an innocent explanation.
Don Burns: He worked in the dealership that sold Buick cars. … so there is a possibility that if records show that that car went through that dealership, his DNA could be in that car.
But Det. Matt Denlinger isn't buying it.
Det. Matt Denlinger: My question for them would be, did the dress go to the dealership too? … This is fantasy world ... common sense says that's not the case.
Jamie Yuccas: Impossible.
Det. Matt Denlinger: Impossible.
In his final arguments, Prosecutor Maybanks tells the jury there was only one way Jerry Burns' DNA got into that car.
NICK MAYBANKS: There was no chance of outside contamination on this dress. We know how it happened and we know who did it.
In his closing argument, Spies attacks the integrity of the investigation.
LEON SPIES: You can consider not only the evidence but also the lack or failure of evidence produced by the prosecution.
And he tells jurors to consider how unlikely it is that a man like Jerry could commit a crime like this.
LEON SPIES: The state's scenario here is that Jerry Burns, a married man with two young children at home, leaves, drives to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the night, leaving his wife and children behind, armed with a knife, armed with rubber gloves, goes to Westdale Mall on the chance that he's gonna encounter Michelle Martinko, decides to kill her … and then leaves and drives back home ... Splattered with blood … presumably with a knife wound in his hand … that's the scenario the government wants you to believe.
The jury begins deliberations on a Monday afternoon. Nerves are on edge.
Janelle Stonebraker: I was not thinking slam dunk … all it takes is one juror to have a hung jury.
But just three hours later …
John Stonebraker: I said – "we have a verdict!" We rush into the courthouse, sit down [simulates breathing hard], and then we wait.
JUDGE [reading verdict]: We the jury find the defendant Jerry Lynn Burns guilty of the charge of murder in the first degree.
Guilty. The courtroom was silent.
Janelle Stonebraker: We almost couldn't breathe … it was just amazing, it was fabulous.
Janelle Stonebraker: We were aware of how quiet it was on Jerry's side and that there was no reaction.
Jennifer Burns: Unfair.
Don Burns: I'd say I was stunned. The verdict came back so fast. I don't know if the jury took time to look at the facts.
Jamie Yuccas: What do you feel in that moment?
Det. Matt Denlinger: Extreme relief … the weight of the world was off my shoulders now.
Harvey Denlinger, the investigator who was there at the beginning of the case 40 years earlier, saw his son help end it.
Harvey Denlinger: I'm proud as heck of him.
Det. Matt Denlinger: I really am proud to get an answer while he can still appreciate it.
Jamie Yuccas: He said today how proud he is of you.
Det. Matt Denlinger: Yeah, alright – [tears up] -- we're gonna take a break.
Finally, there was an answer to the question that had haunted Cedar Rapids for so long. But there is a lingering question: was Michelle Martinko Jerry's only victim?
JERRY BURNS: I just seen something about Jodi Huisentruit recently …
In his interview with Denlinger, Burns randomly mentioned the name of Jodi Huisentruit. She was a blonde anchor kidnapped near her car in a parking lot in 1995 and never found. She worked in Mason City, Iowa, two hours from where burns lived —though there is no evidence he knew her.
Jamie Yuccas: Do you suspect that Jerry Burns was involved in other crimes?
Det. Matt Denlinger: I don't know the answer to that … my gut tells me there's probably something else out there.
Mason City Police will not disclose whether they are investigating Burns in the Huisentruit disappearance and his DNA is not connected to any other cases. But in Michelle Martinko's case, she played a unique role in revealing her killer.
Janelle Stonebraker: She fought so hard that she caused the murderer to cut himself, he left his DNA … and so Michelle helped solve her own murder.
Four decades after Michelle's death, her friends, family and generations of investigators gather to celebrate her memory.
Nick Maybanks [at the gathering]: This case isn't just about her death it's about her life.
Gail Dawson: Nick Maybanks worded it best, I mean he said, "it's not about how she died, it's about how she lived."
Tracy Price: You can't help but wonder, where would life have led her?
Her name will be forever etched in local history, as part of Cedar Rapids' most haunting crime.
Jamie Yuccas: you've been a prosecutor for 20 years is this the biggest case you've ever had?
Nick Maybanks: Yeah … every case you want justice … but a case like this touched so many people over so many years there will never be another one like it.
Jerry Burns was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
He insists he did not murder Michelle Martinko.
