Heartland Unsolved: The Hunt for a Serial Killer - KFVS12 News & Weather Cape Girardeau, Carbondale, Poplar Bluff

Heartland Unsolved: The Hunt for a Serial Killer

Scherer Family (courtesy: Tony Scherer) Scherer Family (courtesy: Tony Scherer)
Scherer Family (courtesy: Tony Scherer) Scherer Family (courtesy: Tony Scherer)
Crime Scene Photo (courtesy: MSHP) Crime Scene Photo (courtesy: MSHP)
Suspect Composite (courtesy: MSHP) Suspect Composite (courtesy: MSHP)
NEW MADRID COUNTY, MO (KFVS) -

We all feel safe in our homes, in our communities.

However, in 1998, a brutal crime ripped apart that sense of security. On a mild March evening, a man talked his way into the home of Tony and Sherri Scherer outside Portageville. In less than 30 minutes, he killed Sherri and their 12-year-old daughter Megan.

But, that's not all he did.    

We tracked their killer's crimes across three states as investigators hunt for a serial killer.

Portageville, Missouri

"There was no going back,” Tony Scherer said. "No bringing anybody back. No turning the clock back."

We sat down with Scherer and his son, Steven, to talk about the day that changed their lives.

Like his dad, Steven Scherer is a farmer who wants his privacy.

"At first I told Dad, I don't want to be a part of it really,” Steven said of participating in our Heartland Unsolved report. “And then I got to thinking. I was like, well he might need me there."

And it's Steven, just 15 years old on that day, who takes us back to a mild Saturday, March 28, 1998. Father and son spent the day on the tractor.

"And we were headed home at about 6:20 that night,” he recalled. "And there was a trailer truck that had gotten out in the road and couldn't get turned.  Anyway, it was blocking our way home."

As Tony visited with the other farmer, Steven called his mom and chatted briefly about going to his girlfriend’s house when they get home.

Tony called back 20 minutes later.

"And there was no answer on the phone,” Steven continued. “And me and him just figured that they'd gone to town to pick up a pizza. Pulled up to the house. Everything looks normal. He walks in the garage and puts his hand on the car hood."

"And he said it's not even warm," Steven continued. "And he's looking at the mail and I'm flying through the house. And out of the corner of my eye, I see my mom and sister. I was always the kid playing jokes, pranks. And that's, you know, at first glance that's what I thought. And then when I reached down I felt my mom and she was warm. I looked at my sister and I felt her and she was cold. I said Dad, Mom and Megan are dead!"

Tony walked into the room, saw his wife and daughter, and immediately called 911.

Portageville officers Mark Stockton and Freddie Hill are first on the scene.

Stockton recalled the impact of that scene.

"I was at the Portageville Police Department along with my partner Captain Freddie Hill at the time the call come in," he said. "And I would say that's probably the worst thing that I've ever seen in my life."

"You don't know sometimes how to respond to that, you know," Hill said. “But your law enforcement kicks in and you want to catch this guy."

"I've been a police officer over 40 years,” Portageville Police Chief Ronnie Adams shared. “And that scene right there affected me more than any scene I ever been at."

Highway Patrol Investigator Don Windham led the team assigned to secure and process the scene.

"I think when I walk in, and I've seen a lot of these, when I walk in I think I flip a switch I guess to say ok, what do I need to do to try to find out who did this,” Windham said.

Sherry, he recalled, was found lying on her stomach in front of the couch. She had been shot in the back of the head.

Megan, too, had been shot. She had also been sexually assaulted.

"It was obvious the target of this was Megan, the young girl."

Windham, to this day, has difficulty describing how they found Megan.

"She was in a, what was really the horrific part of this, not only was she assaulted and shot and....just horribly ....she was posed like he wanted to show what he had done," he said. "I can tell you that he brought some items to help him control the victims. And I have evidence that I believe will show that he also took those items back with him."

When asked if they had been tied up, he said, "They were both bound, yeah. And gagged."

As Windham worked the scene, Corporal Bud Cooper tackled the immediate search for a suspect.

