Clinging to keepsakes and memories more than two years after their children were killed, the parents of two murdered Orange Coast College students say the pain of reliving the details of their deaths in court can’t match their desire for justice.
On Thursday, the families of Juri “Julie” Kibuishi, 23, and Samuel Herr, 26, sat in Orange County Superior Court for a preliminary hearing to determine whether prosecutors could move forward with charges of accessory after the fact against Rachel Buffett, 25, the then-fiancée of alleged killer Daniel Patrick Wozniak.
The victims’ families said that in spite of media attention garnered by the prosecution of Buffett, who has claimed innocence, they trust the legal system to do its job.
“We’re not detectives,” said Julie’s mother, June Kibuishi. “We totally have faith in [Deputy District Attorney] Matt [Murphy]. We just want the truth.”
“We’re here to support Matt Murphy, the Costa Mesa Police Department and the Orange County D.A.,” said Samuel’s father, Steve Herr.
Asked how he felt, Herr replied with a tired sigh. “How do you feel every day in court?”
Kibuishi said it never gets easier.
During a recess in the lengthy and at times gruesome hearing, Kibuishi tugged at a silver ring on a chain around her neck.
“This is the only thing that we got back after it happened,” she said. “And a necklace in a little envelope. I wasn’t able to see her until the day before the service. And then we found out what happened to Sam [Herr]. Just....” She shook her head.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Kibuishi said. “My daughter was not at the wrong place at the wrong time. She was used. She thought she was helping out a friend.”
Time of the deaths
Julie, police say, was Costa Mesa actor Wozniak’s second victim.
After allegedly shooting and killing upstairs neighbor Samuel Herr the afternoon of May 21, 2010, prosecutors say Wozniak, 28, lured Julie, Samuel’s friend and tutor, to Samuel’s apartment.
When she arrived, prosecutors say Wozniak shot her and then staged her body to look as though Herr had sexually assaulted her.
Wozniak, posing as Samuel through his cell phone, had told Julie that he was having family problems and wanted to talk to someone he could trust.
From the witness stand Thursday, Costa Mesa Police Det. Jose Morales, said, “Julie’s response was that he could talk to her and she considered him family.”
Murphy argued that Samuel’s family problems were fabrications on Wozniak’s part, but that in later interviews with police, Buffett echoed the alleged fabrications, saying in an interview on June 9, 2010 that she had heard them directly from Samuel.
That, Murphy asserted, was an intentional lie to investigators.
But later in the hearing, Judge Kazuharu Makino questioned whether Buffett should be prosecuted for that alleged lie because by that point, police said Wozniak had already confessed to the murders.
“The law never says I’ve got to prove they’re geniuses,” Murphy replied.
He also alleged that Buffett lied to detectives about a “third man,” whom Wozniak later admitted didn’t exist.
Wozniak had told investigators that an unknown man accompanied Wozniak and Samuel to the apartment Buffett and Wozniak shared just before Wozniak took Samuel to the theater where he allegedly killed him. Buffett told police she had seen the man in her apartment.
“That is the first lie, this mystery person,” Murphy told Makino. “It’s the most demonstrative because it’s the cleanest. The court knows the guy doesn’t exist … and Rachel [Buffett] walks out and tells the exact same lie.”
Buffett’s attorney, Ajna Sharma-Wilson, said prosecutors would need to prove that her client had knowledge of the crimes and the intent to mislead police.
“Some of her information were lies because [what] Dan told her … were lies,” Sharma-Wilson said. “I do believe my client did her best to tell the truth and did her best to put her life back together after these two years.”
Makino ultimately found there was enough evidence to move forward, but said it would be a tough case for prosecutors.
Buffet is at ‘peace’
Throughout the day, Buffett, dressed in a brown pinstriped suit, her blond hair pushed back by a tortoise-shell headband, sat placidly by her attorney. During recesses, she nestled in between family members.
Before the hearing, Buffett said she looked forward to putting the ordeal behind her.
“I have a peace this is all going to come to an end in good time,” she said. “I feel pain for the families, but having them here avoiding eye contact kind of hurts.”
But in the hubbub surrounding Buffett’s arrest, Kibuishi said it’s hard not to feel that Julie’s and Samuel’s deaths were being overshadowed.
Thursday afternoon during a recess, Kibuishi tearfully remembered her daughter.
Julie was sweet, and popular, she said. She was athletic — a dancer who had attended the Orange County School of the Arts — and interested in fashion. She was born on Valentine’s Day.
She made friends easily and was loyal to all of them. She had considered Buffett a friend.
Julie’s older brother, Taka Kibuishi, said she had been out to dinner with him while she was exchanging text messages with a man she thought was Samuel.
That evening, Julie had gone over to visit him and his fiancée.
“We gave her a tiara because we wanted her to be a bridesmaid,” he said. “When they found her, she was still wearing it.”
His mother buried her head in his shoulder, crying and shaking.
“We’re not the family that tries to go out and....” Kibuishi said, pausing to collect herself, “No matter how much we address the world, nothing will bring her back.”