COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa (KMTV) — On Friday, the Council Bluffs Police Department announced the identity of Lee Rotatori's killer, closing a case that had been open for nearly 40 years.
Rotatori was a 32-year-old woman who had just come from Nunica, Michigan to Council Bluffs to work at nearby Jennie Edmundson Hospital in June 1982. She was so new to the area that she did not yet have permanent housing, leading her to stay for multiple nights at the Best Western Frontier Motor Lodge — now the Best Western Crossroads of the Bluffs — just off of the I-29 and I-80 interchange.
After just four days since reporting for orientation for her new job as food service director for the hospital, Rotatori did not show up for her formal first day of work. On June 25, hotel staff was sent to check on her. They found Rotatori dead in her room and turned over the scene to investigators, who determined that her death was the result of a single stab wound to the heart. There was additional evidence of sexual assault, and some valuables were missing as well.
Survived by Rotatori was a young son and her husband Jerry Nemke, who were still in Michigan and had yet to make the move to Iowa. Her husband had a very troubled early life: Nemke confessed to grievously injuring 16-year-old Marilyn Duncan in Chicago when he was just 17 years old. Duncan never awoke from her coma and died, and Nemke was eventually tried, convicted and sentenced to death for her murder, but the case was overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court less than two years after Duncan's murder. Nemke left death row and incarceration altogether and resumed his life, eventually met Rotatori and they married until her murder fractured the family.
An Omaha World-Herald article from July 4, 1982, published 10 days after Rotatori's body was discovered, quoted then-Sergeant Larry Williams as saying "the killer could have been five feet away or a thousand miles away," due to the proximity to the highway interchange. Her employer and other local organizations posted rewards mounting thousands of dollars in an attempt to get answers, to no avail.
Thus began a lengthy cold case with no suspects or answers, and ultimately no suspect's identity 2022.
It came down to DNA collected during the forensic examination. Investigators periodically resubmitted the evidence in an attempt to find a match, and in 2001 the State of Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Lab was able to determine the presence of a male DNA profile, but still no definitive identity match could be yielded from any databases.
There was a reason that no matches were coming up all that time. The man who had murdered Rotatori had been murdered himself, barely four months after he killed her at the Best Western in Council Bluffs.
It would be another 18 years after determining the gender profile of the DNA's origin, however, until those dots would be connected. In April 2019, investigators with the CBPD again submitted the DNA. This time it was sent to Parabon Nanolabs, a Virginia-based company that wasn't even founded until 2016, that conducts DNA phenotyping services for law enforcement agencies.
Parabon Nanolabs researchers, paired with nationally-recognized genealogist "whiz kid" Eric Schubert of ES Genealogy in Pennsylvania, pieced together familial relationships from the genetic information. In February 2021, they concluded that Thomas O. Freeman of West Frankfort, Illinois, was the source of the suspect DNA. The case then shifted back to Iowa, where the State of Iowa DCI Lab analyzed Freeman's daughter's DNA to confirm the connection.
But the story continues from there without a definitive end beyond the identity of Rotatori's murderer.
"Further investigation revealed that Thomas Freeman was also the victim of a murder," the CBPD said in its press release on Friday. "On October 30, 1982, Freeman’s decomposed body was found buried in a shallow grave near Cobden, Illinois. Freeman had been shot multiple times; he was 35 years old at the time of his death. It was reported that he had been dead for about three months before his body was discovered."
It is still not known whether Freeman's own murder was related to his murder of Rotatori, as Freeman's killer has not been identified. The CBPD are working with the Illinois State Police to see whether Freeman's murder was connected to Rotatori's.