After 26 years, goodbye
STOCKTON, Mar 01, 2012 (The Record - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Paula Wheeler has sought closure for 26 years. Today, it will arrive in the form of a memorial service for her daughter, Chevelle "Chevy" Wheeler, who disappeared from Stockton on Oct. 16, 1985, and whose remains were found in Calaveras County less than three weeks ago.
She was 16 when she was killed.
"It's a piece of closure; to be able to have her (urn) on our mantle and give her friends a chance to say goodbye too," she said.
The Wheelers live in Tennessee and returned to the Stockton area this week to recover their daughter's remains.
With small microphones wired to her gray polo shirt and cameras all around her, Paula Wheeler spent part of Wednesday afternoon reflecting on her daughter's life and violent death, and on the emotional hell her family has endured since her disappearance.
The girl is believed to have fallen prey to Loren Herzog and Wesley Shermantine, who went on a methamphetamine-fueled killing spree in the 1980s and '90s. Shermantine is on death row, while Herzog died in an apparent suicide earlier this year. Herzog had been paroled in 2010.
How they met Named for the Chevrolet muscle car popular in the 1960s and '70s, Chevelle Wheeler had typical teenage interests. She enjoyed hanging around boys and helping her father, Raymond, work on cars.
"She was the tool girl," Paula Wheeler said. "She would hand him the wrenches and such." Chevelle also liked the popular music of the 1980s, her mother said.
Her favorite song, "Jessie's Girl" by Rick Springfield, will be played at her memorial this afternoon.
Shermantine was not a stranger to the Wheeler family. He was the husky 19-year-old who had a mutual friend of Chevelle's, Paula Wheeler said.
He drove a Ford Courier pickup with a powerful stereo system. The stereo interested her husband, Paula Wheeler said, and Shermantine was showing it off one day when a handgun was spotted under the driver's seat.
"He asked (Shermantine) why he needed the gun, and he said it was for protection," she said.
She already disliked Shermantine based on how he presented himself, Paula Wheeler said, and the gun only confirmed her opinion.
Suspicions mount From the start, the couple suspected Shermantine was involved with Chevelle's disappearance. They suspected he had been with her the day she went missing.
"He came by the house the next day because we were calling every Shermantine in the (phone) book," she said.
Raymond even asked the teenager to take off his T-shirt to see if he had any scratches, she said. Shermantine had no marks.
No official cause of death has been listed for Chevelle, but her mother believes the gun was used, possibly to beat the girl to death.
"After Chevy disappeared, funny thing, that gun did too," she said. "He ended up throwing the gun away -- I understand -- because the handle was broken on it." The girl's mother suspects Shermantine did not attack her face-to-face.
"Chevy had really long nails, so he had to have done it from behind," she said. "If she would've had the chance, she would've scratched him desperately." Time numbs hope As the years trudged on and her daughter's body was never recovered, Paula Wheeler lost hope of having a proper memorial.
"I never thought we'd get her back," she said.
When previous recovery attempts turned up empty, Paula Wheeler said she was not devastated because her hopes were not high to begin with. After all, Shermantine had told the couple, they would never find their daughter.
"We took him at his word," she said.
Led by letters and maps authored by Shermantine from his death row cell at San Quentin State Prison, investigators found Chevelle's remains in mid-February.
Although an official confirmation of Chevelle's identity would not come for several more days, Shermantine had said her remains and the bones belonging to Cyndi Vanderheiden, 25, would be found there.
The initial discovery was made Feb. 14.
"That's my Valentine's Day now," she said.
No forgiveness Paula Wheeler expressed gratitude to Sacramento bounty hunter Leonard Padilla for putting up the money that made Shermantine cooperate, but she is not planning on forgiving the man she believes killed her daughter.
"I would like to see him executed," she said. "Or at least put him in general population and let someone take care of him; the same way he took care of his victims." Shermantine should pay off his restitution, Paula Wheeler said, but he should not be allowed to use the money to purchase personal items or treats.
She said she intends to file a civil lawsuit to prevent him from having the money for himself.
"I don't care who gets it, as long as he doesn't," she said.
While she plans to follow the ongoing search for more victims from her home in Tennessee, Paula Wheeler said she is also looking forward to reclaiming her privacy.
"Every five minutes I'm getting a call from somebody," she said. "I'm looking forward to the quiet and having a chance to breathe." Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at (209) 546-8279 or [email protected] Visit his blog at recordnet.com/crimeblog.
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