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Serial killer's burial sites sparks missing-person inquiry

By Emmett Berg

STOCKTON, California (Reuters) - California investigators digging up human remains from several burial sites that a convicted serial killer recently drew on maps have heard from the public about more than 60 unsolved missing-person cases, a sheriff's spokesman said on Wednesday.

After five days of excavation at the first site, a sealed, abandoned well 100 miles east of San Francisco, authorities have recovered nearly 1,000 human bone fragments as they sift through soil and other debris one bucket-full at a time, said Deputy Les Garcia, a spokesman for the San Joaquin County Sheriff.

Investigators also have unearthed a woman's ring, a purse, shoes and some coats from the 50-foot-deep well, located near a former cattle ranch in the community of Linden and known as weekend gathering spot for local teenagers, he said.

The well is one of five sites identified on maps drawn by Wesley Shermantine, who was convicted in May 2001 of four murders dating back to 1984 and is currently on California's death row.

Prosecutors have previously said they believed Shermantine and his co-defendant, Loren Herzog, a childhood friend who was convicted of three murders and committed suicide last month, were linked to as many as two dozen killings.

The pair were dubbed the "Speed Freak Killers" for the methamphetamine-fueled violence they were found to have committed. Herzog's murder conviction was reduced to a single count of manslaughter on appeal, and he was released on parole after 14 years in prison.

A Sacramento-based bounty hunter who has followed the case, Leonard Padilla, has said the directions pointing to the burial sites were furnished to him by Shermantine after Padilla agreed to pay the killer $33,000 for information leading to the location of his victims' bodies.

Garcia told Reuters the sheriff's department obtained Shermantine's maps and letters from the Stockton Record newspaper, which acted as an intermediary.

The sheriff's deputy said it was too soon to know how many victims might be found buried at the sites.

But a telephone hotline set up by state and local investigators assigned to the case has fielded queries about 65 missing persons who callers feared might have fallen victim to Shermantine and Herzog's killing spree during the 1980s and '90s, Garcia said.

Besides the trove of bone fragments retrieved from the well in Linden, remains unearthed miles away from two separate, single graves near San Andreas in Calaveras County have been identified as belonging to two of Shermantine's victims -- Cyndi Vanderheiden, 25, who disappeared in 1998, and Chevelle Wheeler, 16, missing since 1985, Garcia said.

Garcia said that once investigators are finished combing through the Linden well, they will turn their attention to two more sites charted by Shermantine, one of them a second well near the first that Padilla said he believes also could prove to be a mass grave.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Tim Gaynor)

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