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'Speed Freak' killer's disclosures bring both peace and turmoil

Wesley Shermantine spilled his secrets for cash. Now, as authorities look for victims near Stockton, some families get closure while the community wonders: 'How many more bodies will they find?'

February 13, 2012|By Diana Marcum, Los Angeles Times
  • San Joaquin County sheriffs deputies and Justice Department personnel search for human remains near a well on an abandoned cattle ranch near Linden, Calif.
San Joaquin County sheriffs deputies and Justice Department personnel… (Craig Sanders, The Record )

Reporting from Linden, Calif. — The abandoned well sits off a country road in a region of open pastures and hills stamped with oak tree silhouettes.

John Ferreira, 38, remembers driving Flood Road in high school. It's eerie, he said, to think it's now blocked off to all but the few families who have homes on the road as authorities search for more bodies.

The question on most minds in this rural area east of Stockton is how many victims they will eventually find.

On Sunday, for the second day in a row, authorities said they discovered bones, believed to be human, near the well. They also discovered a pair of sandals, a pair of tennis shoes, engraved jewelry and a woman's purse in an area long rumored to hold a mass grave.

A map drawn by Wesley Shermantine, 45, a convicted serial killer who spilled his secrets in exchange for a promise of cash from a bounty hunter, labels two wells on the old cattle ranch "Loren's Boneyard."

Shermantine and Loren Herzog were arrested in 1999 for a series of murders known as the "Speed Freak" killings, which may have spanned more than 15 years and claimed an unknown number of victims.

Last week Shermantine's maps led authorities to San Andreas, where they found remains believed to be those of Chevelle "Chevy" Wheeler of Stockton, who disappeared at age 16 in 1985, and of Cindi Vanderheiden, 25, of Clements, who disappeared 14 years ago on a night people had seen her shooting pool with Shermantine and Herzog in neighboring Linden.

Sherry Gibbs, who works at Clements Country Market, senses that people coming into the store want to talk about bodies being discovered but don't know what to say.

"We just all keep saying to each other, 'So? You following the news?' and leaving it at that. You have to understand this is such a peaceful place, and to think those boys came from here. There's good and bad everywhere, but this isn't bad," she said. "This is pure evil."

Gibbs use to wait tables with Vanderheiden at a restaurant called George's.

"She was one to find some fun. She had a lively, outgoing personality," Gibbs said.

Over the years, Gibbs has watched Vanderheiden's father, John, come into the market. He once had the same jovial ways as his daughter.

"He's still friendly, but you can see it in his face, the stress. They never found her. They never were able to put Cindi at rest," she said. "Everyone is glad they'll finally know for sure. But, everyone is also waiting to see what comes next. The word in town is those boys grew up mean, and everyone is wondering if they're going to find more bodies than anyone ever thought."

Shermantine has said in letters and interviews that there could be 10 to 20 bodies in the wells. But he also reportedly has bragged about murders as far away as Utah, where, he said, Herzog randomly shot a man who was standing beside his broken-down car.

"They basically hunted people," said Rob Dick, a private investigator who for more than a decade has been compiling a list of possible victims.

Because the murders were spread around different communities over a number of years, it wasn't until Shermantine and Herzog were arrested that people realized many disappearances might be connected.

"When I was a kid I could tell you every creek and pond for miles. We built forts and rode our bikes to get milkshakes," said Eric Zador, 33, whose family owns a shooting range a few miles from the well. "We'd be gone for 11 hours, and when we got home, all our parents would say was, 'How was your day?' We never had a clue there was such a shadow."

But Shermantine and Herzog had reportedly spent their childhood years killing animals and exploring abandoned mines and wells in the area. Shermantine has said that even as a child, Herzog had identified places that would make good spots to hide bodies.

Shermantine was sentenced to death row 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. He served 14 years on a plea deal, was paroled in 2010 and committed suicide two months ago, shortly after Sacramento bounty hunter Leonard Padilla told him Shermantine was going to give the location of bodies.

Back in 1998 when Vanderheiden first went missing, Jeff Wright organized the Clements community of 400 to search for her. There's still a "Cindy's Search" sign in town that was never taken down.

"We took horses up in the hills. The whole community was involved because we love the Vanderheiden family and we loved Cindi — she was a great gal," he said.

Wright, who teaches high school in Stockton, sat outside at his ranch on Sunday evening taking in the sunset over grazing lands.

"There's a sense of relief about Chevy and Cindi," he said. "But you think of how many missing women and men are out there and you wonder, how many more bodies will they find? There's been so many rumors for so many years — I think this is going to get a lot worse before it's over."

diana.marcum@latimes.com

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