07.19.12

‘Speed-Freak Killer’ Wesley Shermantine to Help Police Find Victims

A serial killer on California’s death row offers to lead police to the buried bodies of victims. But will the families get closure? Christine Pelisek reports.

Pretty, blonde Gayle Marks disappeared on October 18, 1988, shortly after she had applied for her driver’s license. When the Stockton, Calif., teen didn’t show up for her waitressing job at Rick’s New York Style Pizza later that night, or pick up her paycheck the following day, her single mother had a sinking feeling about her 18-year-old daughter.

“Something came over me and I knew I would never see my daughter again,” said Marks’ mother, Sue Kizer. “I sat down and I remember crying really hard. It was like a flying saucer flew over and sucked her up.”

It wasn’t until more than a decade later, when police held a press conference about her missing daughter, that Kizer had a clear idea of what had happened to her youngest child. A reporter asked police if there were any suspects in her disappearance. “The detective said ‘yes,’” recalls Kizer. “I remembered being really shocked. I wasn’t sure if it was true because they didn’t tell me. I always wanted to know everything they knew about her case.”

She learned the suspects were methamphetamine users Wesley Shermantine and Loren Herzog, a serial-killer duo who, armed with knives and shotguns, hunted for victims in California’s rural Central Valley in the 1980s and ’90s. Convicted in 2001 of the murders of four people, the so-called Speed-Freak Killers were long thought to be responsible for other slayings such as Marks’s.  

“I had mothers coming up to me all over the place saying their daughters disappeared going to the post office or some other place,” says Thomas Testa, the San Joaquin County deputy district attorney who prosecuted Shermantine and Herzog in the late 1990s.

Testa said a number of witnesses had come forward and told him that the two men had bragged to them on numerous occasions that they had killed at least 22 people over their 15-year drug-fueled spree. Others like bounty hunter and private investigator Robert Dick, who has been investigating the disappearances of dozens of women and men he believes the two men killed, thinks the violent toll is much higher.

“These guys were killing all along,” says Dick, who estimates the victim count is around 70. “You don’t kill four people and then just stop.”

Family members of those missing may finally get some form of closure. On Tuesday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that would allow Shermantine to be temporarily released from San Quentin State Prison so he could take authorities to the burial sites.

Shermantine, who still denies he killed anyone and blames the slayings on his boyhood chum Herzog, has agreed to the day trip as long as the state doesn’t bill him for the cost of the body-finding excursion. (According to California Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, who sponsored the bill, the earlier version of the bill stated that an inmate may have to pay for travel expenses, except if they are for medical or educational purposes. “Shermantine thought he would have to pay for it so we thought we should clarify so an inmate does not have to pay,” she said. “The goal is to ensure he continues to cooperate with law enforcement.”)

Also, Shermantine wanted to make sure he would not be charged with any additional murders. Although he has been on death row since 2001, no execution date has ever been set.

Herzog was released from San Quentin prison in 2010 after his murder conviction was overturned; justices determined his confessions were coerced by San Joaquin sheriff’s detectives who had violated his Miranda rights.

But last January, Herzog hanged himself on the grounds of High Desert State Prison near Susanville, after learning that Shermantine had drawn a detailed map of where to find some of their victims. Herzog had been living on the prison grounds since his parole because San Joaquin and nearby Lassen counties didn’t want him released to their communities.

“I spoke to Loren Herzog a few times as he was getting ready to be released,” says Sacramento bounty hunter Leonard Padilla. “I said, ‘Wesley is giving up a lot of information.’ Herzog said he didn’t do anything wrong. I said, ‘Shermantine said there is a well near your property that holds 12 bodies.’ That night, Loren hung himself.”

“What a wicked world,” says Gayle Marks’s mother. “I don’t know how one human being can do that to another. He likes the notoriety or the power that it gives him—like he is still in charge. ‘I might have killed your children but you still don’t know where their bodies are.’ If he can get the rest of us marionettes to get what he wants as he pulls the strings it probably makes his time in prison go a little faster.”

Assemblywoman Galgiani says the new bill, AB 2347, allows the corrections officials to transport any prisoner in California at the request of a law enforcement agency for the purpose of recovering human remains and evidence. “Part of the intention is to ensure if an agency outside of California is requesting the recovery of one of their victims I want to be sure the state of California does everything in its power to cooperate with them,” she said. The bill expires in January of 2013.

“He offered up [victim] Cyndi Vanderheiden. He said he knew John [Cyndi’s father] was ill and he thought it was important she was returned before her father passed,” says one bounty hunter working on the case.

Galgiani says family members deserve to know once and for all what happened to their loves ones. “Many families with missing loved ones, or who suspect their loved ones could be one of the victims, want closure and want to bring their loved ones home,” she says. “It has been a tortuous path for these families. I think that everyone involved should be doing everything they can to close a painful chapter for these families so they can move on with their lives.”

It’s not the first time that Shermantine has agreed to give up burial locations, or attempted to persuade authorities to allow him to do so. His first offer came shortly after his 1999 arrest, when he mentioned to investigators that they could possibly find one of Herzog’s victims in a nearby mine shaft. Then, after his conviction in 2001, Shermantine suggested he would give up the graves of the two women he and Herzog were convicted of killing, 16-year-old Chevelle “Chevy” Wheeler, and Cyndi Vanderheiden, 25 (the bodies of the two other victims had already been found). Shermantine conditioned his offer on the San Joaquin district attorney’s office dropping the death penalty and giving him $20,000.

