Serial killer spills secrets for cash A bounty hunter's offer could finally bring closure to Central Valley families, as authorities seek remains of women who disappeared in the 1980s and '90s.
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- Date: Sun, 12 Feb 2012 10:10:50 -0800 (PST)
Serial killer spills secrets for cash
A bounty hunter's offer could finally bring closure to Central Valley
families, as authorities seek remains of women who disappeared in the
1980s and '90s.
Wesley Shermantine, who is on death row, was arrested in 1999 for a
series of murders known as the “Speed Freak” killings. (California
Department of Corrections)
By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times
February 11, 2012, 9:43 p.m.
One by one, the young women vanished from the dusty farm towns of the
They were often addicts or prostitutes, and their disappearances over
a 15-year period in the 1980s and '90s didn't seem to draw much
Two childhood friends and locally renowned troublemakers, Wesley
Shermantine and Loren Herzog, were eventually arrested in 1999 for a
series of murders known as the "Speed Freak" killings, and many of the
missing were presumed to have fallen victim to the methamphetamine-
Shermantine and Herzog never disclosed where they dumped the mutilated
corpses of their victims, leaving bereaved families with only grim
And then years later came an unusual offer: Shermantine would tell all
for $33,000, enough to pay off his restitution order and buy a
television and other comforts for his death row cell.
The condemned serial killer began to draw maps.
On Saturday, investigators began digging at an abandoned well on a
cattle farm near Linden, about 13 miles east of Stockton.
"We may have 10 to 20 bodies in that well," said San Joaquin County
Sheriff's Department spokesman Les Garcia.
Last week, sheriff's deputies from Calaveras and San Joaquin counties
had descended on a secluded hillside near San Andreas, northeast of
Stockton, with cadaver-sniffing dogs and excavating equipment.
They unearthed skull fragments, bones and teeth believed to belong to
two of as many as 20 of Shermantine and Herzog's suspected victims.
One set of remains found Thursday has been tentatively identified as
belonging to 25-year-old Cyndi Vanderheiden of Clements, northeast of
Stockton, who disappeared 14 years ago. Authorities suspect that the
other remains are those of Chevelle "Chevy" Wheeler, 16, missing from
Stockton since 1985.
The discoveries rekindled memories of the brush fire of fear that
swept the valley a generation ago. But it also brought a measure of
peace to those who have been waiting so long to learn what happened.
"It was hell, pure hell," Wheeler's mother, Paula, said in a phone
interview from her home in Crossville, Tenn. "When we reported her
missing, they thought she was a runaway. That's what they did back
When word came Friday that her daughter's remains had been found, she
said she at last had some sense of closure.
"It's been 26 years," said Wheeler, 64. "We thought we would never be
able to have her."
The idea to tell everything came from Shermantine, not out of remorse
but a desire for some extra amenities in prison.
Shermantine and Herzog had been friends since childhood, when the two
lived across the street from each other in Linden. They started
killing animals as children, said Rob Dick, a private investigator who
has spent a dozen years investigating the pair and compiling a list of
"They basically hunted people," Dick said. "At some point in there,
they figured out how to take women, do whatever they want with them
and make them disappear."
Shermantine was sentenced to San Quentin's death row for killing four
women, Herzog to 77 years to life for three murders.
Authorities long suspected that the two men had committed other
murders in the valley but had no proof.
Herzog's conviction was overturned by an appeals court that found his
confession to some of the crimes had been coerced.
He served 14 years on a plea deal, and was paroled in 2010.
After sitting on death row for five years, Shermantine told Stockton
Record reporter Scott Smith that he would lead authorities to the
bodies of his victims in exchange for money. No one took him up on the
offer for another five years, when Sacramento bounty hunter Leonard
Padilla stepped forward.
Padilla had been following the mystery of the missing valley women and
was willing to pay for the truth.
Shermantine was at first reluctant to help authorities, fearful that
he could face additional murder charges, said Padilla, who financed
the payment with earnings from less high-profile-nabbing jobs.
"I told him he's already on death row and they're not going to kill
you more than once," the bounty hunter said.
"On death row, a Hershey bar is a big luxury," Padilla said of
Shermantine's desire for money.
After paying $18,000 in restitution to his victims' families,
Shermantine figured, he would have $15,000 left for himself, Padilla
said. Shermantine told him that in addition to snacks and a
television, he wanted to pay for headstones for the graves of his
parents, who died after he went to prison.
Padilla speculated, though, that other family members of victims may
seek monetary awards from the condemned prisoner's remaining funds.
Padilla told Herzog about the impending disclosures two months ago.
Herzog hanged himself shortly afterward, his body found in a trailer
on the High Desert State Prison grounds in Susanville where he had
been required to live as a condition of his 2010 parole.
Even when authorities had the maps in hand, Shermantine's directions
weren't taken seriously and languished for months until Padilla took
his own cadaver dogs to the San Andreas site and "got a lot of hits."
The first maps had been misleading, referring to objects like a
trailer that had once been on Shermantine family land but had been
removed since the bodies were dumped there.
Deputies were finally compelled to search the sites after some remains
found in 2003 were identified last year but not connected to the Speed
Freak killings until last month.
In Clements, the town of about 400 people that Cyndi Vanderheiden was
from, Joe Mehrten remembered how everyone pulled together behind her
distraught parents when she disappeared in 1998.
"Pretty much everyone signed up for Cyndi's Search, as they called
it," he said. "They searched up and down the river, up in the hills,
everywhere. No sign."
Times staff writers Rick Rojas and Diana Marcum contributed to this
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