The case of the missing wife
by Louis T. Corsaletti and Ian Ith
Seattle Times Eastside bureau

One September morning in 1990, Jami Sherer ceased to exist. Police turned up nothing. Other than her abandoned car and a suitcase of clothes, there was no evidence that she had run away. And there was no body to show that she was dead. The case of the missing Redmond mother languished for almost a decade.

Yesterday, police arrested her husband on a first-degree murder charge.

FBI agents, working with Redmond detectives, captured Steven Sherer, 38, about 1 p.m. yesterday, after staking out his mother's Mill Creek home where he has been living.

With Sherer now in the King County Jail on $1 million bail, county prosecutors are preparing to argue, with virtually no physical evidence, that he killed his young wife.

Even though investigators still have no clue to Jami Sherer's whereabouts, they say they have gathered reams of circumstantial evidence that will show her husband battered her and threatened to kill her if she left him.

If they succeed, it will be one of the few times in Washington state history in which a murder case was made without a body.

"I'm not going to deny this is a circumstantial case," said deputy King County prosecutor Marilyn Brenneman. "But we believe the charging documents show a very strong case, and we're prepared to go to trial. We are just convinced a jury should hear the evidence, and when they do, they will do the right thing."

Sherer had not obtained an attorney yesterday and wasn't made available for comment. But for almost 10 years, he has publicly denied knowing what happened to his wife, who was 26 when she disappeared.

"He is totally innocent, that's what he has said all along," his mother, Sharon Schielke, said yesterday. "Ten years later, this is just a little bit much."

Yesterday's arrest capped a three-year investigation, police say, that sent investigators around the globe - using every tool from tracking dogs to psychics to try to find Jami Sherer alive or prove she had been killed.

"We were certain that the big picture showed he (Steven Sherer) was responsible," said Redmond Lt. Jim Taylor, the lead investigator. "We also looked for something that might show he didn't do it. Did she just take off? Did she run off with someone else? We even looked to see if she joined the armed forces.

"But as leads developed, it all went back to Sherer, over and over."

`I believed it was solvable'

It was a soggy January, 1997. Taylor had just taken over Redmond's detective squad after years on patrol. He sat down to review unsolved cases and peeled open a 7-year-old file folder marked "Jami Sherer."

No trace of the young Eastside mother had been found since she evaporated Sept. 30, 1990. No phone call. No letter home. The well-liked Microsoft secretary hadn't made a single bank transaction or credit card charge.

She was listed as a missing person. But her case hadn't been touched in years.

As Taylor read the file, he saw possibilities. Potential witnesses who hadn't been interviewed. Angles that hadn't been explored.

And wherever Jami Sherer was, he thought, her family deserved some answers.

"My first reaction was that I believed it was solvable," said Taylor. He hand-picked a pair of his best detectives and told them to go after the case full bore, wherever the trail led, whatever the cost.

Not an easy case to prove

In cases where there is no body, homicide charges are rarely filed on circumstantial evidence alone - however compelling that evidence might appear. If county prosecutors do take on that challenge, it's because they have some shred of physical evidence, such as a bit of blood or shard of bone.

Perhaps the most notorious no-body case in Washington ended in 1985 after a jury convicted Ruth Neslund of murdering, dismembering and burning her 80-year-old husband, Rolf, at their Lopez Island home in 1980; the man's remains were never found.

Without Jami Sherer's body as proof a crime was committed, it won't be easy for prosecutors to make a murder case against her husband.

"I'd assume (prosecutors) have got what they think is a decent shot, but I wouldn't put any money on it," said John Junker, professor of criminal law at the University of Washington.

For prosecutors to prove that Sherer killed his wife, they first have to convince a jury that she is dead.

"And even if they show that, they have to show beyond a reasonable doubt, that this fellow killed her," Junker said. "This is not a question of probabilities."

One prominent defense lawyer agreed, but said such cases also are a challenge to the defense.

"If there's a lot of circumstantial evidence, as a defense attorney you start sweating," said Seattle attorney John Henry Browne, whose long list of clients includes arsonist Martin Pang. "It gets pretty hard to explain away everything."

Jami's last day

Judy Hagel will always remember Sunday, Sept. 30, 1990. That's the last time she saw her only daughter, Jami.

