Community actor kills veteran, student for money to bankroll honeymoon
06/08/2016 12:47 pm PDT
UPDATE May 30, 2019:
In police interrogation tapes obtained by ABC News, a California theater actress, who was later convicted of lying to police about two murders her then-fiancé had committed, is seen pleading with investigators that she knew nothing about these crimes.
May 2010: Costa Mesa, California police dispatch receives a 911 call reporting a dead body found in an apartment. Costa Mesa Police rush to an apartment complex where they make a brutal and bloody discovery.
"At this point all we knew is that we had a young female, deceased with a gunshot wound to the back of her head," said Costa Mesa Police Lt. Ed Everett. "When we went out to the crime scene we found she was in the bedroom lying partially on the bed and her legs on the floor.
"Then there's things written on the back of her shirt: 'F--- you all yours,' and it really looked like it was your, and I hate to say run of the mill, but it looked like a run of the mill domestic violence murder," said Orange County Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy.
A purse and wallet near the body reveal the victim's identity: Her name is Julie Kibuishi.
"Julie by all accounts was a sweet young woman, she was 23, loved dance, was very talented," said Dobruck.
But now Julie is the victim of a violent murder. And the prime suspect is the tenant of the apartment. His name is Sam Herr, a war veteran who's currently MIA.
"The police zeroed in on Sam pretty quickly," said Dobruck. "He seemed pretty obvious, this girl was found in his apartment, seemed like someone who could be capable of killing someone."
Texts recovered from Julie's cellphone at the scene suggest a volatile romantic relationship.
Authorities believe they've solved the "whodunit" part of the case. Now they just need to find Sam. They question Sam's father, who discovered the body and made the 911 call.
"Mr. Herr was in disbelief, repeatedly said 'No, my son couldn't be involved in this. There's no way,'" said Everett. "We didn't quite believe him at that point. Just because we couldn't find him, it was his apartment, dead girl, and it seemed like he was on the run."
But bringing in their fugitive won't be easy. He's an Army veteran, trained killer, and he's been accused of murder before.
"Sam Herr had a criminal history that led us to believe that he was a suspect in this crime," said Everett
When detectives ran Sam Herr's record, they discover that eight years earlier he was arrested and charged with capital murder.
"This pretty quickly got police thinking Sam was the killer and they started looking for him as their number one suspect," said Dobruck. It's an all points bulletin on the lookout for Sam.
"We took in account his military background," said Everett. "We didn't know where he'd served in Afghanistan, if he was exposed to PTSD. We didn't know what the relationship between Julie and Sam was. We didn't know if the message on her sweater was intended for someone third party, or for us, the police department. We didn't know if we had a love triangle. He was our number one guy."
Then police get a tip from Sam's bank: His ATM card is being used at one of their branches. And it appears their wanted man is close by. Investigators pull the bank's surveillance cameras expecting to see Sam -- but they don't. Who is this person using Sam Herr's ATM card? And where's Sam?
Minutes later, a second ATM swipe, this time at a pizza place. Police arrive just in time to catch the delivery driver en route to a home address in Long Beach, Calif.
Now stationed outside Herr's house, SWAT teams prepare to take down a violent and mentally deranged combat veteran. But when they knock on the door, they find 16-year-old Wesley Freilich. Freilich is immediately ruled out as a suspect in the murder of Julie Kibuishi. In fact, Wesley doesn't even know Sam Herr, but he does know Daniel Wozniak.
"He told us that Dan Wozniak had given him the credit card and he had just been there a couple hours earlier and he had picked up $400," said Everett.
But who is Daniel Wozniak? And what's his connection to Sam Herr?
"Daniel Wozniak was a community theater actor," said reporter Jeremiah Dobruck. "He lived here in Costa Mesa right across from Orange Coast College. He was engaged. He had a hard time holding a job. He's a young guy. He's in various plays. Apparently in community theater, leading men are in demand: people who have time to go through a production and are willing to take the lead in the play. So that's what he spent most of his time doing."
"He really loved doing these plays. He didn't want to work. He kept getting fired from job after job," said Matt Murphy. "He wanted to maintain this lifestyle where he's got, you know, pretty young fiancée, they're about to get married."
Daniel's fiancée is his acting partner Rachel Buffett. Their wedding is less than 48 hours away. By all accounts he's living the high life. In fact he was at his bachelor party in Huntington Beach when homicide detectives break up the party with an arrest warrant.
Lieutenant Ed Everett finally lays eyes on the elusive Daniel Wozniak.
"I immediately looked at Dan Wozniak. He made eye contact with me, he immediately turned white, you could see the blood kind of draining from his face," said Everett. "I knew at that point there was more to him. He either knew where Sam was at, he was hiding Sam, helped Sam flee, or he had more involvement with this than he was letting on."
Cops haul Wozniak in and back at Costa Mesa Police headquarters, Daniel denies any involvement in Julie Kibuishi's murder. He claims his only crime was a credit card scam that he and Sam had concocted.
"Basically, he came up with some scheme about using the credit card and he was going to give the credit card to Wesley and they were going to pull all this money out of Sam's account, and then Sam would report that he was a victim of theft," said Everett.
