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Scherer murders: 10 years later

Reflecting on the 2008 slayings that shook Pleasanton to its core

The murders of Castlewood residents Ernest "Ernie" Scherer Jr. and Charlene Abendroth in March 2008 captured the attention of Pleasanton and much of the Tri-Valley -- as did the criminal investigation, murder trial and conviction of their son, Ernest "Skip" Scherer III, for killing his parents for financial gain. (Pleasanton Weekly's previous cover stories on the Scherer case)

The news that at least one person had been murdered at a home in Castlewood sent shockwaves through the Pleasanton community when it broke the morning of March 14, 2008.

As more information started to emerge that Friday about the gruesome scene at 18 Castlewood Drive where the beaten, bloodied bodies of Ernest "Ernie" Scherer Jr. and Charlene Abendroth were found, residents of Pleasanton worried that there was a murderer on the loose.

"It was a shocking incident. Members of this community were really rattled," said Pleasanton Police Chief David Spiller, who was a captain with the department in 2008. "It's absolutely unthinkable that something like this would happen in our small town."

The couple's home overlooked the first fairway on the upper golf course in the exclusive country club community of Castlewood, which is comprised of about 170 million-dollar-plus luxury homes.

The immediate reaction of most Pleasanton residents was that this was a robbery attempt gone very wrong.

In nearby San Ramon, where the Scherer family had lived prior to 2006, the immediate reaction was that Ernie's confrontational, adversarial manner had gotten him on the wrong side of one of his many enemies.

"There was a lot of speculation initially about who could have done it," said Hermann Welm, a long-time friend of Ernie's who, with a couple others, showed up to the Scherers' house for a planned poker game the evening of March 14, 2008.

"The day he and his wife were found was the day he was supposed to be hosting," Welm said. "When we got to the house, there was yellow tape and people everywhere.

"That's when we found out he'd been killed."

The Scherers' pajama-clad bodies were found by a Castlewood employee who had been asked to check on them after their daughter, Catherine Scherer Gray, was unable to reach her parents by phone for several days. The employee said when he looked through a window he saw Ernie "lying face down in a large pool of blood."

A double murder with that degree of brutality, unknown motive and unknown killer is almost never heard of in Pleasanton -- which has seen only one non-vehicular murder since the Scherers' deaths.

"After living in Pleasanton for over 50 years, I could not believe we would have a murder of this kind in our community," Pleasanton resident Joyce Shapiro said. "It gave the residents an uncomfortable feeling."

Catherine and her older brother, Ernest III, buried their parents March 22, 2008, while the Alameda County Sheriff's Office conducted searches and interviews and tried to find the motive and the murderer.

Investigators would soon prove that the vicious killer who savagely bludgeoned and stabbed the couple and left them to be found a week later was in fact the couple's eldest child -- their only son.

Family

Because of Ernie's profession as a real estate investor, his hobby as a poker-player and an ongoing feud with San Ramon Valley school district officials, there were myriad motives for the lead investigator, Alameda County Sheriff's Sgt. Scott Dudek, to pursue.

Living in the upscale country club neighborhood of Castlewood alluded to wealth. Ernie, an avid poker player, also liked to brag about his wins while flashing large amounts of cash. And in San Ramon, he was known as a bitter, unreasonable and confrontational man with a chip on his shoulder.

Charlene, known by her family and friends as "Cherie Scherer," was similar to her husband in her energy and big personality but, "she shared it with our church and put a lot of energy in the church and a lot of energy into the school teaching and us kids," daughter Catherine said.

According to Catherine, her mother was "well-spoken, well-read and well-educated." A respected and admired lecturer in accounting at Cal State East Bay, Charlene was very much an academic, loved to be outdoors and enjoyed hiking.

Ernie and Charlene married in 1976 and raised their two children, Ernest III and Catherine, in San Ramon. The children attended the local public schools and graduated from California High School in 1996 and 2000, respectively.

Ernest III was known to everyone as "Skip," to avoid confusion between him and his father, Ernest Jr., and his grandfather, Ernest Sr.

Skip and Catherine grew up in what has been described by family and friends as a "close-knit" typical middle-class family with parents who were generous, attentive and supportive.

Family was the focus for Ernie and Charlene, and time together was very important.

The family spent every Memorial Day at Yosemite and traveled together for three weeks every summer. The gatherings continued when the family expanded to include the children's spouses and their children. While the children came first in the family, there was a bond between Ernie and Charlene that held even when their children were grown.

"When my brother went to college, she knew it was four years until I went to college, so she said to my dad, 'We have basically focused the last 18 years of our lives around our children and now they're leaving, so we need to find a hobby that you and I can do together,'" Catherine said.

Later Charlene announced to Ernie, "We're going to be into birds because then we can be outside for me and not walking for you," Catherine said.

