Paula Wheeler got the call on Valentine's Day. The dental records were a match: The skull from a burial site in San Andreas was that of Chevelle Wheeler her Chevy.
"Twenty-six years. It's been pure hell," Wheeler said.
In 1985, she said, Chevy was 16, "a beautiful girl and a typical teenager" who swam, hiked, loved cool cars and singing along to Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl."
On Oct. 7, a 19-year-old named Wesley Shermantine called her before school. Wheeler dropped her daughter off at Stockton's Franklin High, thinking she was going to class. "Love you, Mom," Chevy said, before running off to see Shermantine.
Now her daughter is back in pieces of bone in exchange for a reward offered by a bounty hunter to a mass murderer.
Shermantine, part of a duo who started out in their teens killing animals and grew into methamphetamine-crazed men who killed people, has been leading authorities to victims from his cell on California's death row.
Hundred of human bones, from as many as 30 murders Shermantine claims occurred, have been excavated from an abandoned well near Linden in San Joaquin County. A skull, bone and Chevy's lavender sweat shirt were found Feb. 10 in a separate grave near a former Shermantine family property.
Hers was one of six murders that authorities pinned on Shermantine and partner Loren Herzog in 1999. Now families of potentially dozens more victims are coming forward.
The case broke open anew in part because of a newspaper reporter, Scott Smith of The Record in Stockton; a headline-grabbing bounty hunter, Leonard Padilla of Sacramento; and a retired FBI agent, Jeff Rinek of Rescue.
They worked to persuade a 45-year-old convicted killer, who has never admitted his guilt and long taunted his victims' families, to help bring a brutal saga to closure.
Shermantine didn't intend to give up anything.
At his sentencing in 2001, he sneered at Paula Wheeler. "My parents will know where I'm at when I'm gone," he told the mother. "But you will never know where Chevy is."
But starting in 2006, Smith began winning the condemned man's trust. The reporter said he visited Shermantine at San Quentin. They exchanged letters, moving from talk of Shermantine's failures in life to what it would take for him to reveal the whereabouts of his victims.
Ultimately, on Dec. 5, Smith got a new letter and a breakthrough.
"No bull----," the death row inmate confided. "I buried Chevy on my parents' property." Shermantine marked a hand-drawn map with an 'x.'
Smith contacted Padilla, a bounty hunter famous for media exploits such as bailing out murder defendant Casey Anthony to search for her missing toddler. Padilla led a failed dig for bodies in December. Shermantine implored him in letters to press on, insisting, "Leonard, I've not lied to you once."
Rinek, who as an FBI agent in 1999 persuaded killer Cary Stayner to confess to the murders of four women near Yosemite, called Padilla at the request of the Sacramento FBI office and visited with Shermantine at San Quentin prison last month.
The retired agent concluded Shermantine was cooperating for reasons other than just money: He was upset. His boyhood pal from Linden, the other half of the murderous team dubbed "the Speed Freak Killers," had been paroled in September.
Herzog won early freedom on a technicality: He cut a deal for 14 years in prison after his 77-years-to-life term was thrown out on appeal. He made no effort to contact Shermantine when he got out.
Rinek believes Shermantine was motivated both to try to return the victims to their families and to pin new killings on his accomplice.
A little more than three weeks later, San Joaquin County sheriff's investigators were using a backhoe to carve open a 45-foot well, where they have recovered more than 1,000 bones and fragments, plus jewelry, shoes, coats and a purse.
Last Monday, Shermantine phoned Padilla. He insisted they search a second well. He told the bounty hunter, "You ain't scratching the surface."
John Vanderheiden was furious in 2001 when Shermantine tried to bargain his way out of a death sentence by ransoming information on where he had buried Vanderheiden's 25-year-old daughter, Cyndi, in 1998.
The killer spurned a $20,000 offer by Padilla to help find his victims' remains, saying he wanted the families to put up the cash.
Vanderheiden had sat through Herzog's testimony at Shermantine's trial. He listened to how they lured Cyndi, who hoped to be a model, by promising her methamphetamine. He heard "how they beat her and sodomized her, then cut her throat and she drowned in her own blood."
He refused to turn over a cent in "blood money."
Authorities also blamed the "Speed Freak Killers" for the fatal 1984 shootings of Paul Cavanaugh, 31, and Howard King, 35, on Roberts Island near Stockton; and Henry Howell, 41, in Amador County. Another alleged victim, Robin Armtrout, 24, was stabbed to death near Linden in 1985.
The friends were found guilty in four of six cases, with Shermantine convicted of killing Wheeler and both convicted in Cyndi Vanderheiden's death.
Late last year, Padilla offered a new reward of $33,000 after Smith relayed Shermantine's latest demands. The inmate wanted $18,000 for court-ordered restitution payments to victims, plus money to support his child, buy headstones for his parents and a TV and other perks for prison.
John Vanderheiden felt a deep wound all over again.
Yet something seemed different. The killer was providing details, real ones.
"This time, it seemed like he decided to show a little remorse or something," Vanderheiden said.
Smith, 40, who has worked at the Record since 2003, said the Dec. 5 letter from Shermantine came after outpourings in which the death row inmate expressed regrets "about doing a lot of drugs and ruining his marriage and wrecking his life."
