The brown sign is gradually fading, but the white letters still clearly read, “Cyndi Search Headquarters.”
Ten years after Cyndi Vanderheiden disappeared from her home, the sign outside her father’s nearby shop bears tribute to the question that haunts her family: Where is she?
Two men are behind bars, one of them on death row, for her death, along with the deaths of several other women, but Cyndi’s body has ever been found. But it wasn’t for lack of trying: Hundreds of people searched rugged terrain over a period of several years, and to this day investigators are still following tips.
Friday marked the 10th year since she vanished. Somewhere in the vast California countryside, Cyndi’s remains await a proper burial.
On Tuesday, what would have been her 35th birthday, her family had no gravestone at which to pay tribute. Instead, a bench made of iron and horseshoes, with an “In memory of Cyndi” plaque, sits at the family’s plot in a cemetery.
For her family, there is no substitute for a proper burial.
“It’s been 10 years. Maybe somebody’s decided to speak,” her mother, Theresa Vanderheiden, said. “A lot of people think that because we have the guys (convicted of her death), we have her.”
Cyndi Vanderheiden is pictured one week before her disappearance, holding a cake on her 25th birthday. (Courtesy photo)
Ten years later, Cyndi’s parents are a little older and much more learned in the justice system. Cyndi’s blue-eyed cat, Topaz, is a bit more pudgy.
In some regards, life has gone on. Her parents still live in a tidy Clements home, with the words “Live, Laugh, Love” in metal letters decorating one wall. Her older sister, who had moved 1,000 miles from Wyoming back to Clements to help run the massive search effort in 1998, restarted her own life last year.
But after hours of searching with hundreds of volunteers, and three years spent in courtrooms, the loss of a daughter doesn’t just go away. Her parents and the prosecutor all said they still think of Cyndi every time a body is found, waiting until the inevitable update that it’s someone else’s loved one.
“It’s never easier,” said her father, John Vanderheiden. “It would be a little easier if we could find her and put her to rest.”
He and Cyndi’s mother, Theresa Vanderheiden, no longer hold out hope that the men convicted, Wesley Shermantine Jr. and Loren Herzog, will ever reveal details about Cyndi’s burial place. But they believe someone, somewhere has information.
When she disappeared that Nov. 1998 day, Cyndi had marked her 25th birthday a week earlier.
Her parents pulled off a surprise birthday party for her at the Clements bar they owned. Cyndi wasn’t exactly thrilled to be caught off-guard, wearing a baseball cap and little makeup because she thought she was just running a quick errand to the bar.
But before long, the cheer of friends and family had Cyndi smiling. Photos show a grinning Cyndi standing beside her father, both holding microphones and singing karaoke.
A few days later, she and a friend drove to the Linden Inn bar, which her father also owned. They sang karaoke there, too, and at some point Cyndi began talking to Shermantine and Herzog, who knew her sister.
The two men had graduated from Linden High School and still lived in the area. They took outdoor trips together, hunting all sorts of game.
Shermantine had a dark side. He was suspected in the 1985 disappearance of a Stockton high school girl, and others had accused him of rape. He hadn’t spent any time in prison.
That night, Cyndi and her friend left Linden and headed back to Clements, to the bar where she had left her car. Her friend followed her on the brief trip to her parents’ home, where she was staying until her temporary job became full-time.
John and Theresa Vanderheiden talk about their daughter, Cyndi, who disappeared 10 years ago. (Brian Feulner/News-Sentinel)
She’d had a few setbacks in life, but things were going well. Cyndi had saved her money to buy a new, two-door Chevrolet Cavalier, which she drove brand-new off a car lot and was making payments.
Her friend watched long enough to see Cyndi pull safely into the driveway.
The next morning, Theresa Vanderheiden — who recalls as if it was yesterday — peeked into Cyndi’s room and noted with pleasure that her daughter’s bed was made. Then she headed off to work.
Later that morning, John Vanderheiden drove down nearby Mackville Road on his way to a job for his heating and air conditioning business. He was passing the Clements Glenview Cemetery when he saw his daughter’s gold car in the middle of the parking lot. Nobody was around.
Before long, the Vanderheidens learned that Cyndi never made it to her job off Arch Road in Stockton.
When John Vanderheiden went back to further inspect her car, he found her black purse and cigarettes in the back seat, and her cell phone on the center console. Her keys, with an emblem of Disney’s Tigger on the ring, were gone.
Cyndi, whom the family had nicknamed Tigger because of her bounciness, had vanished. The former Calaveras High School cheerleader and Lodi High School graduate was never seen again.
Word of Cyndi’s disappearance spread quickly. By the next day, more than 50 people were looking for her.
Within the week, that number had grown exponentially. Friends and strangers searched by helicopter, horseback and Harley Davidson.
At that point, Clements had a population of about 250 — a third of the 717 now listed on a population sign at the edge of town — and any news was a big deal.
Everyone in Clements still knows one another, and the Vanderheidens moved there when Cyndi was 4 months old.
Cyndi’s disappearance became big news, in part because her family members were determined not to let her simply disappear. They organized massive searches, and friends held fund-raisers.
Her older sister, Kimberly, was living in Wyoming with her husband and two of her three daughters. She immediately packed up and headed straight to California to find the sister she was so sure would turn up alive.
It took nine years and a number of heartbreaks before Kim returned to Wyoming last year. Now remarried, Kim Lovejoy is focusing on her daughters. She has a full-time job as an assistant manager at a retail store. Her salaried position allows her the flexibility to attend her daughters’ volleyball and basketball games.
But for a long time, her focus was on the baby sister who had loved rocking out to Alanis Morisette songs.
