An Orange County jury Wednesday convicted a Costa Mesa community theater actor of a gruesome double murder that included beheading his neighbor and trying to cover up the crime by killing the man’s friend and staging her body to look as if she’d been sexually assaulted.
Daniel Wozniak, 31, hoped to “use his magical acting powers to trick the dumb police,” prosecutor Matt Murphy told jurors during his closing argument Wednesday morning.
But when detectives grilled Wozniak and the unemployed actor learned police would soon discover the handgun he used in both killings, Wozniak confessed, Murphy said.
“The plan has now crashed into the rocks of reality,” he told jurors, who deliberated for only a few hours before returning guilty verdicts on two counts of murder.
After waiting more than five years for the case to begin last week, some family members of Wozniak’s victims said they were relieved at the decision.
“We’ve gotten today what we’ve always known,” one victim’s father, Steve Herr, said, adding later, “It was a foregone conclusion he was guilty of murder.”
Wozniak shot 26-year-old Sam Herr twice in the head on May 21, 2010 in a Los Alamitos theater where Wozniak performed.
He then used Herr’s phone to lure 23-year-old Juri “Julie” Kibuishi to Herr’s apartment in Costa Mesa where he shot her, placed her body on Herr’s bed and ripped away her pants.
Hoping police would think Herr raped Kibuishi and fled, Wozniak then used a saw and hatchet to dismember Herr’s body and tossed the head, hands and a tattooed forearm in a Long Beach park, according to prosecutors.
After Herr’s father discovered Kibuishi’s body, police began looking for Herr, but withdrawals from Herr’s bank account led detectives to Wozniak.
Prosecutors believe Wozniak was desperate for money to fund his upcoming wedding, cover rent and pay off debts.
They said he targeted Herr because the veteran had $62,000 saved up from his service in Afghanistan.
“That is, for someone like Daniel Wozniak, very tempting,” Murphy said.
Earlier this week, jurors watched videos of Wozniak’s interviews with police, who arrested Wozniak at his bachelor party days after the slayings.
In the recordings, Wozniak originally denies any involvement in Kibuishi’s killing, saying he only had Herr’s ATM card as part of a fraud scam he claimed the two were running.
“If lying was an Olympic sport, that is a gold medalist,” Murphy said, motioning toward Wozniak.
But Wozniak slipped, according to Murphy, and mentioned details about the crime scene, revealing to detectives that he’d been there at some point.
“OK, I saw the goddamn body, is that what you want to hear?” the recording shows Wozniak telling them.
He then claimed Herr killed Kibuishi in a drug-fueled rage and hired him to cover up the crime.
That story didn’t last long, according to Murphy.
When Wozniak called his fiancee, Rachel Buffet, from the Costa Mesa jail, she tried to interrupt the conversation by saying she needs to tell detectives about evidence she heard Wozniak’s older brother mention, according to a recording of the call.
Murphy said that evidence included the murder weapon, shell casings and the clothes Wozniak wore during Herr’s slaying.
Wozniak later admitted he gave the items to his brother to hide or burn, according to the recorded interviews.
“Now I’m really dead,” Wozniak tells Buffet, during the phone call.
“Baby, you’re already dead,” she replies.
Immediately after that conversation, Wozniak asked a jailer to fetch the detectives and quickly confessed to the killings, according to prosecutors.
Buffet and Wozniak’s brother, Tim, have both pleaded not guilty to charges of accessory to murder after the fact.
Wozniak’s lawyers did little to dispute the prosecution’s case during their relatively brief closing argument Wednesday.
Public defender Tracy LeSage foreshadowed the next step in the trial.
“Everything is more complicated than it is,” she said. “Nothing is cut and dry.”
The proceedings will now move on to the penalty phase where the prosecution will make its case to jurors that Wozniak deserves to be put to death.
Murphy told jurors he plans to have family members finally take the stand to describe the aftermath of the brutal slayings.
“Personally for me, it’s not over yet because we know the hard part is still coming,” Herr’s aunt Miriam Nortman said outside the courtroom.
“‘Sentenced to death,’ that’s what we want to hear,” her husband Mike Nortman said, completing the thought.