Old well becomes focus of search for more bodies

PAUL ELIAS Associated Press Published:

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- A death row inmate has led authorities to an area of Northern California believed to be the burial sites of two victims of the notorious "Speed Freak Killers," as searchers focused Saturday on an abandoned well for any additional remains.

A partial human skull and bones were found buried Friday on a remote property in Calaveras County. A day earlier, searchers found a skull and bones at another site in the area about 60 miles south of Sacramento.

They were led there by inmate Wesley Shermantine, who was convicted of murdering 16-year-old Chevelle "Chevy" Wheeler. Authorities say he and childhood friend Loren Herzog killed the girl as part of a methamphetamine-fueled killing spree in the 1980s. The two were arrested in 1999.

Deputy Les Garcia, spokesman for the San Joaquin County sheriff's department, said it would take time to identify the remains found Friday. But Wheeler's parents said authorities notified them that the remains were found in a spot where Shermantine said their daughter was buried after she disappeared in 1985.

"They said they found her wrapped in a blanket," Paula Wheeler, the girl's mother, told The Associated Press by phone from the family's home in Crossville, Tenn. "This is a happy day. We can finally have some closure."

The remains found Thursday were thought to be of Cyndi Vanderheiden, a 25-year-old last seen in front of her Linden home in 1998. Both sets of remains were found in two sites near property once owned by Shermantine's family.

Shermantine agreed to disclose the locations of bodies in return for a bounty hunter's offer of $33,000. He is giving hand-drawn maps to authorities, who are now turning their attention to a third site -- an abandoned well -- in San Joaquin County.

The old cattle ranch well near the town of Linden, just outside of Stockton, has layers of backfill that have slowed down its excavation, authorities said. Shermantine claims Herzog buried as many as 10 bodies there.

Shermantine was convicted of four murders and sentenced to death. Herzog was convicted of three murders and sentenced to 77 years to life in prison, though that was later reduced to 14 years. An appeals court tossed his first-degree murder convictions after ruling his confession was illegally obtained.

Herzog was paroled in 2010 to a trailer outside the High Desert State Prison in Susanville. He committed suicide outside that trailer last month after Sacramento bounty hunter Leonard Padilla told him Shermantine was disclosing the location of the well along with two other locations.

Padilla has promised to pay Shermantine as much as $33,000 to disclose the locations of the bodies. He said he hopes to collect on rewards being offered by the state of California for information about several missing persons suspected of being victims of Herzog and Shermantine.