Wozniak defense raises possibility of his fiancée’s role in murder plot

A Costa Mesa police detective testified Tuesday that he believes the fiancée of convicted murderer Daniel Wozniak helped plot the slaying of a 23-year-old woman in an attempt to cover up her husband-to-be’s killing of their neighbor.

The detective’s testimony came as defense attorneys for Wozniak, a 31-year-old community theater actor from Costa Mesa, tried to shift focus to Wozniak’s fiancée, Rachel Buffett, in an attempt to spare Wozniak the death penalty.

A jury convicted Wozniak last month in the slayings of 26-year-old Army veteran Sam Herr and his friend Juri “Julie” Kibuishi in May 2010.

Now jurors must decide whether Wozniak deserves a death sentence or life in prison without parole.

During Wozniak’s trial, prosecutors said he killed Herr so he could raid Herr’s bank account and steal thousands of dollars Herr had saved from his military service in Afghanistan. Wozniak intended to use the money to fund his and Buffett’s rent and upcoming wedding, prosecutors said.

The evening after killing Herr, prosecutors said, Wozniak used Herr’s phone to lure Kibuishi to Herr’s apartment, where he shot her twice in the head, ripped off her jeans and staged her body to look as though Herr had sexually assaulted her and fled.

Wozniak then tried to hide Herr’s body by dismembering it and dumping pieces in a Long Beach park, prosecutor Matt Murphy said.

Police arrested Wozniak at his bachelor party days after the killings, after ATM withdrawals from Herr’s bank account led them to him.

On Monday, family members of the victims gave emotional testimony about the loved ones who had been ripped from them.

On Tuesday, Wozniak’s public defenders began presenting their case to jurors, hoping to sway them toward the lesser punishment.

Most of the defense questions for witnesses focused on Buffett, whom an ex-boyfriend and an acquaintance described as manipulative and calculating.

One woman testified that she went to police after learning of Herr and Kibuishi’s deaths to make sure detectives knew about a conversation she had with Buffett in which Buffet mentioned she would be willing to kill someone if she knew she’d get away with it.

Public defender Scott Sanders concluded Tuesday’s testimony by calling Det. Jose Morales to the stand to quiz him on any involvement Buffett may have had in the murders.

Buffett hasn’t been charged with either killing, but she is facing a count of accessory after the fact on allegations of lying to police during interviews, Morales said. Buffett has pleaded not guilty and denied any prior knowledge of the crimes.

Sanders pressed Morales by reading from a report the detective had prepared years earlier saying he believed Wozniak told Buffett that he had killed Herr. Morales wrote that he thought the two discussed a plan to kill Kibuishi in an attempt to cover Wozniak’s tracks.

“I believe there was more involvement on her part than what we can prove,” Morales said after Sanders quoted from the report.

Morales said Buffett repeatedly lied to investigators and at times seemed to be trying — and failing — to cry in front of them.

In Murphy’s push for the death penalty, he has questioned how any involvement Buffett may have had in the crime would mitigate Wozniak’s responsibility.

“Is there anything ... that indicated to you that Rachel was involved in the planning of this murder?” Murphy asked Morales on Tuesday.

“No evidence whatsoever,” Morales said.

In interviews with police after his arrest, Wozniak took sole responsibility for the killings. He confessed to detectives on video after calling Buffett from a jailhouse phone.

During the recorded phone conversation, Buffett told Wozniak that she planned to inform police about evidence that Wozniak’s brother had mentioned in passing. Prosecutors said the evidence included the murder weapon Wozniak had given to his older brother Tim to hide or burn.

Tim Wozniak also has pleaded not guilty to a charge of accessory after the fact.

“This is ridiculous, and I have to go tell detectives the truth,” Buffett said in a recording played for jurors last month.


Family members tell of their anguish

On Monday, as prosecutors began presenting their case for the death penalty, Herr’s father, Steve, and members of Kibuishi’s family took the stand to describe how the killings changed their lives.

Steve Herr said he never wants to forget the image of his son’s dismembered body, which was stitched together at a mortuary.

One of the hands was missing, Herr said, and the head was 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. “They found him. They ate his flesh off him.”

Herr testified that he clings to this mental picture because he doesn’t want to forget the evil of the man convicted of killing his son.

“In my mind, I see him [Wozniak] whacking away at my son’s head. I see him sawing my son’s arm off,” Herr said. “I have trouble sleeping at night because if I turn the TV off, that’s what I focus on.”

Hours before Kibuishi’s death, she was eating Thai food with her older brother Taka, who described the evening to jurors Monday.

After dinner, he said, he asked her to be a bridesmaid in his wedding planned for the following year. He gave her a tiara to wear in the ceremony.

According to Taka Kibuishi, his sister left around midnight for Herr’s apartment, where she thought Herr had asked her to stop by because he needed someone to talk to. But the text messages she had been receiving were actually from Wozniak, Murphy said.

“What goes through my head is I had so many chances to try to stop her,” Taka Kibuishi said before lashing 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 in the emotion in his voice.

“We lost Julie and Sam for something so simple,” Taka Kibuishi said, referring to the plot to steal Herr’s money. “It’s pathetic. It’s disgusting.”