Produced by Alec Sirken, Jamie Stolz and Matthew Goldfarb. Lincoln Farr is the development producer. Ken Blum, Doreen Schechter and Michelle Harris are the editors. Lourdes Aguiar is the senior producer. Nancy Kramer is the executive story editor. Judy Tygard is the executive producer.
Jamie Yuccas is a CBS News correspondent based in Los Angeles.
‘Don’t think you’ve gotten away’ – Raleigh detective who helped solve 40-year-old cold case delivers warning
RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – More than 40 years later, Raleigh police solved the rape and murder of a 77-year-old woman.
The last time the Jones family stood on Sawyer Road was Christmas Eve 1977. They embraced as they learned their loved one, Alma Jone,s was raped and killed in her home there.
“I was about 20 years old. It was rough. It’s a vision that sticks with you when you walk in the door and see your grandmother stretched out and unclothed,” said the victim’s grandson Kenneth Evans.
On Thursday, the family embraced for a different reason as they now know the person responsible for their pain.
Jones’ case initially went cold in the 70s until 2011 when Detective Jerry Faulk stumbled across the case file, teaming up with Othram DNA Lab based in Texas. Crime scene evidence and a saliva swab from the suspect’s family member helped identify the killer.
“We work with DNA evidence from these crime scenes that are very old that have very challenging DNA, so this would be DNA evidence that would probably not even be accepted at other labs. This is an amazingly powerful technique and when you’ve exhausted all other opportunities and leads this is what you need to do,” said Othram CEO David Mittelman.
Jones’ killer was identified Thursday as Paul Crowder. He died in 2015 following a prison stint for unrelated crimes. Crowder was the grandson of Jones’ neighbor at the time and known around the neighborhood.
Faulk said it was never a question of if he was going to solve the case, but when. He now has a warning for suspects in other cold cases.
“For the suspect who has committed a crime many years ago, don’t think you’ve gotten away with it because you haven’t,” Faulk said.
Jones family said Alma was a baker and churchgoer who wouldn’t hurt anyone. As her case closes, the family said it’s fitting that a church now sits in place of Alma’s old home where she took her final breaths, so she can now rest in peace.
“We know our faith and we just believe she has fulfilled her time here on earth. And that helps us move forward,” said Jacqueline Evans Watson, Alma’s great-granddaughter.
Everyone involved is hopeful the new and constantly improving DNA technology will help solve even more cases in the future.
Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.Sours: https://www.cbs17.com/news/local-news/wake-county-news/dont-think-youve-gotten-away-raleigh-detective-who-helped-solve-40-year-old-cold-case-delivers-warning/
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40-Year-Old Cold Case Killing of Aspiring Journalist Helene Pruszynski Is Solved Thanks to New Technology
The 40-year-old cold case killing of a 21-year old aspiring journalist who had been kidnapped, raped and stabbed to death was solved this year thanks to a technology that has become increasingly crucial in closing cases that have otherwise gone unsolved for decades.
Helene Pruszynski was a student attending Wheaton College in Massachusetts. She had moved to Colorado to work as an intern at a Denver radio station. On Jan. 16, 1980, as she walked off the bus and headed to her relative's home after work, she was kidnapped. Her body was found in a field the next day. She had been raped and stabbed multiple times in the back, according to the Denver Post.
Although evidence had been collected at the crime scene, detectives were unable to find her killer and the case went cold.
In 2017, Douglas County investigators uploaded DNA evidence into a genealogy database, including GEDmatch.com, and identified some distant relatives of the alleged killer, People reported.
After a two-year investigation, James Curtis Clanton, 63, was identified as the person who killed Pruszynski. At the time of the murder, Clanton had been living in Colorado and had gone under the alias, Curtis White, according to People.
In July, Clanton was arrested and pleaded guilty to Pruszynski’s rape and murder. He was sentenced to life in prison, the Post reported.
Shannon Jensen, a cold-case detective with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, told People that genetic genealogy and DNA were not available at the time of Pruszynski's murder and instead traditional techniques were used. Today, thanks to DNA advancements, it's possible to bring justice and closure to cases like that of Pruszynski's, she said.
"This new tool gave us the opportunity to reopen the case and identify a suspect,” Jensen said. “It's been a remarkable tool for detectives to utilize.”
Pruszynski’s killing is featured in "People Magazine Investigates: Blood Ties," airing Monday at 10 p.m. ET on Investigation Discovery and on discovery+.
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