SACRAMENTO, Calif. – They were dubbed the "Speed Freak Killers," inseparable boyhood friends from the sticks who were finally brought in after a methamphetamine-fueled murder spree lasting 15 years.
Wesley Shermantine is on California's Death Row.
Loren Herzog is walking free from prison in the coming days, the beneficiary of a bungled interrogation and a favorable appeals court ruling significantly reducing his prison sentence.
The people living in the rural San Joaquin County region the pair terrorized in the 1990s are once again gripped by fear, rage and disbelief that Herzog — initially convicted of three first-degree murders and implicated in several others — will be set free.
Their frustration is mitigated only slightly by news Friday that Herzog will be relocated to Lassen County in the state's remote northeast corner.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says Herzog will be paroled from Norco prison in Riverside County sometime in mid-September, declining to give an exact date. He was previously scheduled to be released July 25, but corrections officials abruptly canceled that, saying they'd miscalculated his sentence.
Despite calls from influential area politicians to keep Herzog locked up, the department said there's little it can do about Herzog's impending release now that he has served his time. But it did heed pleas from witnesses and families of victims by choosing to settle Herzog hundreds of miles from San Joaquin County.
"There is no bigger injustice," said John Vanderheiden, the father of the pair's last known victim — 25-year-old Cyndi Vanderheiden. "All Herzog's release is doing is making me relive it all over again."
Shermantine and Herzog were each initially convicted of several first-degree murder charges, including the rape and murder of Cyndi Vanderheiden in 1998.
The two lured her to a cemetery with the promise of methamphetamine. Herzog testified that he hid in the back seat of Shermantine's car while his friend attacked Vanderheiden. Herzog also testified that he helped load the body in the trunk, but doesn't know what Shermantine did after that. Her body hasn't been found.
The Vanderheiden family of Clements doesn't believe Herzog's story — and neither does San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Thomas Testa.
"These guys were so tight and they did everything together," Testa said. "A dead body is kind of a heavy thing."
Testa now hopes that the publicity surrounding Herzog's release will prompt new witnesses to come forward and help crack several other unsolved murders the two are suspected of committing. Witnesses say that Shermantine boasted that he killed 19 people.
Testa, who prosecuted both men, said he was disappointed when Herzog's jury rejected a death sentence in 2001 and a judge sentenced him to 78 years in prison on the three first-degree murder convictions.
In 2004, the news got worse for the prosecutor. The California Court of Appeal tossed out Herzog's convictions and sentence. It ruled that Herzog's detailed statements that amounted to a confession were illegally coerced.
The court ruled investigators ignored his several requests for a lawyer and pressed on with their interrogation after his 1999 arrest.
Without the videotaped confession, prosecutors said they were left little evidence and had no choice but to offer Herzog a deal to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter for the killing of Vanderheiden. His 78-year prison sentence was reduce to 14 years.
With credit for time served dating back to his 1999 arrest and time off for good behavior, the prison system can no longer hold him.
Witnesses who testified against him have expressed fear of retribution, while prosecutors are concerned Herzog will attempt to cover his tracks in several unsolved murders where he remains a suspect. Families of his victims are outraged he gets to return to his wife and three children while some of them don't know where their loved ones were buried.
Herzog's attorney, meanwhile, is trying to soothe those concerns. San Joaquin County Public Defender Peter Fox, who represented Herzog since his 1998 arrest, said the characterizations of his client are distorted.
Fox portrays Herzog as a dim country bumpkin led astray by a dominant and evil friend who masterminded all the killings. Fox said Herzog was a nonparticipating bystander during all the murders and helped cover his friend's tracks afterward.
"This is not a dangerous person," Fox said. "It's not fair to call him a killer. He is guilty of having the world's worst friend."
Herzog and Shermantine were the same age and grew up across the street from one another in Linden, a dusty community of 1,100 about 10 miles east of Stockton.
Witnesses testified at trial the two, now both 44, were trouble almost from the start.
They drank, did drugs and first turned to murder three months after graduating from high school in 1984, according to court records. By the time they were arrested in 1999, they were implicated in six murders and suspects in at least a dozen more that remain unsolved and open today.
"There was some evidence that suggest it was part of a game," said prosecutor Testa.
Herzog was held in jail for four days before he was brought before a judge — the first of the many missteps investigators took that has led to his early release.
During those four days, Herzog was visited by investigators from several different agencies seeking to connect him and Shermantine to open murder cases in their jurisdictions. He was given various versions of his rights to remain silent and seek an attorney, but the interrogations continued despite mutterings that he didn't understand what was going on and saying on several occasions that he thought he had better talk to a lawyer.
Nonetheless, he unburdened himself with tales of murders he said he watched Shermantine commit. Herzog believed that the police interrogating him would set him free once he told him that he was only a witness to Shermantine's depravity.
At end of the fourth day and his last interview, the investigator asked Herzog why he cooperated.
Herzog said he was hoping to "get that killer off the street" and looked forward to leaving jail.
"I feel it's gonna work out man," Herzog said during that 1998 interrogation. "I'm going home sometime. I got, gotta go home and see my wife, kids, you know, I gotta raise 'em."