On a July night in 1979, Dolores Wulff, beloved mother of four, vanished from the family’s home.
Her 12-year-old son, Paul, would grow up to become a college football coach while never knowing his mother’s fate.
Forty-one years later, he would finally be able to piece together some details of her disappearance, starting with these words from a detective:
‘I FOUND YOUR MOM’
Editor's note: This story contains graphic descriptions of domestic violence and a death investigation.
WOODLAND, Calif. -- Nearly six years after his mother vanished, Paul Wulff sat across from the man his family strongly believed had murdered her.
It was March 1985, and Paul, then 18, had been summoned to a meeting that possibly represented his family's final hope for justice. His mother's body had never been found. Despite plenty of circumstantial evidence, police needed a confession to firm up their case. They believed Paul, a high school senior and the youngest of four children, had the best chance of procuring one.
A glass window separated Paul from the man in custody, arrested days earlier by the Yolo County Sheriff's Office on a murder indictment. He wore a jail-issued orange jumpsuit. Paul wore a wire.
"I didn't know what the heck I was doing, other than just asking questions and hoping he would just spill his guts," Paul recalled recently.
His direct questions -- Could you tell us where she is? Can you help us with some information? -- were met with silence. The man on the other side kept his eyes locked on the floor, shaking his head, offering nothing.
"There's nothing to compare that to," Paul said. "Here you are on one side and you're questioning your father ... about what he's done to your mother."
Paul had been only 12 when Dolores Wulff disappeared from their family home in Woodland, about 20 miles west of Sacramento. He had largely been protected from his family's suspicions about his father, Carl. Although Paul was occasionally thrust into the discord between his father and his family -- from choosing whom to live with to filing a civil suit against Carl on the family's behalf -- his attempt to gain a confession from Carl was his most involved effort yet. And it failed.
"I got up, frustrated, and walked away, thinking, 'He's never going to say,'" Paul said. "And that was the feeling: He's going to go to his grave never saying anything."
Carl was later released, and Paul found refuge in football, first as a player at Washington State, then as a coach, including a four-year stint as head coach of his alma mater. He's currently an assistant at Cal Poly.
After the dismissal of the case, and years of their own searching, the family largely gave up on locating Dolores or confirming the full truth about what had happened to her. Then, last October, 41 years after the disappearance, Paul received a phone call. It was from a detective in Benicia, California, about 55 miles south of Woodland, in a neighboring county.
"Hey, well, I just wanted to tell you: I found your mom."
The last time most of Dolores' family saw her alive, the 45-year-old mother was in her element, smiling and surrounded by her loved ones.
In late July 1979, more than 100 people gathered inside the parish hall of Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Woodland to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of Dolores' uncle and aunt, Antone and Anna Rocha, Portuguese immigrants from the Azores islands. Dolores grew up in the area, speaking Portuguese in her home before learning English. She married Carl in 1955 and worked as a secretary at Woodland High School.
"We were wrapping bottles in gold foil [before the party], and she was pretending she was an opera singer," said Debbie Baker, Dolores' cousin. "This was her personality; she's just singing away in the bathroom."
Dolores had endured a difficult year. Several family members say they heard Carl threaten Dolores' life, although the police were never notified, at her request. When Carl's drinking and behavior worsened, she moved out of the home she shared with her husband and two youngest children, Tom and Paul -- Anna Marie and the oldest sibling, Carl, were both adults and living on their own -- spending several months alone at an apartment in town.
Shortly before the disappearance, Dolores had called her brother Mat, nicknamed "Slick," to pick her up after an argument with Carl. For several weeks, she stayed with Slick and his wife, Janet, with whom Dolores would talk late into the night.
"She told me he was threatening to kill her," Janet said. "She said to me, 'If that happens, promise me you'll take care of my boys.' I told her, 'Of course.' And of course I said, 'Well, that's not going to happen.'"
“I stood there until she turned the corner, and then I walked back to the house, never knowing I would never see her again.” DEBBIE BAKER
Dolores, a Catholic, didn't want to get divorced. She moved back in with Carl, who worked mostly as an insurance agent and once owned a gas station but often encountered financial challenges. They began marriage counseling, and even had a session the day she went missing.
For a few hours on that midsummer night of the anniversary party, wearing a blue dress with a white flower in her hair, Dolores appeared happy. After the party, she went to Baker's house to collect some leftover sandwiches. Baker walked Dolores to her car.
"I stood there until she turned the corner," Baker said, "and then I walked back to the house, never knowing I would never see her again."
A few days later, around 6 a.m. on Aug. 1, Paul's older sister, Anna Marie, called her parents' home, asking for Dolores. Her father answered and said Dolores had fled in the night.
