This December marks the 38th year since the murder of Michelle Martinko. With each passing year comes the same story: the Kennedy High School senior who twirled batons was murdered at Westdale Mall following a choir banquet on December 19th, 1979. That sentence right there is pretty much all we know about Michelle — she was a senior at Kennedy, loved choir, was on the baton squad, and was murdered at Westdale. Even after 38 years, this is all we know.
This wasn’t enough for local Cedar Rapids man, Robert Riley. After being inspired by his sons’ article about the Martinko murder, Riley set out to find justice for Michelle and to find out who she was. This is how the Facebook page “Michelle Martinko Cold Case 1979” started.
“My goal early on was to find out who Michelle really was,” Riley said. “All there really was to the Martinko story was the grainy black and white picture, high school senior, died at Westdale Mall, was in choir, and twirled a baton. That’s it.”
Since November of 2013, when the Facebook page was created, Riley has gotten over 100 leads. “Many times leads will be names,” he commented. “People will say ‘Hey, have you looked into this person?’. That’s about 90% of the leads — specific people, specific situations.” Riley gathers names and follows up on situations that people have messaged him about. Every lead gets forwarded to the CRPD.
The Facebook page has grown exponentially since the start, especially after May of 2017 when the CRPD released images of what the suspect could look like, based on the DNA from the blood sample collected. There are currently over 1,200 members in the group.
But just because we’re coming on our 38th year without answers, doesn’t mean that people aren’t still searching for answers. The photos below show what the suspected killer looks like based on DNA found at the crime scene. Since this was released in May 2017, hundreds of new leads have been reported to Officer Denlinger. Riley is searching, via the Facebook page, for names of people who knew Michelle, who worked at Westdale Mall the night of the murder, people that Michelle dated, etc.
It’s the people who still care that motivates Riley to keep this page running. “The police are still very invested,” Riley said. “They stay excited, which keeps me excited.” Officer Denlinger has taken over the case, and retired state criminal investigator J.D. Smith works on cold cases with Denlinger one day a week, according to Riley. Michelle’s case, more often than not, is one that they work on.
So why do people still care about this case? Her parents are long gone, and the murder happened almost 40 years ago. Why do people care, after all these years?
“I think it’s because Cedar Rapids is a close-knit community,” Riley pondered. “It’s the girl next door, that could be your sister, that could be your friend. It was a personal thing, and it changed the way people lived.”
“If this gets solved, it will be a personal victory for the people of Cedar Rapids.”