DNA links Illinois man killed in 1982 to fatal stabbing of Iowa woman months earlier – 95.5 WSB
COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — Iowa cold case detectives have solved 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, 32-year-old Rotatori was new to Council Bluffs. The Michigan native had arrived days earlier to start a new job as director of food services at Jennie Edmundson Hospital.
She was found killed in her hotel room on the morning of June 25, 1982. According to Council Bluffs Police officialsshe had been stabbed once in the heart.
The case went cold until February 2021, when cold case detectives using genetic genealogy linked Thomas O. Freeman to DNA left on Rotatori’s body.
Freeman, of West Frankfort, Illinois, however, could not be arrested. Freeman, 35, was found buried in a shallow grave near Cobden, Illinois in October 1982, just four months after authorities claimed he killed Rotatori.
His fatal shooting remains unsolved.
“We know who killed Lee,” Council Bluffs Police Captain Todd Weddum said. told Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil. “Now we are working to determine if Freeman’s death is somehow related to Lee’s murder.”
Lee Gunsalus Rotatori, who was the eldest of four children, is described by her surviving family as an outgoing and artistic woman who loved horses and had many friends. Detectives learned this about her early in the murder investigation.
“I haven’t spoken to anyone who didn’t like him,” the Michigan State Police detective said. Richard Griffin told the Omaha World-Herald in 1982.
When Rotatori, who had a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin, arrived at 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 would soon join Rotatori with their mobile home.
Meanwhile, Rotatori attended career counseling during the day and spent his nights in a room at the Best Western Frontier Motor Lodge, now known as the Best Western Crossroads of the Bluffs.
Rotatori spent the last afternoon of his life sailing on Lake Manawa with some of his new colleagues and their families, according to the World Herald. They parted at dusk and Rotatori stopped for dinner at a McDonald’s before returning to room 106 at the Best Western.
The next morning, Rotatori didn’t show up for her first day of post-orientation work. When her boss asked hotel staff to check on her, they discovered a gruesome scene.
The World-Herald reported that Rotatori was found lying face down on the bed in blood-soaked pajamas.
“Rotatori died from a single stab wound, and there was evidence of sexual assault,” Council Bluffs Police officials said in a news release on Friday. “No suspects were identified during the initial investigation.”
Reports at the specified time there was no sign of forced entry, but that the amount of food Rotatori had purchased at McDonald’s was enough for one person. It was unclear whether the theft was a motive, but authorities said the nutritionist’s wallet, watch and ring were missing.
As they do in all murder investigations, detectives first examined Rotatori’s husband. They might have looked at Jerry Nemke a little harder than most spouses because of his own troubled background.
In 1960, when he was 17, 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 youth camp at the time he allegedly met Duncan, whom he went on a date with the night she was assaulted.
The teenager was eventually tried, convicted and sentenced to death for Duncan’s murder. The Supreme Court of Illinois quashed the conviction less than two years later, however, because the preliminary investigation into the case was not conducted properly.
Court records indicate that Nemke was again convicted in a second trial and sentenced to 75 years in prison. It was not immediately clear on Monday how many years he spent behind bars before being released.
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Nemke and Rotatori were first married in 1978. They divorced the following year but remarried in December 1981, less than a year before his death.
By 1982, Nemke’s days on death row were far 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 investigation was the location of the hotel. Just off the Interstate 29 and Interstate 80 interchange, the hotel’s proximity to the freeway 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.
“Crazy Genealogy Genius”
Police officials said that physical evidence from the scene was sent in 2001 to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigations crime lab, where techs were able to find a male DNA profile. When the data was entered into state and federal DNA databases, they found no matches.
In 2019, Council Bluffs sleuths turned to Parabon Nanolabs. The Virginia-based company has worked steadily since 2018 to help law enforcement catch criminals through the genetic genealogy process.
Parabon used his instant DNA phenotyping to determine that Rotatori’s killer was a white male of Northern European descent.
“So we’re looking at a pretty big pool,” said Det. Steve Andrews told the Daily Nonpareil.
Parabon then entered the killer’s genetic profile on genealogy websites like 23andMe, where they were able to match the stranger to relatives ranging from sixth to eighth cousins, the newspaper reported.
“They said with this the likelihood of finding your person is slim to none,” Andrews said.
Andrews said detectives had started a waiting game as they hoped additional DNA kits added to genealogy databases might one day produce a killer.
Enter Eric Schubert, student from Pennsylvania and owner of ES Genealogy.
Schubert, 20, made national headlines earlier this month when he helped authorities solve the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl aged 57. Marise Ann Chiverella was killed in March 1964 on her way to church before school.
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With her 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 then, the young genealogy expert had already helped in other cases.
Cold case sleuths agreed to work with him – and quickly saw the results.
“He was able to reach our subject’s great-grandparent very quickly,” Andrews told the Daily Nonpareil. “From there, the family tree branched out into a multitude of branches, hundreds of names of people. I would locate these people, contact family members, ask for their help on the case.
More often than not, family members were happy to help, the detective said.
“They would submit a kit and then Eric would get to work,” andrews said. “The kid is just the mad genealogy genius.”
As Schubert helped detectives narrow the list of suspects, he determined the killer had not been raised by his biological father, the newspaper reported. The genealogy showed which family Rotatori’s killer belonged to, but they couldn’t identify with certainty where he was in the family.
That’s when the waiting game with Parabon paid off.
A stranger who had not been approached by detectives submitted a DNA kit which was later flagged by Parabon, the Daily Nonpareil reported. This man’s profile helped Parabon and Schubert narrow the group of suspects down to two brothers.
One would have been too young at the time of Rotatori’s murder in 1982.
That left Thomas O. Freeman.
The Trucker’s Murder
Cold Case detectives tracked down Freeman’s daughter, who provided a DNA sample. This proved that Freeman had left the DNA found on Rotatori’s body at the time of his murder.
“Further investigation revealed that Thomas Freeman had also been the victim of a murder”, police officials said in their press release.
When Freeman’s bullet-riddled body was pulled from a shallow grave on October 30, 1982, it was determined that he had been dead for about three months. the authorities said. The timeline put his murder just weeks after Rotatori was killed.
Authorities believe Freeman, who worked as a truck driver, may have killed Rotatori while driving through the area on a transport.
They also think his murder might be related to Rotatori’s.
“Slaughtered four times and dumped in a wooded area not far from his home,” Weddum told the Daily Nonpareil. “I’m not really a big fan of coincidences, so we contacted Illinois State Police and got hold of the sergeant in charge of investigating Freeman’s cold case.”
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Council Bluffs detectives and Illinois soldiers worked together on Freeman’s murder. On Friday, there was no indication of a link between the trucker and the young wife and mother he allegedly raped and stabbed.
There could, however, be a connection between Freeman and Rotatori’s husband.
According to Weddum and Andrews, Nemke attended college after being released from prison. Its 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 might have been related, before or after Rotatori’s murder. Andrews confirmed to the newspaper that he was considered a person of interest.
Nemke died in March 2019. Andrews told the Daily Nonpareil that he has human DNA, however.
It was the first sample he got while taking charge of the Rotatori cold case in 2011.
The investigation into Freeman’s murder is ongoing.
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