Convicted double-murderer Daniel Wozniak looked toward the front of the Santa Ana courtroom, his expression void of emotion as an Orange County Superior Court judge on Friday affirmed his death sentence.
The courtroom fell silent. The victims’ family and friends wiped away tears as Judge John Conley sentenced the former Costa Mesa community actor, 32, to death for killing Irvine resident Juri “Julie” Kibuishi, 23, and her Army veteran friend Samuel Herr, 26.
A jury had recommended in January that Wozniak be put to death for the two killings and gruesome cover-up that included beheading Herr and staging Kibuishi’s body to look like she had been sexually assaulted. Had jurors or Conley chosen to spare Wozniak the death penalty, the alternative would have been life in prison without parole.
Wozniak will be taken to San Quentin State Prison, where he will remain until his execution date.
Kibuishi and Herr’s families embraced one another as they exited the courtroom after the sentencing. Conley’s decision gave them some resolution, they said, after six years and four months of court hearings and delays. However, they said, the pain of having their children ripped away will never cease to haunt them.
“This will never heal and go away,” Kibuishi’s mother, June Kibuishi, said. “Julie will never come back to us. All our family can do is try to move forward one step at a time. We have waited six years for this day.
“At least we can close this most horrible chapter of our lives.”
In 2010, Wozniak was so desperate for money to cover his rent and fund his upcoming wedding and honeymoon that he hatched a plot to kill Herr, his neighbor in the Camden Martinique apartment complex off Pinecreek Drive.
Wozniak sought to steal $62,000 that Herr had saved from his military service in Afghanistan. He was only able to acquire $2,000 before his arrest.
Wozniak was convicted by a jury in December of first-degree murder for killing Herr and Kibuishi.
Conley said Friday that instead of an inexpensive marriage and postponing a honeymoon, Wozniak researched and carried out the two gruesome killings.
“He wanted to do both with style and was willing to kill two young friends to accomplish this selfish goal,” Conley said.
Wozniak’s case had been delayed for several years as his public defender, Scott Sanders, alleged misconduct by Orange County prosecutors and the Sheriff’s Department involving their use of jailhouse informants.
Wozniak was expected to receive his final sentence in March. Instead, Conley granted Sanders additional time to file a brief that asked the court to grant a new penalty phase of the trial.
However, Conley ruled against Sanders’ motion for a new trial and against another motion to dismiss the death penalty.
“The defendant got a fair trial, and that’s the bottom line,” Conley said Friday.
Prosecutors said that on May 21, 2010, Wozniak lured Herr, an Orange Coast College student, to an attic in the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base under the guise of needing help moving furniture. In a recorded police interview presented during the trial, Wozniak described shooting Herr in the back of the head as he knelt.
After he had been shot, Herr asked for Wozniak’s help, not realizing what had happened.
“Something hit me,” Herr said, according to Wozniak. “It felt like an electric shock.”
After hearing the Army veteran’s remarks, Wozniak told detectives that he reloaded and fired at him again.
Later, the community theater actor — who at the time of the murders was performing as the lead in the musical “Nine” at the Hunger Artists Theatre Co. in Fullerton. — used an ax and saw to remove Herr’s head, hands and a tattooed forearm from his body before dumping the parts in a Long Beach park, an act Conley called a “cold-blooded execution.”
“You, Dan, are a coward and a poster boy for the need for an effective death penalty in California,” Steve Herr, Herr’s father, said during his victim impact statement to the court Friday.
Steve Herr has attended every single court hearing — 192, by his count — concerning his son’s killer.
“I’ve been keeping track since day one,” he said.
As part of his ploy to throw off detectives, Wozniak used Herr’s phone to send messages to Kibuishi, who was tutoring Herr. Shortly after midnight on May22, hours after killing Herr, Wozniak used Herr’s cell phone to lure Kibuishi to Herr’s Costa Mesa apartment, where he shot her twice in the head. He then partially removed Kibuishi’s clothes and staged her body to look like Herr had sexually assaulted her and fled, according to prosecutors.
Wozniak even stole Herr’s passport to make his fleeing the scene seem more plausible, Conley said.
Police arrested Wozniak on May26, 2010 — two days before his wedding — while he was at his bachelor party in Huntington Beach. ATM withdrawals from Herr’s account had led police to him.
Wozniak’s ex-fiancée, Rachel Buffett, was arrested in 2012 and charged with being an accessory after the fact for allegedly lying to police. She has pleaded not guilty. That case is ongoing.
When police found Kibuishi’s body, she was still wearing the tiara her brother had given her hours before her death. June Kibuishi spoke of the painful reality that her daughter, whom she called the “sunshine of our family,” was nothing more than a decoy for Wozniak.
“For six years and four months I have sat behind you every time I came to court, watching you come out and smile for the cameras and the audience, enjoying being the center of attention,” June Kibuishi said to Wozniak. “You show no remorse and no guilt for taking my beautiful, loving daughter away from us.”