Cold and Hot

Date Published 02.02.12

It’s an unfortunate fact that criminal investigators are vulnerable to the kinds of influences that affect other, less life-and-death sectors, that, for instance, a sudden surge in publicity can make them work harder to solve a long-dormant cold case they would have otherwise forgotten.  In a perfect world they wouldn’t be roused into action by such random prompts, but they’re human. It happens. 


I was reminded of the vagaries of criminal investigation when I read about the case of Tracy Melton, a Stockton woman who disappeared 14 years ago.  Melton is thought to be a victim of Wesley Shermantine and Loren Herzog, the so-called “Speed Freak Killers,” childhood best friends who tore through California’s Central Valley on a methamphetamine-fueled killing spree during the 1980 and ‘90s.


Investigators believe Shermantine and Herzog may have killed as many as 25 people, though only a handful of bodies have been recovered.  Shermantine is on San Quentin’s Death Row; Herzog was released to great uproar in 2010 after an appeals court tossed out his confession and his three murder convictions were downgraded to manslaughter.


Shermantine has always been a bit of a voluble huckster, dangling potential information about missing victims in an obscene attempt at negotiation.  Perhaps piqued that Herzog was out, Shermantine recently began opening up again, this time to a retired FBI agent.


A bounty hunter working with the retired agent called Herzog at his state-issued trailer on prison grounds, where he was living because the public outcry about him was so great.  The bounty hunter told Herzog that Shermantine was talking about their past and providing details.  Hours later, Herzog hung himself.  “Tell my family I love them,” his note said.


In all the developments Tracy Melton’s family saw an opportunity to finally learn what had happened to her.  Tracy’s sister Sharon called the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s office, and was told she’d be updated when and if a search based on Shermantine’s information took place.


A week later the phone rang.  It was the sheriff’s office.  They had a bit of a bombshell: Tracy Melton’s remains had been located in 2003 near a Stockton highway by a roadside crew.  A bone was given to the California Dept. of Justice to analyze.  In April 2011, the bone was matched to Melton.  The Melton family was told they hadn’t been alerted because the case had unfortunately “fallen through the cracks.”


The “speed freak killers” were back in the news, and for that reason Tracy Melton’s family finally learned 9 years after remains were found and 9 months after a match was made that she was, as they feared, dead.


I can’t confirm this, but another possible example of a high profile case prompting a development elsewhere is the recent homeless serial killer case out of Orange County.  As news spread in late December of an unknown killer stalking homeless men and stabbing them to death, I remembered the massacre, in 2008, of 5 men and women at a homeless encampment in Long Beach.  They didn’t seem related, but I wondered what ever happened to that case.  It had seemingly fallen off the radar, and there were no new developments.


On January 13, a 23-year-old named Itzcoatl Ocampo was arrested in the Orange County homeless killings after being chased from a fast-food parking lot by a group of people who had witnessed him just attack his last victim.


Curiously, just six days later on January 19, the Long Beach Police Department suddenly announced that charges had been filed against two suspects in the 5 homeless murders there.  Coincidence?  Maybe.  But sometimes it takes a little spark from outside to turn a cold case hot again.

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary:
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.