By Lindsay Toler
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By Allison Babka
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By Jake Rossen
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By Kelsey McClure
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At the Vinita Park Police Department, the Linda Sherman missing-person case had turned into a homicide investigation. Lt. Webb scrutinized the old reports. He re-interviewed the original witnesses, six years after Linda vanished. "It was pretty difficult," he recalls. "The trail is cold by then."
He forwarded the note and envelope to the FBI crime lab in Washington, D.C., but the author had been meticulous: There were no fingerprints on the letter and no saliva on the envelope. Webb requested information about the rubber stamp used to create the message and learned that it was the type widely available at office-supply stores.
Webb shipped the skull to the University of Missouri-Columbia, where an archaeologist studied the traces of soil and a botanist examined the plant material adhering to the skull. Those examinations offered no meaningful revelations. The soil probably came from a rural setting, such as a wooded area, Webb was told, a tidbit of knowledge that didn't come close to narrowing down where the rest of Linda's body might be buried. The plant material was of the morning-glory species; the purple-flowered vines are common throughout Missouri.
Webb developed his own theories about the case, but many of the details seemed to defy rational explanation. Some theories he will share; others he will not. "It seemed pretty obvious to me someone wanted us to identify that skull," Webb says. "Why else would they send us a note telling us where to find it, helping us along, so to speak?"
But why? "I hesitate to really speculate," Webb continues. "There are some people, killers, who like to taunt, who think they are of a higher mentality than police -- who like to play a little game."
Webb pressed on with his investigation. He contacted the FBI's behavioral-sciences unit in Quantico, Va., but they didn't have much to go on. In November 1995, he attended the national convention of the International Homicide Investigators Association, where hundreds of detectives had gathered in St. Louis. The conference drew experts who had worked on famous cases: O.J. Simpson, Ted Bundy, the Green River murders in Washington.
Webb used the opportunity to hit people up for advice. "People I really admire, I ran into there," he says, "very experienced homicide investigators, the experts in their field. Anybody I could I would pull aside and say, "Hey, look, I got this case -- do you have any suggestions?'" For the most part, they were things he had already tried.
Webb came to obsess about the case. It wasn't just that Linda Sherman's was the only unsolved murder case in Vinita Park. It was that he now knew her family. "We all have very much of a closeness to this case, anybody who's been here for any period of time," Webb says. "It's been with me since 1985. Even though I didn't personally know Linda, I've gotten to know several of her family members quite well.... I feel some obligation to the family that this case be resolved."
There was something else, too. "You hate the idea that someone committed this crime and has gotten away with it for so long," Webb says. "I want him or her to know that it's not going to be forgotten. Any new development in forensic science or some type of lead will be followed up. It's my job. It's something I have to do. She's not here to speak for herself, so somebody has to speak for her."
Webb never eased up on the case. Thirteen years after Linda Sherman was reported missing and eight years after her skull turned up, Webb still had little to go on except the skull itself.
"My idea has always been, the key to this case is the recovery of the rest of the remains," Webb says. "I feel if we could find that original burial site, we could glean a lot more evidence, even after all these years -- evidence that might help convict the killer or help identify the killer."
Then, for the first time in several years, Webb had some reason for optimism. At a conference on crime-scene archaeology held in Weldon Spring last year, Webb listened to speakers describe advances in soil science. An FBI agent and a college professor told Webb that the tiny amounts of dirt on Linda Sherman's skull might provide a break in the case.
That was all Webb needed to hear.
Three months ago, on the morning of Aug. 19, with Sam and Fran Miller watching, a backhoe shoveled the dirt on Linda Sherman's grave in Steedman Cemetery near Fulton, Mo., and unearthed the 18-inch-square concrete vault containing her skull. FBI agents supervised the exhumation and shipped the skull in a wooden crate to Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa.
At the college's Archeological Institute, Professor James Adovasio spends most of his time applying high-tech principles to archaeological sites in such places as Israel, the Ukraine and the central part of the Czech Republic. But he has also put his skills to work as a sort of high-tech soil sleuth in archaeological-theft cases prosecuted by the federal government.