116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Man identified through genetic genealogy was murdered a few months after woman died
In mid-June 1982, Lee Rotatori made the roughly 617-mile trek from Nunica, Mich., to Council Bluffs.
The 32-year-old arrived in Council Bluffs for a job as food service director at Jennie Edmundson Hospital. She checked into a Best Western Motel, where she would stay until her husband arrived with the couple’s mobile home.
Rotatori started orientation for her new job on Monday, June 21. That Thursday afternoon, she went boating on Lake Manawa with some new friends from the hospital and picked up dinner at McDonald’s on her way back to her motel room.
The next day, Friday, June 25, a motel employee found Rotatori dead in her room, the victim of a single stab wound.
It’s a case that remained cold for decades before advancements in DNA technology and a college kid in Pennsylvania helped Council Bluffs police identify who killed Rotatori.
That man — Thomas O. Freeman of West Frankfort, Ill. — was shot and killed four months after Rotatori’s murder. No one has been arrested in his murder.
Because Rotatori’s motel room was close to Interstates 80 and 29, then-Council Bluffs Police Sgt. Larry Williams told the Omaha World-Herald the killer could be a local or already thousands of miles away.
Council Bluffs authorities worked on the case with the Michigan State Police, which checked into Rotatori’s background. They talked to countless sources and said her husband, Jerry Nemke, had a “solid” alibi.
A reward was offered.
But despite exhaustive efforts, law enforcement was unable to figure out who killed Rotatori.
Who she was
Rotatori’s siblings — Ann Chinn, 64, of Rochester, Minn., where Rotatori is buried, and Greg Gunsalus, 71, of St. Louis and Las Vegas — describe their older sister as mostly happy and outgoing, an artistic woman with lots of friends.
Growing up, she loved drawing horses and, as an adult, finally was able to have her own horse in Michigan. She and Greg Gunsalus also were on the Rochester junior rifle club.
“She participated in quite a few matches. And she usually did quite well,” Gunsalus said, while also noting his sister was a fairly good student who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Monomoy.
The siblings said there’s a sense of closure now that their sister’s murder has been solved, though they regret that their parents, Clifford and Gwen, died without knowing what had happened.
“I just wish it could’ve been years ago,” Gunsalus said.
As DNA technology improved, evidence collected in 1982 was submitted to the state crime lab for examination in 2001, which determined a male DNA profile, according to police. But there were no matches in state and federal databases.
In 2011, Council Bluffs police detective Steve Andrews took on the cold case, assisted by the department’s crime lab manager Katie Pattee.
Fast forward to 2018. Police Capt. Todd Weddum was watching a news program on the Golden State Killer, where investigators used genetic genealogy to tie Joseph J. DeAngelo Jr. to a string of murders and other crimes from 1973 to 1986 in California.
“I said, ‘How do we go about doing this?’ ” with the Rotatori murder, Weddum told the Nonpareil. “There wasn’t much else we could do on the case.”
In April 2019, Pattee sent a DNA sample to Reston, Va.-based Parabon Nanolabs, which works with law enforcement on DNA forensics cases and on technologies for the medical industry.
A few months later, Parabon sent back a profile of the suspect, albeit a fuzzy one — a white man of northern European descent.
“So we’re looking at a pretty big pool,” Andrews said.
Parabon took the profile and compared it against DNA submitted to family tree companies — think 23 and Me, Ancestry.com — where clients allow law enforcement to review their DNA profiles.
The initial match was a sixth to eighth cousin of the suspect.
“They said with that, the probability of finding your person is slim to none,” Andrews said.
After hours of research by Parabon, police weren’t much closer.
“They told us basically, ‘Hey, kits are coming in every day. It’s going to take one to break this thing open,’ ” Weddum said. “At that point, it’s a waiting game. We’re waiting for someone that’s a close enough relative to our murder suspect that that would be the key.”
In March 2020, Weddum opened an email from Eric Schubert, a “college kid from Pennsylvania” with an interest in genealogy.
“He said, ‘Do you have any cold cases you’d like help on?,’ ” Weddum said, noting Schubert, 20, included his resume showing he’d helped law enforcement agencies in multiple states work cold cases since he was 18.
After vetting Schubert, a history major at Elizabethtown College, and having the city’s legal department draw up a nondisclosure agreement, Council Bluffs police filled him in on the Rotatori case.
“He was very rapidly able to get to the great-grandparent of our subject,” Andrews said. “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 (DNA) kit for us.
“They’d submit a kit, then Eric would go to work. The kid is just the mad genius of genealogy.”
“Genealogy is such a great tool that often can be very meaningful,” Schubert said. “It was a privilege to be helpful. … I am so glad there is justice for Lee.”
As they worked their way through potential family members, the investigative team eventually determined their suspect’s biological father did not raise him.
“Identifying him was not as easy as it looked when I first started research. In the end, we had a good picture of where he was and what family he was in, however his exact identity within the family was unclear,” Schubert said.
Then a man police hadn’t contacted submitted a DNA kit that Parabon flagged, which helped unlock the mystery, narrowing the case down to a pair of brothers. Based on the men’s ages and the date of the crime — one would’ve been too young at the time — it could only be one man: Thomas O. Freeman.
Freeman was a trucker who was 35 years old in 1982.
Weddum and Andrews said Parabon and Schubert called about an hour apart, reporting the DNA connection to Freeman
To confirm, law enforcement tracked down Freeman’s daughter. The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation lab determined the daughter’s DNA was a match to that left at the crime scene.
Police believe Freeman killed Rotatori while passing through the area as a trucker.
Four months after Rotatori’s death, Freeman’s body was found near Cobden, a small town in southern Illinois, the victim of four gunshot wounds in the chest. His murder remains unsolved.
“Shot four times and dumped in a wooded area not far from where he lived,” Weddum said. “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.”
The agencies have been working together ever since.
“We know who killed Lee,” Weddum said. “Now we’re working to figure out if Freeman’s death is somehow connected with him murdering Lee.”
There’s no known direct connection between Rotatori and Freeman. But police believe it’s possible Freeman and Rotatori’s husband, Nemke, could have crossed paths.
Nemke and Rotatori were married in 1978, divorcing a year later before remarrying in December 1981. Years earlier, Nemke, at age 17, was arrested in 1960 in Chicago and convicted of beating a local waitress to death.
After prison, Nemke went to college in Carbondale, Ill., about 15 miles from Cobden where Freeman’s body was found, Andrews said.
“He’s familiar with the area, has a history with the area,” Weddum said.
When Andrews picked up the cold case in 2011, the first DNA sample he tracked down was Nemke’s.
“He voluntarily gave a sample,” Andrews said, noting Nemke lived in Florida at the time.
Nemke died in March 2019. Andrews said it’s safe to call him a person of interest in the Freeman murder.
Weddum said the review of Rotatori’s murder showed investigators at the time had been “very thorough. They did everything they could do. It took this new technology to solve this case.”
Andrews noted Freeman’s name was not on the Best Western registry the night of June 24, 1982, so he wouldn’t have been on anyone’s radar.
He also credited the Weddum for helping secure funds to enlist Parabon’s help. And Weddum lauded Andrews and Pattee for the time they spent on the case.
“It’s extremely satisfying,” Andrews said of closing the case. “There were high points and low points throughout the whole process … But when you get the confirmation that everything you worked for has come to fruition — it’s exciting, to say the least.”