Lee Rotatori case

Lee Gunsalus Rotatori

Homicide — SOLVED

Lee Gunsalus Rotatori
32 YOA
Best Western Frontier Motor Lodge
2216 27th Avenue, Rm #106
Council Bluffs, IA
Pottawattamie County
Case Number: F82-2558
June 25, 1982
Case Cleared: Feb. 25, 2022
Perpetrator: Thomas O. Freeman of West Frankfort, Ill.
Freeman was killed four months after authorities allege he killed Rotatori.
His case remains unsolved.

 

UPDATE

Lee Rotatori’s graduation photo. (Courtesy Council Bluffs Police via Greg Gunsalus)

On Friday, Feb. 25, 2022, Council Bluffs Police Captain Todd Weddum announced in a press release that police detectives had cleared the cold case homicide of Lee Rotatori.

In 2001, the evidence collected in 1982 was resubmitted to the State of Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) Lab for examination. Advances in forensic technology revealed the presence of a male DNA profile. When entered into the State and Federal DNA databases, there was not a match for this DNA. The DCI Lab would periodically check this unknown DNA over the years, without ever getting any matches.

Thomas O. Freeman, who authorities allege killed Rotatori, was found buried in a shallow grave four months after Rotatori’s murder. (Courtesy Council Bluffs Police Department)

In April 2019, Council Bluffs investigators submitted the unknown male DNA profile to Parabon Nanolabs to begin a genetic genealogy case. In February 2021, researchers from Parabon and ES Genealogy, who examined familial relationships, concluded that Thomas O. Freeman, of West Frankfort, Illinois, was the source of the suspect DNA.

A sample of Freeman’s daughter’s DNA was subsequently analyzed by the Iowa DCI Lab, which confirmed that there was a parent/child relationship between the DNA found at the scene of Rotatori’s murder and Freeman’s daughter.

Freeman, 35, was found buried in a shallow grave near Cobden, Ill., in October 1982 — just four months after authorities allege he killed Rotatori.

Read the Full Press Release


Case Summary compiled by Jody Ewing

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.

best-western-cb-lee-rotatoriCourtesy photo BestWestern.com
Lee Rotatori was stabbed to death at this Council Bluffs Best Western motel sometime after midnight on June 25, 1982.

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.

Married to a Killer

Rotatori’s second (and third) husband, Gerald Stanley “Jerry” Nemke, had remained in Michigan while his wife came to Iowa for the training.

Gerald NemkeCourtesy UPI Telephoto
Jerry Nemke, 17, left, shown in police car after he was picked up in Chicago May 2, 1960 for questioning in the Starved Rock, Ill., slaying of three Chicago area women and the fatal beating of a young Chicago waitress, Marilyn Duncan, 17, right. Police seized Nemke while he was driving a stolen car on Chicago’s northwest side where Miss Duncan was fatally beaten April 29, 1960. Nemke later admitted he assaulted and beat the girl to death.

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, 16, was fatally beaten on April 29, 1960.

Nemke — a fugitive from a youth camp when he reportedly met Duncan — went on a date with her the night she was assaulted.

According to UPI story published May 9, 1960, Nemke later admitted that he assaulted and beat Duncan to death. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in Duncan’s murder, but the Illinois Supreme Court overturned the conviction less than two years later, citing that the preliminary hearing wasn’t conducted properly.

Nemke again was found guilty at a second trial and sentenced to 75 years in prison. He was free by the time Rotatori was killed two decades later, but detectives investigating her death said he had a solid alibi and had moved on, the Daily Nonpareil reported

In June 1982, Rotatori checked in alone at the Council Bluffs hotel and officials later found her car in the motel’s parking lot.

Lee Rotatori

Lee Rotatori (Courtesy Council Bluffs Police Department)

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.

A Bright Future

According to a Sunday (Omaha) World-Herald article dated July 4, 1982, Rotatori had gone boating on Lake Manawa with some new hospital friends Thursday afternoon — the day before she was found dead.

1982-7-4-OWH-Lee-Rotatori

Omaha World-Herald, July 4, 1982

“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.

