Wesley Howard Shermantine & Loren Joseph Herzog
On March 23, 1999, prosecutors in Stockton, California charged Loren Joseph Herzog — one of the men accused of kidnapping and killing 25-year-old Cyndi Vanderheiden — with four additional counts of murder, bringing possible closure to a string of unsolved killings dating back to 1984.
Vanderheiden, a Clements resident, disappeared from in front of her family’s home November, 1998. Both Herzog and childhood buddy Wesley Howard Shermantine, both 33, have been charged with her murder. Combined both men are accused of six unsolved murders. They are both charged with the robbery-murder of drifters Howard King, 35, and Paul Raymond Cavanaugh, 31, whose bodies were found shot to death in a car off a remote road on Roberts Island on Nov. 27, 1984. Tracks at the scene matched the tires on Shermantine’s pickup truck.
Herzog is accused of the murder of Henry Howell, 41, of Santa Clara, who was shot dead on Highway 88 near Hope Valley in September 1984; and the September 1985 murder of Robin Armtrout, 24, whose nude body was found stabbed nearly a dozen times on the east bank of Potter Creek near Linden. Shermantine has been charged individually in the deaths of 16-year-old Chevelle “Chevy” Wheeler, who disappeared in 1985 while skipping school at Franklin High School and whose remains are still missing. Shermantine was suspected in Wheeler’s death for a decade, but was not arrested until 1999 when DNA tests revealed blood found in his home was hers.
On November 22, 2000, the trial of Wes Shermantine began in Santa Clara with the prosecutor painting a picture of a ruthless predator on a fifteen-year long rampage. The trial was moved to Santa Clara because of the tremendous publicity about the case in the San Joaquin Valley. Shermantine, 34, is charged with killing three people in the 1980s and a woman in 1998, though only two of the bodies have been found. Prosecutors told the jury that they believe Shermantine may have killed as many as 20 more people, disposing of their bodies in mine shafts, remote hill sides and buried underneath a trailer park. “There are no fingerprints, no eyewitnesses, no smoking gun,” prosecutor Thomas Testa said in opening statements. “It’s all in the details.”
Testa said that over the years Shermantine told relatives and acquaintances he had “made people disappear” around the outskirts of Stockton. In a confrontation with one woman in a trailer park, Shermantine allegedly told her: “Listen to the heartbeats of people I’ve buried here. Listen to the heartbeats of families I’ve buried here.”
Not the nicest man on the planet, several witnesses testified that they had been brutalized by Shermantine. Five women testified he had violently raped or sodomized them, including a baby sitter who said she had been attacked when she stopped by to collect money he owed her. A woman said he had rear-ended her car, then kidnapped her at knifepoint when she pulled off the road to exchange insurance information. She jumped from his car while it was moving and managed to get away. His estranged wife described how he had brutally beaten her for years, hitting her while she was pregnant or holding her children in her lap.
According to Testa, Shermantine once told Herzog he had killed 22 people in California, Utah and Nevada. The typical speed-freak thrill killers, Shermantine and Herzog allegedly killed for sport: “Wes told several individuals that he had hunted the ultimate kill — humans.”
Teenager Chevy Wheeler disappeared after playing hooky from school and driving into the mountains with Shermantine. Though Shermantine was suspected for years of killing the teen-ager, he was not arrested until 1999, after DNA tests determined that drops of blood found in his remote cabin in the mountains were almost certainly from the girl. The prosecutor said Vanderheiden disappeared after being seen with a methamphetamine-fueled Shermantine and Herzog at a bar. Vanderheiden’s blood was found on a head rest and in the trunk of Shermantine’s car, Testa said. Both women are believed to have been lured away to their deaths with the promise of drugs.
In court both men have insisted it was the other one who did all the killings. Shermantine insists Herzog is solely to blame for the killing and has hinted he knows where the bodies of Vanderheiden and other victims may have been stashed. Herzog’s attorney characterizes Shermantine’s version of events as a desperate ploy to deflect blame. During more than 17 hours of questioning by San Joaquin County sheriff’s detectives, Herzog implicated Shermantine in five unsolved Northern California killings, as well as the shooting death of a hunter in Utah in 1994.