But before Wozniak could cash in, he claims Sam Herr made a startling confession. He says Herr told him he had done some drugs and was drinking heavily and was depressed. He said Herr asked Kibuishi for sex, and when she said no, he shot her twice in the head, according to Wozniak.
Wozniak claims after the confession, he dropped Herr off at a local shopping center and never saw him again.
But police believe Wozniak is covering for Herr, so they turn up the heat during their interrogation and demand a DNA sample from Wozniak, which he gave. Once the DNA was collected, Wozniak's memory starts to sharpen.
"At that point he became visibly nervous, that's when he started to add more details to the story and make some changes," said Lt. Everett.
Detectives are starting to get the impression that Daniel Wozniak is worried his DNA will show up in Herr's apartment. But why?
"Yes, I helped him get away," Wozniak says in video of the interrogation. "Yes, I knew that he had killed someone. And yes, I knew that I -- "
Detectives remind him they have his DNA.
"Where's that DNA gonna show up?" they ask.
"Um -- uh, in Sam's car," says Wozniak. He insists he did not see Julie dead in the apartment, and his DNA won't be on Julie.
Detectives still suspect Wozniak is holding something back. They decide it's time for the "good cop, bad cop" routine.
First up, bad cop.
"You're arrested. For murder, OK? Accessory to murder. That's what you're being arrested for. You don't want to talk to us, tell us any more, that's it. Then we're done. We're done," one detective tells Wozniak. "Unless you want to talk to us, we're done."
"I will talk to you about anything, if it gets me to my wedding on Friday. That's what I will promise," says Wozniak.
Enter "good cop" Lt. Ed Everett.
"Dan you got the answers. You can help us," he tells Wozniak.
"I don't know what else you want me to say. I don't know, I don't know," says Wozniak.
"Tell us the truth. You're not that good of an actor," says Everett.
"Dan Wozniak was an arrogant guy and I think he thought he was going to act his way out of this," said Everett about the interrogation.
But Daniel Wozniak seems to be cracking under the pressure from Costa Mesa's finest.
"OK, fine," says Wozniak on the interrogation video. "You know what? He didn't come down. He came down and said 'Help me.' I went upstairs, and, yes, I saw the goddamn body. Is that what you want to hear?"
"No. We want to hear the truth."
"That is the truth," says Wozniak.
Then detectives press hard. They know Wozniak is about to break. So they bluff. Detectives tell Wozniak his DNA was found on Julie Kibuishi's body -- even though those results won't be available for weeks.
"How'd your DNA get on her?"
"'Cause I was right over the body," says Wozniak.
"OK. So how'd your DNA get on her?"
"That I don't know," says Wozniak.
"DNA doesn't just fall off."
"I don't know. I didn't touch her. I didn't do anything," says Wozniak.
Orange County Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy is watching in the next room. He's not impressed.
"He's very bad at improv. Great at memorizing his lines, very bad at improv, and these detectives are all about putting somebody to it, putting them on their heels and seeing if the story adds up," said Murphy.
Then detectives move in for the kill.
"What'd you see?"
"I saw two gunshots in her head. And I saw her pants, like ripped and cut," Wozniak says. "And I saw, like, 'f--- you' written on the back of the shirt."
"Where were the two bullet wounds?"
"I don't know. Sam said he shot her twice," says Wozniak. "I didn't see."
"You just told us you saw two bullet wounds. You were standing over -- "
"No. No, no, no, no. OK."
"How did your DNA get on her? 'I was standing over the body. I saw two bullet wounds to her head.' It's exactly what you said, Dan. You can't even keep your lies straight."
"When Wozniak basically told us he was in the apartment and saw two bullet wounds to Julie's head, I knew at that point he was lying," said Everett.
There's no second take for this actor. Daniel Wozniak can't keep his lines straight and his script has just been flipped by his own admission.
"Anybody that's actually seen a woman who's been shot in the back of the head, you can't see how many bullet holes. She had long beautiful black hair. You can't see how many bullet holes," said Murphy. "And that immediately, that was the moment that the investigation turned because those detectives who were there and they saw her, they knew that you couldn't see two bullet holes."
Then a sudden stalemate. Daniel Wozniak refuses to talk. He wants to go back to his jail cell. While behind bars, he calls his fiancée Rachel Buffett.
"He calls Rachel, who has just talked to his brother Tim, and she has learned that Tim has evidence relating to the murder, she doesn't know what it is, but he's got evidence," said Matt Murphy.
Police record the conversation.
Rachel: "What did you do?"
Dan: "I helped Sam cover some stuff up, and helped him get some drugs. That's it. I didn't murder anybody."
Rachel: "My mom's working on canceling all the wedding plans now. And I just talked to Tim, and I need to make a phone call to the detective now."
Rachel: "Tim says he has evidence with him. Or, or he knew where it was. Or something."
Dan: "Then I'm doomed."
Dan: "Tim said that?"
Rachel: "Yeah. Do you know that Tim had some evidence?"
Dan: "Yeah. Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God."
