It was dubbed Operation Closure in hopes that a serial killer on Death Row would finally lead authorities to where at least a dozen bodies were buried decades ago, ending the torment of families who still wonder about their missing loved ones.
Prison officials had mapped out a route from San Quentin State Prison to the Central Valley and assigned a well-armed security detail to travel with Wesley Shermantine, one half of the notorious "Speed Freak Killers" who terrorized the region in the 1980s and 90s. An FBI forensics unit was prepared to excavate the graves after the clandestine search planned for Wednesday in San Joaquin and Calaveras counties.
Then, San Joaquin County Sheriff Steve Moore brought the operation to a screeching halt, complaining he was left out of the planning and that he had concerns with the security measures and Shermantine's credibility.
On Friday, Moore signed on to the plan after meeting with federal, state and local officials in his Stockton office. Moore, San Joaquin District Attorney James Willet and Calaveras County Sheriff Gary Kuntz will co-write a letter to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to formally request prison officials transport Shermantine to the region "to pinpoint possible burial sites in the near future."
But now there's concern that Shermantine may change his mind. Those involved in the initial planning are disappointed they couldn't go through with the planned search Wednesday and are fearful the opportunity may have been lost.
"Everything was set to go," said retired FBI agent Jeff Rinek, who was intimately involved in the planning process and opened negotiations with Shermantine on Saturday during a San Quentin visit. Two California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials joined Rinek in interviewing Shermantine, and the trio secured details about three locations from him.
"It was really going well," Rinek said. "Then Moore single-handedly shot everything down."
San Joaquin Sheriff's Department spokesman Les Garcia declined to discuss Rinek's comments Friday. On Wednesday, Garcia said Moore was concerned the original plan was "half-cocked" and that the sheriff wanted to "slow things down" to ensure Shermantine couldn't escape once he was removed from Death Row.
Rinek said his involvement in the case began when an FBI agent asked him in December to check out Sacramento bounty hunter Leonard Padilla's claims that Shermantine was divulging locations of missing bodies. Padilla is offering Shermantine a little more than $30,000 for the information with plans to collect some $200,000 in state of California rewards. Rinek had a good relationship with Padilla, who he said helped find a missing infant during his time with the FBI.
Rinek retired from the FBI after he cracked the case of four Yosemite Park tourists killed by handyman Cary Stayner in 1999. Stayner confessed to Rinek, who said he saw a lot of similarities in Shermantine's demeanor during their Saturday conversations and believes his claims are worth checking out.
Shermantine and his childhood friend Loren Herzog are suspected of murdering up to 25 people during a methamphetamine-fueled spree that began shortly after they graduated high school and lasted until their arrests in 1999. Both were convicted of multiple first-degree murders. Shermantine, 45, was sentenced to death, and Herzog received a 78-year sentence, which was reduced to 14 years after an appeals court tossed out his confession as illegally coerced.
Herzog was released on parole in 2010. He committed suicide Monday in Lassen County after the Sacramento bounty hunter called and told him that Shermantine was disclosing locations of missing bodies and implicating him in their murders. Herzog was 46.
Rinek said Shermantine provided details to three burial spots, but Rinek and others involved in the search say Shermantine's presence is still needed because the locations are in rural areas that have changed dramatically since the 1990s.
Rinek said Shermantine wants to disclose the locations for two reasons. He wants the money to pay off an $18,000 restitution order that prevents him from buying the limited luxuries like candy bars that inmates with money in their accounts can afford. He also said he want to buy headstones for his deceased parents. Shermantine also appears motivated by the fact that his partner in crime didn't contact him when he was paroled.
This isn't the first time Shermantine has offered to disclose the locations of bodies. Shermantine has reneged on a promise to do so in 2001 and has made other unfulfilled offers through the years, another reason the San Joaquin County sheriff cited for throwing a monkey wrench into the initial search plans.
Rinek said he told Shermantine on Saturday that this had to be the last discussion of the bodies' locations.
"You have been torturing victims' families for 20 years," Rinek said he told Shermantine. "It has to stop."
Family members of Shermantine's and Herzog's victims agree, including the mother of 16-year-old Chevelle "Chevy" Wheeler. Shermantine was convicted of killing Wheeler even though her body was never found. Shermantine said Saturday that he would lead investigators to Wheeler's grave, which he said is on property in remote Calaveras County once owned by his parents.
"He has taken us on an emotional roller coaster for 26 years," Paula Wheeler said in a phone interview from her home in Crossville, Tenn. "I'm sick and tired of it."
Nonetheless, Wheeler said she supports transporting Shermantine to the area for a search.
"Grab him while the grabbing's good and drive him down there," Wheeler said. "I want to bring Chevy home."