"We set up a command post at the Armory,” Cooper remembered. “We had a lot of officers come in from the area.  I'd say, ultimately, we ended up with 75 to 100 police officers here."

Terry Stevens, now the New Madrid County Sheriff, worked as an investigator for the prosecutor's office at the time.

"We were just trying to get organized at that time,” Stevens said. “We had officers out at the scene. And we were developing leads as soon as we got people on site."

Cooper wondered how far he could have gotten.

"Thirty miles, 50 miles, 75 miles. And alerting the people in Tennessee, Arkansas, Illinois, outside Missouri."

Back at the scene, Windham decides to try something that will later play a huge role in linking this brutal crime to two others.

"I actually took some touch DNA from Megan. And they also actually found a hair in her left hand. Well, the lab said that DNA and the hair in her left hand matched."

"During that time I was kind of like just walking around in a hypnotic state,” Tony Scherer recalled. “You gotta go. You gotta get up and go."

"After everything happened, everybody told me that I had to be strong for my dad,” Steven said. "So, that's what I did."

Both father and son believe now as they did 19 years ago that this killer, for some reason, targeted their family.

"He had a plan,” Tony said. “And what he does he's good at.  He needs to be stopped."

Dyer County, Tennessee

Less than three hours after the murders of Sherri and Megan, evidence shows their killer showed up at a home in Dyer County, Tennessee with, investigators believe, the same vicious plan in mind.

According to police, a mom and her three kids got back from the store around 9:30 p.m.

"It was unusually warm that Saturday,” Sargent Bud Cooper said. “They had their big door open on the trailer."

The victim said a maroon-colored van pulled into the driveway and a man in dark clothing approached the trailer.

She told police the man said he was looking for a road nearby but didn’t know the name of it. She became instantly concerned.

"The guy in the van said he was looking for his friend, a guy by the name of Jeremy Taylor," Cooper added.

When the stranger offered to get a map, the mom reportedly tried to call a neighbor, but her phone wouldn't work. She decided to tell him it did.

She told the man her neighbor knew Jeremy Taylor, and he should go to that person’s trailer for directions.

That’s when Cooper said the stranger pulled a gun on her.

"He raised his jacket and pulled the gun out of his waistband. She immediately lunged and grabbed the gun and started fighting with him over the gun."

Cooper said the mom continued fighting the man as she backed her way inside the trailer.

She told one of her kids to get the shotgun they kept in the living room.

Cooper said the suspect managed to pull his hand free from the woman’s grasp and his gun went off, shooting her in the shoulder. The suspect got back in his van and took off.

Cooper explained how the woman's account helped him develop theories about what happened at the Scherer home.

"Certainly, you would think that there were similarities,” Cooper said. “He's using some type of ruse to talk to Sherri and Megan. Or they're separated and he pulls the gun on one or the other."

Investigators spent years researching other cases similar to Sherri and Megan's.

But then, in 2006, they got a DNA match on a case that didn't appear to be anything like the Scherer case at all.

Greenville, South Carolina

It was April 5, 1990.

Twenty-eight-year-old Genevieve Zitricki gets ready for bed. Jenny lived alone at the Hidden Lakes Apartments in Greenville, South Carolina.

Authorities believe she was sound asleep when an assailant broke in through a sliding glass door. He was armed with a small hammer.

Jenny never saw it coming.

"She was bludgeoned to death,” said Captain Chris Hensley with the New Madrid County Sheriff’s Office. "The suspect also used something to strangle her with."

She never woke up?

"No."

Was she sexually assaulted?

"Yes."

He dragged Jenny's lifeless body into the bathroom. He put her in the bathtub and turned on the faucet.

He then went back into her bedroom and turned it upside down.

"All the drawers had been opened,” said Hensley. “There were clothes all over the floor. And then there was the mirror above the dresser. The suspect took a magic marker and wrote a message on the mirror."

"It said don't f*** with my family."

At the time, what did that tell them?

"I think at the time those investigators were looking for someone who had some type of argument with Jenny Zitricki. Speaking with the profilers in this case, they believed it was just a false message. Something to throw law enforcement off. They didn't think it was a random attack."

