Due to fears regarding the safety of citizens, San Joaquin County Sheriff Steve Moore publicly called upon lawmakers and concerned residents Thursday to help ensure convicted killer Loren Herzog doesn’t return to the county.
“We are all taking whatever actions we can to postpone the pending release and securing a better placement for Mr. Herzog,” he said. “However, I believe at this time I must call upon our citizens to aid us in this process.”
Herzog, who pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the 1998 disappearance of Clements resident Cyndi Vanderheiden, is set to be released from prison Sunday. He had once been convicted of four murders and sentenced to 78 years in prison, but an appellate court threw out all but the Vanderheiden case.
Public outcry over the highly publicized case has caused state corrections officials to change Herzog’s parole location more than once.
As Moore was holding a press conference about his concerns, parole officials were analyzing “significant developments” that could change Herzog’s parole location once again, said Luis Patino, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Two witnesses in the case formally lodged concerns with the state, asking that they be given further protection from Herzog. Under state law, victims, family members and some witnesses are allowed to have some say in where a parolee is placed. The Vanderheiden family lives in Clements, and Herzog is barred from coming within 35 miles of them — which means he could live in the Tracy or Ripon areas.
If the new requests come from other areas in the county, that could further limit Herzog’s possible new home.
“They’re being taken very seriously,” Patino said of the requests. “They’re being evaluated very carefully and that process is ongoing as we speak.”
Moore only learned Tuesday afternoon that Herzog was returning to the county.
“I believe the decision was made solely on the fact that San Joaquin County was Mr. Herzog’s last county of legal residence and not on a complete assessment to public safety in the county and to its residents,” he said.
Moore has requested Herzog’s parole be delayed until a full assessment can be made.
The sheriff also bristled at the short notice San Joaquin County received regarding the possible parole.
“Typically, a county is given 45 days notice,” Moore said. “The county that has been victimized by Mr. Herzog was given only seven days.”
A week is not enough time to contact victims, parole officers and all those who may be affected, Moore said.
Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani said she personally delivered a letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office Thursday requesting he reverse the decision to parole Herzog.
“The gravity of his crimes as we know them do not warrant his release,” she said.
Corrections officials are up against a ticking clock, though: Herzog has served his sentence for voluntary manslaughter, so he cannot be kept in prison past his parole date, Patino said.
Galgiani will work with the sheriff’s department and district attorney to see if all legal requirements were met regarding Herzog’s parole, she said.
“This is an injustice to San Joaquin County,” Galgiani said. “He should not be released under any conditions.”
Sheriff spokesman Deputy Les Garcia answered questions after the press conference and said there is also concern regarding Herzog’s safety if he’s released in the county.
“His public defender said himself there have been threats on him in the past,” Garcia said. “There may be additional threats if he is released in San Joaquin County.”
The state is aware of the sheriff’s objections to Herzog’s potential release to San Joaquin County, Garcia said.
“What they are telling us is that they are aware of sheriff’s opposition,” he said. “There is a possibility he may not be paroled to San Joaquin County.”
The state had originally planned to send Herzog to Modoc County, and then changed it to Tehama County. Sheriffs of both counties strongly objected, and this week parole officials looked more closely at the law. They determined that Herzog, a Linden native, could still be paroled to his home county and remain 35 miles away from the Vanderheiden family.
“One of the most important factors is this law that says that a parolee should be released to their county of last legal residence,” said Patino, the corrections spokesman. “As unpopular as that may be, it is our charge that any parolee is released to a place where they can be safe and they will be able to reintegrate into society. Uppermost in our concern is the safety of the community.”
John Vanderheiden, the victim’s father, is concerned that Herzog would be a short drive away from him and his family, and that state budget cutbacks will make it harder for law enforcement officers to make sure Herzog stays out of trouble.
Vanderheiden believes he and his family could be in danger once Herzog is paroled.
“I’m one of the main reasons he got arrested,” he said after the press conference. “I can’t be with my family 24 hours a day.”
John Vanderheiden never missed a day in court for both Herzog and his childhood friend Wesley Shermantine, who is now on death row for the killings. Both men had separate, lengthy trials that were moved to Santa Clara County due to the high publicity in San Joaquin County.
That publicity was sparked in part because volunteers and law enforcement searched extensively for Cyndi Vanderheiden. Her body has never been found.
A dozen years later, investigators still get tips on possible locations of her body. As has happened every time the case returns to public light, Moore confirmed Thursday that more tips have come into his office. He declined to discuss them in detail but said the case is still under investigation.
Public Defender Peter Fox, who represented Herzog during his trial and his later manslaughter plea deal, has not returned messages left by the News-Sentinel. He has previously said that Herzog does not know where the bodies were buried.
Where Herzog will ultimately wind up is still not known. Corrections officials hope to have an answer as soon as they verify the two witnesses’ requests, Patino said.
“We’re hopeful but we’ll work on it as long as we have to,” he said. “Every effort is being made to resolve this within the time allowed in the best possible way and the utmost concern for public safety.”