BODY OF EVIDENCE

Years after Linda Sherman vanished, her skull turned up at a restaurant. Now the cops are hoping that new forensic tests will lead to her remains -- and nail their primary suspect. But hes not worried.

Inside the small brick building on Midland Avenue, behind Vinita Park City Hall, Lt. Michael Webb keeps the same picture of Linda Sherman in a manila file folder. Her case fills two entire drawers in the metal cabinet in the corner of his office. The room is neat. On a nearby shelf, sandwiched between various law-enforcement titles, are books on botany and crime-scene archaeology.

A seemingly unflappable man with a solemn voice, Webb, 48, has spent most of his career in Vinita Park, except for a single year as a patrolman in Charlack. He spends his free time at the St. Louis County Library headquarters on Lindbergh Boulevard, researching through ribbons of microfilm for details about organized crime at the turn of the century in St. Louis. Someday, if and when he retires -- "They'll have to push me out of here; I'll be in a walker," he says -- Webb figures he might write a book about local mob history.

Webb was a patrol supervisor back in 1985, and he remembers reading Linda Sherman's missing-person report. He read all the daily reports as a patrol supervisor, and Linda's report stood out. "There was just something that didn't sound right," says Webb, a sandy-haired man with a mustache who has since traded his police uniform for a crisp shirt and tie. "We have missing persons reported all the time. Generally, within a few days, there is contact with someone, especially a loved one like a child."

Don Sherman with Linda in a photo from their wedding album
photo courtesy of Don Sherman
Don Sherman with Linda in a photo from their wedding album
Don Sherman at his home on Monroe Avenue in Vinita Park
Jay Fram
Don Sherman at his home on Monroe Avenue in Vinita Park

That's what just about everyone said about Linda's disappearance: It didn't sound right.

Linda's parents, her brothers and her sister and brother-in-law insisted there was no way Linda would leave her 9-year-old daughter, under any circumstances. Her co-workers and friends agreed. Linda, a doting mom, wouldn't do such a thing, they said.

Don Sherman told police that an overnight bag and other items appeared to be missing from the house. Because Linda had left him twice before -- both times emptying their home of furniture -- he says he thought she'd left him again. On both of those occasions, however, she had taken Patty with her. This time, she did not. Sherman says he can't recall what he made of his wife's disappearance at the time. "I don't remember exactly what was going through my head," he says now. "It's way too long ago to remember that."

As each day passed with no word from Linda, the Millers grew increasingly alarmed. They posted fliers offering a $1,000 reward for information on her whereabouts. They spoke to co-workers at the government-records center where Linda worked.

Four days after Linda disappeared, Sam Miller says, he lay awake in bed, thinking about a musician whose car had recently turned up at Lambert Airport after he was murdered. They hadn't looked for Linda there, he realized. He woke his wife; they got dressed and drove to the airport. They had rounded the first turn in the short-term parking garage when they saw what they were looking for: Linda's yellow Volkswagen Beetle, her schoolbooks from a computer class inside, a hat tossed on the back seat. They called for an airport-police officer and waited for him to pop the trunk, worried they might find Linda's body inside. The officer opened the front compartment of the Beetle, where the trunk is located. But there was no trace of Linda.

Soon after, the Millers met with Vinita Park police, and Lt. Webb was officially assigned to the case.

He interviewed co-workers, family members, Linda's husband. He pinpointed the time she'd signed out of the records center. He learned that the airport kept track of cars parked in the garage longer than 24 hours, and that Linda's car had been noted on April 24. He checked the passenger lists of airline departures from Lambert. No Linda Sherman.

Within a week of her disappearance, Don Sherman reported that he'd seen Linda riding in a van with someone else -- and that she ducked. He told police he tried to follow the vehicle but that it got away from him and he wasn't able to write down a license-plate number.

The lieutenant tracked down dozens of leads throughout the state of Missouri. None checked out. Linda wasn't the type to have enemies. Webb could not find any. He checked out the male co-worker that Don Sherman says she had been seeing, but that man had an alibi and was ruled out as a suspect.

Months passed with no sign of Linda, and police decided to go public with a plea for help in the case. Linda's disappearance -- and her family's concerns about foul play -- were described in a July 15, 1985, article in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. "We're at an impasse," Vinita Park Police Chief Robert Hartz was quoted as saying. "There's little more we can do without a break."

The break didn't come.

While everyone worried about Linda's whereabouts, Don Sherman says he tried to move on with his life. About a year after Linda disappeared, he filed a cross-petition for divorce stating that Linda had abandoned both him and their daughter. His lawyer was Frank Anzalone, a prominent Clayton criminal- defense attorney, whose clients included people accused of serious felonies such as rape and murder. Sherman is reluctant to talk about why Anzalone handled his divorce, except to say that Anzalone has always been his lawyer and that he had first met him when Anzalone was a public defender and represented Sherman's mother in 1974.

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