‘Speed Freak Killers’: Bones from mass grave sent to DOJ lab
More than 1,000 bones uncovered from a mass grave of the alleged "Speed Freak Killers" dig site are being studied and analyzed at the California Department of Justice crime lab in Northern California.
Dr. John Tonkyn, the lab's supervisor, said bone fragments from the grave outside Linden, Calif., have already started to arrive at the Richmond lab for potential identification.
"It would be in a sealed package with bubble wrap around it," Tonkyn said.
His team doesn't expect to test all the bone fragments recovered at the site, but will instead focus on samples from individual skeletons identified by police experts. Technicians will only test one sample from each.
They will first crush the sample into a fine powder, and then add chemicals to isolate the DNA markers.
But the information they harvest from a skeleton is only half the job. Next, that DNA has to be matched with a sample from the missing person. Sometimes the second sample comes from a personal item belonging to the victim -- a comb or a toothbrush, for example. Or sometimes the sample comes from a relative of the missing person.
Those samples are given voluntarily and usually only require a swab, rubbed on the inside of the donor's cheek eight times.
Since 2001, the lab's team has used DNA samples to solve 400 missing person cases -– and they're hoping to solve more with the discovery of the bones.
Tonkyn say that when the DOJ technicians do get a match, they don't get to bring that news to grieving family members of missing persons.
"So while we may find [out] secondhand, or through the news, we don't have direct contact with the families. Still, it's very rewarding to find answers for a family that's been going through something painful for a very long time," Tonkyn said.
Investigators have pulled bones, bone fragments, clothing fragments, purses, jewelry and other items from an old well in San Joaquin County.
They are looking for victims of the so-called Speed Freak Killers, Wesley Shermantine and Loren Herzog, who were arrested in 1999 for a series of slayings that may have spanned more than 15 years.
Shermantine was sentenced to death for killing four women. Herzog was to receive 77 years to life for three murders, but his sentence was overturned by an appeals court that found his confession to some of the crimes had been coerced.
Herzog served 14 years on a plea deal and was paroled in 2010. He committed suicide two months ago, shortly after a bounty hunter told him that Shermantine was going to give the location of victims' bodies to authorities.
-- Ben Deci, Fox 40 News