COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — Iowa cold case detectives have cracked a 40-year-old murder case using DNA and genetic genealogy, but one question remains: Who killed Lee Rotatori’s alleged killer?
In the summer of 1982, Rotatori, 32, was new to Council Bluffs. The Michigan native had arrived days earlier to start a new job as food services director of Jennie Edmundson Hospital.
She was found slain in her hotel room the morning of June 25, 1982. According to Council Bluffs police officials, she had been stabbed once in the heart.
The case went cold until February 2021, when cold case detectives using genetic genealogy tied Thomas O. Freeman to DNA left on Rotatori’s body.
Freeman, of West Frankfort, Illinois, could not be arrested, however. Freeman, 35, had been found buried in a shallow grave near Cobden, Illinois, in October 1982, just four months after authorities allege he killed Rotatori.
His fatal shooting remains unsolved.
“We know who killed Lee,” Council Bluffs police Capt. Todd Weddum told the Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil. “Now we’re working to figure out if Freeman’s death is somehow connected with him murdering Lee.”
Lee Gunsalus Rotatori, who was the oldest of four children, is described by her surviving family as an outgoing, artistic woman who loved horses and had a lot of friends. Detectives learned that about her early in the murder investigation.
“I haven’t talked to anyone who didn’t like her,” Michigan State Police Det. Richard Griffin told the Omaha World-Herald in 1982.
When Rotatori, who had a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin, arrived in Council Bluffs for her new job, she left behind her husband, Gerald “Jerry” Nemke, and her 11-year-old son from her first marriage. The Daily Nonpareil reported that both were going to join Rotatori soon with their mobile home.
In the meantime, Rotatori was attending job orientation during the day and spending her nights in a room at the Best Western Frontier Motor Lodge, now known as the Best Western Crossroads of the Bluffs.
Rotatori spent the final afternoon of her life boating on Lake Manawa with some of her new colleagues and their families, according to the World-Herald. They parted ways at dusk, and Rotatori stopped to pick up dinner at a McDonald’s before returning to Room 106 of the Best Western.
The following morning, Rotatori failed to show up for her first post-orientation day of work. When her boss asked the hotel staff to check on her, they found a gruesome scene.
The World-Herald reported that Rotatori was found lying faceup on the bed in blood-soaked pajamas.
“Rotatori died from a single stab wound, and there was evidence of a sexual assault,” Council Bluffs police officials said Friday in a news release. “No suspects were identified during the initial investigation.”
News reports at the time indicated there was no sign of forced entry, but that the amount of food Rotatori had bought at McDonald’s was enough for just one person. It was unclear if robbery was a motive, but authorities said the nutritionist’s wallet, watch and ring were missing.
As they do in all murder investigations, detectives first looked at Rotatori’s husband. They might have looked at Jerry Nemke a little harder than most spouses due to his own troubled background.
In 1960, when he was 17 years old, Nemke was accused of brutally bludgeoning Marilyn Duncan, a 16-year-old waitress, before leaving her bleeding and unconscious behind a factory in Chicago. Duncan died two days later, on May 1, 1960.
Nemke was a fugitive from a youth camp at the time he reportedly met Duncan, with whom he went on a date the night she was assaulted.
The teen was ultimately tried, convicted and sentenced to death in Duncan’s murder. The Illinois Supreme Court overturned the conviction less than two years later, however, because the preliminary hearing in the case wasn’t conducted properly.
Court records indicate Nemke was again found guilty at a second trial and sentenced to 75 years in prison. It was not immediately clear Monday how many years he spent behind bars before being released.
Read more about Nemke’s case here and here.
Nemke and Rotatori were first married in 1978. They divorced the following year but remarried in December 1981, less than a year before her death.
By 1982, Nemke’s days on death row were long behind him. Detectives investigating his wife’s murder determined he had a solid alibi and moved on, the Daily Nonpareil reported.
One thing that hampered the probe was the hotel’s location. Just off of the Interstate 29 and Interstate 80 interchange, the hotel’s proximity to the interstate meant the killer could have been long gone by the time Rotatori’s body was discovered.
Despite a thorough investigation and rewards offered by the hospital and other local businesses, the case went cold.
‘Mad genius of genealogy’
Police officials said that physical evidence from the scene was sent in 2001 to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation’s crime lab, where technicians were able to find a male DNA profile. When the data was entered into state and federal DNA databases, they found no match.
