A convicted serial killer could be temporarily freed from death row to help search for the remains of long-dead victims under a bill state lawmakers approved Thursday.
The measure is aimed at getting direct help from Wesley Shermantine, who is awaiting execution for four murders. The bill proposes temporarily releasing him into investigators' custody under heavy guard.
Authorities say Shermantine and his childhood buddy, Loren Herzog, engaged in a methamphetamine-fueled killing spree in the 1980s and 90s.
Herzog hanged himself in January after learning that Shermantine was giving investigators crudely drawn maps that led them to four victims' remains this year. The bill, AB2357, would give the state's corrections secretary the authority to let Shermantine personally assist investigators in finding other bodies.
The tightly drafted bill withdraws that authority on Jan. 1 and allows Shermantine's release only to help in finding evidence and victims' remains. The Senate and Assembly approved the bill unanimously, sending it to Gov. Jerry Brown. A spokesman could not immediately say if he would sign it into law.
Shermantine wanted to assist investigators, but efforts to temporarily release him into their custody stalled when a local sheriff objected.
The pending legislation would make it clear that Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate has the authority to release Shermantine to help, said Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-Santa Clara, who carried the bill in the Senate.
"New searches with the assistance of this inmate may occur very soon," Alquist said. "This unique set of circumstances ... may lead to the reopening of as many as 72 missing persons cold cases in up to 21 Northern California counties."
Searchers found hundreds of bone fragments in a San Joaquin County water well this year based on maps Shermantine drew in his San Quentin prison cell directing them to what he described as "Loren's boneyard." They found parts of four bodes, two of which have been identified as teenage girls who disappeared more than 25 years ago.
Shermantine blames Herzog for the killing spree by the pair who became known as the "Speed Freak Killers," while Herzog maintained Shermantine was responsible for the deaths.
Shermantine drew the maps after a Sacramento bounty hunter promised to pay him $33,000 for information about victims.
"He's given us locations of three other wells," bounty hunter Leonard Padilla said. "If I could go out to San Quentin, pick him up and drive out there with him, it would sure help a hell of a lot."
Padilla agreed with Alquist's estimate that Shermantine could lead authorities to as many as 72 other bodies, based on what Shermantine has told him.
"I think this is absolutely essential. Without a doubt this is the only way it can be investigated definitively," said Jeff Rinek, a former FBI agent who first reached Shermantine to review his offer to disclose burial locations. He said Shermantine's maps have proven he can lead authorities to victims' bodies.
Det. Dave Konecny, a spokesman for the San Joaquin Sheriff's Department, could not immediately comment.
In February, authorities found the remains of Cyndi Vanderheiden, 25, who disappeared in 1998, and Chevelle "Chevy" Wheeler, 16, who disappeared in 1985, when they searched a remote Calaveras County property once owned by Shermantine's family.
Shermantine was arrested in 1999 after his car was repossessed and investigators found Vanderheiden's blood in the trunk. He was convicted of both murders in 2001. He also was convicted of robbing and killing two drifters near Stockton.
Herzog's three murder convictions and 78 years-to-life prison sentence were overturned by an appeals court, which ruled his confession was illegally coerced. He later pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in Vanderheiden's death and was paroled in 2010.
Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said he could not comment on the pending legislation.
Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Tracy, who introduced the bill, became interested in part because of the disappearance of her 19-year-old cousin, Dena McHan, in 1981. San Joaquin County authorities have suggested she could have been a victim of the killers.
"I can empathize with families who have never known what happened to their loved one," Galgiani said. "Anytime a case like the Herzog-Shermantine case comes up, families will always wonder if their loved one might be a victim until they have closure."