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.

With the use of X-rays and powerful electron microscopes, one sample of sediment can be distinguished from another almost to the level and precision of a fingerprint, Adovasio says. He has examined soil in seven federal cases involving prosecutions under the U.S. Archeological Protection Act.

The Linda Sherman case will be Adovasio's first murder case. The technology is both costly and time-consuming, making it impractical for most routine criminal cases, he says, adding that it's a rare case in which dirt is the best available evidence. Adovasio will compare a sample of dirt from Linda's skull with seven samples provided by Vinita Park police, who suspect her body may be buried in an area of Missouri that measures several hundred acres. Vinita Park police are not saying exactly where that area is.

The analysis could rule out that area entirely -- or it could help narrow down where to look more closely.

Lt. Michael Webb of the Vinita Park Police Department has been working the Linda Sherman case since 1985: "You hate the idea that someone committed this crime and has gotten away with it for so long. I want him or her to know that it's not going to be forgotten."
Jay Fram
Lt. Michael Webb of the Vinita Park Police Department has been working the Linda Sherman case since 1985: "You hate the idea that someone committed this crime and has gotten away with it for so long. I want him or her to know that it's not going to be forgotten."

Adovasio explains. "If you went into your frontyard... we could take a sample from one end and another end and find broad similarities to it," he says. "But the samples will be sufficiently different that if you buried an object on one end of your yard and then an object on the other end, I could say with a certain degree of statistical certainty that the objects came from the same yard but definitely not the same hole."

The technology available today is far more advanced than it was in 1985, when Linda Sherman disappeared, Adovasio says: "With the advent of computer-controlled scanning electron microscopy and energy-dispersive X-rays, we can actually count individual grains of sediment and find out what the chemical composition of a grain of sediment is. And you couldn't do that 15 years ago."

Adovasio expects the final results on the tests of soil taken from Linda Sherman's skull to be in shortly before Thanksgiving.

One of Adovasio's colleagues, anthropologist Dennis Dirkmaat, will be examining the markings and indentations on the skull. Dirkmaat has consulted on 250 criminal cases. He will be looking for clues to determine where the skull has been. "We'll look carefully at subtle bits of evidence," Dirkmaat says. "Is there evidence the body decomposed on the surface or was buried or in water?

"One of the thing we will want to look at is trauma to the skull... I saw that some of the bones were broken. We'll do a more detailed examination of what may have caused the trauma: Was it perimortem -- at the time of death -- or postmortem, and what may have caused that?"

Patty Sherman Harvell, now married and living in Attica, Ind. with her husband and 4-year-old daughter, is waiting for news about the soil tests on her mother's skull. Now 24, she last saw her mom when she was a fourth-grader at George Washington Elementary School. "I couldn't even close my eyes and tell you what she looked like if I didn't have pictures," Patty says regretfully. "I think about her all the time. I think about what I missed, about how my daughter is going to grow up without her grandma. It was really hard growing up without a mother.

"I wish I knew her. People tell me I look just like her -- everybody tells me that -- and I wish I knew her." In the past several months, Patty has grown increasingly interested in finding out what happened to her mother all those years ago. She wants to find the rest of her mother's body "so we can put her to rest," she says.

"It's been a long time not knowing. Maybe I'll have some type of closure on it," says Patty, who has a recurrent nightmare about her mother. She sees her sleeping on the sofa at their home in Vinita Park -- the way she did on the last day Patty saw her mother alive. Patty is leaving for school, but her mother fails to kiss her goodbye. Patty always wakes up in tears. She's not sure what it means.

"I just want to know what happened to her," she says. "I just wish I knew." Patty begins to cry. "I want somebody to pay for taking that away from me."

It's an awkward situation, because she knows who police suspect. It's her father.

And he's known it for 14 years.

When his wife first disappeared, police called Don Sherman down to the station and asked him questions. They asked to take a look around his house. They asked about that final day he spent with his wife. They asked about the couple's marriage.

They kept asking questions.

"It used to be a regular thing," Don Sherman says. "They used to come by and say, "Well, can you come down to the station...."

"I'm pretty much the only suspect they have," he adds.

Don Sherman still lives in the same house on Monroe Avenue. Now it's decorated with candy-corn lights and stickers in the window and other signs of his 6-year-old daughter, a child with his second wife, whom he married in 1994. He's 42 now, a tool-room supervisor for a company in Belleville, Ill.

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