County social workers had been repeatedly called to Leroy's home to investigate allegations of abuse--claims that were never substantiated. During a 10-month period after Jonathan's death, social workers visited the household 58 times as part of a program designed to keep families intact and to better their parenting skills.
Leroy doted on Sherrice. He dropped her off at school in the morning and picked her up at 2:30, arriving 20 minutes early so she never waited. No other second-grader at 75th Street Elementary School had a daddy who did that.
Sherrice's teachers thought of her as affectionate and trusting. Her hair was neatly braided. Her clothes looked freshly ironed. She struggled with reading, was scared of the dark, adored "The Little Mermaid," loved the color purple and liked to jump rope. She wanted to be a nurse or a policewoman or a model or a dancer.
Leroy didn't trust baby-sitters. So when he went gambling just across the Nevada border, he always took Sherrice and Harold. It had become a family ritual. On this Memorial Day weekend, they scrambled into his '91 white Dodge van and left Los Angeles at 8 p.m. to avoid traffic. Wearing a white "Jesus Loves Me" T-shirt, Leroy pulled into the Primadonna parking lot around midnight. Leroy told Harold he was in charge of Sherrice and gave each $5 to play arcade games. Leroy then headed for the slot machines.
'I Didn't Care What His Background Was,' Father Says
When Winnie and John Strohmeyer describe how they met, they piece together their romance with the crispness of 28 years of marriage.
John, 54, now a general manager for a manufacturing firm, wears dress or plaid shirts. He'll put his silver-rimmed glasses on a table and forget where they are.
A former human resources director, Winnie, also 54, now works part time as a consultant. Her blond hair rests neatly above her shoulders, the front strands fastened in a barrette at the back of her head.
If it's possible to fall in love with a place, Winnie did just that when she came to Southern California from Chicago for a wedding in the mid-'60s. She slapped a daisy sticker on the back of her blue Volkswagen Bug and got a job as a social worker for the Catholic Youth Organization.
John, who grew up in New Jersey, left the Air Force in 1966 and moved to California, vowing that he had shoveled his last snow. On his first Christmas, he walked down the beach in Santa Monica, ate an apple and congratulated himself for his wisdom in relocating.
He worked at Continental Airlines and lived in Manhattan Beach. One afternoon Winnie, who lived across the street, asked him to help carry boxes. Nice-looking fellow, she thought.
John invited her to dinner. The following weekend, they went to the beach. "I love you," John told her. "I'm going to wind up marrying you."
God, Winnie thought, guys and their pickup lines.
They dated for a year and a half before marrying in 1970. They were 26. Their plan was to adopt one baby and conceive another. The paperwork, though, stretched on. After six years, Winnie gave birth to Heather.
When, in 1980, an adoption counselor approached them with photos of a blue-eyed baby, they were captivated. His name was Gerald Paul. He was 18 months old. The foster parents, who called the toddler Ger Bear, wanted to adopt, but social workers considered them too old.
Winnie and John renamed the boy Jeremy Joseph. This way they could still call him Ger.
They stayed in touch with the foster parents, visiting every Thanksgiving. When they told 4-year-old Jeremy he was adopted, they couched the news in loving terms, explaining that he was lucky because he had a mom and a dad and foster parents who all adored him. Sometimes Jeremy would talk about wanting to find his birth mother, because he figured she must be lonely. Wouldn't it be nice, he'd ask, to take her on vacation with us?
At the time, the Strohmeyers knew nothing about their son's biological parents. "I didn't care what his background was," says John. Only recently did Winnie and John discover that Jeremy has two other siblings, both adopted: an older half brother and a younger full brother, who suffers from behavioral problems.
Jeremy's biological father is serving a 32-month sentence for possession with intent to sell marijuana. For most of the past 10 years, Jeremy's attorneys would learn, he has been in California prisons for drug-related crimes.
Jeremy's birth mother was from an upper-class family. She had a drug problem. At the time of Jeremy's birth, she was in her teens, confined to a psychiatric ward at the county hospital, having been declared unable to care for herself.
Diagnosed as a schizophrenic, she has been committed to a California state hospital for 11 years. In the course of her life, she has been committed 70 times, according to court records. She has also been diagnosed as having obsessive-compulsive disorder and possibly dipsomania, a form of alcohol dependence.
'Something, Like, Went Haywire or Something, I Don't Know'