Something felt off. If she had run away, she had left behind her purse, keys, clothes, jewelry and car. Her family members say Dolores never would abandon her children. Later that day, Anna Marie and one of her cousins went to the Yolo County Sheriff's Office to file a missing person report. When the mandatory 72-hour waiting period passed, detective Ron Heilaman began his investigation. Heilaman first spoke with Anna Marie, who, according to the detective, was "adamant that her dad had done something with her mom."
The day Dolores disappeared, she had dropped off Paul at Slick and Janet's home for his cousin David's 13th birthday. Paul's older brother Tom was away at basketball camp. The plan was for Paul to return home after the party, but his uncle and aunt told him he could stay a little longer.
"That [extended stay] probably went on for two or three days," David Rocha said. "And then I remember thinking, 'Man, what's wrong? There's something they're not telling us.'"
When Tom returned from camp, the family gathered at the Wulff home. Carl summoned Tom and Paul into a room and told them their mother had left and would never be coming back.
"From that moment, I believed he had done something to her and he was responsible," said Tom, whom Carl once hit so hard that he broke his eardrum, requiring surgery. "That night, I just said, 'That's bulls---.' Paul and I went with my uncle to his place, and we basically never came back."
Carl delivered a similar message to Dolores' family.
"Matter of fact, like, 'It's over, she's gone, she's never coming back,'" Janet said. "He said, 'We'll just have to get on with our lives.' I said, 'What are you talking about? We gotta find her. That's what we've got to do.'
"He just thought he was going to live happily ever after."
“I was gonna put a gun to his head and say, ‘Well, you got two choices, Wulff. You can tell me or the police tomorrow where she’s at, or I can blow your head off.’” MAT 'SLICK' ROCHA
Heilaman, the Yolo County detective, went to visit Carl, and said he showed no outward concern about his wife's whereabouts. There were no signs of blood in the house, and both Carl's and Dolores' cars were on the property. Heilaman did find a bloodstained blanket and a single earring in Carl's trunk.
"I noticed the top of the trunk lid, there were four distinguishable marks, like four fingers would have reached up and just the tips of the fingers kind of slid like about 6 inches," Heilaman said. "It was greasy, so we couldn't get any prints, but in my mind she was in that trunk alive and she was trying to push up on the trunk lid."
The absence of DNA testing capabilities and other technical limitations would impact the investigation. Even though a lab determined the blood found on the blanket matched Dolores' blood type, it couldn't definitively be proved that it belonged to her.
Heilaman faxed information about Dolores' disappearance to police in neighboring counties, asking for any help, but never received information that could aid his investigation.
The Rochas didn't have much faith in local law enforcement other than Heilaman, so they often took matters into their own hands. The family began conducting its own searches for Dolores, which would go on for years. Nearly every weekend, at least five or six family members would grab shovels, load up trucks and scour canals and fields around Woodland.
"Never a day went by that they weren't actively planning, physically trying to do something in regards to finding her," said Paul, who was too young to join the expeditions.
When not searching for Dolores, the Rochas said, they focused on making life difficult for the man they deemed responsible for her disappearance. They wrote "Killer" and "Butcher" on Carl's house in animal blood and placed carcasses on his front porch.
"We kind of made his life miserable. The police weren't going to do anything to him, so we wanted him out," Baker said. "He drove around town with a bumper sticker that said 'I murdered my wife.' He didn't realize that was there."
According to Baker, those traveling toward Carl's house would see a series of plywood signs: "This ... Way ... To ... The ... Murderer's ... House." (In 1986, Carl would file a $200 million lawsuit accusing his in-laws of harassment, citing threatening phone calls and property damage and alleging they "threw a pig's head, fish entrails, a dummy and urine" on his property. The case was later dismissed.)
"We were like ghosts in his life," said Tony Rocha, another cousin.
In the summer of 1981, Dolores' family hatched a plan for Carl to implicate himself in his wife's disappearance. They called him from a pay phone, pretending to be a sheriff's deputy, and told him a body had been found.
It didn't work, and when Heilaman found out, he was furious. The detective had organized a similar operation for that same year, which he decided to try anyway: 20-25 officers in five or six cars, as well as an airplane, following Carl. A deputy district attorney called, pretending to be a newspaper reporter, and told Carl a body had been found. Carl eventually left his house, but he went into town to buy newspapers. He soon returned and didn't leave again.
Tony Rocha remembers three times where the men in the family "came close" to harming Carl. Slick, formerly an assassin with an elite military unit in Vietnam, even laid out what he would call "Plan B."
