Leonard Padilla is known throughout the country for his colorful reputation as a bounty hunter who tracks down fugitives, searches for the remains of murder victims and enjoys talking all about it.
Wearing a black western shirt, black pants and his trademark black cowboy hat with a feather running through it, Padilla searches for fugitives who have jumped bail. He finds them wherever they are and returns them to custody.
In San Joaquin County, Padilla, 72, is known for his ongoing efforts to find the remains of Cyndi Vanderheiden, whom he says is buried on a Calaveras County hillside.
Padilla says he has offered convicted murderer Wesley Shermantine Jr., $15,000 if he reveals the location of Vanderheiden’s remains and another $18,000 for Chevelle “Chevy” Wheeler’s remains.
Vanderheiden, 25, lived in Clements when she disappeared in November 1998. She has not been seen since. Wheeler, of Stockton, was 16 when she disappeared in 1985.
Shermantine is on death row at San Quentin State Prison after being convicted in 2001 of murdering Vanderheiden and three others.
However, Padilla’s associate, Rob Dick, thinks there may be as many as 100 victims murdered by Shermantine, Herzog or both after researching homicides in the county.
“If you look at the missing people that San Joaquin has, there’s a lot you can link to those two,” Padilla said.
Bounty hunter and media figure
Padilla seems rather hardened about death. He talks unemotionally about the subject, even when he learned that Herzog had committed suicide on Jan. 16.
He thinks he’s responsible for Herzog’s death, but he said it doesn’t bother him. He said Herzog was clearly hyperventilating when Padilla told him on the phone that Shermantine talked about revealing the location of the murder victims on Herzog’s property in Linden.
Herzog hanged himself just hours later.
“I don’t think Herzog would have ‘checked out’ if I hadn’t called him” about the wells, Padilla said.
Sacramento’s most famous bounty hunter has also been enough of a celebrity to appear on TV, including several guest appearances on Nancy Grace’s talk show and four TV movies about bounty hunting in 2008 on the National Geographic Channel.
Thomas Testa, a San Joaquin County deputy district attorney who prosecuted Shermantine and Herzog, respects Padilla’s talents and finds him to be credible.
“I have spoken with him on various things over the years,” Testa said. “He’s a straight shooter and an asset.”
Vanderheiden’s father, John Vanderheiden, complimented Padilla on his work, too.
“I talk to him quite often,” Vanderheiden said. “He seems like a nice guy. He’s dedicated to what he wants to do.”
A network of contacts
Padilla, who is not a sworn officer, has a network of contacts ranging from law enforcement officials to the news media to inform him of fugitives’ whereabouts or the location of their victims.
He was born in a restaurant and bar in the rural Fresno County community of Firebaugh, where his parents were farmworkers. He learned English in elementary school in Tuolumne County, where he was forced to speak without a Mexican accent.
“In those days, if you spoke an English word with a Mexican accent, you were smacked on the hand with a ruler,” Padilla said.
He also changed the pronunciation of his last name from “Pa-dee-ya” to “Pa-dill-a” to avoid getting smacked by a ruler.
His non-accent bode him well in future years, especially when Richard Nixon was president from 1969 to 1974.“I was Nixon’s fair-haired Mexican,” Padilla said. “Every time they needed a Mexican without an accent, I was there.”
Padilla’s travels took him occasionally to Lodi. His fondest Lodi memory came in the 1940s.
“We used to travel in a ’29 Ford,” he said. “Lodi was one of my favorite towns. There was a restaurant that fixed liver and onions, and grape juice.”
Padilla attended five high schools, graduating in 1957 from Tulelake High School near the Oregon border. He joined the Air Force three days after graduation, mostly because he hated Tulelake.
“The situation was unbearable at best,” Padilla said of life in Tulelake.
After his discharge from the Air Force in 1963, he lived in New Jersey and Illinois before moving back to Tulelake. But the town was just as bad as it was when he graduated from high school.
“I couldn’t live there without killing someone,” he said.
So Padilla and a brother moved to Sacramento, where Leonard Padilla worked at gas stations and other jobs. His life changed forever in 1975, when someone asked if he wanted to go to Mexico to locate a fugitive and bring him back to the United States. He found that he made good money from fugitive — or bounty — hunting. And he could pick and choose when he wanted to work.
He graduated from law school in 1980. Three years later, he and four others founded the Lorenzo Patino Law School in downtown Sacramento. Patino was a Sacramento judge and co-founder of the law school.
The school was founded, Padilla said, because minorities were never recruited for the legal profession even though they have the street smarts that students living in good neighborhoods don’t have.
“I’ve never turned anybody away who couldn’t pay,” Padilla said.
Padilla likes to recruit residents from ghetto areas for his law school’s paralegal program, which takes only a year to complete. A paralegal degree can net people a good job with a law firm, he added.
Padilla does not have much in the way of hobbies. When he gets tired of bounty hunting, he goes to the Patino law school, where he is now chairman of the five-member board of trustees. He is also interested in politics.
Padilla has run for Sacramento mayor four times and will try to unseat Kevin Johnson again this year. He said he opposes moves for taxpayers to bankroll a new arena for the Sacramento Kings when the city cannot afford to keep public swimming pools open for children during the August heat.
So what keeps Padilla going and not getting burned out from bounty hunting?
“It’s the challenge of coming up with a solution to a problem nobody has been able to come up with instead of playing chess or Chinese checkers,” Padilla said.
Contact reporter Ross Farrow at firstname.lastname@example.org.