County Must Face Claims Over Handling of Mass Murder Grave

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – A county in California’s Central Valley must face claims that its sheriff’s office mishandled the remains of a teen who was murdered a pair of serial killers commonly referred to as the Speed Freak Killers and dumped in a farm well in 1985.

U.S. District Judge Morrison England denied the San Joaquin County’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that Joan Shelley, the mother of victim JoAnn Hobson, maintained due process rights connected to her daughter’s remains and could move forward in her suit against the county.

“Drawing all inferences in favor of the opposing party, as the court must do on summary judgment, it appears clear that the facts present here arguably implicate both the “mutilation” of Jo Ann Hobson’s body and the “desecration” of her burial site in the abandoned well containing her remains,” England wrote in the 18-page ruling.

Shelley sued the county in 2013, a year after her daughter’s remains were discovered with other victims in a well on a farm outside the town of Linden. Shelley says the county mishandled her daughter’s remains when they used a backhoe to excavate rather than shovels as they explicitly promised her after she showed up at the farm and became hysterical at the sight of the backhoe’s claws

San Joaquin Sheriff’s Detective Chanda Bassett assured Shelley that the office was only using the backhoe to get past the layers of dirt, discarded farm materials and appliances to get to where they suspected the bodies were.

Bassett told Shelley that when and if county found any human remains they would switch to shovels to carefully remove the bones by hand.

However, after finding a bone, the investigators continued to use a backhoe to remove the remains while local TV station cameras rolled – which Shelley says violates her due process rights to dispose of her daughter’s remains as she chooses.

Shelley testified in her deposition that seeing a backhoe removing those bones “made her feel like her child was murdered all over again.”

Investigators said it was impossible to use anything other than an excavator due to the hardness of the soil, the depth of the well, and state occupational safety rules.

In its motion for summary judgment, the county argued it did not violate any due process rights in a way that shocks the conscience, the standard for Shelley’s claims to survive. The county argued their actions were a part of an active investigation and fell short of the standard.

England disagreed.

“The county elected to use large earth-moving equipment to excavate a well they knew was likely to contain human remains, including those of plaintiff’s daughter, Jo Ann Hobson,” he wrote. “While initially using an excavator may well have been reasonable, the court cannot say as a matter of law that the county’s decision to continue using the backhoe was reasonable once digging had proceeded to a level where human remains were discovered.”

The case dates back to the early 1980s, when Linden residents Loren Herzog and Wesley Shermantine went on a killing spree that officials believe may have involved as many as 72 murders.

The Speed Freak Killers, the moniker given to the two childhood friends due to their copious use of methamphetamine, were convicted of multiple murder counts in 2001.

Investigators cracked the case when Shermantine’s car was repossessed and DNA was found belonging to Cyndi Vanderheiden, who disappeared in 1985 after leaving with the two friends from the Linden Inn, their usual hangout.

Police brought in Herzog to question him about his friend and his possible involvement in the murder. Herzog detailed how Shermantine killed Utah hunter Henry Howell, who was found with his head bashed in a car parked on the side of the road in California’s Alpine County.

He also gave details about how he killed Robin Artmout, whose body was found in Potters Creek outside Linden.

Herzog was eventually charged with the death of some of these individuals, while Shemantine was eventually found guilty of murdering four people – Vanderheiden, Howard King, Paul Cavanaugh and Chevy Wheeler.

King and Cavanaugh were shot dead in their car, as the two killers often shot motorists, robbed them and left them for dead on the side of the road.

Wheeler was a 16-year-old who was last seen at a high school in Stockton after telling friends she was going to spend the weekend with Herzog at his mountain cabin.

Three years after his conviction, Herzog’s appeals were granted and he pleaded guilty to being an accessory to murder. He was paroled in 2010 and hanged himself inside his trailer in 2012.

Meanwhile, Shermantine was tricked by bounty hunter Leonard Padilla into revealing the location of additional bodies in the Linden well, which contained the bodies of JoAnn Hobson, Kimberly Ann Billy and an unidentified woman and her unborn fetus.

After Padilla tipped off the San Joaquin Sheriff’s Office, the department began its excavation process. Shelley recalled seeing footage of a backhoe lifting her daughter’s jacket with bones in it out of the well, a fact corroborated by sheriff’s officers who recalled seeing the same image.

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