CSU Stanislaus anthropologist Sari Miller-Antonio has played a significant role in the San Joaquin Sheriff’s Department investigation of the infamous Speed Freak Killers, who were found guilty of committing several murders in the Linden area in the 1980s.
Earlier this month, the sheriff’s department announced they were processing the remains of a teenager and a fetus discovered in the same Linden well where two other victims had been found earlier this year. Sorting the remains and identifying the victims has been a challenging task that has taken several months, and Miller-Antonio — also the director of anthropology at CSU Stanislaus — has been on the front line.
Miller-Antonio, who often does forensic anthropology work on criminal investigations and is a consultant for several counties, said she’s never seen one quite like this. Because the bodies were so deep in the well, which has also been used over the years for dumping heavy objects and dead animals, the bones Miller-Antonio received from the investigators were severely fragmented and comingled.
"When they found the remains, they didn’t know how many bodies might be present," Miller-Antonio said. "So my initial task was to sort through the bone fragments and teeth to determine the number of individuals present and then to assign the bones and teeth to individuals. This was very complex and time-consuming."
Miller-Antonio began studying the remains and found there were three females who appeared to be in their teens at the time of their death. Thanks to her findings and other information and evidence, the investigators were able to identify two of the bodies as Kimberly Billy, who went missing in 1984 at age 19, and JoAnn Hobson, who disappeared at 16 in 1985.
Sorting and identifying three teenage individuals who died nearly two decades ago was difficult enough given the similarities in size, Miller-Antonio said — but finding fetal remains is particularly rare, especially given the unorganized state of the bones when she received them.
It can also make a case more trying from an emotional standpoint.
"When I work to individualize a person by their skeletal remains, I feel like I get to know them in a unique and very personal way," Miller-Antonio said. "A case of this magnitude adds another dimension — it captures the value and fragility of human life. While I’m glad that my expertise is useful in the identification process, I can’t help but feel a very deep sadness and sense of loss."
Investigators were directed to the well by one of the killers, Wesley Shermantine, who remains in custody on death row in San Quentin Prison. The other, Loren Herzog, hanged himself in January after he was told Shermantine was disclosing the locations of victims to the police.
In her career, Miller-Antonio has worked on archaeological projects in the southwestern United States, Hawaii, France, Greece and China. For 12 years, she led a research project investigating the early human fossil record in a large limestone cave on southern China’s remote Guizhou Plateau.
Miller-Antonio joined CSU Stanislaus in 1993 and teaches courses in human and nonhuman primate evolution, forensic anthropology, primate behavior, Asian Studies and the anthropology of food.