EXCLUSIVE: Betty Rolf family reacts to arrest in 1988 murder
Familial DNA helped to lead authorities to the suspect in the cold case
OUTAGAMIE COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - A sense of closure is now setting in for the daughter and granddaughter of Betty Rolf after an arrest in her 1988 murder in the Appleton area. Court records say family DNA led investigators to the suspect 34 years later.
Gene C. Meyer, who previously lived in Valders, was arrested in Washington state Wednesday in the cold case killing. Charges of 1st Degree Murder and 1st Degree Sexual Assault - Use of a Dangerous Weapon have been filed in Outagamie County Court.
“Shock. Definitely some shock,” Rolf’s granddaughter, Sue Srnka, reacted. “We didn’t know if this person was deceased or this person had other crimes. We just didn’t know.”
The family spoke exclusively with Action 2 News reporter Jason Zimmerman.
Rolf was found dead near a railroad crossing and bridge on W. Spencer St. in Grand Chute on November 7, 1988. She had been sexually assaulted, beaten and strangled.
“She was a beautiful lady. Good cook, great artist -- she was a mom,” Rolf’s daughter, Sheila Wurm, told us.
Wurm recalls the morning her mother was last seen alive.
“She was walking to work. She worked at the Country Aire [banquet hall]. She never made it there. See, it had snowed out that morning. My mother had a fear of snow. She did not drive. My mother was a driver, but she walked everywhere she went. But she wasn’t going to work that way, and my brother usually gave her a ride but wasn’t going in that day that early. So she decided to walk, and she never made it there.”
Rolf’s husband reported her missing. Rolf’s body was located next to the bridge footing support adjacent to the railroad tracks. She was found parallel to an eight-foot-high concrete wall.
“Because she was behind this concrete wall, her body would not have been visible to any train operating on the railroad tracks,” reads the criminal complaint.
After learning of Meyer’s arrest, the family went to the scene of the crime and placed a cross on the bridge above where her body was found.
“She was a beautiful soul,” her daughter said.
“And the sweetest person you could ever imagine. She had a heart of gold,” the granddaughter added.
During the autopsy, a forensic pathologist found evidence of blunt trauma to the head, strangulation by ligature, and multiple skin abrasions. The death was ruled a homicide. The pathologist took swabs from the victim, but in 1988 the Wisconsin Crime Lab did not have the ability to conduct DNA testing. That would change.
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On Sept. 10, 2001, a DNA analyst at the lab conducted an analysis of the swabs from the Rolf case. Human DNA was recovered from sperm cell fraction. A DNA profile of the male contributor was identified and subsequently entered into the nationwide CODIS database.
On Feb. 26, 2019, investigators started to conduct a familial DNA search to “detect and statistically rank a list of potential candidates” in the database who may have close biological relatives to the individual who left the DNA evidence. They were able to narrow it down to Gene Meyer or his brother. His brother provided a DNA sample and was eliminated. That left Meyer as the suspect.
According to the criminal complaint, one of the investigators spoke to a niece of Gene Meyer who told them about a conversation she had with her mother, Meyer’s sister, about a family secret involving him. She said her mother told her Meyer phoned and said “Goodbye” and “Thank you for everything.”
She says her mother then told her about that phone call, years ago, “I have a secret...I have a secret...and it’s going to go in my grave.”
One of the investigators started looking into Meyer’s criminal history. He had a few contacts with Appleton police in the late 1980s. His address at the time was about a mile from the murder scene. Meyer also had some criminal history in the State of Washington.
Local investigators contacted the FBI to conduct surveillance on Meyer.
On Nov. 21, 2022, FBI agents contacted local investigators to report they had obtained DNA swabs from the door handle of Meyer’s truck. The swabs were sent to the Wisconsin Crime Lab for analysis. The crime lab was able to obtain a DNA profile from the swabs and compare it to the swabs from the Rolf murder.
“The DNA profile from the swabbing of the defendant’s truck matched the DNA profile of the sperm found on the vaginal swabs which were obtained during the autopsy of the murdered victim,” reads the complaint.
It was a break many family members thought they would never get, but now they’re expressing a huge sense of relief. They expressed gratitude that investigators never gave up on solving this case.
“Thank you,” Wurm said.
“Thank you so much,” Srnka echoed. “I mean, we kept her memory alive, and we will keep her memory alive forever.”
Still, there are questions, such as Meyer’s motive.
“Why? That’s the biggest one, why?” said Wurm.
The family is now preparing for justice and the court process.
“I’m just so grateful he’s been caught. This has been a long time. I didn’t know if we would ever see this day and I’m grateful he’s still alive,” Srnka said.
The Outagamie County Sheriff’s Office, FBI, and Pierce County Sheriff’s Office in Washington teamed up to arrest Meyer. He’s being held at a jail in Tacoma awaiting extradition to Wisconsin.
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