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Council Bluffs Police officers were sent to investigate the death of a female at the Best Western Frontier Motor Lodge motel at 2216 27th Avenue in Council Bluffs, Iowa, at 12:27 p.m. Friday, June 25, 1982, after a motel employee found a body.
Police found the victim in Room 106 — clad in pajamas and lying on her back in a pool of blood on the bed’s right side — and identified her as Lee Rotatori, 32, of Nunica, Michigan.
There were no signs of forced entry or any kind of struggle.
Rotatori had lived at the motel for about a week while in training for her new job as food service director at Jennie Edmundson Hospital in Council Bluffs.
Rotatori’s second (and third) husband, Gerald Stanley “Jerry” Nemke, had remained in Michigan while his wife came to Iowa for the training.
Rotatori first married Nemke Aug. 15, 1978, in Madison, Wisc. The couple had no children together and divorced in 1979. They remarried Dec. 30, 1981.
Less than six months later, Rotatori was dead.
She’d kept the surname from her first marriage for professional reasons and because she had an 11-year-old son who lived with her first husband in the Chicago area.
On May 2, 1960, Jerry Nemke, then 17, was picked up in Chicago for questioning in the Starved Rock, Illinois, slaying of three Chicago area women and the fatal beating of a young Chicago waitress, Marilyn Duncan. Police seized Nemke while he was driving a stolen car in the northwest side area where Marilyn Duncan, 17, was fatally beaten on April 29, 1960.
According to UPI story published May 9, 1960, Nemke later admitted that he assaulted and beat Duncan to death.
More than two decades passed before Rotatori checked in alone at the Council Bluffs hotel and officials later found her car in the motel’s parking lot.
Dr. Samuel Rosa, Pottawattamie County medical examiner, said Rotatori died from a single knife wound to the heart, inflicted from the front. She may have been dead about 12 hours before her body was found, Rosa said.
Rosa told the Daily Nonpareil the death — the city’s third homicide in 1982 — “could have been sexually motivated,” but police Capt. Eldon Jones, head of the criminal investigation unit, said no conclusive evidence had been garnered to support that theory.
Council Bluffs Police Chief Ed Dinovo announced on Tuesday, June 30, that Michigan state police post in Grand Haven had joined the investigation and that investigators were checking Mrs. Rotatori’s background.
According to a Sunday (Omaha) World-Herald article dated July 4, 1962, Rotatori had gone boating on Lake Manawa with some new hospital friends Thursday afternoon — the day before she was found dead.
“We don’t yet even have a motive,” Council Bluffs police detective Sgt. Larry Williams told the World-Herald.
Noting the Best Western Motor Lodge’s location — adjacent to Interstate 29-80 and the South 24th Street interchange — Williams said that by the time the body was discovered, “the killer could have been five feet away or a thousand miles away.”
Michigan State Police Detective Richard Griffin said he’d spoken with people acquainted with both Rotatori and her husband.
“I haven’t talked to anyone who didn’t like her,” Griffin told the Omaha newspaper.
The World-Herald said neither the woman’s parents nor Nemke were available for interviews following Rotatori’s memorial services Thursday, July 1, in Rochester, Minnesota; Rotatori’s parents resided in Austin, Texas.
Through conversations with local officials, hospital personnel, friends and relatives, World-Herald reporter Gary Newman said a picture emerged of a quiet woman, a farm girl at heart, advancing in her chosen profession.
Lee was the oldest of Mr. and Mrs. Clifford Gunsalus’ four children, and grew up on the outskirts of Rochester, Rotatori’s younger sister Ann Gunsalus, who still lived in Rochester, told Newman.
Lee, Gunsalus said, attended the University of Wisconsin, getting her bachelor’s degree in dietary services and a master’s degree in food nutrition.
Gunsalus told the World-Herald her sister worked for a Wisconsin firm that established food programs for hospitals and “she got to travel around some.”
Two years prior to her death, Rotatori joined a Chicago-based firm, Service-Master, and its Minneapolis-based service director division, which contracted food service managers to hospitals and other institutions. The World-Herald reported:
Apparently her first assignment was to Hackley Hospital in Muskegon, Wis. The couple had lived in a mobile home in Crockery Estates in Nunica, a small community about 20 miles from the hospital, since October 1980.
Nemke was employed by a service station and has a part-time job as delivery-man for a flower shop in Grand Haven, a town west of Nunica and south of Muskegon.
Rotatori had become friends with Bob and Clark Fisher, who raised horses and ran a private stable in another nearby community.
A horse Mrs. Rotatori had stabled elsewhere was soon moved to the Fisher farm.
