Steve Herr said he never wants to forget the image of his son’s body that was stitched together at a mortuary after being dismembered and dumped in a Long Beach park. One of the hands was missing, Herr said, and the 26-year-old’s head was still wrapped to hide the fact that it was only an unrecognizable skull.
“Animals got to my son’s body parts in El Dorado park,” Herr said in an Orange County courtroom. “They found him. They ate his flesh off him. They urinated on my son.”
Herr testified Monday that he clings to this image because he doesn’t want to forget the evilness of the man convicted of killing his son.
Daniel Wozniak, a 31-year-old community theater actor from Costa Mesa, was found guilty last month of murdering his neighbor Sam Herr and Herr’s friend 23-year-old Juri “Julie” Kibuishi in May 2010. After less than a week of testimony and only a few hours of deliberation last month, jurors convicted Wozniak in both slayings.
Now they’re tasked with deciding Wozniak’s punishment: a death sentence or life in prison without parole. Prosecutors began presenting their case for the death penalty Monday. As part of their campaign, Herr’s and Kibuishi’s family members took the stand to describe how the killings have changed their lives.
“In my mind, I see him whacking away at my son’s head. I see him sawing my son’s arm off,” Herr said of Wozniak. “I have trouble sleeping at night because if I turn the TV off that’s what I focus on.”
Prosecutors said Wozniak was desperate for cash to cover rent and fund his upcoming wedding, so he hatched a plan to kill Sam Herr and access the bank account where Herr had thousands of dollars saved from his Army service in Afghanistan.
After shooting Herr at a Los Alamitos theater, Wozniak used Herr’s phone to lure Kibuishi to Herr’s apartment where he shot her twice in the head, prosecutor Matt Murphy told jurors during the guilt phase of the trial last month.
After performing in a play, Wozniak returned to the theater where he dismembered Herr’s body so he could hide it at the El Dorado Nature Center in Long Beach, according to prosecutors. He then returned to Herr’s apartment, ripped off Kibuishi’s jeans and propped her body against the bed to make it appear Herr had raped her and fled, Murphy said.
Hours before her death, Kibuishi was eating Thai food with her older brother Taka, who described the evening to jurors on Monday.
After dinner, he asked her to be a bridesmaid in his wedding that was planned for the next year. He gave her a tiara she was supposed to wear in the ceremony. According to Taka Kibuishi, his sister left around midnight for Herr’s apartment where she thought Herr needed someone to talk to. But the texts she’d been receiving pleading with her to stop by were from Wozniak, Murphy said.
“What goes through my head is I had so many chances to try to stop her,” Taka Kibuishi said before bursting out at Wozniak, calling him a “disgusting monster” who used his sister as a decoy. “And then you disrespect her by pulling her pants off,” he said before reining back the emotion in his voice.
Police arrested Wozniak at his bachelor party days after the killing when ATM withdrawals from Herr’s bank account led them to him. He confessed to both killings after he phoned his fiancée from jail.
In a recording of the call played for jurors, Wozniak learned police would soon discover a bag of evidence, including the murder weapon. Immediately after hanging up, he called for detectives, according to Murphy. A video of the interview shows Wozniak telling detectives he killed both Herr and Kibuishi for the money.
“We lost Julie and Sam for something so simple,” Taka Kibuishi said. “It’s pathetic. It’s disgusting.”
Dobruck writes for Times Community News.