In 2019, Council Bluffs detectives turned to Parabon Nanolabs. The Virginia-based business has worked steadily since 2018 to help law enforcement agencies nab criminals through the process of genetic genealogy.
Parabon used its Snapshot DNA phenotyping to determine that Rotatori’s killer was a white man of northern European heritage.
“So we’re looking at a pretty big pool,” lead Det. Steve Andrews told the Daily Nonpareil.
Parabon then entered the killer’s genetic profile into genealogy websites like 23andMe, where they were able to match the unknown man to relatives in the range of sixth to eighth cousin, the newspaper reported.
“They said with that, the probability of finding your person is slim to none,” Andrews said.
Andrews said detectives began a waiting game as they hoped additional DNA kits added to the genealogy databases might someday produce a killer.
Enter Eric Schubert, Pennsylvania college student and proprietor of ES Genealogy.
Schubert, 20, made national headlines earlier this month when he helped authorities solve the 57-year-old rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl. Marise Ann Chiverella was slain in March 1964 as she walked to church before school.
>> Related story: College genealogist, DNA help solve 57-year-old rape, murder of 9-year-old Pennsylvania girl
With his help, authorities identified James Paul Forte as the girl’s killer. Forte, 39, died in May 1980.
In March 2020, Schubert had contacted Council Bluffs police officials and asked if they had any cold cases they needed help with. By that point, the young genealogy expert had already assisted in other cases.
Cold case detectives agreed to work with him — and quickly saw results.
“He was very rapidly able to get to the great-grandparent of our subject,” Andrews told the Daily Nonpareil. “From that, the family tree branched in a multitude of branches, hundreds of names of people. I’d locate those people, reach out to family members, request their assistance on the case.”
More often than not, the family members were happy to help, the detective said.
“They’d submit a kit, then Eric would go to work,” Andrews said. “The kid is just the mad genius of genealogy.”
Thanks for the call today @GovMurphy! What an awesome surprise. I’m honored that you took an interest into my genealogy work across NJ! pic.twitter.com/LGxkTVuzZI— Eric Schubert (@ESGenealogy) July 18, 2018
As Schubert helped detectives whittle the suspect list down, he determined that the killer had not been raised by his biological father, the newspaper reported. The genealogy indicated what family Rotatori’s killer belonged to, but they could not definitively identify where he stood in the family.
That was when the waiting game with Parabon paid off.
An unknown man who had not been approached by detectives submitted a DNA kit that was later flagged by Parabon, the Daily Nonpareil reported. That man’s profile helped Parabon and Schubert narrow the suspect pool down to two brothers.
One would have been too young at the time of Rotatori’s 1982 murder.
That left Thomas O. Freeman.
The trucker’s murder
Cold case detectives tracked down Freeman’s daughter, who provided a DNA sample. It proved that Freeman left the DNA found on Rotatori’s body at the time of her killing.
“Further investigation revealed that Thomas Freeman was also the victim of a murder,” police officials said in their news release.
When Freeman’s bullet-riddled body was pulled from a shallow grave Oct. 30, 1982, it was determined that he’d been dead for about three months, authorities said. The timeline put his killing just weeks after Rotatori was slain.
Authorities believe Freeman, who worked as a trucker, may have killed Rotatori while passing through the area on a haul.
They also believe his murder could be connected to Rotatori’s.
“Shot four times and dumped in a wooded area not far from where he lived,” Weddum told the Daily Nonpareil. “I’m not a real big believer in coincidences so we reached out to the Illinois State Police and got hold of the sergeant in charge of Freeman’s cold case investigation.”
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Council Bluffs detectives and Illinois troopers have been working together on Freeman’s murder. As of Friday, there had been no indication of a connection between the trucker and the young wife and mother he allegedly raped and stabbed.
There could be a link between Freeman and Rotatori’s husband, however.
According to Weddum and Andrews, Nemke attended college after being released from prison. His college campus was located in Carbondale, Illinois.
The school is about 15 miles from where Freeman’s remains were found in 1982.
It is unclear how Nemke and Freeman could have been linked, either before or after Rotatori’s killing. Andrews did confirm for the newspaper that he is considered a person of interest.
Nemke died in March 2019. Andrews told the Daily Nonpareil that he has the man’s DNA, however.
It was the first sample he secured when taking over the cold Rotatori case in 2011.
The investigation into Freeman’s murder is ongoing.
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