February 12, 2012 by staff
Wesley Shermantine, A third day of digging for human remains turned up part of a skull Saturday, this time in an abandoned well outside Linden, which convicted serial killer Wesley Shermantine had named “Loren’s Boneyard,” after his onetime partner in crime.
The dig could result in a mass grave of about 10 victims, according to Shermantine, 45, whose letters from death row have led officials to the well and two other burial scenes in Calaveras County.
On Thursday, deputies searching off Leonard Road near San Andreas found the remains believed to be Cyndi Vanderheiden, 25, and on Friday, the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office found remains that appear to be those of Chevelle “Chevy” Wheeler, 16.
Shermantine, a condemned inmate who maintains he is no killer, said his onetime co-defendant, Herzog, dumped the bodies of murder victims into the old well on Flood Road, east of Escalon Bellota Road.
In the dig there – creating a giant pit amid the rolling grasslands – a crew used an excavator to find the skull fragment about 35 feet down, said Deputy Les Garcia of the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office.
Work was expected to continue through the night and for several days, but at a more “slow and tedious” pace, Garcia said. The skull will be turned over to the state’s Department of Justice for DNAanlysis in an attempt to identify the victim, Garcia said.
Justine Villela, 32, said she believes her father, Phillip Cabot Lloyd Martin, 47, may be among those victims. On Sept. 30, 1993, the transient construction worker who struggled with addiction failed to pick up his daughter from school and was never seen again.
She suspects Shermantine and Herzog because her father, like the killing duo, used drugs, and he had worked with Shermantine.
Villela said that as a little girl she picked Shermantine out of a lineup years ago in the investigation into her father’s disappearance.
“There’s some possibility that it’s not related at all,” said Villela, the fourth of Martin’s five daughters. “But there’s a correlation, and it’s all in the same time frame.”
Shermantine and Herzog, boyhood friends from Linden, were arrested in 1999 after a two-decade, drug-fueled killing spree throughout the 1980s and ’90s.
Shermantine was convicted of four murders and sentenced to death. Herzog was convicted in three, but his sentence of 78 years to life was overturned on appeal. Herzog killed himself last month while on parole shortly after learning that Shermantine was giving up information that has now led to these discoveries.
The search was renewed with letters Shermantine sent The Record and others. As an incentive, Sacramento bounty hunter Leonard Padilla agreed to pay Shermantine $33,000 if the information proved valid.
There is at least one more well in the same rural area. Padilla urged the Sheriff’s Office also to dig further.
“If there’s one or two human remains (the first well), they’ve got to check that other well,” he said Saturday.
Prosecutors have said that Shermantine and Herzog could be responsible for 18 to 20 killings. In their erratic crime spree, some of the victims were left where they were killed, yet many were buried or dumped and not recovered.
Sheila Juncker of Hilmar said she, too, believes this well may bring answers to her sister’s disappearance. On Aug. 19, 1982, 16-year-old Ruth Ann Leamon left home in Modesto for a nearby supermarket and has not returned.
Juncker said she never forgets a face, and she’s told detectives over the years to investigate Shermantine and Herzog. Her sister had run with Shermantine and once went to the Calaveras Frog Jump with a group including him, Juncker said.
Shermantine, in a letter to The Record, said that as teens he and Herzog ran away to live for a time with one of his relatives in Modesto. Juncker said the discoveries of Vanderheiden and Wheeler has played on her emotions.
“You’re on pins and needles,” she said, adding that she fears the results will not come quickly enough. “You know it could be months and months before you find out anything.”
Kim Lovejoy, 43, said that with preliminary confirmation through dental records that the remains of her little sister, Vanderheiden, have been found, she now trains her thoughts on other families.
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