Very early that morning, the energetic 26-year-old with long brown hair, brown eyes and a pretty smile, had been to see her folks in Bellevue to drop off her 2-year-old son.

The wispy young mother - she was barely 5 feet tall and weighed 95 pounds - had been fighting with her husband, Steve, again, Hagel recalled. She had been seeing another man, a friend of her husband's.

"She crawled up on her father's lap and said, "I want to come home," Hagel recalled. "A few minutes later Steve called, and Jami told him she wanted a divorce. He wouldn't accept that and asked her to talk it over."

They agreed to meet. Hagel offered to go along, but Jami declined.

At about 8:30 a.m., not long after she left, Jami called her mother and said Steve had grabbed her purse and run off, and she figured he would head to their house in Redmond. She went there and called her mother again.

At about 11:45 a.m. Jami called again and said she was leaving for her parents' house but would stop at the Taco Time in Redmond for a bite to eat.

"She said Steve was there (at their home)," Judy Hagel said. "She didn't seem frightened or in any distress. That's the last time we heard from her."

Less then a half hour later, Steve Sherer called the Hagel house, asking for Jami. He called again 15 minutes later, and again at 6 p.m.

By then, he was already telling his family that Jami had disappeared, according to charging documents.

Later that evening, Sherer showed up at the Hagels' house, took his son and went home. Three hours later, he came back with the boy.

Hagel recalled that her son-in-law said he was too upset to stay at his own house. The Hagels let him stay with them off and on for the next week.

Car found abandoned

By the following weekend, the Hagel family was desperate to find Jami, who had now been reported as a missing person to police. They organized friends and neighbors and searched her neighborhood on Education Hill in Redmond.

Police found Jami's 10-year-old gray Mazda sports car several days later in a church parking lot in Shoreline. A suitcase of her clothes - but strangely, no undergarments - was in the car. Jami's family combed the Shoreline neighborhood, too.

Steven Sherer declined to join in the search.

Instead, nine days after Jami vanished, he started his car inside the garage of his Redmond home and sat inside until the carbon monoxide fumes became almost incapacitating. At the last minute, he called 911 on his cellular phone.

Police said they found a "final note" he had written, but they wouldn't say what it said.

The police were having little luck determining what had happened to Jami Sherer.

They couldn't find any physical evidence that her husband was involved in her disappearance. A brief walk-through search of the Sherer home a week after she was last seen turned up no leads. Steven Sherer wasn't talking. And without some evidence that Jami was dead, police couldn't open a homicide investigation.

"We probably started off right, but we didn't believe the suspect was right in front of us," said Redmond Police Chief Steve Harris. "Everyone was thinking she was with a friend and still around. Then getting facts down was difficult. And maybe we didn't know the right way to ask questions."

Case is reopened

When Taylor decided to reopen the case in 1997, he was working with scant physical evidence, little in the way of circumstantial leads, and no proof that Jami hadn't simply run away to begin a new life somewhere.

Yet Taylor, a 30-year police veteran and former special agent for the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service, was driven by curiosity and a passion for details.

He turned to two detectives, Greg Mains and Mike Faddis, for help.

Mains, 49, is cerebral and soft-spoken, a 27-year police veteran who had just been promoted to the detective's unit.

Faddis, 34, is a jovial bear of a man who had risen quickly through the ranks and had just returned from a year working with the FBI's Puget Sound Violent Crimes Task Force. During that time, he had poked into the disappearance of Jami Sherer, and believed she may have been killed.

Police gathered increasing evidence that Jami Sherer was the victim of domestic violence and began to scrutinize her husband.

"We decided our main theme would be to conduct an autopsy on the life of Steven Sherer," Taylor said. "We needed to know who he was, what he was, why he was.

"We tracked him everywhere he ever lived, everywhere he went to school, every job held, every house lived in, and as far as possible, each and every woman he ever dated."

In order to get county prosecutors to consider filing homicide charges, the detectives also had to prove they had done everything possible to find out whether Jami Sherer was alive.

Police interviewed more than 300 people in 12 states, from Hawaii to North Carolina, and as far away as Germany and Bogota, Colombia.

A pattern began to emerge that indicated Sherer "had a definite anger-management problem," according to Taylor. Those who knew him told police that Sherer would drink to excess and become belligerent and possessive.

