A meeting Friday morning between local, state and national law enforcement resulted in an unprecedented move in San Joaquin County — to allow a convicted killer on death row to return to the area and point out the locations of the bodies of his victims that he buried over a decade ago.
Representatives from the FBI and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as well as San Joaquin County District Attorney James Willett, San Joaquin County Sheriff Steve Moore and Calaveras County Sheriff Gary Kuntz met in Stockton on Friday to discuss the possibility of allowing death row inmate Wesley Shermantine Jr., to come back to San Joaquin County.
The proposal would allow Shermantine to come in for a day and identify the locations where he and childhood friend Loren Herzog buried the remains of their victims, including those of Clements resident Cyndi Vanderheiden and Stockton resident Chevy Wheeler.
San Joaquin County officials and Kuntz agreed to write a letter to the CDCR to ask for their assistance in bringing Shermantine to the area for one day to help in the search in San Joaquin and Calaveras counties.
But the meeting Friday irked some who said a plan had already been formulated to bring Shermantine to the area for just one day on Jan. 18.
The plan — dubbed "Operation Closure" — had been in the works for six weeks, according to those involved, and was intended to provide some semblance of closure for the families of the victims.
According to Jeff Rinek, a retired FBI agent who had been called in to help with the operation spearheaded by bounty hunter Leonard Padilla, Shermantine was initially only going to be allowed to take a search team to one site where Shermantine said one victim was buried.
If he was blowing smoke, Rinek said, then victims' families would know that once again a false location had been provided and that they could possibly start to move on.
But if it turns out Shermantine was telling the truth, then perhaps families would finally be able to have their loved ones returned to them and properly buried, Rinek added.
Things were set to have Shermantine out and back in San Quentin State Prison in a matter of hours on Wednesday, Padilla said, before Moore stepped in.
Now, Padilla said, the whole situation has become a waiting game.
On Monday afternoon, Moore said he received word that "something was cooking on this deal," and wanted to know what exactly was going on and where Shermantine was going to be taken, especially if he was going to be brought into San Joaquin County.
But because no one would give him any answers, Moore said he called the FBI and the CDCR, asking them to hold off on releasing Shermantine for a day until he could sit down and discuss the appropriate course of action.
"We want to do whatever we can to make this work," said Moore. "But we want to err on the side of caution and make sure we are doing things appropriately. If we have to slow down to make sure we don't do something we will later regret, I think that is pretty reasonable."
Rinek has since removed himself from the search operation, as he is no longer a field operative. Padilla said he is still willing to offer thousands of dollars to Shermantine in exchange for his help in retrieving the victims' bodies.
Padilla said that while he is extending a professional courtesy to Moore and allowing him to write the letter, he could only wait a couple of days before he tries again to move forward with bringing justice to Shermantine's and Herzog's victims.
The intrigue surrounding the case of the "Speed Freak Killers" — as Shermantine and Herzog came to be known — surged earlier this week after Herzog apparently committed suicide in his trailer on the High Desert State Prison grounds, according to the Lassen County Sheriff's Office. He was 46.
Herzog, who grew up in Linden, was sentenced to 78 years in state prison in 2001 after being convicted by a Santa Clara County jury of the murder of Vanderheiden and the 1984 murders of Paul Cavanaugh, 31, of Stockton and Howard King III, 35, of Lathrop. Herzog was also convicted of being an accessory to the 1984 murder of Henry Howell, 45, of Santa Clara.
However, he accepted a plea bargain on Nov. 24, 2004 and pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in connection with Vanderheiden's death. He also pleaded guilty to being an accessory to the Cavanaugh, King and Howell murders, and to furnishing methamphetamine to Vanderheiden shortly before she died.
He was sentenced instead to 14 years in prison, with credit for six years already served. He was paroled in September 2010.
Shermantine, 45, was convicted in 2001 of Vanderheiden's, King's and Cavanaugh's murders. He was also convicted of murdering Wheeler, who was 16 when she died.
Contact reporter Katie Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.