Soon he was trying to guide the reporter and Padilla to a tree near San Andreas in Calaveras County where Chevy Wheeler was buried, and a "dam fill" on a former family residence where Cyndi Vanderheiden could be found.
He also scribbled maps for two body-filled wells he dubbed "Herzog's boneyard."
In mid-December, Padilla, accompanied by partner Rob Dick, a private investigator who has spent years on the case, stirred a media event by digging a huge hole looking for Chevy. They had the wrong tree. A backhoe broke down. The property owner was livid.
From prison, Shermantine had second thoughts.
On Dec. 30, Shermantine said he feared for his safety at San Quentin if he had to testify against Herzog in other murder cases.
"If I do this I'll be alienating myself for the rest of my life," he wrote Smith. "I'll have to burden myself with all the spitting on I'll get, all the waste inmates throw on me ... not to even think how many times they'll try and stab me."
He asked the reporter to get Padilla to offer more money. He didn't get the increase but still urged them to continue the hunt.
In January, Smith said the "intrigue" of his correspondence with Shermantine became stark reality when he joined John Vanderheiden, "thrashing through the weeds, looking for his daughter's body." He thought: "This is no game. This is sad stuff."
On Jan. 9, still with no discoveries, Shermantine wrote, "Scott, believe me, I'm frustrated as well, like we both know it was 27 years ago ...
"I've tried so hard to forget."
Rinek, after contacting authorities in San Joaquin and Calaveras counties, started negotiating to see if Shermantine could be brought out under heavy security to lead the search.
On Jan. 14, Shermantine met at San Quentin with the ex-FBI agent and state parole and corrections officials. Rinek went in first. He asked Shermantine why the condemned killer wanted to work with them now.
Shermantine told the agent he had heard John Vanderheiden was ill and said he wanted Cyndi "to come home." Then he talked at length about Herzog and how his friend had turned his back on him.
"He was spurned in the relationship," Rinek said. "Something changed. I think when Herzog refused to communicate, the veil of Herzog's influence over Shermantine vaporized. ... Shermantine felt he could feel good about himself by returning the victims."
On Jan. 16, Padilla called Herzog, who was by then living in a trailer outside High Desert State Prison. He told Herzog that Shermantine was trying to pin the murders of both Chevy Wheeler and Cyndi Vanderheiden on him.
"Leonard, you know I didn't do it," Herzog replied.
"By the way, he said there are 12 bodies in a well on your property," the bounty hunter added.
Herzog fell silent. "I heard a sound like hyperventilating, like he was sucking for breath," Padilla recalled.
He told Herzog he had no immunity from prosecution and suggested he get an attorney.
"You're being blindsided by Shermantine," Padilla said.
Herzog hanged himself a few hours later.
Shermantine was to be pulled out of death row on Jan. 18 in the company of FBI agents and state corrections and parole officers to lead authorities to the graves of Wheeler and Vanderheiden.
But San Joaquin County Sheriff Steve Moore vetoed the idea, issuing a news release blasting the plan as too risky.
"Sheriff Moore can go f--- himself," an angry Shermantine wrote Padilla on Jan. 27. The inmate said he wanted Rinek and a state corrections special agent, Matthew Buechner, to direct the search. He wanted no credit for the sheriff.
"I have a real problem with other people trying to take another man's glory," he wrote the bounty hunter.
On Feb. 9, San Joaquin and Calaveras deputies, led by cadaver-sniffing dogs, unearthed a skull later identified as Vanderheiden's. They came upon Wheeler's remains a day later.
Now there is a trove of new remains. Padilla, who has yet to pay the reward money, said he believes Shermantine's claims of 30 victims.
Corina Dominguez Garcia wonders if one is her brother, Jose Esauro Dominguez, or "Che" to his family. He played cornet and wanted to join the jazz band at Stockton's Franklin High. He vanished Aug. 2, 1981, at 16, then the same age as Herzog and Shermantine.
His sister finds herself hoping that he was a victim of the "Speed Freak Killers," just so she'll know. "I'm reaching for anything right now," she said.
Sharon Melton of Manteca has believed since 1999 when the killers were arrested as suspects in Vanderheiden's murder that Shermantine and Herzog killed her sister, Tracy Melton, who was 32 and a mother of three.
Tracy Melton was attending a methadone clinic, trying to free herself of heroin and meth addiction, while her parents took care of her kids. She vanished in 1998. A witness saw Shermantine with her at a bar.
Last April, San Joaquin County authorities got DNA confirmation that a femur bone and fragment found in 2003 off Holt Road in Stockton were those of Tracy Melton. They didn't tell her sister until Jan. 24.
"I was so shocked. I couldn't speak," said Sharon Melton, whose family got an apology from Sheriff Moore.
She said she lost her career as a retail manager due to anxiety attacks and the mental "torture of having to figure out for so long what happened to my sister." She wonders if there is more of her sister in the boneyard.
With only "fragments" of her found, Tracy Melton's family had a memorial last Sunday. The family of Jose Dominguez hopes they can soon do the same.
"Nobody can understand what it's like, after 30 years, to wait for something to come out," Dominguez Garcia said. "He could have took this to his grave. He's letting it happen, he's making it happen. I can't be mad at that."