“I think she was just a farm girl at heart,” Fisher recalled in his interview with the paper. “She had a dog here and a couple of pigs, some turkeys and some of the chickens and part of the garden.”
“Jerry used to say her folks would never believe it if they could see her,” Fisher said.
When an opportunity presented for a move to a larger hospital — Jennie Edmundson in Iowa — Rotatori came to Council Bluffs June 3 for a look and apparently liked what she saw, Newman wrote.
Once she knew she’d be transferred, Fisher said Rotatori gave away her dog.
According to the World-Herald, once Rotatori got her feet on the ground in Council Bluffs, Nemke was to pull up stakes and move the couple’s mobile home to another park in Council Bluffs. The World-Herald’s timeline of events followed:
“That all we know,” Det. Williams said, adding that the last people see Rotatori alive apparently were the fast-food restaurant clerks.
Williams said Rotatori was not seen by any motel personnel as she entered her ground-floor room in the general vicinity of doors leading to the motel’s meeting rooms and pool area. Motel staff who entered to clean the room the following day discovered Rotatori on the blood-soaked bed.
The food from the restaurant indicated she’d made a purchase for only one person, said Williams, a veteran detective who called the crime “unique.”
Police Captain Eldon Jones called Rotatori’s murder “the most perplexing case I’ve had the opportunity to be involved with,” and said six detectives were working the homicide.
Despite reports that some of Rotatori’s personal items were missing — including a purse and some jewelry — Jones said he wasn’t sure robbery was the motive.
“The room wasn’t torn all apart like somebody was looking for something,” he told the Nonpareil.
After being cremated in Omaha, Rotatori’s remains were sent to Rochester, where memorial services were held Thursday, July 1, 1982. Following the service, Rotatori’s parents left for Chicago to spend time with their daughter’s son.
Three organizations quickly stepped up to offer rewards for information leading to the arrest and indictment of the person or persons responsible for Rotatori’s death.
Edmundson Hospital, along with Service-Master Inc., of Chicago — Rotatori’s contract firm and actual employer — each donated $1,000 toward a refund fund. By July 4, 1982, Kinseth Enterprises Inc., the owners and operators of the Best Western Frontier Motor Lodge where Rotatori was killed, contributed an additional $1,000 to the fund.
The reward went unclaimed, and Rotatori’s murder unsolved.
Less than three months earlier, 21-year-old Linda Mayfield was stabbed to death at the Starlite Motel at 3320 West Broadway in Council Bluffs on April 9, 1982.
Police were called to the motel regarding a disturbance involving a man with a knife. When they arrived, they found Mayfield lying face down by the north office door. Mayfield had suffered several stab wounds to her face, chest, stomach, hand and foot.
A witness in the case — one of Linda’s friends — described the offender as a Caucasian male, 26-28 years of age, 5’7 to 5’10, clean-shaven, and wearing a blue jean jacket, blue jeans, and a light blue pullover shirt with an emblem on it. The witness also described the offender as having lots of body hair that came up over his shirt collar.
The witness told responding officers she remembered the offender’s first name as “Chris.”
Mayfield’s murder also remains unsolved.
Lee G. (Gunsalus) Rotatori was born September 29, 1949 in North Dakota. She lived for a time in Minnesota, and in the 1970s lived in Winnebago County, Illinois, and Wisconsin in Dane and Jefferson counties.
Lee married Anthony F. Rotatori in Olmsted, Minnesota, on Nov. 14, 1970, and the couple had a son, Michael. The couple divorced in Rockford, Illinois, in September 1977.
Lee married Gerald S. “Jerry” Nemke Aug. 15, 1978 in Madison, Wisconsin. The couple had no children together and divorced in 1979. They remarried Dec. 30, 1981.
Rotatori had worked as a regional dietitian for Unicare Health Facilities, a Milwaukee-based company that owned health care facilities in Wisconsin and a number of other states. Her work frequently took her throughout southern Wisconsin in the ’70s.
In the early ’80s, Rotatori worked in Michigan, and at the time of her death was staying at a Council Bluffs motel while in training for her new position as food service director at Jennie Edmundson Hospital.
Anita McLallen Martin, whom Rotatori mentored, described her friend as “intelligent, articulate, and enthusiastic.” Martin said Rotatori was a helpful mentor and a dedicated and promising professional who lost her life way too young.
She was laid to rest at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Omaha, Douglas County, Nebraska.
Lee Rotatori’s unsolved murder remains an active case with the Council Bluffs Police Department. Anyone with any information is asked to contact the Council Bluffs Police Department Criminal Investigation Division at (712) 328-4728, or Council Bluffs police detective Steve Andrews at (712) 326-2511. You may also contact Crime Stoppers at (712) 328-7867.