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New technology at work in 37-year-old unsolved murder

By Xander Riley
On May 18, 2017

Thanks to a new piece of technology, a 37-year-old unsolved murder may now be significantly closer to resolution, according to the Cedar Rapids Police Department.

Michelle Martinko, then a senior at Kennedy High School, was murdered on the night of Dec. 19, 1979, in the parking lot of Westdale Mall. Her murderer has not yet been found.

In a press conference held by the CRPD on May 16, Investigator Matt Denlinger unveiled three portraits. These images were created using a process known as DNA phenotyping, in which a computer reads the gene sequence from a person’s DNA and uses it to construct an approximation of the person’s physical appearance. The CRPD recently submitted the DNA of Martinko’s murderer, recovered from her car in 2006, to this process.

Dr. Ellen Greytak works for Parabon NanoLabs, the company that produced the DNA Snapshot. She joined the press conference via Skype to discuss the process of DNA phenotyping.

“The traditional forensic analysis is great for matching [DNA] with samples that you’ve already got,” Greytak said, “[but] even if you don’t get a hit, the DNA has a lot more information in it that you can learn. We can predict a person’s eye color, their hair color, their ancestry, just from that DNA.”

The primary application of this technology to a criminal investigation, Greytak explained, is exclusion. By knowing key features about a person, e.g. blue eyes or brown hair, a person who does not share those traits can essentially be ruled out as a suspect.

DNA phenotyping is not an exact science, however. The representation produced is not a perfect likeness. For one thing, DNA doesn’t tell how old a person is, how much they weigh, whether they have tattoos, scars, or other markings, what hairstyle they wear, etc. Additionally, the features predicted by the process are not correct 100% of the time. Beneath each feature described in the snapshot is a statement of confidence in the form of a percentage, e.g. 91.8% that the individual had blue eyes.

“The composite there is intended to be a likeness of a person, not a photograph,” Greytak said.

Captain Brent Long, the man in charge of the investigative division of the CRPD, spoke to the continued effort being put in by several members of the department to solve the case.

“It is a very proud thing that you have people who are as dedicated and as talented as we have here that are taking the time to look into this,” Long said. “We title these cold cases but working with these gentlemen and the investigators I don’t think anybody would say that we really consider any case cold.”

Janelle Stonebraker, Martinko’s sister, attended the press conference along with her husband. She commented briefly on a few of the reasons why she believes there is still such interest in this case after so many years.

“I think part of it was that it was a young person with no motive,” Stonebraker said. “It could’ve been any girl. Also I think the police were really dedicated just to solve it, they didn’t want it to go unsolved.”

Stonebraker also mentioned the interest of the community as a contributing factor to this case maintaining a high profile.

“The more recent Facebook involvement I think has gone a huge way into bringing the interest back,” Stonebraker said.

“Cedar Rapids is a special place,” Stonebraker’s husband, John, added. “There are big city characteristics to it and small town characteristics to it. And everybody seems to care about each other in Cedar Rapids.”

The Facebook involvement to which Stonebraker referred was a site started in November of 2013 by Robert Riley, who has been working with the investigators of the Martinko case to generate leads through social media.

“I was talking to Detective Larison at the Cedar Rapids Police Department one day,” Riley said. “He said that they had done nothing with social networking and I’d been reading a book about how social networking had helped solve cold cases around the country.”

Following that conversation, Riley offered to start a Facebook site to see if anything would come of it. As it turned out, many things did indeed come of it.

“We’ve found a phenomenon, that people do want to talk, they still want to talk about the case,” Riley said. “Especially those that have some helpful bits of information or things that may help solve the case, they’re intimidated to talk to police in many instances and find it easier to talk with a middleman like myself.”

Since it’s been active, the Facebook site has generated many leads for the investigation, and it currently has over 700 active members.

“The police and the detectives have all said that they appreciate the site and that it’s been keeping the case alive and that it’s a source of many leads for them,” Riley said.

Investigators on the case remain very optimistic about the likelihood of solving this case, due largely to the presence of DNA evidence.

“If we can compare the DNA to a known suspect and they match, that person is going to have a lot of explaining to do,” Denlinger said.

Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman ended the press conference with an appeal to the media to continue putting information about the case out so that members of the community can help the investigation by providing any additional information they may have. Anyone with information is urged to contact Investigator Denlinger at 319-286-5442.

“We owe it to the Martinko family and we owe it to Michelle that we find who was responsible for her murder,” Jerman said.

Michelle Martinko in October of 1979, roughly two months before she was killed. Photo courtesy of Janelle Stonebraker.

Investigator Matt Denlinger unveils the three portraits produced by Snapshot. Photo by Xander Riley.

 

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