"They bought bird books and bird journals and went to bird festivals. They went to bird festivals right up until they were killed," Catherine said. "I still have my dad's binoculars and bird journals."

As for their children, "My brother and I got along really, really well for the first four years of my life," Catherine said, adding that when she was old enough to voice her opinion, "it kind of deteriorated from there."

"My brother was kind of a showoff. He was one of those kids that literally everything came easy to him," she said. "He was just intensely bright and very good at pretty much anything and everything he tried."

Catherine earned A's and B's and took some advanced classes, "but I wasn't nearly as bright as my brother."

"(Our parents) never compared their children," she said. "It was never a competition between the two of us. It was always, these are Catherine's strengths and these are Skip's strengths. And we're going to honor Skip for his strengths and honor Catherine for her strengths."

"My dad loved to hear me play the piano," Catherine said. "His mom played the piano really well. When I started taking piano lessons he would come and sit down beside me and listen to me play. And he'd say 'oh, that sounds like something my mom used to play.'"

Ernie encouraged his children to play sports, and he eventually coached Skip's and Catherine's soccer teams, as well as Catherine's basketball team.

It is on the soccer field that Welm met Ernie, while both were coaching and struck up a friendship. At the time, Welm was part of monthly low-stakes poker games with friends and "at one point I invited him," Welm said.

The games rotated between the players' homes. However, for several years, when it was Ernie's turn to host, the games would be played at Welm's house.

"(Charlene) was a strict Mormon and didn't approve of the poker or the drinking," he explained. "But somewhere along the line that changed," Welm said, recalling they had played at the Scherers' home in San Ramon a few times and at least once at the home in Pleasanton.

"She made a point of not being home," Welm said of Charlene.

Charlene was very active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, serving in many capacities, and the Scherer children were raised Mormon. Catherine started attending with her mother and brother when she was 3. Until that time she stayed home with her dad "because I was kind of a terror," she quipped.

For the next few years, Ernie would go to church about once a year, when the children presented an annual program where they sang and had small speaking parts.

That once a year attendance turned into weekly attendance when Catherine was around 8. Ernie would drive himself to church and stay with Charlene, Catherine and Skip for the first 90 minutes, and then drive himself home.

"He did that every Sunday until he died," Catherine said.

"I asked him when I was about 16, 'Dad, you're not a member of the church. Why do you go and sit through an hour and a half of church every Sunday morning?' He told me, 'The church is good for families and I believe in having a strong family. I believe that your church has brought our family together and has good family values. I want to support you and your mother and your brother in this.'"

Skip moving away from the Mormon church when he was older concerned his mother, but especially when he left his job in the mortgage business in 2002 and became a professional poker player.

"Charlene made no bones about not being happy about Skip playing poker," Welm said. "Or Ernie for that matter."

'A lot of speculation'

Ernie's poker-playing friends initially thought the couple was killed by someone who followed Ernie home after he had "flashed a wad of cash" or bragged about a big win at the poker table, both of which he was known to do.

"He loved poker; he loved to tell us about his winnings. When he won, he would talk about it. He would flash a wad of $100 bills," Welm said. When he and his friends showed up for a poker game and were told of Ernie's murder instead, Welm said, "We asked, 'was he imprudent and talked to someone?' He played a lot in San Jose. Did someone follow him home?"

One of the homicide investigators' first stops, though, was the San Ramon Valley Unified School District.

Investigators had found reams of documents Ernie planned to use to campaign against SRVUSD's effort to extend a parcel tax with a measure on the June 2008 ballot. Ernie, a former school board member, planned to use the information to prove the district had manipulated the numbers to pass the tax in 2004.

This was not the first time he had challenged a ballot measure, nor was it the first time he accused board trustees of malfeasance. Ernie was well-known for being an outspoken adversary of the district and its board.

The investigators' visit to the district office was so soon after the bodies were discovered that they were the ones who informed the staff of the murder.

"I remember being at the district office in Danville when investigators came to the office and shared the news. Ernie always seemed to be an outspoken critic of the school district, but to hear news like this was surprising and very sad," said Terry Koehne, then spokesperson for the SRVUSD.

Ernie was an SRVUSD board trustee from 1988 until 1990.

In 1990, with the district mired in financial problems, Ernie and another trustee were recalled. It was reported in local papers at the time that voters ousted Ernie in part because he refused to negotiate with the union when teachers went on strike. Ernie found the experience humiliating and became adversarial on district-related financial issues after that.

"He became famous, or I guess some would say infamous, for being recalled from the school board," explained Welm, himself a former San Ramon mayor and City Council member. He said Ernie "disagreed with the power the teachers' union had over the board. He annoyed them and they (the teachers' union) got him kicked off, got him recalled."

"I don't think Ernie ever got over being recalled," former board member Joan Buchanan said in the immediate aftermath of the murders.

