'Speed Freak Killer' was paid $33,000 to guide search for victims
Guided by a serial killer on death row, San Joaquin County sheriff's deputies and public works employees were digging Saturday at suspected dumping grounds in two counties in search of the remains of victims of the notorious "Speed Freak Killers."
Condemned serial killer Wesley Shermantine, 45, drew maps of where he and late accomplice Loren Herzog buried as many as 20 victims of their drug-fueled murder spree that began in the mid-1980s and terrorized San Joaquin and Calaveras counties for more than a decade. Shermantine gave up the information in exchange for $33,000 provided by Sacramento bounty hunter Leonard Padilla, Padilla told The Times.
On Thursday, remains tentatively identified from dental records as those of Cyndi Vanderheiden, a 25-year-old Linden woman who disappeared from her home in 1998, were found in a remote area of Calaveras County, said San Joaquin County Sheriff's spokesman Les Garcia. Authorities are still awaiting the results of DNA analysis to confirm the identity.
Searchers using heavy equipment operated by county workers found the remains of another young woman Friday near the same site to which Shermantine had directed Padilla with maps mailed to the bounty hunter from San Quentin State Prison.
Investigators haven't yet identified the remains found Friday, but information provided by Shermantine to Padilla indicated they could be those of 16-year-old Chevelle "Chevy" Wheeler, who went missing from Stockton in 1985.
"We have information that we may have 10 to 20 bodies in that well," Garcia said of the focus of the search Saturday, a site identified by Shermantine on farmland in the town of Linden, about 13 miles east of Stockton.
Padilla and Stockton Record reporter Scott Smith had provided the information to sheriff's officials months ago, Padilla said. Law enforcement authorities only initiated their search, Padilla said, after he took cadaver-sniffing dogs to the sites identified by Shermantine and "got a lot of hits." Prison screening of the communications sent through the mail by the death row inmate also put pressure on authorities to reopen the cold case, the bounty hunter said.
Herzog, Shermantine's childhood friend and partner in crime, committed suicide last month after learning that Shermantine was providing authorities with information that could lead to new charges. Herzog, 46, was living in a trailer at High Desert State Prison in Susanville, where his body was found Jan. 16. His initial conviction and sentence to 77 years to life was overturned when an appeals court deemed his confession to the crimes coerced. He served 14 years under a plea deal and was released in 2010 but had been required to live on prison property under the terms of his parole.
Shermantine was motivated to help locate the bodies of his victims by the $33,000, Padilla said, because he still owes $18,000 in restitution ordered by the court that sentenced him to death in 2001. As long as the judgment remains unpaid, any money deposited into Shermantine's prison account gets confiscated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to be put toward the restitution debt, the bounty hunter explained.
Shermantine believes the remaining $15,000 will be at his disposal, Padilla said, and has asked that part of it be used to buy head stones for his parents who died while he was in prison. Padilla speculated, though, that other family members of victims may seek restitution awards from the condemned prisoner's remaining funds.
Shermantine was at first reluctant to help authorities locate the remains of his victims, fearful that he could face additional murder charges, said Padilla, who said he financed the inducement to the condemned prisoner with proceeds from his less high-profile locating jobs.
"He said this could be very incriminating for him to do, but I told him he's already on death row and they're not going to kill you more than once," the bounty hunter said.
-- Carol J. Williams
Photo: The site where a skull and teeth were found in San Andreas.
Credit: Fox 40 Sacramento