Husband had a past

Steven Frank Sherer was born in Santa Maria, Calif., in 1961. After moving to Snohomish County, his family ran a construction company, Sherer Quality Homes in Everett.

He graduated from Lynnwood High School in 1979, then spent a year at Edmonds Community College studying to be a travel agent. But that didn't last, and he returned to the family business and learned to be a carpenter. At the time of his arrest yesterday, he had been working occasionally for an uncle.

When Sherer was 21, in 1984, his father committed suicide, leaving a considerable estate to his mother.

About that time, according to court records, Sherer began to compile what would become a long criminal record.

In March 1986, he was arrested and eventually convicted of felony assault for smashing a broken drinking glass into the back of his then 21-year-old girlfriend's head, hospitalizing her, records show. That incident was but one chapter in months of quarrels with the woman that included documented threats, telephone harassment and several restraining orders against him, Lynnwood police records show.

In September 1987, Bellevue police arrested Sherer for drunken driving. At the scene, he became combative and had to be restrained. At the police station he attacked Bellevue Officer Bernard Molloy, choking him with both hands and threatening to kill him. Sherer was convicted of felony assault.

Over the years, he was treated for alcoholism and racked up a string of burglary and theft convictions, and traffic offenses that earned him "habitual traffic offender" status, records show.

About the time Sherer's legal troubles grew serious, in early 1986, he met Jami in a Redmond nightspot. He was 24; she was 22. They married a year later and had a child a year after that.

"Even before they were married it was a rocky relationship," Judy Hagel said. "Everyone tried to talk her out of marrying him, but she said she loved him."

After the wedding, family members said, there was a tremendous change in Jami.

"You wouldn't even know she was the same girl," her mother said. "She used to be fun-loving and laugh a lot; then she became very withdrawn, very negative. She had a good job when they met. Then she lost it because of not showing up for work."

Friends and family members told police that Steve was violent and controlling; Jami dyed her hair blonde and got breast implants at his insistence.

Prosecutors say Sherer advertised in "swinger" magazines and recruited friends for group sex. The night before Jami disappeared, she was at a Seattle hotel with a man the couple had been involved with sexually.

After Jami vanished, Sherer continued to have legal problems.

In June 1991, he got into an argument outside a Bellevue bar with a man who pulled a pistol and shot him in the forearm, court records show.

In 1992, he served time for violating probation by using cocaine and failing to meet with his probation officer. Last year in Phoenix he was given deferred prosecution for possessing crack cocaine.

Sherer is known to use as many as a dozen aliases and has several driver's licenses issued with different middle names, birth dates and addresses. He has a driver's license and criminal records under his most common pseudonym, Steven Christopher Michaels.

He hasn't remarried.

His most recent conviction came earlier this year - after he called Lt. Taylor and threatened to kill him if he didn't stop investigating him in Jami's disappearance. He pleaded guilty to obstructing a public servant, a misdemeanor, and served six months in jail.

Witnesses' stories

Sherer's record and behavior gave Taylor, Faddis and Mains important clues, they say. Interviews with police and charging papers filed by prosecutors identify several bits of circumstantial evidence that likely will be used to build a case against Sherer:

Several of the young couple's friends and relatives told detectives that in the days after Jami's disappearance, Sherer would show up at bars wearing his wife's panties tied around his arm and her locket and chain around his neck. The friends told detectives that Sherer told them the strange display helped him feel "closer to Jami."

But, while wearing the talisman, Sherer also told a woman that he was "glad the bitch was gone." He began dating other women within weeks.

To authorities, Sherer always acted as if his wife had run away. To friends he acted and talked as if he was a widower. Acquaintances told police that Sherer said his wife had been killed in a car accident, or that she had died, or that he was single. He frequently claimed to be "widowed" on official documents and once told a friend that Jami had been the victim of the Green River Killer.

Sherer took over Jami's finances within a month of her vanishing, cashing out her paychecks and stocks from her job at Microsoft.

Sherer's sister, Saundra McCarrell of Shoreline, told detectives that she had seen a large "red spot" on the carpet of his home shortly after Jami left.

Years later, when the investigators searched the house again, they said they found indications that someone had repeatedly steam-cleaned a small section of carpet and sloppily replaced a patch of rug near the door to the garage. And witnesses told police that Sherer bought a patch of carpet and hired a carpet cleaner a week after Jami vanished.

