Woman Adopted as Infant Learns that Biological Mom Was Allegedly Murdered by Serial Killers

Cheryl Gyant didn't know what happened to her biological mother until long after the woman's death

Cheryl Gyant
Cheryl Gyant. Photo: Courtesy of Cheryl Gyant

At age 10, Cheryl Gyant learned she was adopted, and the news left her shaken. For the next several years, she spent countless hours outside her family's Grand Rapids, Mich., home, gazing up at the planes overhead and trying to make sense of it all.

"I saw foster kids coming in and out of our home all the time. I just didn't know I was one of them," says Gyant. "From that moment on, I wondered about my biological mom and why she left me behind. I remember lying in the grass, wondering, 'Is my mom on that plane?'"

The truth was far more sinister. In 1984, Gyant's birth mother, Sheryl Okoro, was kidnapped and held captive in a secret bunker carved into the Sierra Nevada foothills. There, behind a remote cabin in unincorporated Wilseyville, Ca., she was one of many victims of Leonard Lake and Charles Ng, who according to authorities raped, tortured and murdered at least 11 and as many as 25 women, men and babies.

Lake, according to authorities, had been obsessed with pornography dating back to his childhood. He became fascinated with The Collector, a 1963 thriller novel about a man who kidnaps a fellow student named Miranda, holding her captive in a farmhouse cellar. Driven to create his own twisted, real-life version of the story, Lake developed an elaborate plan to kidnap women for use as sex slaves, and he recruited an eager Ng to help. They named their horrifying crimes, "The Miranda Project."

Okoro had endured a traumatic childhood, suffering sexual abuse and running away from home repeatedly. At 16, she had the first of her four children, but she endured abuse at the hands of an intimate partner and sometimes did sex work to make ends meet.

Sheryl Okoro
Sheryl Okoro. Courtesy of Cheryl Gyant

Court documents show she met Lake at San Francisco's Pink Palace apartment complex where she lived and told a neighbor that he offered her work on a "pot farm." She left in mid-1984 and was never seen alive again. The next anyone saw of her was in a series of nude photos found buried with Lake's 250-page diary.

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That diary, along with lurid rape and torture videos, proved a gut-wrenching record of Lake and Ng's cruelty. The terror ended in June 1985, when police searched Lake's car and found items belonging to several missing persons. A defiant Lake swallowed cyanide capsules sewn into his shirt and died four days later. Ng fled to Canada, where he was jailed on a theft charge until he was extradited back to California in 1991 to face justice for his murders, rapes and kidnappings.

A massive search of the Wilseyville property turned up a staggering amount of evidence including the corpses of two men, blood-stained bed sheets and power tools, and more than 50 lbs. of charred human bones and teeth. Among the evidence were Okoro's purse, clothing and an 11-page, handwritten journal Okoro wrote detailing her devastating life story and her doomed hopes for a "happily ever after."

"Those 11 pages are all I have of my mother," Gyant tells PEOPLE.

Gyant recalls the TV coverage of Ng's trial that resulted in 11 homicide convictions and a death penalty ruling in 1999. But she had no idea her biological mother was a victim until 2002, when she received a phone call from Okoro's sister and learned of her mother's identity and heartbreaking fate.

Charles Ng; Leonard Lake
Charles Ng, Leonard Lake. Nick Ut/AP/Shutterstock; Bettmann Archive

Drawing on Okoro's recovered journal, discussions with detectives and a poignant visit to her mother's tiny apartment, Gyant wrote and released A Letter from Sheri, a cathartic, fictional but fact-based biography of her mother. She maintains a loving relationship with her adoptive family but has also gotten to know her biological father. She is currently searching for her brother.

"I hope readers will take from my book my tenacity, determination and passion for family and do whatever needs to be done to bring closure to their own hurtful situations," Gyant says.

Ng remains on death row in San Quentin State Prison. Despite two decades of appeals, the California Supreme Court in July upheld the death penalty and in January, the U.S. Supreme Court did the same.

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