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 he’s not worried.

The window tables at the Casa Gallardo restaurant on St. Charles Rock Road don't ordinarily offer much of a view -- a couple of bushes and a yucca plant surrounded by rocks in a small landscaped strip. But around noon one steamy Thursday, two TWA flight attendants walked in for lunch and were seated at the window table overlooking the bushes. Something caught their attention amid the greenery, peeking out from beneath the yucca plant.

It was a human skull.

It wasn't the pearly color of an anatomy-class specimen or haunted-house prop. It was a shade of ocher, with bits of dirt lodged between its teeth. The face of the skull, jawbone askew, was aimed directly at the window on the building's east side.

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."
The Bridgeton Casa Gallardo, where Linda ShermanÂ’s skull was found.
Jay Fram
The Bridgeton Casa Gallardo, where Linda ShermanÂ’s skull was found.
Fran Miller, Linda ShermanÂ’s older sister, with her husband, Sam: "Whoever did this went to where they buried (Linda) and dug up just the skull and left the rest of her body there. We couldn't figure out why somebody would have done that," says Sam Miller.
Jay Fram
Fran Miller, Linda ShermanÂ’s older sister, with her husband, Sam: "Whoever did this went to where they buried (Linda) and dug up just the skull and left the rest of her body there. We couldn't figure out why somebody would have done that," says Sam Miller.
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
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."

Whether the flight attendants ever finished their lunch is unclear. The discovery was so startling and strange, one of the women thought it must be a prank. She called the manager over and pointed it out. Worried that other patrons might lose their appetites, the manager immediately pulled down the blinds, then called the Bridgeton police. It was 12:47 p.m. on June 28, 1990.

It wasn't a prank. Within the hour, crime-scene investigators were taking photographs, and the skull was sent to the St. Louis County medical examiner's office. An anthropologist concluded that the bones were of "recent origin" and bore markings more consistent with an adult female than a male. Not much more could be determined.

Walter Mutert, now Bridgeton's police chief, remembers that the source of the skull was a mystery. At the time, a lot of digging was going on near Lambert International Airport, including the wholesale moving of cemeteries to make way for MetroLink, he notes. "There were problems with that airport cemetery, with remains coming up.

"There was no reason to believe at that time there was any foul play," Mutert says. "There was nothing for us to go by."

Police classified the case as "found human remains." The cranium and jawbone were stored on a shelf at the county morgue, a skull with no name.

In the 5-by-7-inch photograph, 27-year-old Linda Sue Sherman grins at the camera. Her head is cocked to the side, and her brown hair has the sort of long, layered look so popular in the mid-1980s. She's wearing a blue turtleneck with eyeshadow to match.

She was born in 1957 and spent her entire life in North St. Louis County, growing up on Dadebridge Court in Ferguson and attending McCluer High School, never straying far from the area she called home. Outgoing and athletic, Linda was the youngest daughter of Walter and Elenora Lutz -- carpenter and homemaker -- a churchgoing couple determined to see each of their children receive at least a high-school diploma.

Linda almost didn't graduate. She was 17 and pregnant when she exchanged vows with McCluer High classmate Donald Sherman during a small ceremony at Christ Memorial Baptist Church in Cool Valley on Feb. 10, 1975. The wedding wasn't fancy. Linda wore a blue dress with a high neck and poufed sleeves. The groom sported a turtleneck sweater beneath his powder-blue jacket. They celebrated with their guests afterward at Noah's Ark Restaurant in St. Charles.

The newlyweds continued to attend McCluer High while renting a house next door to Linda's parents, and Don, a senior, graduated a few months later. After giving birth to a daughter, Patricia Marie, in August, during her summer break, Linda began her final year of high school while her mother watched the baby. They called the little girl Patty.

Don Sherman says those early years weren't easy. The couple struggled to make ends meet while raising a child. Linda worked a few part-time jobs -- altering suits at Sears, key-punching at Site Oil Co. -- before settling into work in data entry. He worked briefly as an assistant manager at a gas station before becoming a machinist -- a career he has stayed with ever since.

