The strange case of Dolores Wulff
Updated: Jan 25, 2022
In September of 1979, fishermen in Benicia, California found a human torso. The torso belonged to a woman who would only come to be known as ‘Jane Doe 16.’ Although a missing persons report was filed for this woman, it would take over four decades to connect the two cases. Let’s talk about Dolores Wulff.
Dolores Wulff was born Dolores Marie Rocha on November 4, 1933. Her parents and extended family were all Portuguese immigrants, and she grew up learning Portuguese in her home before later learning English.
In 1955, Dolores married Carl Wulff Sr. The couple settled in Dolores’s childhood hometown of Woodland, California, where Carl worked as an insurance executive and Dolores as a secretary at a local high school. Dolores was described as friendly and well-liked, getting along with almost everyone she encountered. She and Carl eventually welcomed four children: Daughter Anna Marie and sons Carl Jr., Tom and Paul.
But not everything in their life was as good as it appeared on the surface. Behind the scenes, the Wulff’s marriage was declining — and Carl turned to alcohol to cope. Several of Dolores’s family members claimed they’d heard Carl threaten her, but that she’d asked them not to report it to the police. In late 1978 and early 1979, Dolores moved out of the family home twice, but ended up coming back . She filed for divorce in April of that year, but didn’t do anything about it after that and the petition was dropped.
Dolores’s brother, Mathew Rocha, encouraged her to leave Carl, but she didn’t listen. Her heritage, along with her Catholic faith, ultimately convinced her to keep going back to him and try to make their marriage work. And Carl did go after her every time she tried to leave — though his apparent motive for staying together was a bit more self serving; he reportedly didn’t want to get divorced because he would lose money. The couple did start to attend marriage counseling — but that also wouldn’t last.
On the evening of July 31, 1979, 45-year-old Dolores was home alone with Carl. Their two oldest children, Carl Jr. and Anna Marie, were already grown and had moved out of the house. 17-year-old Tom was at basketball camp and 12-year-old Paul was at a sleepover.
Around 6 am on August 1, Anna Marie called her parents’ house looking for her mother. Carl informed his daughter that Dolores had been gone when he woke up, that she’d left him again. But Anna Marie apparently didn’t believe him, because she reported her mother missing.
And over the next few days, Carl was suspected by his family and investigators alike in his wife’s disappearance. Despite his claim that Dolores had left him, all of her things were still in the house — including her wedding ring. A search of Carl’s car turned up a blanket stained with blood, an earring, a strand of hair and wire. The blood was found to be Dolores’s blood type, but it couldn’t be determined whether it was actually hers. Marks that resembled finger marks were found on the of the car trunk, but investigators weren’t able to get any prints from them.
Still, they were suspicious. At least one officer at the time believed Carl had killed his wife and buried her under a highway that was under construction at the time. But investigators had very little evidence to go on.
And Dolores’s family ended up taking matters into their own hands. They turned to mediums and psychics, who gave them various locations to where Dolores may be buried. They dug in numerous locations within a 15 mile radius of Dolores’s home and even checked a septic tank. But all their searches turned up nothing.
The Rochas eventually turned their frustration on Carl, who they believed was responsible for Dolores’s disappearance. They poured paint thinner on his car, tossed paint on his house and wrote things like ‘killer’ and ‘butcher’ on his house in animal blood. In 1981, both investigators and family members engaged in their own separate schemes to try and trick Carl into confessing to murder — but neither of them worked. In 1982, a teenage Paul Wolff filed a wrongful death suit against his dad with help from his uncle, Mathew Rocha.
Then, in early 1985, Carl Wulff was arrested for murder and indicted by a grand jury. In March of that year, a now 18-year-old Paul wore a wire and visited his father in prison, attempting to get him to confess. But every time he asked his dad a question, Carl would never answer.
In December of 1985, a judge dismissed the murder charge, citing a lack of evidence and violation of Carl’s right to a speedy trial. After the charges were dismissed, Dolores’s children requested that the civil suit be dismissed as well.
After being released from prison, Carl moved to Los Angeles. In 1986, he filed a civil suit against the Wolff family for harassment, presumably stemming from their behavior after Dolores’s disappearance. That suit was later dismissed.
Paul Wulff went on to coach football at Eastern Washington University from 2000 to 2007, then at Washington State University from 2008 to 2011. After his mom’s disappearance, he’d felt isolated from his peers, who he thought were judging him and whispering a lot behind his back. He’d also felt pressure and stress from his own father being suspected, a theory he now believes. He would later say this pressure he went through in his childhood helped prepare him for the pressure of being a football coach.
And Paul’s siblings seem to be on the same page as him when it comes to their father’s potential guilt. With the possible exception of Anna Marie, none of the Wulff children talked to their dad much over the years. Paul claimed the last time he’d talked to his dad was 1989.
Carl died in 2005 at the age of 70. He’d always maintained his innocence in his wife’s disappearance, that she’d left him and changed her identity. Carl Jr. was hoping for a deathbed confession from his father, but that never came.
Jane Doe 16 ID’d
In July 2020, Benicia Police turned their attention back to Jane Doe 16. The Doe Network had a theory about who she might be and, although it turned out not to be true, it did renew interest in the case.
Investigators looked into several missing women in the area, but soon turned their attention to Dolores Wulff. Woodland, where she’d lived at the time of her disappearance, was only about 60 miles north of Benicia. On September 3, Jane Doe 16’s remains were exhumed, and a femur bone that had been found with her torso was sent off for DNA testing. Investigators got in contact with Dolores’s family and obtained a DNA sample
from Paul Wulff. On October 20, 2020, the samples were confirmed as a match.
Dolores’s body had been found 48 days after she went missing, less than 100 miles away from her home. 41 years after she’d last been seen alive, the remains had finally been confirmed as hers.
Dolores’s murder investigation is currently open but “suspended pending further information,” according to ESPN. Carl Wulff still remains the prime suspect.
This is a a strange case in terms of classification. I think it’ll be obvious to most people what probably happened here, but the case it technically unsolved. And if the person who is likely responsible turned out to be guilty, they would only have spent a few months in prison for the crime. That’s kind of a dark note to end on, so I will say I am glad Dolores’s body was finally found and her family now has some answers.