One of Sherer's friends told police he found it "odd" that the day after Jami went missing, there was a shovel in Sherer's truck that had never been there before.

Years after the disappearance, the same friend told police that he had talked to Jami on the phone that final morning and that she was "in a panic" to get out of her home before her husband got there.

When Jami left her house the morning she disappeared, she reportedly told her mother, "You know how his temper is. All he can do is kill me."

Sherer's sister said her brother called her several years after Jami's disappearance and asked her to arrange a meeting with a priest, saying he had done something "very, very bad."

The search for clues

The King County medical examiner issued a death certificate for Jami on May 12, 1997. It had been almost seven years since she had disappeared, and police could find no indication that she was alive, said Jerry Webster, the chief medical investigator.

Just a few months earlier, police had reopened Jami's file and were determined to prove she had been killed. But it took three more years for the detectives, Mains and Faddis, to gather enough evidence to take to prosecutors.

During that time, they contacted records officials in all 50 states and every province in Canada, looking in vain for some shred of paperwork that might be a sign of Jami.

They went to special training seminars on missing-persons cases, homicides and cold cases. Taylor took sheaves of fliers to national law-enforcement association meetings and asked colleagues to check their files for any information on Steve or Jami.

The investigators consulted Redmond detectives who had worked on the case in 1990, profilers from the Seattle Police Department, detectives from the King County Sheriff's Office and FBI agents.

They sought the help of the state attorney general's Homicide Tracking Office and, through the Washington State Patrol, made inquiries at Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization, to help track down a potential witness in Germany.

Taylor even accepted offers from four psychics from around the country who had helped in other King County investigations. Each was given only Jami's full name, her last home address and the date she disappeared. Three of them sketched images of spookily similar locations - a power transmission tower surrounded by woods.

"It (turned out to be) within a quarter mile of an area in South Snohomish County we had searched earlier with cadaver dogs and King County Search and Rescue personnel," Taylor said.

The detectives repeatedly combed wooded areas of southern Snohomish and northeastern King County, and twice they enlisted police divers and sonar equipment to scour the bottom of Lake Stevens in Snohomish County.

Every time their radios crackled with news of a body found anywhere in the area, their hearts raced, Taylor said. Is it Jami? they wondered.

It never was.

By the summer of 1998, Taylor and King County prosecutors decided that enough evidence had been gathered to convene secret sessions before King County Inquiry Judge Robert Lasnik and compel uncooperative witnesses, including Sherer's mother, to answer questions. Testimony given last year and as recently as last week in those sessions - similar to grand jury sessions - has been sealed.

Sherer was aware the sessions were under way. At one point, he told a friend that he didn't understand why police kept looking for Jami, Taylor said. "There's nothing to find," police say Sherer told the friend.

The arrest

Late last week, prosecutors agreed that detectives had gathered enough evidence to file charges, while witnesses, some in ill health, are still available.

"The police have continued to investigate this case and have pulled it all together," said Brenneman, the deputy county prosecutor. "The detectives were really committed to this case, and that's what you want."

With an arrest warrant in hand, detectives waited Friday morning at Sherer's probation office in Lynnwood for him to arrive for a routine meeting. He never showed. Over the next 24 hours, they combed the area around his mother's Mill Creek home and alerted other police agencies that they were after him.

About 1 p.m. yesterday, FBI agents watching the house spotted one of Sherer's friends knocking on the front door. The agents moved in behind the friend. When Sherer opened the door, they grabbed him.

He is now in jail, awaiting arraignment next week. After almost 10 years, charges against him offer the first hope of answers to Jami's family.

"If it weren't for (Jami's son), I think it would be great news," said Judy Hagel, Jami's mother. "Steve being in jail isn't going to get my daughter back. I need to know where she's at."

Taylor and his detectives won't publicly speculate about the specifics of what they think happened to Jami. And unless a body is found, the real truth may never be known.

But prosecutors and police think they have stitched together enough evidence, however circumstantial, to make their case.

"We have unearthed every bit of information possible on this case," Taylor said. "Now it will be judged by a jury of his peers."

Louis T. Corsaletti's phone message number is 206-515-5626.