One of Linda's older brothers, Dennis Lutz, remembers trouble in the Sherman marriage. "I know they moved in next door to my mom and dad, and I know there was a lot of conflict at that point," he says. "Her husband, Don, was a very jealous person. He didn't even want her talking to people -- other guys, that is." Although Dennis moved to San Antonio, he saw Linda when he returned home for visits. "When we were home, we kinda did things together," Lutz says. "He was even jealous about that. I said, "This is my sister. We're going to go have lunch together.' He would just have a fit."

By October 1977, the Shermans were separated, and Linda filed for divorce. She wanted custody of their daughter and the couple's marital property: an assortment of furniture, some dishes and silverware, a sewing machine, a black-and-white television. Linda didn't follow through with the divorce. In March 1979, a judge dismissed the petition for "failure to prosecute," a legal term for lack of activity in the case.

That same year, Linda and Don Sherman reconciled, and the young couple bought a modest five-room brick bungalow on a quiet dead-end street in Vinita Park, a small bedroom community of middle-class, mostly blue-collar families.

In the early 1980s, while the couple struggled to make their home -- and their relationship -- work, Linda suffered a miscarriage and afterward was told she had epilepsy. She suffered from seizures, and, because of her health problems, says Don Sherman, the couple decided they would have no more children.

Their marriage continued to have problems. In 1982, Linda moved out again, this time into an apartment in St. Ann, taking 7-year-old Patty with her. Apparently tensions between the couple had escalated. In September of that year, Linda filed for an order of protection against her husband, claiming he had threatened her and Patty and had "tampered" with her car. She described Don as "mentally unstable," adding that he had threatened to take his own life "and possibly that of my daughter and myself."

Don Sherman admits an "instance" with his wife's car. "The vehicle was in my name," he says. "I just disabled it so it couldn't be driven." But he says those memories are too old to recall in detail. "I'm not sure what my reasoning was then. It was a long time ago."

A judge granted the order of protection and also ordered Don to pay $20 a week in child support.

That separation didn't last, either. Within a month, Linda notified the court that another reconciliation was in the works and that the protective order was "no longer necessary."

"Please acknowledge the fact that my husband, Donald E. Sherman, and myself, Linda S. Sherman, are presently working things out," Linda wrote the judge on Oct. 21, 1982.

Not long after the couple's 10th wedding anniversary, in the spring of 1985, Linda was planning to leave Don again. She filed a petition for dissolution in St. Louis County Circuit Court on April 11. Frank Vatterott was her attorney. "I just remember her as being very nice, very polite, and an attractive lady," he says. "She was not sophisticated or anything, but I think she was kind of classy.... I remember her as having class and being a person of stature."

Though the petition was filed, Don would not be served with the court papers for a few more weeks. Linda continued living with him at the house on Monroe Avenue in Vinita Park.

"It was a little rocky right then at that time," Don Sherman says. He was working the day shift at a machine shop; she worked evenings at the U.S. Government Records Center on Page Avenue. He says he had growing suspicions that his wife was having an affair: She had started smoking again after quitting years earlier. She didn't come home from work on several occasions, and when he called her at home from work, she wouldn't be there, he says.

And then one day in the early spring of 1985, Sherman says, his suspicions were confirmed when a truck driver who worked with him saw Linda and one of her co-workers from the records center.

It wasn't the first time his wife had cheated on him, Sherman claims. She'd worked as a cocktail waitress at a Flaming Pit restaurant, and "that changed her in some ways."

In any case, Linda and Don's relationship had soured, and tensions were high by April 1985. On April 22, after she worked her usual evening shift at the records center, Linda signed out at 2:16 a.m., went home and slept on the couch. Though Linda usually took Patty to school in the morning, on this day Don drove her to school. That evening, Don says Linda left for work around 6 p.m. She was wearing blue jeans, tennis shoes and a blue jersey emblazoned with the number 76, he says. Linda did not report to work.

She never would again.

That spring, Linda's older sister, Fran, who lived in nearby Hazelwood, had begun talking on the phone with her sister almost every night. The conversations revolved mostly around the problems Linda was having with her husband. The phone calls stopped on April 22, and then Fran and her husband, Sam, learned that Linda hadn't shown up for work. They began to worry.

