Grisly discoveries give families hope for closure

By Paul Elias

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 14 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

FILE - In a Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012 file photo San Joaquin Sheriff deputies and Department of Justice personnel sift for human remains that were excavated from an abandoned cattle ranch near Linden, Calif. Authorities say Wesley Shermantine and Loren Herzog, dubbed the "Speed Freak Killers," wantonly murdered many throughout California's rural Central Valley before their arrest in 1999. Now, motivated by a bounty hunter's promise to pay, one of those convicted killer's is breaking his long-held secret and leading investigators to burial sites that have yielded hundreds of human bones.

The Record, Craig Sanders, file, Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — The childhood friends killed for the first time less than three months after their high school graduation in 1984. Then they seemingly killed with impunity for the next 15 years, with one man making barroom boasts about their ability to make people disappear.

By the time the hunting buddies were finally arrested in 1999, investigators say the notorious "Speed Freak Killers" killed as many as 20 people during a 15-year spree that terrorized California's rural Central Valley. Some of their victims were left at the scene. Most were never seen again, especially their female victims.

Even after their convictions in 2001, Wesley Shermantine and Loren Herzog steadfastly refused to divulge any burial sites.

Now, motivated by a bounty hunter's promise to pay $33,000 for the location of the missing, Shermantine is breaking a long silence. Family members of the missing hope the new details will lead to the discovery of their loved ones' remains and closure after years of torment. Two victims have already been identified and hundreds of human remains have been recovered over the last several days. More are expected to be found.

"It is a happy occasion," said Paula Wheeler, mother of 16-year-old Chevelle "Chevy" Wheeler, whose remains were tentatively identified Friday after the girl disappeared in 1985. Chevy's portrait hangs in the living room of the Wheeler's Crossville, Tenn., home. The Wheelers intend to have Chevy's remains cremated and displayed at their home.

Shermantine told Sacramento bounty hunter Leonard Padilla that he plans to use the $33,000 to pay $15,000 in court-ordered restitution to victims' families. The rest will buy headstones for his deceased parents and small luxuries in prison like candy bars and a private television set he can't buy because every penny he receives now is used to pay down the restitution debt. Padilla hopes to claim rewards offered by the state of California for information about missing persons thought to be the victims of Shermantine and Herzog.

Using crude maps Shermantine hand-drew in his Death Row cell, investigators have dug up three sites since Thursday that have yielded human remains.

The site of the biggest find is an abandoned well outside the city of Stockton, near the town of Linden, that produced hundreds of human bones, purses, shoes, jewelry and other evidence over the weekend. That raised Joan Shelley's hopes that her 16-year-old daughter JoAnn Hobson will be found.

"I feel they are going to find her," a tearful Shelley told The Associated Press in a phone interview from her Manteca home. JoAnn disappeared in 1985, and investigators have long suspected Shermantine and Herzog in the girl's abduction and murder. But they never had enough evidence to charge them.

Padilla said Shermantine calls the well "Herzog's boneyard," and pins all the bodies that will be found there on Herzog. That's nothing new. Beyond steadfastly refusing to disclose the location of bodies, the childhood friends have also maintained that the other single handedly did all the killing.

Herzog hanged himself on Jan. 16 outside the Susanville trailer he was paroled to after an appeals court tossed out his confession as illegally coerced. He committed suicide hours after Padilla told him Shermantine was prepared to tell authorities about the missing.

"I could hear him catch his breath when I mentioned the well," Padilla said of his conversation with Herzog on Jan. 16. "He thanked me, and didn't say anything more, but I could hear him catch his breath."

On Thursday, at a site in Calaveras County near property Shermantine's parents once owned, searchers found a skull identified as Cyndi Vanderheiden, who disappeared in 1998. The next day, about a ¼ mile away, searchers found a blanket containing a partial skull and other remains believed to belong to Wheeler.

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