John and Theresa Vanderheiden are desperate to find the body of their daughter Cyndi who was raped and murdered in 1998.
The family will reward $20,000 to anyone who can lead them to her body — except the one person who wants to take their offer: the man convicted of perpetrating the horrible crime.
The man is Wesley Shermantine, an inmate at Santa Clara County Main Jail in San Jose, Calif. He says he knows where Cyndi's body is as well as the body of Chevy Wheeler whom he is convicted of murdering in 1985. To divulge the information, he feels he can fairly claim the $20,000.
Investigators speculate that over the last 15 years he hunted men and women alike in California's San Joaquin Valley, claiming as many as 20 other victims.
Last February he was sentenced to death after a jury found him guilty of killing Paul Cavanaugh, 31, Howard King, 35, Wheeler, 16, and Vanderheiden who was 25.
Cavanaugh and King were found shot to death on a quiet road, but the bodies of Wheeler and Vanderheiden are still missing. Their families, desperate for closure, are suffering the cruel taunts from Shermantine.
Det. Deborah Scheffel, one of the officers on the case, says Shermantine "has continued to be able to manipulate and control, from inside a jail cell." Sheffel says, "It is the most obscene thing I have ever heard of. It's just beyond words."
Families Come Together
Fifteen years ago, Paula and Raymond Wheeler's daughter, Chevy, disappeared after skipping school. "I took her to school about 7:20 that day. I dropped her off, and she said, 'Bye mom. I love you and I'll call you at two.' And I turned around and went back and I never saw her again," Mrs. Wheeler remembers.
Authorities found traces of her blood in Shermantine's cabin, but since DNA testing was not yet available, the killer went unpunished for more than a decade.
"I knew who killed her ... and I couldn't do anything about it," says Mr. Wheeler.
Cyndi Vanderheiden vanished shortly after being seen talking to Shermantine and his friend Loren Herzog, who also faces murder charges. Today, with no gravesite to visit, the Vanderheiden's home has become a shrine to their daughter. Her room is just as it was the night she crossed paths with her killer two years ago.
The testimony of Herzog was Shermantine's downfall in the Vanderheiden murder case. With horrifying detail, Herzog told the jury that he watched Shermantine rape and slit Cyndi's throat.
For months the Vanderheidens and Wheelers sat together in court, joined in their common cause of putting Shermantine away. Now, the only thing they want is to lay their daughters to rest. "I just want to bring my daughter home ... It killed me everyday I had to go into the courtroom," says Mrs. Vanderheiden, "I hated to look at him."
But Cyndi's father John says he won't pay "blood money" to his daughter's killer. "This is not right. I think it would send a wrong message out to the public that all you have to do is kill somebody and hide the body and if you get caught, then you can bargain," he says.
Shermantine denies his involvement in the murders, saying he is an innocent victim of a bad lawyer and dozens of lying witness — including the victims' families. He claims he only knows where the bodies are because Herzog, the real killer, told him.
To Shermantine, there is nothing shameful in his request for the reward. "It may be blood money, [but] if I was on the outside, you don't think I would collect it?" he asks. Though the money would be of little use to him in prison, he says he wants the $20, 000 to go to his own children.
"Money is money, they don't need to know where it came from," he explains.
But he has a darker motive as well. He also wants to punish the parents of the murdered girls because he says their lies led to his conviction. "The people who came in [to testify] lied and they know they lied," he says.
There may be a solution to this moral dilemma. Leonard Padilla is a flamboyant, high-profile bounty hunter who has offered to put up $20,000 of his own money toward meeting Shermantine's bribe. "Somebody has got to do it, otherwise these folks will never have any peace," he says.
Though it is difficult to accept, the families are willing to take Padilla up on his generous offer. Ironically, a man they have never met is helping them steer clear of a man they will never forget.
A dispute between Shermantine and the district attorney may still prevent the deal from taking place, but in the mean time, the Vanderheidens and the Wheelers can only hope that the man who took their children will find it in his heart to give them back.