"I was gonna take him up to the hills west of here, tie him to a tree, and before doing that, I was gonna dig a grave," Slick recalled. "I was gonna put a gun to his head and say, 'Well, you got two choices, Wulff. You can tell me or the police tomorrow where she's at, or I can blow your head off.' And I assumed that he would choose the first one, not wanting to have his head blown off."
Slick's family ultimately talked him out of the idea.
"They all came to me [and said], 'You can't. You've got to raise Dolores' kids. If you kill him, you'll go to jail,'" he said. "That's why Plan B never transpired, which was for the best."
Paul settled into living in Slick's country home between Woodland and Davis. Slick was a natural protector -- in addition to his service in Vietnam, he was among an initial small group of soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division to provide personal protection for the Little Rock Nine during the desegregation of public schools -- and he quickly became the father figure Paul craved. He is also someone Paul credits with influencing his path toward a career in coaching.
"[Slick] treated me better than my father ever did, and it's not even close," Paul said. "He coached his entire life, whether it was baseball or softball or whatever, and he had this ability to communicate. Watching him enjoy kids get better, and really the relationships he would build, I think that triggered something for me to get into it."
Living with his brother Tom and cousins, David and Mat Jr., sports were a central theme of Paul's childhood, but the inescapable reality of his mother's disappearance always loomed.
"He was, I think, confused. As a kid, I don't think you want to believe that what happened could happen," David Rocha said. "We had bunk beds. He slept on the bottom, and I slept on the top. And a couple times I heard him crying at night. I remember that, but I thought for the most part, he handled it well. It was drawn out to where he was always thinking, 'Oh, my mom's going to be back.' I don't know how long until he thought, 'Wow, she might not be coming back.'"
The district attorney had no plans to charge Carl Wulff. From an official investigative standpoint, the case was cold.
While Slick and the rest of the Rocha family did their best to shield Paul from the police investigation, after two and a half years, they were forced to involve him.
In February 1982, a wrongful death suit was filed in Yolo County Superior Court on behalf of Paul, then 14. Statute of limitations law prevented any of Paul's adult siblings from filing, but Paul had the option until he turned 18. There was no expectation from the attorney, Tom Frankel, to win the civil case. Frankel simply wanted to continue to apply public pressure on the Yolo County Sheriff's Office and the district attorney in the hope they would charge Carl.
In 1984, the county got a new district attorney, David Henderson, who was more open to charging Carl than his predecessor had been.
The family appealed to the attorney general's office in Sacramento, which expressed a willingness to try the case. On March 8, 1985, Carl Wulff was arrested on a Yolo County grand jury murder indictment. After Paul's failed attempt at a confession, Carl was freed on bail 11 days after his arrest, and court proceedings would last until December. A judge then ruled that because Yolo County had waited several years to bring charges against Carl, it violated his right to a speedy trial, and the case was dismissed.
"All this ridiculous pressure is over," Carl then told The Sacramento Bee. "But it's been a trauma. I'll never be the same again."
Paul's life shifted to football. Nine months after his father walked on the murder charge, Paul was named Washington State's starting center, and he would go on to become a decorated four-year starter. But Carl continued to surface. In 1988, he waited for Paul outside the visiting locker room after WSU's win against No. 1-ranked UCLA at the Rose Bowl. Paul talked to Carl for a few minutes before breaking away.
The following spring, Carl called Paul, hoping to become more involved in his life.
"I said, 'Until you tell me more information, I don't have a whole lot to say,'" Paul said. "That was the last time I ever talked to him."
“I’ve been able to relate to young men that come from all backgrounds when they have hardship. ... When someone’s hurting, they’re hurting.” PAUL WULFF
Paul's coaching career started as an assistant at Eastern Washington in 1993. He rose to become the program's head coach seven years later, at 33. Then, in 2007, Paul would become the head coach at his alma mater. He was dismissed in 2011 after compiling a 9-40 record, and over the past decade, he has spent time on staff with the NFL's San Francisco 49ers -- coaching in the Super Bowl -- and as the offensive coordinator at South Florida and assistant head coach at Sacramento State. In December 2019, he joined longtime friend Beau Baldwin's staff at Cal Poly, where he is offensive line coach and running game coordinator.
But along the way, in his personal life, tragedy struck again.
In January 1997, his wife, Tammy, was diagnosed with brain cancer and given three to five years to live.
"The most important woman in my life was my mother, and now my next most important, at that time in my life, my wife, has gotten a death sentence," Paul said.
As Tammy battled for her life, Paul was sent into a spiral of depression that triggered mysterious illnesses and physical exhaustion, he said. He had a harder time hanging onto hope than he did with his mother.
