3 Mins Read

The Disappearance Of Dolores Wulff: The Brutal 41-Year-Old Cold Case Solved

Back in 1971, 45-year-old Dolores Wulff went missing from rural Woodland, California, a sleepy little town not far from Sacramento. According to police reports, sometime during the night of July 31st, the beloved Woodland High School secretary seemed to have vanished off the face of the Earth. 

Those living on the west coast and all across the country may have been listening to reports or reading headlines about how one of the oldest cold cases in California was finally solved. A grizzly torso of a woman that washed up on the shores near the San Francisco Bay Area over 41 years ago had finally been identified.

What She Left Behind At Home

It's believed that Dolores left her house wearing only a light-colored nightgown, possibly a blouse, brown slacks, and thong-type shoes according to authorities. To disappear with nothing more than the clothes on her back suggests that she either feared for her life or didn't leave by choice. Other items she left behind included her keys, eyeglasses, rings, medicine, the remainder of her clothing, and other personal property.

Married and a mother of two young children, the kids were spending the night at her brother's residence. The house the couple shared was located in a neighborhood known as Hillcrest Estates, a collection of homes sitting on four and five-acre parcels. 

Residents of this horseshoe-shaped street believed it was more like living in the country rather than in town. At the time, it would have been just over four miles to reach the edge of the nearest town. That's a long walk on a dark, lonely road wearing nothing but a pair of sandals and light clothing.


Mary Bell: The Serial Killer Child Who Murdered Little Boys

Mary Bell was only 10-years-old when she became a murderer.

A Brief Background On The Bride and Groom

The Sacramento Bee newspaper gave an account of the couple's wedding in nearby Davis, California on June 4, 1955, at St. James Catholic Church. In front of 400 of their closest friends and family members, the beautiful bride wore a fingertip length veil and carried a bouquet of white rosebuds with stephanotis, a popular floral arrangement for the occasion. Both the bride and groom were twenty-one years of age at the time of their nuptials.

Dolores established herself as a beloved and reliable secretary at what was then the only high school in the town of Woodland. Carl worked in the insurance business before the couple would move "out to the country." Prior to relocating, Carl ran a Mobil gas station in town while the couple began starting their life together as a family.

The Popular & Most Potential Prime Suspect

Police immediately suspected the husband, Carl Wulff especially after Dolores' brother told reporters his sister had a "rocky marriage" with her spouse. As many of us already know and according to recent crime statistics, collectively the majority of violent offenses, including murder and rape, are committed by acquaintances, friends, family members, and especially spouses.

Apparently, she had left him several times in the past, he always managed to track her down, and bring her back home, but not this time. Wulff's sibling revealed to the press, "This time he made no effort," brother Matt Rocha told the local newspaper, "He didn't even get in his car and drive down to the end of the (rural) road (to find her)." 

It wouldn't be until much later in 1985 when authorities would apprehend Dolores' spouse and arrest him in connection with the murder of his wife. Without a body, it was difficult to tie him to the crime.

Testimonies & A Timeline For Tuesday, July 31, 1979

Other than the husband's account, the last time Dolores Wulff was seen alive was around 9:30 p.m. on the evening of July 31, 1979. It was at this time her eldest son came by their home to retrieve a toy pickup truck. In court, the boy testified, "She looked upset, like she had been crying."  He added she was wearing a light-green colored nightgown in the living room of their house.

Less than an hour later, Carl Wulff called former Woodland reserve police officer Deborah Morgan and asked her out for a drink. She declined but agreed to meet him the next day for lunch. This was shortly before police began investigating his wife's disappearance. It seemed more than odd for a married man to phone a female friend (a possible romantic interest) from the house he shared with his wife. Ms. Morgan would later testify that Wulff seemed nervous and distraught when she met him at Denny's restaurant in Woodland on August 1, 1979.

