700 human bone fragments unearthed from mass grave

February 14, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Authorities unearthed about 700 human bone fragments today during their search for human remains in what appears to be a mass grave in Linden, east of Stockton, used by two men who are known as the "Speed Freak Killers."

Deputy Les Garcia, a spokesman for the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Office, said that before authorities began searching the well in Linden, they spent Thursday and Friday searching locations in San Andreas in Calaveras County, about 29 miles to the northeast.

Among the remains recovered by authorities in Calaveras County were body parts preliminarily believed to be that of Cyndi Vanderheiden, a 25-year-old woman from Clements in San Joaquin County who disappeared in 1998 and Chevelle "Chevy" Wheeler, who was reported missing in 1985, Garcia said.

Garcia said that authorities have recovered more than 1,000 bone fragments from all locations so far.

"We have a long way to go" before authorities can determine the identity of the victims, Garcia said.

Sheriff Steve Moore has asked the state's crime lab to expedite the process of identifying all the remains, Garcia said.

Wesley Shermantine, 45, and Loren Herzog, who was 46 when he hanged himself on Jan. 16, are believed to have killed a large number of people in the 1980s and 1990s and authorities hope to match the remains now being found with victims in unsolved cases from that time period, Garcia said.

The two men allegedly were high on methamphetamine at the time of the killings, according to authorities.

Among the many unsolved cases that authorities are trying to connect to Shermantine and Herzog is that of Michaela Garecht, a 9-year-old Hayward girl who was kidnapped in 1998 and never found.

Shermantine, who has been convicted of four counts of murder and is on death row, sparked interest in Garecht's case recently when he told a newspaper reporter that Herzog, who attended Linden High School with him in the 1980s, may have abducted Garecht.

On Nov. 19, 1988, Garecht, who had blond hair and blue eyes, rode her scooter with a friend to the Rainbow Market on Mission Boulevard in Hayward.

When the two girls came out of the store, they noticed that Garecht's scooter had been moved. When she went to retrieve it, a man grabbed her and pulled her into a car.

However, Hayward police Lt. Roger Keener said Shermantine hasn't provided any concrete information connecting Herzog to Garecht's disappearance because all he said is that a photo of Herzog in the late 1980s is similar to a police sketch of the man who abducted Garecht.

Keener said there also was a similarity between the police sketch and a photo of Philip Garrido in that time period but Garrido ultimately was ruled out as a suspect in Garecht's case.

Garrido and his wife were convicted of kidnapping 11-year-old Jaycee Dugard in South Lake Tahoe in 1991 and holding her captive for 18 years.

Garecht's mother, Sharon Murch, said in an email message that her mind doesn't think that human remains that have been found recently in the Central Valley are those of her daughter but her heart wonders whether it's a possibility.

"There is the head which believes this has nothing to do with Michaela's case, but the heart lives with the fears anyway," Murch said.

Murch said, "My mind knows that I have a lot of very good reasons for believing that this is not Michaela. Shermantine never claimed any direct knowledge of Michaela, the victims seem to be pretty local girls, and none of the known victims are children."

However, she said, "It just keeps beating on me like rain on the roof, and I've definitely been losing sleep over it. It's definitely been a very stressful time."

Murch said, "My desire for resolution is not nearly as strong as my desire to hold onto the hope I have lived with for so long. I still believe my daughter can come home alive."

Herzog was convicted in 2001 of three counts of murder but in 2004 an appeals court threw out his convictions after ruling that his confession had been obtained illegally.

Herzog then accepted a plea deal in which he was sentenced to only 14 years in state prison, with credit for time already served, and on Sept. 18, 2010, he was paroled to a trailer outside the High Desert State Prison in Susanville.

Authorities said he killed himself there the night of Jan. 16.

Bounty hunter Leonard Padilla said he spoke to Herzog by phone at 2 p.m. that day and informed him that Shermantine had disclosed to authorities where the two men had disposed their victims' bodies. Padilla said he paid Shermantine $33,000 to help authorities locate the victims' bodies.

He said he had first offered Shermantine money to locate the bodies when he was standing trial in 2001 but Shermantine rejected the offer at that time.

Padilla said Shermantine is using $18,000 to pay court restitution costs and the remaining $15,00 will pay for a gravestone for his parents, who died while he's been in custody, a computer, a television and candy bars for the rest of his life.

Garcia said authorities currently are searching a well on an abandoned cattle ranch in Linden. He said authorities found bone fragments there on Friday, Saturday and Sunday but weren't able to continue searching on Monday because it was raining.

The search resumed today and will continue "until we stop finding remains," Garcia said.

Padilla said Shermantine has also directed authorities to search another well nearby where he says 30 bodies are buried.

Padilla said Shermantine has told him that he didn't kill any of the victims and Herzog was the killer in all the cases.

Garcia said his office hasn't spoken to Shermantine since he revealed the locations to Padilla because Shermantine's lawyer is appealing his conviction and doesn't want him to talk to law enforcement.

But Garcia said of Shermantine, "I don't think he's being truthful" in claiming that he didn't kill anyone.


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