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DNA links woman's killing 40 years ago in an Iowa hotel to a man who was found shot to death months later

Tracing family trees to catch killers
Tracing family trees to catch killers 01:56

Investigators in Iowa used genealogical data to link the 1982 fatal stabbing of a woman to an Illinois trucker who was found shot to death in a shallow grave months later, authorities announced Friday.

Police in Council Bluffs, which sits on Iowa's western border across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska, believe Thomas O. Freeman killed 32-year-old Lee Rotatori at a local hotel in June of 1982. Rotatori, who had just moved from Nunica, Michigan, to Council Bluffs for a job, had stayed at the hotel for several nights while she looked for a home, authorities said. She was stabbed once and sexually assaulted.

According to a 2016 article in the Des Moines Register, Rotatori went boating with coworkers on June 24, 1982, and then stopped at McDonald's to pick up food before returning to the hotel. That was the last time she was seen alive.

The newspaper reported that a $3,000 reward was offered for information about Rotatori's murder, but police working the case weren't able to identify a suspect.

In 2001, investigators submitted evidence they had collected to a state crime lab, which revealed the presence of a male DNA profile. There wasn't a match in state or federal DNA databases, and the lab periodically ran new checks over the years without success.

In 2019, investigators submitted the DNA to another lab that began a genetic genealogy case and concluded last year that the DNA was from Freeman, who had lived in the southern Illinois community of West Frankfort. Police told the Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil that Freeman was a trucker and that they think he killed Rotatori while he was passing through the area.

Freeman's body was found in October 1982 in a shallow grave near Cobden, Illinois, a village about 30 miles southwest of West Frankfort. He had been shot multiple times and was 35 when he died. Investigators believe he was killed about three months before his body was found. Police said they don't have a suspect in his death.

Authorities said they are trying to determine if the two deaths are somehow linked.

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