SAN FRANCISCO — The apparent suicide of a parolee suspected of killing as many as 19 people occurred after a bounty hunter called him earlier in the day with an ominous warning.
Bounty hunter Leonard Padilla told paroled killer Loren Herzog that his partner in crime – who is languishing on death row – was prepared to disclose the location of missing bodies and was trying to pin their murders on him.
Padilla said in a phone interview Wednesday that he agreed to pay Herzog's co-conspirator Wesley Shermantine to disclose the bodies' locations. Padilla says he called Herzog on Monday afternoon to warn him to get a lawyer after Shermantine implicated him in the alleged killings.
"There's a certain way to do things with felons," Padilla said. "I didn't want this to come as a surprise to him."
Authorities found Herzog dead inside his Lassen County trailer hours later. Herzog is believed to have hanged himself in his state-issued trailer just outside the gates of the High Desert State Prison in Susanville.
"I told him I was communicating with Shermantine," said Padilla, who agreed to pay Shermantine a little more than $30,000 if bodies were found. "He knew what was coming down the road."
Padilla said he hoped to recoup the payment through outstanding rewards that family members of victims and others offered for information about their loved ones. At least two families had at one time each offered $20,000 for information about their missing daughters.
Lassen County Sheriff Dean Growdon said "all evidence indicates" that Herzog's death was a suicide.
Growdon said Herzog left a note, but he declined to disclose details other than to say the note was meant for his family and "made no reference to his criminal history, crime victims, etc." Herzog was married with three children.
High Desert Prison officials were asked to check on Herzog in his trailer Monday after his parole agent received a warning that the batteries in Herzog's electronic tracking device on his ankle were running low.
Herzog became a pariah upon his parole to the trailer in California's remote northeast corner in 2010. He was released after an appeals court tossed out his confession as illegally coerced and prosecutors reduced three murder convictions and a 78-year prison sentence to a manslaughter charge and 14-year term. Herzog's parole caused an uproar in San Joaquin County, which persuaded prison officials to locate him elsewhere. Lassen County and Susanville officials then filed a lawsuit to bar his settling in the region after prison officials placed him in the trailer outside the prison, which allowed him to come and go.
Herzog was allowed to remain in the trailer pending an appeal in that suit. The trailer on state property was seen as the best solution for a parolee unwelcomed everywhere in the state.
Investigators believe Herzog and Shermantine killed as many as 19 people during a methamphetamine spree in the 1980s and 1990s. The two were dubbed the "Speed Freak Killers" when arrested in 1999. Each blamed the other for masterminding the murders.
Shermantine is on death row after he was convicted of killing four, including 16-year-old Chevelle "Chevy" Wheeler in 1985. In letters to the Stockton Record, Shermantine has promised to lead authorities to the bodies of Wheeler, Cyndi Vanderheiden and a covered well holding at least 10 more bodies.
Shermantine has provided false leads before, including during his 2001 trial when he demanded $20,000 in exchange for revealing the location of Wheeler and Vanderheiden. The families and district attorney refused the deal. Then Shermantine turned down a prosecution offer to sentence him to life without parole instead of death row in exchange for information about the missing bodies.
Shermantine also wrote the Stockton Record last year offering to return Herzog to prison by providing the information. In return, he wanted prosecutors to agree to let him out of San Quentin in 10 years.
A search in December of Calaveras County property once owned by Shermantine's parents yielded nothing. But Padilla claims investigators were searching in the wrong area and said California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation investigators and FBI agents were planning to transport Shermantine to the area for a search Wednesday.
But San Joaquin County Sheriff Steve Moore put a halt to those plans late Tuesday after belatedly learning about them.
"Security is the main issue – Shermantine is on death row and has nothing left to lose," sheriff spokesman Les Garcia said. "He's done this before. He has led law enforcement on a wild goose chase, and it's kind of hard to believe what he's saying now."
The San Joaquin sheriff has scheduled a Friday meeting with the Corrections Department, FBI, Calaveras County sheriff and others to discuss Shermantine's latest claims. One of Moore's proposals to live-stream a search into Shermantine's cell so the inmate can direct searchers without leaving death row, which is in San Quentin Prison in Marin County.
A Corrections spokesman declined to comment. An FBI spokesman didn't return a phone call.
Wheeler's father, reached by phone in his Crossfield, Tenn., home said he doesn't believe Shermantine either.
"This is the second time he's pulled this, and I don't believe a word he says," Raymond Wheeler said. "I think he's just playing a game."