It’s unbelievably tough being a 12-year-old boy whose mother mysteriously disappears.
It’s indescribable when your father is accused of killing her.
But the tragic disappearance of Delores Wulff in 1979 helped form Paul Wulff into the man he is today, family members say, and helped build the character he will rely on in his new high-profile role as WSU’s head football coach.
“We’re family, and I consider him my son,” said 70-year-old Mathew Rocha, who became Paul Wulff’s guardian and father-figure after the boy’s mother disappeared.
Rocha sat at Wulff’s side when former WSU coach Jim Walden visited their California home and successfully recruited the Davis High School standout to play for the Cougars.
And a very proud Rocha was with Wulff again on Tuesday when he was named to his dream job as WSU’s new coach.
“But you talk about a young kid getting some hard lumps,” Rocha said, back at home in Woodland, Calif. “His character got him through it.”
Delores Wulff was a popular, outgoing 45-year-old secretary at Woodland High School when she vanished in the middle of the night from her rural home in Yolo County, an agricultural area tucked off the interstate about 20 miles west of Sacramento, Calif., on July 31, 1979.
Her body was never found.
Paul Wulff has said little publicly about his mother’s disappearance.
In 1988, while playing center for WSU, he told a reporter: “It has gotten to the point where I want to forget about it, even though I know I can’t.”
On Friday, while scouting recruits for the 2008 season, he was asked if he still thinks his father killed his mother. “I do,” he said. “It’s tough, there was no closure. That’s the toughest piece.”
Within days of Delores Wulff’s disappearance, Carl L. Wulff Sr., a prominent insurance executive and board member of the Woodland Chamber of Commerce, became the prime suspect, investigators in the case said last week.
Carl Wulff denied harming his wife, but refused a polygraph. He told detectives she left home the night their sons were staying at the nearby house of her brother, Mathew Rocha, and his family.
After the disappearance, Paul, 12, and his older brother, Tom, 17, went to live with Rocha. Another brother, Carli, and sister Anna Marie were adults living on their own.
Delores Wulff’s disappearance led the local TV news and generated page one headlines in the Sacramento Bee.
Within days of her disappearance, according to news reports, Carl Wulff began moving her personal items out of the house.
Psychics and a medium, called in by the family, immediately pronounced the disappearance a murder and suggested various locations where the body was hidden. For months, the family spent weekends digging up the five acres around their home and other remote areas within 15 miles. They even checked their septic tank.
Investigators said they found traces of her blood, an earring, a strand of hair and a palm print in the trunk of Carl Wulff Sr.’s car. That discovery led detectives to hire a private plane with heat-detection equipment to search for a body.
Months later, they developed a ruse called “Operation Hound Dog” to try and flesh out the killer using 50 surveillance officers.
“It was a tremendous experience for a boy that young – for anybody – to go through,” Mathew Rocha said this week. “You know, if you go through that kind of adversity, especially at that young age, you can handle anything later in life, including the pressures of being a head football coach.”
Twenty-eight years later, Rocha said he and his sons, David, who lives in Ventura, Calif., and Mat, who lives in Seattle, are still consumed by the fact Delores’ body was never found.
“We immediately got suspicious,” Mathew Rocha said.
His sister had stayed with his family a couple of times in the weeks before she went missing, he said, and family members knew there were troubles in the marriage.
“There’s probably only one guy in the world who didn’t like her,” he said. “She was just extremely friendly, never said anything bad about anybody.
“She went back to him when I told her, ‘Don’t go back,’ ” Mathew Rocha said. “At that point in time, she wanted to make her marriage work. You know, we’re Portuguese and Catholics and the old philosophy was, ‘You make it work,’ you know, which is probably not always a good idea.”
Rocha said Paul Wulff is a lot like Delores. “Everybody likes this kid,” he said. “He’s very charismatic, a lot like his mother.”
Cary Thommeraason, who recently ended a 30-year career as the chief investigator for the Yolo County District Attorney, remembers the Wulff case – one of the high-profile cases of his career.
“They were building Interstate 505 down here at the time of her disappearance, and that’s where we believe she ended up – under the freeway,” Thommeraason said.
Ron Heilaman, the lead sheriff’s detective on the case, said he still believes Carl Wulff killed his wife and dumped her body in a remote area. The retired investigator said he believes Wulff went to the dump site after getting an anonymous phone call claiming his wife’s body had been found.
Heilaman later learned the phone call was a ruse by the Rocha family, frustrated that an arrest hadn’t been made. The family later called the detective and admitted making the call, but said they lost Carl Wulff in their attempts to follow him. That angered Heilaman.
“I was sure hoping over the years they’d come up with a body, but that just didn’t happen,” Heilaman said this week from his home in Grass Valley, Calif.
In 1982, Paul Wulff, through Mathew Rocha, filed a wrongful death civil suit against Carl Wulff Sr., alleging he killed his wife, according to the Sacramento Bee. In 1985, after Delores’ family took the case to the California attorney general, Carl Wulff was indicted by a Yolo County grand jury. He was arrested March 8, 1985, by Heilaman. Bond was set at $400,000.
From the time of their mother’s disappearance until their father’s arrest six years later, the Wulff children were largely estranged from him. Family members say he’d sometimes be in the stands to watch Paul play high school football.
With criminal charges pending, the wrongful death suit was dismissed on May 31, 1985, at the request of the Wulff children, the Sacramento Bee reported.
Carl Wulff hired a well-known San Francisco criminal defense attorney who located two witnesses who said they’d seen Delores Wulff after her disappearance – claims that could not be verified.
On Dec. 16, 1985, after several days of hearings, a visiting judge dismissed the murder charge.
Seven months later, on July 23, 1986, Carl Wulff filed a $200 million damage suit against his wife’s family, including Mathew Rocha. The suit ultimately was dismissed with no damages awarded.
Paul Wulff’s cousin, David Rocha, now a 41-year-old sheriff’s deputy in Santa Barbara County, said he has no doubt – after 19 years in law enforcement – that Carl Wulff was to blame.
When Paul moved into the Rocha home, he and David – both close to the same age – shared a bedroom. Paul’s brother, Tom Wulff, shared a bedroom with Mat Rocha.
The four teens played “pickle baseball” in the living room, touch football in the backyard and raised 4-H pigs when they weren’t rough-housing, Mat Rocha recalled.
“I know he missed her, his mom,” David Rocha said. “He was her baby. But he wouldn’t talk a lot about it. He coped with it well. I think it, you know, prepared him a lot for life.”
Carl Wulff, who was 70, died of heart failure on Feb. 23, 2005 – apparently lonely and largely estranged from his children.
After his death, his oldest son Carli traveled to San Diego to process his belongings, hoping to find a death-bed confession or details about his wife’s disappearance, according to Heilaman, the case detective.
Nothing was found.