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.

"My mother killed my father," Sherman says matter-of-factly.

It was after midnight on Feb. 25, 1974, when police arrived at the Sherman home in Cool Valley and found 47-year-old Charles Sherman, an unemployed watchman, shot dead at the kitchen table. Audrey Sherman, his wife, and all five children said they awoke to a loud bang. Police officers searched the house and found a .38-caliber gun stashed in a heating duct. Audrey was later indicted for first-degree murder. Four months after the wedding of her son Don, she pleaded guilty to manslaughter. She served six months in the county jail.

"She put a bullet in him as a result of one of their arguments," Don Sherman says. "They were both alcoholics."

Linda Sherman in the early 1980s: Frank Vatterott, her divorce attorney, says, "She was not sophisticated or anything, but I think she was kind of classy."
photo courtesy of Sam and Fran Miller
Linda Sherman in the early 1980s: Frank Vatterott, her divorce attorney, says, "She was not sophisticated or anything, but I think she was kind of classy."

Sherman says he, too, turned to drinking in the years after his wife disappeared. "It took a long time for me to deal with it," he says, "to come to terms with it. And a lot of alcohol."

By 1988, three years after Linda's original divorce petition was filed, Anzalone's office had had the case placed on the docket of uncontested divorces.

Frank Vatterott, who was hired by Linda Sherman to handle her divorce, objected. "It would be impossible for me to consent to an uncontested dissolution,'' he wrote in a June 21, 1988, letter to Anzalone's office. "I have not heard from the family of Linda Sherman for approximately one year. I presume she is still missing."

Vatterott says he had intended to take Don Sherman's deposition earlier in the divorce case but decided it was futile. "Anzalone, who was his lawyer, said, "We will just plead the Fifth,'" Vatterott recalls. "So I didn't take it." Anzalone could not be reached for comment.

In June 1989, with Linda nowhere to be found, a judge dismissed the divorce case, thereby leaving the Sherman marriage legally intact.

One year later, on June 28, 1990, a skull appeared outside the Casa Gallardo restaurant in Bridgeton.

Don Sherman was there that day. He says the restaurant's bar was his regular place to go for drinks. And when the skull showed up that day, he recalls, "It was the talk of the restaurant." As for where the skull came from or its identity, Don Sherman says he had no idea.

Neither did the Bridgeton police.

Fourteen months later, an unusual piece of mail arrived at the Vinita Park Police Department. It was Sept. 6, 1991, and among the batch of letters that the administrative clerk was sorting was an unsealed envelope with no return address. Inside was an eight-month-old Super Bowl flier from the Casa Gallardo in Bridgeton. One side of the orange sheet described the promotion -- cheap cocktails and free nachos to customers watching playoff games at the restaurant. The other side contained a single sentence, stamped out in purple ink:

"THE BRIDGETON POLICE HAVE L. SHERMAN'S SKULL."

Lt. Webb, careful not to touch the note and envelope, was incredulous at the message inside. Could it be true? he wondered.

"I hadn't heard anything about Bridgeton police finding a skull," Webb recalls. "I felt they were going to laugh us out of the place when we went in there."

But when Webb talked to a patrol sergeant at Bridgeton, he was told about the skull discovered a year earlier outside the restaurant. Webb delivered Linda Sherman's dental records so that they could be compared with the "found human remains" stored away on a shelf at the county morgue. The next day, a forensic dentist confirmed that the skull was Linda Sherman's.

Clearly the letter-writer was someone who knew about the skull found more than a year ago and wanted Vinita Park Police to know that it was Linda Sherman's. It could have been the killer who sent the letter. Then again, it could have been someone who merely had some knowledge about her death.

The letter deepened the mystery and raised nagging questions for the police and for Linda's family. Who, after police failed to identify the skull as Linda's, sent them a note to make sure they did? Why send the note on a Casa Gallardo flier? More important, where was the rest of the body?

That last question left the Millers both puzzled and horrified. "Whoever did this went to where they buried her and dug up just the skull and left the rest of her body there," Sam Miller says. "We couldn't figure out why somebody would have done that."

Patty Sherman, who had just turned 16 at the time her mother's skull was identified, was living with her paternal grandmother during the week and spending weekends with her father. She remembers that she was doing her homework when two police officers knocked at her father's door to deliver the news.

"I wouldn't answer the door. I had a feeling something bad was going to happen," she recalls. She woke her father, who spoke to the police. "All he told me was, "They found your mom.' And I just bawled. He said he didn't know a whole lot. And he went back to his room."

She would learn the details later, from her cousin. "I was really upset," she says. "We live in such a sick world that after she was dead, someone dug her up and put her somewhere, put half of her somewhere. How could somebody do that to her?"

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