A Manchester man convicted of first-degree murder has announced he has hired a new attorney who will seek to exonerate him of the crime, a private investigator has told the Manchester Press.
According to Iowa Licensed Private Investigator Steve Ridge, Burns told him during a phone call Christmas Eve that attorney Kathleen Zellner will be Burns’ attorney of record and will request a new trial based on newly surfaced evidence. Zellner has been featured on the Netflix series “Making a Murderer” and is credited with overturning nearly 20 murder convictions.
In February 2020, Burns was found guilty of the 1979 killing of 18-year-old Michelle Martinko. The high school senior’s body was found in her parents’ car in the Westdale Mall parking lot, and through DNA evidence, Burns was charged 39 years later on the anniversary of Martinko’s death.
Over the course of two weeks of in-court testimony, prosecutors used DNA found at the scene as well as several expert DNA witnesses to build the case that Burns was responsible for Martinko’s death. Burns was sentenced in Aug. 2020 to life in prison.
During the trial, Burns was represented by defense attorney Leon Spies. Court records filed in Linn County in November 2020 show that Spies withdrew as counsel of record for Burns.
Ridge said he has spoken to members of Burns’ family and they have confirmed that Zellner has a team of high-powered specialists in DNA analysis, crime scene recreation and jury analysis ready to present new information at trial.
Ridge said the Christmas Eve call from Burns came after Ridge had sent Burns a letter regarding the disappearance of Jody Huisentruit in 1995. A television anchor in Mason City at the time of her disappearance, Huisentruit has never been found.
Ridge has investigated the Huisentruit disappearance extensively.
“I wrote to him wanting to get further detail mostly as it relates to the Jody Huisentruit case,” Ridge explained. “I said to him whether he was aware of it, but that the CBS show “48 Hours” on their story about the Michelle Martinko murder had also wondered if he could have been responsible for the Jody Huisentruit disappearance. They just left that hanging at the end of the piece. He was unaware of that. I also said I didn’t feel that should hang over him or hang over his family and felt it ought to be cleared up. I guess whatever I wrote motivated him enough that he decided to call me.”
Ridge said Burns told him he couldn’t talk about the Martinko case but that, “there was going to be an appeal and that the family had hired the very best.”
Ridge said Burns denied having anything to do with the Huisentruit disappearance and that he hadn’t been through the Mason City area until 2001, six years after Huisentruit’s disappearance.
“I was able to confirm that with Burn’s employer at the time,” Ridge said. “At the time of that disappearance, his only sales territory was the immediate Manchester area.”
Ridge said while he still can’t totally clear Burns 100% yet as a suspect in the Huisentruit disappearance, he anticipates continued investigation work will clear him of any involvement. “It takes a little time to get all the details narrowed down, but given as much as I know about the case, I have definite multiple suspects in mind that I would put as much more likely persons of interest or suspects than Jerry. I just don’t see Burns fitting in that situation,” Ridge said.
Ridge is also investigating the disappearance of Burn’s cousin, Brian Burns, who disappeared from the Manchester area Dec. 19, 2013, the same anniversary of Michelle Martinko’s murder. He said he and Jerry Burns didn’t discuss the disappearance of the cousin during their phone conversation.
“I am definitely separately pursuing his cousin’s disappearance pretty aggressively,” Ridge said. “That’s where I am gaining some really interesting insights. But I am not far enough down that road yet to really be more definitive about what might have happened.”
Ridge said he expects to speak with Jerry Burns again. “We actually agreed we were going to talk again after Christmas. I have not heard back, but I anticipate having another chance to speak with him at some point.”
Members of Michelle Martinko’s family declined to comment for this story.