Rachel: "Well, this is, this is ridiculous and I have to go tell the detectives the truth."
Dan: "No, don't. Don't, don't, don't, don't. That can't be found."
"When we listened to those jail recordings, it showed us there was panic in Dan Wozniak's voice," said Everett. "That was one of the few times that there was some emotion, and it was emotion that he was going to be caught. Rachel Buffett was cool, calm, collected."
She's currently out on bail for an accessory to murder charge.
Now Rachel Buffett must choose between her fiance or freedom.
Rachel: "No babe. I'm gonna do it."
Dan: "Listen to me. No. No."
Dan: "Trust me? Please? I have to tell the truth on what I did. And I think you now know what it is, and it's bad. Imagine the worst. And that's what I did."
Suddenly, Wozniak is desperate to speak to detectives, and he spills his guts.
"I'm crazy and I did it," Wozniak says in the recorded interrogation. "I killed Julie and I killed Sam."
"OK. All right. Where's the body?"
"I killed them both," says Wozniak.
"Sam came first. It was all just about the money. That was it," says Wozniak. "One hundred percent.
"Sam is decapitated," says Wozniak. "He is at the military base. In the theater. If you go up the ladder from the theater, his head and hands have been decapitated, as well as his arm. That had a tattoo."
"And you did it?"
"Yes," says Wozniak.
"He was colder than an iceberg. No feelings, no emotion. Just nothing there," said Lt. Everett.
Finally, Wozniak breaks down the timeline of the events in his diabolical murder plot. It begins with a simple favor: Wozniak asks Sam Herr to help move some boxes in a theater attic at a local military base.
"Sam was doing a good deed. When Sam turned his back, he knelt down, Wozniak produced his father's gun, shot him in the back of the head, but he wasn't dead yet. He said 'Oh my gosh, I've been shocked, I need help,'" said Murphy. "And we asked him at that point, well what did you do next? And he said 'Well I reloaded the gun and shot him the back of the head again.'"
Then, after killing Sam Herr, Daniel does the unthinkable.
"He murders Sam Herr and that afternoon goes to Fullerton and acts in this play," said Murphy. "We've got it on videotape and it's astounding, and he's laughing and he's singing and he's dancing, and then he goes and he murders Julie that evening."
Police say Wozniak sent texts from Herr's cellphone to lure Kibuishi over that night. Once inside the apartment, Wozniak snuck up and shot her in the back of the head. Then he stages the crime scene to frame Herr.
"Then Saturday morning he gets up and goes back to the military base, he cuts off Sam Herr's head and his hands. He throws them in a park," said Murphy.
And after committing double murder and decapitating and dismembering one of his victims, Wozniak returns to center stage.
"And then he goes down and he acts again in the play, singing and dancing. And because the play was coming to a close, he had the big cast party that night," said Murphy.
"Daniel Wozniak is at a cast party with a beer in his hand, laughing and joking with other members of this play," said Murphy. "If a picture says a thousand words, we've got a photo of him throwing the 'shaka' sign with his girlfriend next to him at this cast party without a care in the world."
And the motive for this heinous crime? Money. More than $60,000 Herr got for serving in the military.
"Wozniak wanted money so he that could go on the Royal Caribbean's cruise line and take an awesome cruise," said Murphy. "He literally wanted this money for his honeymoon. He killed these two people so he could take a trip."
But before he could take his honeymoon, he needed to get away with double murder. And it would have been the performance of a lifetime, if not for the detectives working the case.
"He was so enamored with his own ability to act that and his own ability to put on a show, he had no doubt in his mind going into this that he was going to be able to convince a bunch of dumb detectives that Daniel Wozniak was not responsible," said Murphy. "Wozniak thought he could convince the world that Sam Herr murdered Julie, that he was somewhere out in the wind. He thought that he had fooled them. But in reality we had a group of really good detectives who weren't believing a word of it."
Investigators manage to solve this murder case in less than a week with a full confession and damning evidence, thanks to Wozniak's brother.
"Tim was not a real sophisticated guy and he just had these instructions to get rid of this stuff, and instead what he did is he threw the backpack over a fence at his parent's house," said Murphy.
And when detectives open the backpack?
"It was a cornucopia of evidence. I mean DNA, expended shell casings, the victim's financial information, anything a prosecutor could ever want, and of course that also led us to the murder weapon itself. That's investigation-wise the home run of home runs in any case: the murder weapon, and DNA, and blood, and credit cards, passports. You can't ask for more as a prosecutor."
And in one of the fastest deliberations in the history of Orange County capital murder trials, the jury takes just one hour to find Daniel Wozniak guilty of double murder, and recommends the death penalty.
Detectives claim Rachel Buffett knew about the murder, and her case is still pending. She's charged with three counts of accessory after the fact. She's pleaded not guilty.
"Daniel Wozniak is a poster boy for why the death penalty exists in certain states," said Murphy. "For a lot of murders, there are extenuating circumstances, but there are a few that are so awful and unnecessary and the grief that they cause is so profound for the most trivial reasons, that they really should be subject to the ultimate punishment, and this is one of those cases."