The process led Paul to find a renewed sense of faith, becoming a born-again Christian, which remains an important part of his life.
Before Tammy died in March 2002, she encouraged Paul to move on after she was gone. Later that year, he married Sherry Roberg, who had a daughter, Katie, from a previous relationship. Sherry and Paul now have two sons, Max and Sam.
The mystery around his family largely sat on the edge of his mind until 2005, when a hospital employee called Paul's home in Cheney, Washington.
"They said, 'Hey, we have your father here. There's no contact name and family, but you're the only family we have found. He's in a position where he may not live, and we want to know if you want us to resuscitate,' or any of those types of things," Paul said. "I didn't know what to say, but I was like, 'Well, probably not.' It was a tough situation, and then we hung up."
Sometime in the next few weeks, the hospital called back to inform him that Carl Wulff had died at the age of 70. He never admitted guilt or any involvement in his wife's disappearance.
In late summer 2020, Paul was asked to submit a DNA swab for analysis. Benicia police detective Kenny Hart had contacted him, saying there was a small chance that a body discovered in the San Francisco Bay near Benicia in September 1979 could be his mother.
Even though Hart downplayed the possibility of a match to Paul, he had grown optimistic. Weeks earlier, Hart had received information from the Doe Network, a volunteer organization that works with law enforcement to help solve missing persons cases, which sent him down a path that connected an unidentified body labeled "Jane Doe 16" and Dolores Wulff.
The connection first had been made by Stacie Sherman, an internet sleuth determined to find additional victims of the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, arrested in 2018 on eight counts of murder.
In early 2019, Sherman searched NAMUS, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, as well as newspaper archives for cases that could be connected to DeAngelo. The probe turned up Dolores Wulff's case. Sherman then checked for unidentified bodies found in the same time period and came across the case of Jane Doe 16.
"Benicia and Woodland are not far apart," said Sherman, who submitted the potential match to the Doe Network. "There weren't a lot of details for the Benicia woman, but it was close enough in time. She was dressed, she had nylons on, she didn't seem like a homeless person."
Hart expanded his search through NAMUS to range from San Francisco to Sacramento. He received 11 possible matches, 10 of which already had family DNA samples on file.
"I remember sitting in my office going, 'It's going to be Dolores because there's no DNA on file,'" Hart said. "The more I read Dolores' case, there were a lot of similarities. ... I actually really became convinced it was going to be her early on. I just had to prove it."
“I definitely felt a need to put closure on this as soon as I could because I knew there was a family out there that had waited a long time.” DETECTIVE KENNY HART
On Sept. 3, the remains of Jane Doe 16 were exhumed from a nearby cemetery, and a femur bone was sent to a lab in Richmond, California.
For six weeks, as Hart awaited the DNA results, he dove into the Wulff case, scouring newspapers.com for stories about the disappearance, the search, the trial and Paul's rise in coaching. He kept a picture of Dolores on the wall behind his desk as a daily reminder to work toward solving her case.
"I definitely felt a need to put closure on this as soon as I could," Hart said, "because I knew there was a family out there that had waited a long time."
On Oct. 20, Hart received confirmation from the Department of Justice that the DNA was a match. The 27-year police veteran, who had once worked in the county coroner's office, scripted what to say to Paul. He left a voicemail, and Paul immediately called back.
Hart, a lump in his throat, delivered a message four decades in the making.
"At first, I didn't say anything; I couldn't say anything," Paul said. "You're thinking, 'Is this real?'"
Paul then began his own set of notifications: his wife and children, his siblings, his uncle, cousins and other loved ones who had lived through the pain of losing Dolores without finding her.
"The raw emotions [were] brought back for so many of those people," Paul said. "It felt good, but I think there's a sense of frustration for some of them. Here she was found, literally 48 days after she disappeared.
"They couldn't connect the dots."
As Paul let his loved ones know the news, he saw that the identification of Dolores reopened wounds for some and provided closure for others. Paul drove with Sherry to Woodland to inform Slick, now 83.
Paul and Sherry sat in Slick's apartment in a senior living complex on the edge of town.
"[Paul] just said, 'They found Mom,'" Slick said.
"It hit him, there's no doubt," Paul said. "There was a level of surprise, too, and happiness, like, 'We can be in the same cemetery, right next to each other.'"
The past year has brought more moments to process the impact, perhaps most of all for Paul.
"I've been to the site she was at for 40 years," he said. "I have physically gone through the steps more than [my family members] have. To put some of the pieces together, it has helped me with this whole thing."