Maybe he knew her.

"Yes. Some type of...whether he followed her home from a bar and what little type of a relationship they had, who knows?"

Captain Hensley admitted this wasn't the kind of lead they expected.

"We had the FBI profilers that were coming in and looking at our case and looking at their case and explained to us the differences, which is the Greenville homicide was probably one of his first.  And the Portageville double homicide, he had educated himself and sharpened some of his skills."

The Greenville case confirmed they had a serial killer on their hands. Someone who had brutally taken at least three lives.

Memphis Link and Theories

In May 2017, lead investigator Bud Cooper learned about a new DNA link in the Scherer case.

Memphis police began testing a backlog of rape kits including one from March 1997.

It showed the man who sexually assaulted and killed Megan and shot Sherri to death had raped a 14-year-old girl in Memphis just one year earlier.

Now, Cooper and Hensley had a whole new list of potential suspects to track down.

They also interviewed the Memphis victim, who described a man using a ruse to talk his way into her home.

"Not gonna hurt you. Just do what I say. Take it in the house." Cooper said those were the words of a serial killer, according to his rape victim in Memphis.

"Listen, lady, all I want is your car. All I want is your car. Let's take it in the house."

The same suspect used the same tactic one year later in Dyer County.

The information gave Cooper a clearer picture of what he believes happened when that same man approached Sherri and Megan Scherer.

He believes their suspect made up a story to gain their trust, then used a revolver to take charge.

"He's relaying his message to his victims to calm down. He's not going to hurt them. Just to be able to gain compliance."

Tony Scherer said he believes that theory. And he has one of his own after seeing his dogs kenneled that evening when he and Steven got home.

"I just assumed that the guy said, 'You get that dog out of here or I'm going to kill it,'" Tony said.

"Not only the DNA, but the way they were bound and tied,” Don Windham added. “And the way he took items away. And brought things in. Some of those items, some of those things match."

We're also learning in Memphis, his victim said he put on yellow, rubber dishwashing gloves and pulled out a roll of duct tape.

When asked if he felt, in all three cases, that it was a child that was the suspect's ultimate target, Cooper said "yes."

That frightening conclusion made Jenny Zitricki's murder seem out of place. But Cooper saw a suspect evolving from a silent killer in South Carolina, to a man with a very specific plan.

"And then you fast forward seven years and he's talking his way into the house. He's comfortable talking to not only one but four people at the same time."

"Dyersburg and Memphis is just 30 minutes from Portageville, 1:15 from Portageville," said Lt. Stockton. "Long way from the Carolinas but we're hitting two incidents within an hour fifteen-minute drive to 30 minute drive from our hometown. So hopefully something else will come up."

Do investigators wonder what he did from 1990 to 1997?

"Absolutely," Cooper said. "And I think that there are still departments testing evidence. And it would not surprise me if we get another hit."

Cooper learned another interesting point from the Memphis victim.

She felt the composite drawn after the Scherer murders and Dyer County shooting actually looked more like her attacker than the one created by police in her case.

"She said if the mustache would have been drawn in a full mustache, that that was a much better likeness."

The two DNA links in the Scherer case stand as a painful reminder. The man who killed them killed before, sexually assaulted another child just one year earlier. But investigators refuse to dwell on the what if's.

"We're not at a point where we've got time to think about what if that hadn't happened," said Cooper. "We've got to talk about how we're going to find this guy and put him in jail. And then we'll solve all the what if's."

Renewed Hope

"I don't feel that Bud's let up any,” Tony Scherer said. "He's still very devoted to this case."

There's no shortage of devotion when it comes to the Scherer case. You can tell when you speak to any officer who's had a hand in investigating it.
And now, there's a real momentum building as the Memphis lead kicks everything into high gear.

"I would say there's renewed hope. And that's what it is—renewed,” said Bud Cooper. “I think there's been hope from day one."

"When you think, it's been a while and then something pops up like the Memphis deal, that renewed me,” said Mark Stockton. “Hey, I hope we get closer."