Herzog told authorities he had only watched as Shermantine committed each of the murders. Under California law, prosecutors were able to charge Herzog with murder in connection with the mid-1980s killings based on his own admissions, court officials said. Without more evidence, however, the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office has so far been unable to charge Shermantine with any additional crimes.
On videotape, Herzog said Shermantine had bragged over the years of committing as many as 24 murders. Herzog told detectives that Shermantine either pulled the trigger or wielded the knife in every murder the pair are charged with. On Roberts Island, Herzog and Shermantine were riding together in a truck when they passed a parked 1982 Pontiac, Herzog told detectives. The friends turned around, pulled shotguns from their truck and approached the car. Shermantine fired first at the driver, killing Howard Michael King, 35, as he sat in the car, Herzog said. Shermantine then dragged Paul Raymond Cavanaugh, 31, from the passenger door and shot him at point-blank range before cutting open his pockets with a knife, Herzog said.
Two months before, Shermantine and Herzog were in a truck on Highway 88 near Hope Valley when they passed Henry Howell, a 41-year-old Santa Clara resident who was drunk and parked along the side of the road. Shermantine stopped, got out of the truck and shot Howell with a shotgun, Herzog said. In September 1985, the men picked up 24-year-old Robin Armtrout at a park near Del Mar Avenue in Stockton, Herzog said. Intending to go drinking together, the three ended up in a country pasture just east of Shermantine and Herzog’s homes in Linden. Shermantine “got carried away,” Herzog told detectives, beating, raping and eventually stabbing Armtrout more than a dozen times before leaving her naked on the bank of Potter Creek.
On the videotaped interview, Herzog said Shermantine bragged of doing the same thing to Chevelle Wheeler. Shermantine was investigated but never charged after Wheeler was reported missing in 1985, authorities said. Samples of blood matching Wheeler’s blood type were found at the time in a San Andreas hunting cabin belonging to Shermantine’s family. Recent developments in DNA technology allowed investigators to prove the blood came from Wheeler. Shermantine said that Herzog had a key to the family cabin and was good friends with Wheeler. According to Wheeler’s parents, however, Shermantine called the family’s home the day Chevy disappeared to confirm that the girl still planned to go with him on a mountain excursion.
About the Vanderheiden case, Herzog said he and Shermantine met the woman in a cemetery near her Clements home after the three left a bar after midnight. While driving back to Linden, Shermantine pulled a knife and ordered Vanderheiden to perform oral sex, Herzog told detectives. Shermantine then stopped the car near Waverly Road, raped Vanderheiden and slashed her throat, Herzog said. Detectives found Vanderheiden’s blood in the back of Shermantine’s car after it was repossessed January 22.
Herzog also implicated Shermantine in the 1994 shooting of a hunter in northern Utah. Shermantine allegedly shot a hunter while he and Herzog were on vacation, authorities said. Local officials in Utah confirmed they are investigating the unsolved murder of a hunter from 1994.
FBI officials seized almost $40,000 worth of guns from the San Andreas home of Shermantine’s parents. The San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office plans to call in a small army of evidence technicians to thoroughly examine the guns in an attempt to link them to weapons evidence from unsolved crimes, including the 1994 murder of a woman in Tuolumne County whose dismembered body was found in a burned-out barrel.
On March 5, 2001, Shermantine said that if his two young sons recieve $20,000 in reward money, he’ll reveal the location of the bodies of four victims, two for which he was convicted, and two more. Authorites have offered to drop the death penalty for two bodies, but Shermantine asked for cash instead. The victims’ families, who very much want Shermantine sentenced to death, said they were willing to consider the death penalty deal but were against paying for the bodies. They’d also like to help other families locate their missing loved ones. Shermantine, they said, has offered to reveal the locations of several bodies he hasn’t been charged with killing.