“It felt good, but I think there’s a sense of frustration for some of them. Here she was found, literally 48 days after she disappeared.” PAUL WULFF
Hart told Paul he had no obligation to see a photo of Dolores' remains, but Paul insisted.
"That was hard," Paul said of seeing a photo of several bones, including the one scraped to extract DNA for the match. "But I look at it like, instead of this disappearance of this physical being, at least there was something. She was somewhere, we now know where, and there's proof right there."
Dolores' remains were cremated on June 28, and Paul arranged for her ashes to be transported back to Woodland.
"When someone said, 'We're going to take your mom and we're going to move her here,' I hadn't heard those words said to me in 40 years," Paul said. "That struck me as emotional, and it still is right now. Because it's like an anticipation and a realization that [we're] actually going to see or have something that said that it's her.
"[Since] that day she drove away from me, there's been none of that."
Finally at rest
On July 16, about 60 people assembled at St. Joseph's Cemetery in Woodland. A hole had been dug atop the grave of Frank Rocha, Dolores' father, who died in 1982. An urn containing Dolores' ashes was sealed and placed in the ground. Family and friends then each laid flowers atop the gravesite.
"That was a hell of a realization," Paul said. "Good God, I felt blessed, like, 'Wow, we get to do this. We never thought that we would do this.'"
The next day, more than 200 people gathered at a ranch outside Woodland to celebrate Dolores' life. Family and friends shared stories about her -- how she was always late, always fashionably dressed, enjoyed off-color humor, spoiled Paul and his friends, and brightened lives.
The turnout at the memorial demonstrated to the Wulff family how many people remain invested in their tragedy.
"We're a product of the village," Paul said. "All those people had some hand in it, keeping us going and supporting us."
Anna Marie, the only one of Dolores' children who spoke at the memorial, said it gave her a perspective she didn't previously recognize.
"I just came back into this and saw unbelievable amounts of love that this community has had for my mom and my family," she said during the memorial service. "I didn't really get it when everything was crazy. I just thought, 'We're an embarrassment. It's a bad gossip world,' and I just kind of ran. But I am seeing such amazing love and acts of love from friends and family."
“We’re a product of the village. All those people had some hand in it, keeping us going and supporting us.” PAUL WULFF
Paul sat in the first row, soaking it in. The months since his mother's remains were identified had been a journey of self-understanding.
He gained a better appreciation for the sacrifices people made to give him a normal life. He learned things about his mother, and any sliver of doubt he had about the circumstances of her disappearance went away.
"It has changed me and it's going to, easily forever. Knowing the love that she provided people and the respect and then just also the finality," he said. "[It was] 99% sure we knew what happened, but this put the 100% piece to it. The 100% she is somewhere we know; we 100% know that [Carl] did it; we 100% know that she didn't suffer a long time.'"
The identification of Dolores' remains has not significantly impacted the status of the Yolo County Sheriff's Office homicide investigation. Officially, the investigation remains open, but it is suspended pending further information, according to a sheriff's spokesperson. Sixteen years after his death, Carl Wulff remains the primary suspect. While it is unlikely the case will ever be closed, an official resolution is the least of the Wulff family's concerns.
"There were just so many emotions you go through," Paul said. "Was she trapped somewhere? Was she tortured? All the things that I thought about over the years -- thought she was going to come to the door a couple of years later. All of a sudden, you can scale back all those horrible thoughts you had all those years and realize, 'OK, this is what did happen.' Now I know."
“It has changed me and it’s going to, easily forever. Knowing the love that she provided people and the respect and then just also the finality.” PAUL WULFF
On his first visit to the site near where Dolores' body was found, Paul collected a piece of driftwood at the water's edge. He intends to make it into something, one of the "little pieces of history" he has collected since October.
Paul also wants to bring more of Dolores into his life with Sherry, Katie, Max and Sam. He's still his mother's son, inheriting her tardiness and positive attitude, but he wants to share some of what he's learned about her.
"I'll keep her present and her type of spirit, being someone that's got the humor, someone that's got the laughter and love, and was such a positive force. If I could live like that, for my kids and my family, that'll be really important," Paul said. "I'll try to honor her, either by being like her or by living like she would want to live."
On his 300-mile drive home down the California coast the day after the memorial, Paul experienced unexpected emotions. He felt for his wife and sons, who never got to meet his mom, and for Dolores, who didn't experience being a grandmother. He thought about the moments he never got to share with her, too.
As he kept driving, though, a sense of calm washed over him.
"I didn't realize I had something carrying in my soul through this whole process," Paul said. "I thought I had dealt with it all in my life. I felt really good afterwards, a very solemn, peaceful feeling."