Grisly discoveries give families hope for closure

By Paul Elias

Associated Press

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

Shermantine was convicted of both women's murders in 2001. He was arrested in 1999 after his car was re-possessed and investigators found Vanderheiden's blood in the trunk. Using a new collection technique not available in 1985, they also found Wheeler's DNA in a remote Calaveras County cabin owned by Shermantine. The cabin was near where Wheeler's body was found.

Shermantine was also convicted of robbing and killing two drifters as they sat in a car in a rural area about two miles west of Stockton. Tire tracks left at the scene matched those of a red pickup Shermantine drove at the time.

During his trial, which opened in 2000 and was moved to Santa Clara because of publicity in the Central Valley, prosecutor Thomas Testa told the jury that Shermantine was suspected of killing 20 people. Testa told the jury that Shermantine boasted publicly — and threateningly __ on several occasions about his ability to make people disappear.

"There are no fingerprints, no eyewitnesses, no smoking gun," Testa said in his opening statement. "Wes told several individuals that he had hunted the ultimate kill: humans."

John Vanderheiden, Cyndi's father, owns a Clement bar the deadly duo frequented. Vanderheiden said Shermantine boasted loudly on several occasions that he was a killer.

Vanderheiden said he chalked it up to drunken nonsense — until his daughter disappeared.

Shermantine was convicted of four murders and sentenced to death.

Another Santa Clara jury rejected Testa's plea that Herzog also receive the death penalty after he was initially charged with five first-degree murders.

Instead, Herzog was convicted of first-degree murders for his involvement in the deaths of the drifters and Vanderheiden. The jury rejected the same charges for the murder of Henry Howell, who investigators suspect Shermantine killed in September of 1984 on a lonely stretch of highway in Hope Valley, between Lake Tahoe to Stockton. Howell is believed to be the duo's first victim.

Herzog was sentenced to 78 years in prison, but that sentenced was reduced to 14 years after an appeals court tossed out his confession as coerced and prosecutors reluctantly offered him a deal to plead guilty to a voluntary manslaughter charge connected to Vanderheiden's death and three accessory to murder charges connected to the killings of the drifters and Howell. He was paroled in 2010.

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