Suspected Serial Killer Convicted

Thursday, February 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — A suspected serial killer described by prosecutors as ``pure evil'' was convicted of four murders in the San Joaquin Valley, and authorities suspect him in other killings and assaults across the West.

Wesley Shermantine Jr., 35, sat quietly as the verdicts were read Wednesday in a Santa Clara courtroom, where the case was moved because of publicity. The sentencing phase to determine whether he should be executed for the crimes or sentenced to life in prison is to begin next week.

``This is the verdict, frankly, we expected. But to me, it's 15 years too late,'' prosecutor Thomas Testa said. ``For 15 years he's gotten away with a large number of sexual assaults, abductions, kidnappings, other crimes.''

Testa said Shermantine had boasted of killing as many as 22 people, and authorities consider him a suspect in murders elsewhere in California and in Utah and Nevada.

Shermantine's attorneys declined to comment Wednesday.

Prosecutors had no witnesses to the four killings for which Shermantine was convicted, and only two of the bodies — those of Paul Cavanaugh, 31, and Howard King, 35, both killed in 1984 — have been found.

Shermantine was linked to the deaths by tire tracks matching his pickup near where the two men were shot to death in a car off a remote road. In the other two killings, DNA tests years later provided prosecutors with the links.

Shermantine was long suspected in 16-year-old Chevy Wheeler's disappearance from Stockton in 1985, but it wasn't until 1999 that drops of blood in his mountain cabin were matched to the girl's DNA.

In the 1998 disappearance of Cyndi Vanderheiden, 25, of Clements, east of Stockton, blood allegedly found on a head rest and in the trunk of Shermantine's vehicle matched Vanderheiden's. She had last been seen leaving a bar with Shermantine, who was high on methamphetamine, and his friend Loren Herzog, Testa said. Herzog is charged in three of the killings and two others and is awaiting trial.

Testa told the jury that Shermantine claimed ``he had hunted the ultimate kill — humans.''

``No way would he stop,'' Testa said. ``It's just pure evil.''

Evidence from other crimes in which Shermantine is suspected wasn't allowed at the trial, but witnesses testified that when Shermantine was high, he often threatened people and claimed he had ``made people disappear.''

Outside court, Testa said that three months before Vanderheiden disappeared, Shermantine raped a woman on the very night he was acquitted of another rape in Calaveras County.

Wednesday's verdicts came as solace to the victims' families, some of whom had driven the 200 miles round trip regularly for more than two months to watch the trial.

John and Terri Vanderheiden are still hoping to find out where their daughter's remains are.

``I'm glad, from now on, he won't hurt anybody,'' John Vanderheiden said. ``He deserves to die.''