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Nearly 40 years after Lee Rotatori was found sexually assaulted and stabbed to death in an Iowa hotel, investigators believe they’ve found her killer—but the man was viciously murdered himself just four months after the slaying.
Council Bluffs Police are now trying to determine whether there’s any connection between the two deaths, according to a statement from authorities.
Before her death, Rotatori had started a job at Jennie Edmundson Hospital and was staying at an area Best Western Frontier Hotel while she was looking for a permanent place to live.
Her husband, Jerry Nemke, was expected to join her in Council Bluffs after she got settled, according to The Daily Nonpareil.
But on June 25, 1982 Rotatori failed to show up at her new job—where she worked as the food service director—and her boss asked the hotel staff to check on her, police said.
The 32-year-old was found lying on a blood-soaked bed in her hotel room, wearing her pajamas. She had been stabbed in the heart, according to a 1982 report from The Omaha World Herald.
Police also found “evidence of a sexual assault.”
Although Nemke had a violent past, investigators ruled him out as a possible suspect in the killing after he produced a solid alibi, The Daily Nonpareil reports.
Nemke had been arrested in 1960, while living in Chicago, for beating a local waitress to death. He was convicted and sent to the Menard Correctional Facility in southern Illinois, until he was released from the prison in 1978. He married Rotatori that same year, but the couple divorced a year later before getting remarried in 1981.
After ruling Nemke out as a suspect, investigators were left with few leads to go on and the case eventually went cold. As advances in DNA were made, investigators resubmitted evidence to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation in 2001, police said. The lab was able to identify a male DNA profile, but was unable to match the DNA to anyone in existing databases at the time.
Nearly two decades later, in 2018, Council Bluffs Police Capt. Todd Weddum was watching a news program on Joseph DeAngelo Jr., the Golden State Killer, when he learned about the use of genetic genealogy as a possible tool to solve cold cases and decided to apply it to the Rotatori case.
“There wasn’t much else we could do on the case,” he told The Daily Nonpareil.
In April of 2019, they sent their DNA sample to Parabon Nanolabs, a company specializing in DNA phenotyping, and were given a profile of the suspect. A later follow-up report from the company identified the suspect’s distant relatives after comparing the sample to DNA samples submitted to family ancestry companies.
But it wasn’t until young college student, Eric Schubert, contacted the department and offered to help narrow down the possibilities by building out a family tree that investigators got the break they needed.
“He was very rapidly able to get to the great-grandparent of our subject,” Council Bluffs Police Det. Steve Andrews told the local paper. “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 they were happy to submit a kit for us.”
The team eventually narrowed the possible suspects down to a pair of brothers and identified Thomas O. Freeman as the likely killer due to his age at the time of the crime. They were able to confirm the link after collecting a DNA sample from Freeman’s daughter and confirming she had a parent/child relationship to the DNA found at the crime scene.
But Freeman had died in his own brutal murder just months after Rotatori’s death. The 35-year-old had been found buried in a shallow grave with “multiple gunshot wounds” on Oct. 30, 1982 in Cobden, Illinois, not far from where he lived. Investigators suspected the truck driver had been dead for about three months before the body was discovered, police said.
His killer was never identified.
“Council Bluffs investigators are currently working with the Illinois State Police to determine if Freeman’s murder was someone linked to his involvement in Rotatori’s death,” police said.
While police have been unable to find any link between Freeman and Rotatori, they haven’t ruled out a possible connection between Freeman and her husband.
Weddum told The Daily Nonpareil that Nemke had once gone to college in Carbondale, Illinois, which is only about 15 miles from where Freeman’s body was discovered.
“Two months later, he dies a violent death. I’m not a real big believer in coincidences,” Weddum said of the possibility the two cases could be linked.
Investigators have said Nemke, who died himself in 2019, is considered a person of interest in Freeman’s death.
“With his known history of being in the area of where our suspect lived and where our suspect died, it raises suspicions of his involvement. That he possibly could’ve been involved,” Weddum said.
However, at this point, Freeman’s death remains unsolved and authorities are still left wondering why Rotatori was killed.
“We always knew the when, the where, the how of this case,” Andrews told KETV. “It wasn't until recently that we found out the who but now because he's dead, we'll never know the why.”
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