A freshly groomed 6-foot-2-inch Daniel Patrick Wozniak smiles tenderly into a television camera and utters what could have been a personal greeting for a video-dating ad. “I'm easygoing,” says Wozniak, 28. “I enjoy long walks on the beach.”
Orange County's most infamous professional actor adds with an even bigger smile and a disarming chuckle, “I'm an Aries.”
There's no hint of anger or madness in Wozniak's presentation. If it weren't for the stark institutional backdrop and his orange smock, you might assume he's a funny, harmless guy.
“I just want people to know that no matter what, throughout all of this, I'm really a good guy,” he continues during an episode of MSNBC's Lockup: Extended Stay Orange County Jail. “Almost everyone in my life will say so.”
The “this” Wozniak cited is a double murder that included the gruesome decapitation and dismemberment of Samuel Herr, a 26-year-old former U.S. Army soldier who served in combat in Afghanistan before enrolling at Orange Coast College. Law-enforcement officials say Wozniak killed Herr with two gunshots to the head inside the theater at the Los Alamitos Joint Training military base on the afternoon of May 21, 2010.
The circumstances of the second person's death are equally puzzling, if not as grisly. Hours after Herr's murder, someone used his cell phone to send text messages to lure Irvine's Juri “Julie” Kibuishi to the dead man's Costa Mesa apartment. Kibuishi—a 23-year-old aspiring fashion designer and popular graduate of the Orange County High School for the Arts—was shot twice in the head in Herr's bedroom. Her killer removed some of her clothing and positioned her partially nude corpse to imply that she'd been sexually assaulted. Police believe Wozniak wanted a then-missing Herr, Kibuishi's friend, to be blamed.
On Lockup, Wozniak denies he's responsible or had a motive. “The two victims were my two close friends, Sam and Julie,” says Wozniak, who is shown with a Bible while happily making an egg-salad sandwich in his barren, one-man cell. “Just two of the nicest people I have ever known.”
But Costa Mesa police have already done plenty to undermine his declarations of innocence. They tied Wozniak to ATM withdrawals from Herr's bank account after the murder and found Herr's torso in a theater where Wozniak performed. Perhaps most damning, they deftly obtained a post-Miranda-warning confession.
At a 2010 press conference, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas claimed evidence shows that a “broke” Wozniak—who worked part-time in telemarketing in addition to the acting—plotted the crimes for financial gain in the days before his scheduled wedding and honeymoon. According to Rackauckas, Wozniak's “callousness” is underscored by the fact he enthusiastically starred in performances within hours of the killings and bloody dismemberment. “He's an actor who considers himself to be a star and all other people to be living props in his play,” said Rackauckas.
The DA signaled how much he wants a courtroom victory in this case by assigning the trial to acclaimed homicide prosecutor Matt Murphy. Murphy, an 18-year veteran, has never lost a murder trial. If the prosecution wins this one, Wozniak's punishment could be the death penalty. But there likely won't be a trial for at least two or three years.
In the meantime, Wozniak's Lockup appearance infuriates Steve Herr, Samuel's father and a Vietnam War-era veteran. He asks, “How can MSNBC let Wozniak spread lies?”
On the first anniversary of Samuel's murder, Herr granted me an interview after a morning visit to his son's Riverside County grave. The loss remains visible on his face. He believes the Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) and MSNBC should not have given Wozniak a pretrial, televised forum.
“It made great television,” Herr said. “But it's not fair and balanced to let Wozniak say anything he wants before the trial and not have the Costa Mesa police, a prosecutor or me on the show even for a minute to tell the public the truth. This monster killed my son and Julie. That's the truth.”
Tears formed in Herr's eyes. He looked down. He sighed heavily before adding, “Do you know how hard it is to watch him smiling and laughing on that show after what he's done? He decapitated my son. They let him say he's innocent. He's an actor. He knows how to fake emotions!”
It's particularly galling to Herr that an articulate, calm Wozniak is presented quoting Bible verses such as Psalm 39, openly dreaming about a rendezvous with his fiancée, pouting about how the Southern California media have portrayed him as “Satanic” and claiming he was clueless as to why arresting cops raided his Huntington Beach bachelor party at Tsunami restaurant the night before his wedding.
“I have full faith, and the truth will set me free,” says a solemn Wozniak. “I just pray daily. That's it. And not so much for myself, but for all the lives that have been shattered through this event.”
Though law-enforcement officials believe they can ultimately use the MSNBC interview against Wozniak, Herr isn't so sure. He wonders if the show violated the spirit of Marsy's Law—California's voter-approved victim's-rights legislation—because he wasn't notified in advance about Wozniak's participation in the show and, in his view, it was “entirely one-sided” for the defendant. (Marsy's Law requires that victims and their families be notified before sentencing and parole hearings, but it says nothing about media interviews with pretrial defendants.)
“My whole life is now dedicated to winning justice for my son,” said Herr. “That show wasn't about justice; it was about letting Wozniak perform. Everyone who saw it thought it was very sympathetic to him.”
Herr complained to MSNBC and OCSD officials about his Lockup concerns.
Sheriff's Department spokesman John McDonald, who talked with Herr, said, “I thought it showed Wozniak is a bad actor, but I certainly sympathize with [Herr's] feelings.”
Herr is still upset about the episode. “I think they wanted good publicity for themselves and weren't thinking about my son's case,” said Herr, who is proud that members of his son's Army unit continue to offer emotional support. He said the crawling pace of the criminal-justice system is unbearable, but he praised the DA's office for “really being great.”
Several weeks ago, I wrote about the premiere episode of this Lockup series, which highlighted Public Enemy Number One Death Squad's Brian Lee James, a Third Strike hoodlum who attempted to murder another arrestee in a holding cell inside the Central Jail's Intake Center (see “The Hard Cell,” May 20). The show's producers, who promised in writing not to air anything derogatory about the jail or deputies, repeatedly remind viewers that interviewed defendants have been accused of heinous crimes.
A raspy male voice states at the beginning of each episode, “Viewer discretion is advised,” which is probably superb advice about Wozniak.
This column appeared in person as “Viewer Discretion Advised: Double-murder defendant Daniel Wozniak proclaims his innocence on MSNBC's Lockup, one victim's father cries foul.”
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.