Pottawattamie County in Iowa
Pottawattamie County in Iowa
 
Council Bluffs in Pottawattamie CountyCouncil Bluffs in
Pottawattamie County

“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.

Husband to move mobile home to Council Bluffs

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:

  • [Rotatori] returned to Council Bluffs to begin her orientation June 21, a Monday.
  • By Thursday, the departing food manager, who has since moved to his new assignment, and a few other employees invited Mrs. Rotatori to spend a few hours boating with their families on Lake Manawa in the southern part of the city.
  • That gathering broke up at dusk and Mrs. Rotatori apparently went back to the South Expressway and stopped at McDonald’s to pick up some food.
  • The best guess is that she then got on the Interstate for the short trip west to the motel’s interchange.

“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.

Reward Fund Grows

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.

Similar Murder

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.

Linda Mayfield

Linda Mayfield

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.

About Lee Rotatori

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.

1979-2-11-wisconsin-state-journal-lee-rotatoriCourtesy Wisconsin State Journal
This ad appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal on February 11, 1979.

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.

Information Needed

Anyone with any additional 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.

Sources:

 

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17 Responses to Lee Rotatori

  1. MikeD says:

    I read the news that familial DNA just cleared this case. Thomas O. Freeman of West Frankfort, Illinois was the source of the suspect DNA. Not sure what the source of the DNA was. Thomas O. Freeman decomposing body was found in October of 1982 in Cobden, Illinois.

    • Kim says:

      Here’s a link to one of the stories about Freeman’s murder of Lee and his own subsequent murder as well:
      https://news.yahoo.com/cops-crack-hospital-worker-40-193818413.html

      • Stay Strong! says:

        Very interesting read. I love this got solved.

        It’s pretty clear that authorities believe her husband, Nemke, killed the Freeman. The most likely scenario it seems to me is that Freeman foolishly talked about the crime and Nemke heard about it since he evidently lived in the area.

        That’s the only plausible scenario I can think of since the authorities were unable to come up with a suspect all those years and Nemke would have no other way of identifying Freeman.

        Interesting stuff!

        • Jim F says:

          That’s a far stretch based soley on a murder/rapist bragging about their crime. Hardly plausible. I am more inclined to believe he followed her from the truck stop area. That truck stop was very busy then and the area was not nearly as populated as it is now. The casinos were not there then. Being on the I-80 & I-29 corridor it attracted a lot of traffic and criminals.
          All these years and I couldn’t help but think it was connected to the Mayfield murder that happened a couple of months earlier.

          • Stay Strong! says:

            I either didn’t make myself very clear or you misunderstood my comments.

            I was referring to the fact that Nemke (her ex-husband) allegedly killed Freeman (the recently identified killer of his ex-wife Ratori). The article is pretty clear that law enforcement believes that Nemke killed Freeman and that they both lived in the same area in Southern IL. I don’t know how Nemke would have otherwise would have known Freeman did it unless he foolishly talked. Clearly Nemke wasn’t at the scene and LE didn’t know who killed him until just recently, long after Nemke passed and Freeman was killed.

            I don’t doubt the fact that Freeman, a trucker, and the fact that the hotel Ratori was killed and the truck stop were very close in proximity is likely linked.

            • Jim F says:

              I suppose what’s needed is confirmation that these three actually KNEW each other as opposed to being from the same area.

            • Patrick Kerrigan says:

              The husband was a person of interest in the murder of three women, at Starved Rock State Park in Illinois. He was arrested in a stolen car on the Northside of Chicago.

              Someone suggested that his connection to Illinois makes him a suspect. Well I live in Illinois, which makes me a suspect also. We can add all the residents and former residents of Illinois, as possible suspects.

              Also John Wayne Gacy was a resident of Illinois, makes him a suspect. But then I seem to remember that he worked in Iowa.

              I prefer that we come up with some links that shows thst the husband had previous contact or knew Freeman.

              To quote Sgt. Joe Friday, “just the facts”, and not assumptions.

              • Stay Strong! says:

                It’s speculation, not assumption; the former of which is in part what this message board is for – as long as it’s qualified as such. Heck, I’ve seen you make similar speculation often on this very board.