There was a complete overhaul of the school board in the 1990 election, and five new board members were elected -- including Buchanan, who served there until being elected to the State Assembly in 2008.

Ernie went from vocal fiscally conservative board member to outspoken adversary of the school board. He campaigned against two district bond measures in 1995, saying that the measures, which were backed by the teachers' union, were a ruse to raise teacher wages.

The second measure failed by only two votes; it might have passed, but Ernie got the vote overturned by taking the case to the Contra Costa County Clerk's office for a recount.

"He basically lived in Martinez and eventually got the vote overturned because there was some miscounting," Welm said. "He was a very determined person, like with the way he dealt with that bond issue ... He sunk his teeth in until he got what he wanted."

Desperate for bond money in 1998, the SRVUSD board asked Ernie to be part of a 28-member citizens' committee evaluating the schools' needs in the district's third attempt to pass a bond measure.

Ernie later pushed the Contra Costa County civil grand jury to investigate the district's finances, suggesting corruption. There was no investigation, though.

This determination to be a thorn in the side of the San Ramon Valley school board continued even after the Scherers moved to Pleasanton in 2006, as was evidenced by the documents found in the home on the day the bodies were discovered.

"I had met Ernie for lunch about a week or so before his death to talk about an upcoming parcel tax election. I was hoping to get his support for the measure," said Greg Marvel, who was president of the SRVUSD board at the time of the murders. "Even though he had moved to Pleasanton, he had remained active in political circles in the San Ramon Valley."

Ernie was once an accountant but made the money to afford a luxurious 4,000 square foot tri-level home in the hilltop golf course community of Castlewood through real estate investment. Some wondered if he had made an enemy through that line of work, which would not have been outside the realm of possibility in 2008 with the downturn in the economy.

He was also politically active with the Republican Party, backing local candidates financially and walking precincts. H. Abram Wilson, former San Ramon mayor and Republican candidate for State Assembly against Buchanan in 2008, was one of those Ernie backed.

Ernie was supposed to meet with Wilson in March 2008 to talk about what Ernie felt was corruption on the school board.

Wilson, in an interview with "48 Hours" in 2013, said upon hearing of Ernie's murder, "The first thing that came to my mind was that Ernie ticked off the wrong person; Ernie was digging too deep."

Suspect in their sights

Alameda County sheriff's investigators, however, had the Scherers' son Skip in their sights as a "person of interest" within days of discovering the bodies.

The burglary motive was eliminated quickly because although items were strewn about the house, nothing of value seemed to be missing (other than an ornamental sword Ernie kept in a closet). Plus, over $9,000 in cash was found in Ernie's pocket in the bedroom.

The murder scene, investigators concluded, was staged to look like a break-in.

With burglary crossed off the list of possible motives and political enemies removed from the pool of suspects, the one they couldn't eliminate was the Scherers' son.

"I went to his memorial service, I saw his son at the event," said Marvel, who still sits on the school board. "He acted strange and off, for lack of a better word. I remember telling my wife that something was not right about Ernie's son and his behavior at the memorial.

"Obviously, my observations were shared by the police, as we now know."

Others had reported that Skip showed little emotion at his parents' funeral despite being a pallbearer. In fact, police accounts state that Skip's lack of emotion at his parents' funeral made him their prime suspect from the start.

The investigation revealed Skip was deeply in debt and owed his parents more than $600,000, which they loaned him to purchase a home in Southern California. It was also discovered he had been living a decadent double life for several years. Skip, who was married with a small child, was dating several other women and had created a persona as a high-roller playboy in Las Vegas.

Skip was finally arrested on suspicion of the double murder in February 2009, and he sat void of emotion as the judge told him he would have to stand trial for the murder of his parents.

It was almost three years to the day from the anniversary of the murders, on March 28, 2011, that Ernest Scherer III was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and the special circumstances of multiple murder and murder for financial gain. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole and arrived at High Desert State Prison in Susanville on May 27, 2011 where he remains.

He did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.

"I don't keep in contact with him at all," Catherine said of her brother. "I have forgiven him and I am not angry with him, but have no desire to have him in my life."

Skip's wife, Robyn, divorced him in 2009. Catherine also does not have contact with her former sister-in-law or her nephew.

"I would like to but she has cut off all communication, and has for a couple of years," Catherine said. "I can understand. Dealing with things from my past, even going through my parents' things, is really hard. It's very difficult to be faced with that reality."

With the 10th anniversary of the murders passing this week, Catherine continues to hold her parents close to her heart.

"I think my parents did an amazing job," she said. "The choices that my brother made don't reflect on the choices my parents made in rearing us.

"I think everyone is entitled to make their own choices, and my brother made his. But in no way does that reflect badly on my parents."

"I don't think any kid could have asked for better parents," Catherine said. "They were amazing."

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