The Investigation & Evidence

Without a body, investigators had little to pursue in the way of evidence for a jury trial. However, after obtaining a warrant for Wulff's residence, a search of Carl's car revealed one of Dolores' earrings, bloodstains on a blanket in the trunk, blood on a part of the rubber molding, and outside the trunk. Her husband stated the bodily fluid was the result of a nosebleed and Carl's attorney would argue that it might not have even been Dolores' blood, just her type.

A Family's Need For Answers

Without a body, additional arrests, or suspects in the case, Dolores' family grew desperate for answers. They claimed to have hired psychics and brought a bloodhound to the family residence a few days after her disappearance. According to Wulff's son, the dog would only remain near the garage indicating that Dolores had never left home.

The court and Carl's attorney obviously dismissed anything uncovered by psychics as real evidence. The father's lawyer accused his son of lying when he recanted the tale about the dog's behavior at the alleged scene of the crime. While it may appear Carl's legal defense was successful in defending their client, the real stumbling block for the case against him was the passage of time. 

Faulty Memories & Sketchy Evidence

Shutterstock | 2300714

Again, devoid of a body with only circumstantial evidence to go on, five years had passed before the Yolo County Grand Jury would hand down an indictment for murder. His attorney Salle Soladay was also able to successfully argue the evidence was "sketchy," memories of the events were "faulty," and that it was a "phantom case" at best. 

Soladay insisted that Mr. Wulff had been denied his sixth amendment rights to a fair and "speedy trial" due to the lengthy amount of time that had passed. Without a body, visiting Municipal Court Judge Donald L. Balding agreed and dismissed the murder charges on those grounds. 

Letting The Husband Go

With the husband off the hook for murder, rumors were swirling about the disappearance of Dolores Wulff. Some hoped she may have been able to successfully escape from an abusive married, change her identity, and was still alive and living at an unknown location in peace. However, friends and family of Dolores insist she never would have left without her children. Time continued to pass and with no new leads or solid evidence, the case grew increasingly colder.

At the time of Dolores' disappearance and unknown to local authorities, the torso of a woman had washed up on the shores of Benicia, another sleeping town about sixty miles south of Woodland. A torso with no fingerprints or distinguishing marks available to investigators, the body part could have beloved to nearly any missing woman in the area or around the world. 

A Renewed Interest In Jane Doe

In July 2020, the Doe Network, a non-profit foundation committed to identifying missing persons had a theory about the disappearance of Dolores. While their hypothesis didn't pan out, it did manage to reignite interest in her cold case. 

At the time, Benicia Police Department, Detective Kenneth Hart was working the "torso case" and was focusing on eleven missing women in the Sacramento and San Francisco regions.

Thanks to the Doe Network's failed tip, Hart began focusing his attention on the Dolores Wulff investigation. Hart reached out to the Yolo County Sheriff's Office in hopes of getting a DNA sample from one of her children. His request was granted and after the unidentified torso was exhumed, the familial DNA swab was a match.

Speaking of the family, the kids seemed to have also vanished from the eyes of the press and are hopefully leading somewhat normal lives. Husband Carl died in 2005, so we may never know for sure who committed this heinous crime. 

Authorities Epilogue & Closure

Officially and additionally, on October 20, 2020, the California Department of Justice DNA lab Benicia Police Department informed the Benicia Police Department that a femur bone from the torso bone was a match for the sample that was submitted. 

Interim Chief of Police for the city of Benicia would go on to report, "We are so glad to be able to bring a sort of closure to the Wulff family after decades of uncertainty." He thanked his fellow officers when he stated, "I am also proud of Sgt. Hart and his team's tenacity on this case."

In turn, Yolo County Sheriff Tom Lopez in Woodland released their statement about the case when he said: 

"This case has haunted my office and, in fact, all of Yolo County since 1979. Countless hours were spent investigating Dolores Wulff's disappearance. It is my hope that this provides some closure to the family who has suffered so much. I am grateful for the dedication and professionalism of our law enforcement community who made this identification possible, including the members of the Benicia Police Department for their incredible efforts."

Read Next


Must Read

©2022 The Offbeat, Inc. All Rights Reserved.