"She was getting ready to leave her husband for good," remembers Sam Miller, a retired engineer, "and so she took certain steps. She talked to Fran about this a lot over the phone." Fran nods her head. "She was trying to move out of the house and into an apartment somewhere."

Linda had filled out a change-of-address form at the local post office, directing her mail to her sister's house on Coachway Lane in Hazelwood. Her last two paychecks came to the Miller house after Linda disappeared.

One check is inside a manila folder Sam Miller keeps, the envelope still sealed. The folder contains old newspaper clippings, faded court documents and a small ad offering a $1,000 reward for information about Linda's disappearance. Fran says Sam can remember all kinds of important names and dates, thanks to that folder. Memories fade. It's been 14 years since they last saw Linda.

Nestled among the papers in the folder is the 5-by-7 photograph of Linda.

She's not alone in the picture. Her husband is seated beside her on a brown flowered sofa. But when the Millers needed a photo for the missing-person poster, for the police file and the newspaper, they enlarged the part of the picture with Linda's smiling face. They cut Don out entirely.

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."

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.

"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."

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?"

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.

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.

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.

Sherman is willing to talk about his first wife, but he does so on the front porch. His current wife is inside, and he's worried it might be uncomfortable. He wears blue jeans and a black T-shirt with the big face of a bald eagle. He sports a full beard and hair that falls halfway down his back.

"I've long stopped worrying about it," Sherman says about the police suspicion. "I didn't do anything. It's been, what, 14 years? A lot of things have happened in my life since then. Till this new thing, the new technology, I hadn't thought about it in a long time."

Who killed his wife? Sherman says he doesn't know and has no theories or suspects of his own. "There were many rumors flying around about what could have happened, what was going on," he says, including one involving a supposed cocaine ring at the records center where Linda worked.

He says he was shocked when he learned that the skull found outside Casa Gallardo -- his favorite place to drink -- belonged to Linda. Whoever put it there, he says, was "either trying to tell me something or pin it on me, one or the other."

Sherman says the police, and Lt. Webb in particular, focused on him for years. "They interviewed my wife before she was my wife, every girlfriend I had before her," he says. One told police he had confessed and attempted to collect on the reward, Sherman says.

He can understand why he is the prime suspect: He was the last known person to see his wife alive; she'd filed for divorce only days before; their marital problems were no secret; and the Casa Gallardo where the skull appeared was his hangout.

"Always look at the husband, right? Especially now there's a divorce here," Don Sherman says. "I'm sure the statistics probably support that -- spouses killing spouses."

Sherman clearly harbors a certain animosity toward Lt. Webb, because he believes the lieutenant is convinced that he is guilty. He doesn't even refer to Webb by name. "One local lieutenant just loves harassing me," he says. "He thinks it's going to make him famous one day, I think."

Webb, for his part, denies harassing Sherman, though he readily admits questioning him on numerous occasions -- too numerous to count. "He's never been eliminated as a suspect," Webb says. There was no cocaine ring at Linda's workplace, Webb says -- none that he knew of, anyway, and none that Don Sherman ever told him about. Some details of the police investigation Webb won't discuss, such as Sherman's ex-girlfriend who claimed he confessed. "I won't deny that," the lieutenant says. "I really can't comment on that aspect."

He says there's a standing invitation for Don Sherman to take a polygraph examination. Sherman has declined to do so, on the advice of his lawyer.

Don Sherman was unaware of plans to exhume his wife's skull until he was contacted by a local television reporter. He says he hasn't been kept abreast of the investigation, though he is not too surprised. "Obviously, they don't tell me anything," he says. "I get most of my news from the newspaper."

Don Sherman says he loved his wife.

"I think I was sadder when they came and knocked on the door and told me they'd found her remains. There was always a little hope that she'd run away."

Asked about any photographs of Linda that he might have, he says that most of them, along with her belongings, are stashed away in boxes in his basement. Then he suddenly recalls that their wedding album is easily accessible. He steps inside and is back in a moment, proudly turning the pages, identifying the bridesmaid, the minister who married them, the restaurant where the reception was held. He readily lends a picture of the newlyweds for publication.

When the interview is over, he shakes hands. "Do a good story," he says. "She deserves it." nYears 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 he's not worried.

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