When Lovejoy returned to California, she took charge of search headquarters, which started in a Clements building and then moved to her father’s shop. John Vanderheiden installed two phone lines and a fax machine, and ultimately paid for a toll-free 800 number.
Lovejoy manned the phones, sometimes sleeping overnight in the search headquarters so she wouldn’t miss a possible tip.
It was no longer another small-town missing persons case. Thousands of calls came in from across the country.
Meanwhile, San Joaquin County Sheriff’s investigators were watching Shermantine and Herzog.
Shermantine was the primary suspect in the disappearance of a Stockton high school girl named Chevelle Wheeler. Detectives learned that Shermantine was an avid hunter who knew all about surviving in California’s wilderness.
Jurors would eventually hear testimony that Shermantine had bragged to his sister about how he and Herzog had hunted everything they could, “including the ultimate kill,” which prosecutors and a witness said referred to humans.
Sheriff’s investigators combed through every possible record on where Shermantine and Herzog had been, including citations and hunting permits, then searched those areas extensively.
Investigators searched hillsides and riverbeds, as well as mineshafts, based on accounts Herzog gave them of exploring mines with Shermantine when they were children.
As lead investigator Deborah Scheffel recalls, there are about 47,000 registered mine shafts within traveling distance from Clements. Add air shafts and unregistered mines, and the number is likely doubled. Some were as big as a house and 90 feet straight down, posing challenges and risks for searchers.
One property owner dumped his trash in a deep mine shaft, then burned it once a year, Scheffel said.
Four months after Cyndi disappeared, Shermantine and Herzog were arrested and charged with her murder, along with several other deaths.
John and Theresa Vanderheiden had given investigators samples of their blood, since Cyndi’s DNA wasn’t on file anywhere. Scientists matched their DNA to blood found in Shermantine’s Toyota Cressida car, discovered when his car was repossessed.
The massive search for Cyndi had received its share of publicity, and the idea of serial killers in rural San Joaquin County didn’t make the case any quieter. The case would ultimately result in several national television shows, and hundreds of newspaper articles were written about it.
Two years to the month after Cyndi disappeared, Shermantine’s trial started in Santa Clara County, where the case was moved due to the intense publicity.
In the midst of the trial, Shermantine asked for $20,000 — to be given to his two sons — in exchange for information on where Cyndi’s body was buried. The Vanderheidens wanted no part of it, and despite a bounty hunter offering to pay the money, no deal was made.
He was convicted of four counts of murder after a three-month trial. Though prosecutors didn’t have two of the victims’ bodies — Vanderheiden’s as well as Stockton student Chevelle Wheeler — their DNA was enough to convince the jury.
Jurors decided Shermantine should die, and a judge handed down the death sentence. Despite his previous request for money, at the sentencing Shermantine proclaimed his innocence and said Herzog had committed the crimes.
The process started all over again in July 2001, when Herzog’s trial started. A separate Santa Clara County jury convicted him of three counts of murder and being an accessory to a fourth. He was sentenced to 78 years.
Then, in Aug. 2004, an appeals court threw out Herzog’s convictions, saying investigators had coerced him while questioning him. He ultimately pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in Vanderheiden’s death, as well as being an accessory in three other deaths. Herzog is serving a 14-year sentence and could soon be eligible for parole.
Through the hundreds of court appearances, the Vanderheiden family didn’t miss anything.
Theresa Vanderheiden’s employer, Bank of Stockton, held her job for her when she needed to take days off work. Lovejoy, Cyndi’s sister, kept answering phones and following possible tips.
John Vanderheiden closed the Linden Inn bar shortly after his daughter vanished and let the new owner have everything. He made a lot of trips to court, staring at Shermantine and Herzog.
“I never missed a day. When either one of them was in court, I was there,” he said.
He has no intention of missing Herzog’s parole hearing either, and is waiting to get news of a date.
At this point, 10 years after Cyndi vanished, her family wants more than anything to put her to rest. They’ve learned that nothing will ever bring them closure, so they just want a piece of their shattered family back.
“After 10 years, if I could say anything to anybody, it would be: Ten years is a long time to wait for your loved one,” Lovejoy said, stressing that tips can be anonymous. “No one is going to hurt you. No one has to know who told us. Put yourself in our shoes, and you wait 10 years to find out where your loved one is.”
She still thinks of her baby sister every single day, and every time a call from California comes in the middle of a work day, she braces for possible news of her sister. That hasn’t happened yet.
The prosecutor who sent the men to prison, Deputy District Attorney Thomas Testa, hasn’t forgotten the case and still hopes the family can one day get a measure of peace in the revelation of Cyndi’s whereabouts.
And Scheffel, the investigator who still remembers so many minute details, thinks it’s the one part of her career where she failed. Despite hours of searching with backhoes and ground-penetrating radar and psychics and tips, she wishes she could do more. She’s still following any new leads that come in, hoping she can offer peace to the families of those who disappeared.
“It would be far better to have (the victims) in a cemetery or somewhere they can be memorialized, not the way Shermantine disposed of those girls, like garbage,” Scheffel said.
Ten years later, Theresa Vanderheiden hasn’t brought herself to have her daughter declared officially dead. It took two years to empty Cyndi’s room. It took even longer to trade in Cyndi’s car.
Though the Vanderheidens, who sat through two preliminary hearings and two trials, do believe their daughter was murdered, they don’t have her body as final proof.
Theresa Vanderheiden is still a mother. She still gets teary-eyed when thinking of Cyndi. And because she doesn’t have her daughter’s body, she says, “She could still walk through the door.”