"You know, they have several suspects that they had eliminated in different ways back in '97,” Chris Hensley pointed out. “Now that we have new technology, we can go back through their suspect list."

"I can't speak for everybody. But myself, as the sheriff, I'm very optimistic that we're going to solve this case,” Terry Stevens added.

Final Thoughts from Tony and Steven

"Your path just comes to you,” Tony Scherer said. “Eventually, you know what you need to do."

Scherer should have enjoyed a simple path in life. Marry a hometown beauty, raise a family, farm his family's land. But on one evening, in less than 30 minutes, his life veered violently, inexplicably off course.

"It's hard not to live in regret,” Steven said. “It's hard to stay positive."

Especially when everyone knows about the worst day in your life.

"There's always that one person who brings it up it seems like two or three times a week,” Steven said.

"They all mean well,” Tony added. “Don't get us wrong on that. And they want to help. They want to do something for Sherri. To help us."

Tony still lives in the house where he lost Sherri and Megan. 

He explained why he chose to stay.

"I'd say stubbornness," he said. "Not gonna run me out of our home."

Tony and Steven are also both brutally honest. They don't want to be in any kind of spotlight. But, they're doing it for their family, and to bring attention to the man who shattered it into a million pieces.

"This guy can't be that lucky,” Tony said. “Somebody saw something. Even though it's 19 years, you know I've seen stranger things happen."

And after speaking with both men, it's clear they aren't just dwelling on the pain of the past.

"You know, something like that happens to your family, all you want to do is blame yourself for how you could have changed it,” Steven explained. “But, I finally got to the point that I know that I can't.  So, you just try your best to move on.”

"You get to look at pictures sometimes and it just brings back a lot of good memories,” said Tony. “Everything's not bad. Life goes on and we try to remember the good things."

Suspect Description

Here’s a description of the suspect in the murders of Sherri and Megan Scherer and Jenny Zitricki, along with the assault on a Dyer County, Tennessee woman and the sexual assault of a Memphis, Tennessee teenager.

He’s described as a white male between 30 and 50 years old with a slight build.

He had shaggy, greying hair and a greying mustache and was possibly driving a maroon or dark-colored van.

If you think you know who he is or have any information, please contact the New Madrid County Sheriff’s Office at 573-748-2516 or the Missouri State Highway Patrol at 573-840-9500.

We'd like to acknowledge the following people for their help on this story and with the development of Heartland Unsolved.

Heartland Unsolved: The Hunt for a Serial Killer

  • Series Creator/Reporter/Show Producer: Kathy Sweeney
  • Series Co-Creator/Chief Photographer/Reenactment Editor: Bill Allen
  • Series Photographer: Don Frazier
  • Special Assignment Photographer: Hank Cavagnaro

Reenactment Cast

Portageville

  • Tony Scherer: Brian Heisserer
  • Sherri Scherer: Charity Worley
  • Steven Scherer: Tyler Hill
  • Megan Scherer: Halen Dade
  • Officer Mark Stockton:  Daniel Johnson
  • Officer Freddie Hill: Jeremy Hill
  • MSHP Investigator Don Windham: Ryan Windham
  • MSHP Investigator Bud Cooper: Trey Cooper
  • Terry Stevens: Zach Albright

Greenville SC

  • Jenny Zitricki: Julie Bollinger

Dyer County, TN

  • Mother: Alycia Reitenbach
  • Son: John Dickerson
  • Older Daughter: Ellie Dickerson
  • Younger Daughter: Maren Lindsley
  • Our Suspect: Josh Murray

With Special Thanks:

  • Tony and Steven Scherer
  • MSHP Master Sargent Bud Cooper
  • Captain Chris Hensley, New Madrid County Sheriff’s Office
  • New Madrid County Sheriff Terry Stevens
  • Judi McCrate
  • Portageville Police Chief Ronnie Adams
  • Parkwood Lake Estates
  • Dixie Troyer
  • Katrina Rhodes
  • Brother Eugene Poole, Assembly of God Church in Portageville
  • Det. Jimmy Smith, Cape Girardeau Police Department (Retired)

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