Bounty hunter Padilla, who admits to loving the media spotlight (he recently posted bail in Florida for Casey Anthony) and was running for mayor at the time, told authorities he was willing to raise the $20,000 to pay Shermantine. But the deal fell apart when authorities refused to revoke the death penalty.

Shermantine even tried to persuade deputy DA Testa, the man who sent him to death row, to make a deal. On one occasion, Testa said, Shermantine offered to divulge the location of bodies if the prosecutor gave him $600 for painting supplies because he was learning art in prison.

“He had over the years made different offerings, and some were really ridiculous,” Testa says. “‘If you get me out and let me fight in the Iraq war I will tell you this and that.’ We didn’t take him seriously.”

Testa says the police, as well as family members and the bounty hunters, made several attempts over the years to recover bodies after receiving tips from acquaintances and friends of the killers, but nothing ever panned out.

The case languished for years until Shermantine began corresponding with a reporter from the Stockton Record, and offered in the summer of 2011 to reveal body locations in exchange for money to buy prison snacks, a television, and a tombstone for his parents. The reporter contacted bounty hunter Padilla, who again agreed to round up the money to pay Shermantine—this time $33,000. Motivated by the bounty hunter’s promise to pay, Shermantine agreed to break his long-held secrets and draw detailed maps to “Loren’s boneyard”—the locations where his boyhood chum Herzog allegedly dumped his victims. 

However, even with the maps in hand, the bounty hunter, the reporter and sheriff’s deputies couldn’t find any remains. In January, Padilla contacted retired FBI agent Jeff Rinek for help. Padilla had worked with Rinek on a child kidnapping case and knew about his talents as an interrogator. He thought Rinek—who had coaxed a confession out of Yosemite Serial Killer Cary Stayner—might be able to siphon more information out of Shermantine. Rinek agreed.

“I was interested in causing Shermantine’s negative impact on the families to stop,” Rinek says. “My efforts would be to get Shermantine to produce a victim or forever be silent.”

Rinek drove to San Quentin on January 14, and quickly got down to business with Shermantine. “I asked what he wanted,” Rinek says. “His first utterance was Herzog wouldn’t have any contact with him. Second thing he said he had a financial arrangement with Leonard [Padilla], and the third thing he felt it was time for this to end and wanted to do this for the victim’s families.”

Skeptical, Rinek said Shermantine would only get one shot at proving himself. “He offered up [victim] Cyndi Vanderheiden. He said he knew John [Cyndi’s father] was ill and he thought it was important she was returned before her father passed.”

California correction officers, with the help of Assemblywoman Galgiani and county prosecutors, made plans to spring Shermantine four days later, on January 18. However, the plan fizzled when the San Joaquin county sheriff learned of the day trip, and put the breaks on the plan. Steve Moore, the San Joaquin sheriff, cited safety concerns, but the move infuriated family members who wanted to finally bring their loved ones home.

“The man who 99 percent had something to do with it is flapping his gums like a kite in the wind and the sheriff is saying ‘whatever,’” says Marie Gillit, whose 46-year-old father Phil Martin disappeared in September of 1993. “They killed them for sport. Most of them were random. Unlucky human beings who were at the wrong place at the wrong time and they came across them and took them out. Every lead has been credible so far. Give him a red carpet if he knows where they are.” 

Gillit says “I feel positive in my heart they had something to do with his [Martin’s] death.” When her father disappeared, he was staying at a hotel in Stockton where Shermantine worked as a caretaker. “Shermantine was in the cement- foundation business,” Gillit explains. “They would pour cement, and my dad’s crew would come in and frame the houses.” 

After Sheriff Moore nixed the plan, Padilla in February convinced Shermantine to mail him another letter containing a more detailed map of three gravesites. The handwritten maps and directions were intercepted by prison officials and then passed on to the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office. On February 9, they found the remains of Vanderheiden, who was killed in 1998, at the former San Andreas property of Shermantine’s family. A day later, the remains of Chevelle “Chevy” Wheeler, who was slain in 1985, were unearthed on a nearby property. Within a few weeks, police—using an excavator to dig 45 feet down an abandoned and capped well in the small farming community of Linden—recovered the remains of Kimberly Billy, 19, who disappeared in 1984, and Joann Hobson, 16, who vanished in 1985, and an unknown female. Shermantine and Herzog were never charged with those murders; police suspected they had something to do with the disappearance of Hobson, but they never had enough evidence to charge them.

Since then, the sheriff’s critics say he has done little to find any more remains, and the bounty hunters claim he has attempted to stop their own efforts to dig for additional victims, asking property owners to contact his office if the bounty hunters trespass on their property. In May an excavation by sheriff’s deputies and the FBI in Linden uncovered no new remains. Herb Brown, a special agent in charge of the FBI’s Sacramento unit, sent out a press release stating: “The intent of all agencies involved in this is to locate and identify victims so they may be returned to the families who have been searching for them for many years to bring closure and peace. Unfortunately, the credibility of investigative resources is eroding and the hope of finding additional victims is beginning to fade.”

Since then, family members of lost loved ones have continued to demand that authorities keep searching, and that they bring Shermantine out of prison to point the way. Now it seems their wish may have come true.

Law-enforcement sources say they won’t reveal when Shermantine will be released for this grisly expedition. They aren’t afraid that Shermantine will escape. They are more afraid someone might try to kill him.

As for Gayle Marks’s mother Sue Kizer, she is just hoping for a tiny bit of closure. “In a way, I want my daughter to be one of their victims because I want her body back,” Kizer says.“I also don’t want her to be, because of what they probably did to her. It is between the devil and the deep blue sea.”