ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In California's Central Valley, authorities are uncovering a trove of new evidence in an old serial murder case. They are excavating the remains of an unknown number of victims buried years ago by a pair of drug-fueled killers. The men were convicted and sentenced a decade ago. The new search began last week after one of the men agreed to lead authorities to the victims' remains in exchange for cash.
As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, the case raises some thorny ethical and legal issues.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)
RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: The bells of Holy Cross Catholic Church punctuate an uneasy calm in the sleepy farm town of Linden, about an hour south of Sacramento. It's a tightly knit community of less than 2,000 people, where everybody knows each other and everyone knew the convicted serial killers Loren Herzog and Wesley Shermantine. Father Robert Silva says many of his parishioners have talked with him in hushed tones about the pair of killers who brought notoriety to their small town more than a decade ago.
FATHER ROBERT SILVA: They'll tell you only so much because they've known these families, but they're very protective, for example, the little children of those families, the parents of those families. And they'll only say so much, and then they shut down. They won't - they don't talk too much about it.
GONZALES: Perhaps because no one is sure how many bodies investigators will find. They have dug out one abandoned well and plan to move on to another on the same property on the outskirts of town. Les Garcia is a spokesman for the San Joaquin County Sheriff.
DEPUTY LES GARCIA: Well, I've been in this business over 30 years, and this is the most gruesome crime scene that I've been involved with. It's just unreal.
GONZALES: Garcia says investigators have found evidence of a mass grave, including more than 1,000 bone fragments.
GARCIA: We've found purses, coats, shoes, jewelry, personal items.
GONZALES: Authorities have identified the remains of two women buried on yet a third property that had once been owned by the family of Wesley Shermantine. He and his boyhood friend, Loren Herzog, were arrested in 1999 and eventually convicted of killing four people, although officials suspect they may have killed more than 20. Herzog committed suicide last month apparently after learning that Shermantine, who is on death row, planned to tell authorities where their victims' remains could be found.
Shermantine drew maps of the locations of the graves after a bounty hunter promised him $33,000. More than half of that money will be paid in restitution to the victim's families, and some will pay for headstones on the graves of Shermantine's dead parents. Whatever money remains will be available for the inmate's personal items, including junk food and a television set.
FRANK ZIMRING: All of this becomes unusual because the currency isn't penal leniency.
GONZALES: Frank Zimring teaches at U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall Law School. He says what's much more typical is that a murder suspect would agree to share information in exchange for a lighter sentence. Zimring says this case presents a clash of two public sentiments.
ZIMRING: We don't want criminals to benefit from their wrongdoing. On the other hand, we want the sense of closure. We want the information. We want the location of remains.
GONZALES: California's state prison officials have declined to comment on the case, saying they don't want to interfere with an ongoing investigation. Richard Gonzales, NPR News.