                As for the basis of said speculation, I suggest you read these specific quoted comments from LE Officer Weddum – the officer working the case…

                “I’m not a real big believer in coincidences,” Weddum told the Nonpareil, explaining that Rotatori’s husband, Nemke, who died in 2019, is considered a person of interest in Freeman’s murder.

                “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.

                Quite a stretch extending the specific, quoted, on-point comments from the LE officer above to you and Gacy’s residency.

    • Patrick Kerrigan says:

      Cobden, Illinois is located in Union County, which is northeast of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Not exactly close to Council Bluffs. Also West Frankfort. Illinois is in Williamson County, close to Interstate -57.

      I wonder how her husband would be able to identify him as the offender in a short period of time, when the police had no clue.

      The other question is Freeman connected to the murder of Linda Mayfield, F/B, in the Starlite Motel, also in Council Bluffs on April 9, 1982. She appears was stabbed multiple times in the face, chest and stomach.

      • Stay Strong! says:

        Yes, I wondered how her husband identified the killer too (see my posts above if you’re so inclined).

        Since Nemke spent a lot of time in Southern IL, I speculate that Freeman talked and Freeman heard about.

        Now that I think about it, a couple of other possibilities: 1) Freeman returned home with stab wound injuries, some people knew he was in the Council Bluffs area, people connected the dots, and that got around to Nemke. 2) Nemke hired Freeman and then killed him to silence him.

        • Anita Martin says:

          I also wonder whether it is possible that Freeman knew Nemke years ago when they were younger. Nemke was 39 when Lee was killed, if my math is correct. Freeman was 35. Could they have served time together in juvenile corrections? Could Freeman have had anything to do with the suspicious fire which killed the female juror (serving on the jury for Nemke’s murder trial in the 1960s) and the juror’s teenaged daughter when Nemke was in custody? In one of the articles I read, it said when Freeman was found dead, no one had reported him missing for at least 3 months. That raises other questions as well. My gut feeling is that yes, they knew each other.

  2. Patrick Kerrigan says:

    A minor tweeking of the story, refers to a newspaper article tmentions July 4, 1962. However, the article that is shown is dated correctly July 4, 1982. It does not exactly mention that the husband was cleared of any involvement in the crime.

    Also, where is this motel located in relation to the Starlite Motel, where Linda Mayfield was murdered. Also, the one Wisconsin hospital is 20 miles from her home in Michigan. I think that Wisconsin, is more than 20 miles from Nunica, Michigan.

    There was no forced entry to her room, located on the 1st floor. So, it had to be someone she knew or someone claiming they were from the motel allegedly saying they needed to check something.

  3. Sad that this was never solved. Seems strange that DNA was not taken from her husband until just a few years ago, considering that he had past murder convictions? Sounds like a mistake may have been made if he wasn’t investigated sooner. Who knows, maybe he hired someone to do it?

  4. Anita Martin says:

    Thinking of Lee, and the things she taught me and the much-needed confidence she helped me have in my young career.

  5. Prayers to her family and friends.

  6. Anita M. says:

    If you knew Lee G. Rotatori (nee Gunsalus), your help is much needed and would be greatly appreciated.

    Lee was born in North Dakota, lived for a time in Minnesota, and in the 1970s, lived in Winnebago County, Illinois and Wisconsin (Dane and Jefferson counties.) In the 1970s, Lee was regional dietitian for Unicare, 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 1970s.

    In the early 1980s, she worked in Michigan and may have lived in or near the Nunica, Michigan area. Closer to the date of her death, she lived in Des Moines, Iowa, and when Lee was killed, she was staying at a motel in Cedar Bluffs, Iowa.

    Lee Rotatori was intelligent, articulate, and enthusiastic. She was a helpful mentor and a dedicated and promising professional who lost her life way too young.

    We never know what information that might not seem important could lead to key evidence in an unsolved murder. Even something that seems totally trivial could prove to be what helps the police connect the dots and solve the puzzle.

    Please contact Crime Stoppers Anonymous (712-328-7867), or Detective Steve Andrews with Council Bluffs Police Department at 712-326-2511 and talk with them about Lee. Wouldn’t you want the same done if Lee had been your sister, daughter, or mother? Thank you for your help.

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