Serial killer spills secrets for cash
One by one, the young women vanished from the dusty farm towns of the Central Valley.
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 official concern.
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-addled duo.
Shermantine and Herzog never disclosed where they dumped the mutilated corpses of their victims, leaving bereaved families with only grim speculation.
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 then.”
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 suspected victims.
“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 report.