A Vancouver woman unknowingly provided critical DNA information that led police to arrest a distant relative in a 39-year-old homicide case in Iowa.
Brandy Jennings said her parents divorced when she was young, and she barely knew her father. Years after his death in 2009, she decided to try to find out more about his side of the family.
Jennings’ mother purchased a DNA kit for her through Ancestry.com. She spit into the collection tube and mailed her saliva sample in May 2018. Once she received her results, she uploaded them to a public database, GEDmatch.com, and promptly forgot about it — until last week.
That’s when she started getting notifications through Facebook asking if she were related to a Manchester, Iowa, man police arrested in December on suspicion of first-degree murder.
“I’m like, ‘No, not that I know of,’ ” Jennings said.
Police arrested 65-year-old Jerry Lynn Burns after a DNA sample connected him to the December 1979 killing of Michelle Martinko outside a J.C. Penney’s store in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Martinko, an 18-year-old high school student, suffered 21 stab wounds, as well as defensive wounds to her hands consistent with a struggle inside her family’s car outside the store.
Police worked with Parabon NanoLabs of Reston, Va., to connect a DNA profile from blood the killer presumably left on Martinko’s dress and inside her vehicle to people who have uploaded DNA information to the GEDmatch database. Police gradually created a family tree of the potential killer and eventually obtained a sample of Burns’ DNA after retrieving a straw he used to drink soda.
The case is similar to the April 2018 arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, the California man charged with being the Golden State Killer. Jennings said her brother, who lives in California, even brought up DeAngelo’s case and said he’s not sure he would want to be responsible for a family member being arrested and charged.
“I would feel the same way if it had been my brother or my sister,” Jennings said. “Thank God it’s a family member I have never met.”
Jennings, a home caregiver, said she uploaded her DNA information to GEDmatch in June after talking with one of her clients. She has no regrets about the decision, which led to the arrest of a distant cousin on her mother’s side of the family.
“I’m actually really glad that I did,” she said. “I felt I brought closure to a family that had gone without closure for 39 years.”
Both of Martinko’s parents died without seeing an arrest made in their daughter’s killing. Her only surviving immediate family member is a sister, Jennings said, adding that she received the sister’s phone number Monday but isn’t sure if she will reach out to her.
Although Burns was arrested three months ago, it wasn’t until The Gazette newspaper in Cedar Rapids obtained a search warrant from court records this month that Jennings’ name became public.
“I love reading true crime mysteries, like (those by) Ann Rule,” Jennings said. “So I am kind of involved in one.”
So far, the attention of being connected to a notorious case, at least in Iowa, has not been bad, Jennings said.
“My friend on Facebook said, ‘Wow, you have killer genes,’ ” she said.