By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Chevelle "Chevy" Wheeler's mother dropped her off at Franklin High School in Stockton, California, the morning of October 7, 1985. "I love you," the 16-year-old said as she left the car. Paula Wheeler never saw her daughter again.
She still recalls in chilling detail the scene 16 years later, when the man convicted of killing her daughter and three others turned to her and her husband in court and highlighted the painful fact that their child's body had never been found.
"My parents will know where I'm at when I'm gone, but you'll never know where Chevy is," she remembers Wesley Shermantine telling them. The condemned killer long refused to offer information about his victims' fate or whereabouts.
But after more than a decade of silence on death row, Shermantine, 46, has begun to speak out about the string of murders - by his count, six dozen - he committed with his childhood friend and partner in crime, Loren Herzog.
Together they were dubbed the "Speed Freak" killers, so named for the methamphetamine-fueled violence investigators said they unleashed in and around California's farm-rich San Joaquin Valley during the 1980s and 1990s.
Authorities have long suspected the pair in as many as 22 deaths in all, mostly of young women and girls who went missing.
If Shermantine's claims prove true, he and Herzog, who committed suicide in January, could end up responsible for 72 killings, ranking them among the most prolific serial murderers in U.S. history.
Shermantine began dribbling out information late last year to a bounty hunter who offered him money in exchange for the location of burial sites.
The killer's crudely drawn maps helped lead authorities in February to skeletal remains of Chevy Wheeler and four others, finally providing a measure of closure to Paula Wheeler and some of the other victims' relatives.
But those discoveries may represent just a fraction of a much larger tally.
In a recent letter to a reporter, Shermantine put the number of victims at "24 X 3," though he has suggested Herzog was mainly responsible. And a telephone hot line investigators set up this year drew reports of about 65 missing persons who callers believed may have fallen prey to Sherman tine and Herzog.
Prosecutor Thomas Testa, who tried both men, said such high numbers strike him as possibly intended for "shock value."
"We never had a number anywhere near 70," he said. But, he added, "I wouldn't discount it entirely ... Maybe there's some fame in a higher number than the next guy."
Meanwhile, efforts to locate and positively identify remains have been painstakingly slow.
A California state legislator and a retired FBI agent assigned to interview Shermantine and assess his credibility say the renewed investigation was badly hindered by ineptitude and by law enforcement agencies working at cross purposes.
A KILLER'S MAPS AND GUIDED TOUR
In a rare step authorized by the state Legislature in hopes of a breakthrough, Shermantine was briefly released under guard from San Quentin State Prison late last month to personally direct FBI agents to sites where he claimed to have disposed of more of his victims.
Law enforcement officials have remained tight-lipped about what, if anything, they discovered during his one-day outing in August, months after excavations of Shermantine's map sites first bore fruit.
In a shallow grave near the former site of Shermantine's family home in San Andreas, 100 miles northeast of San Francisco, cadaver dogs discovered Wheeler's remains and her lavender-colored sweatshirt in February. The remains of Cyndi Vanderheiden, who was 25 when she disappeared in 1998, were unearthed from a ravine a short distance away.
Although prosecutors could not produce either body when they brought Shermantine to trial, a jury convicted him in 2001 of murdering both Vanderheiden and Wheeler, along with two men shot on a pitch-black highway in 1984.
Also in February, investigators recovered three more sets of remains tied to Shermantine from an abandoned well near a former cattle ranch in the San Joaquin County town of Linden. A forensic anthropologist determined the bones belonged to Kimberly Billy, 19, JoAnn Hobson, 16, and an unidentified teenage girl.
Skeletal remains of a fetus were found there as well, along with shoes, coats, a woman's ring, a purse and nearly 1,000 bone fragments.
Neither Shermantine nor Herzog was charged in the murder of Billy, a newlywed who went missing in 1984, or Hobson, a friend of Wheeler who attended the same high school and vanished in 1985, weeks before her classmate. But in another courtroom outburst at the time of his own sentencing, Shermantine told Hobson's mother that Herzog had gone out on a date with her daughter the night she died.
A separate jury found Herzog guilty of three murders, including Vanderheiden's, but his conviction was reduced on appeal to a single count of manslaughter, and he was paroled after 11 years in prison.
Whatever Herzog knew about his victims' whereabouts, he took to his own grave in January, hanging himself just hours after the bounty hunter involved in the investigation informed him that Shermantine was starting to pinpoint grave sites.
'WE'RE TIRED OF WAITING'
Shermantine began mapping locations of remains he claimed were discarded in abandoned wells and mine shafts and buried on remote hillsides and beneath a trailer park after meeting late last year with retired FBI agent Jeffrey Rinek.
By then, a Sacramento-based bounty hunter, Leonard Padilla, had agreed to pay Shermantine up to $33,000 for information leading to remains of his victims.
But Rinek and Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, a Stockton Democrat, have sharply criticized San Joaquin County Sheriff Steve Moore as impeding the effort. They accused Moore of trying to block Shermantine's visit to burial sites, then destroying evidence by allowing his deputies to recklessly dig for graves with a backhoe.
"They give more respect to dinosaurs than they do to these victims," said Rinek, who joined the investigation at the request of the FBI.
Galgiani recently formed a special task force to bring together dozens of law enforcement agencies that believe Shermantine might help them crack cold cases.
"The families of victims have waited and waited, and they wonder why nothing's happening. I know the torture it puts families through," Galgiani said.
The FBI has since taken the lead in the search for bodies, but a bureau spokesman declined to comment on the case.
Moore likewise declined to discuss specifics of the probe, though he confirmed that Shermantine visited San Joaquin County under heavy guard on August 26.
"We are now working with the FBI to further the investigation based on that activity. We stand ready to assist the FBI in making recoveries, which has been our goal all along," he said. "We will do everything we can to bring these victims home."
Sue Kizer is waiting. Her 18-year-old daughter, Gayle Marks, disappeared from Stockton in 1988. Authorities consider Shermantine and Herzog possible suspects.
"I want to get her out of wherever she is, thrown at the bottom of a dusty well or laying in the mud somewhere. I can't bear the thought," Kizer said. "Every family I'm in contact with, they all want the same thing. We want them to get out there and dig up the bodies. And we're tired of waiting."
(This story restores dropped letter in Testa, paragraph 12)
(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Doina Chiacu)