Daniel Patrick Wozniak, the community theater actor who committed brutal murders of two people he knew so he could steal money to pay for his looming wedding and honeymoon, was sentenced today to death.
The 31-year-old was convicted in December of fatally shooting and dismembering his neighbor Sam Herr, 26, and then posing as the Army veteran to lure Juri “Julie” Kibuishi to Herr’s apartment, where the 23-year-old was shot to death to make police believe Herr killed her and fled.
It seemed at the start to be a slam-dunk death penalty case for Orange County veteran homicide prosecutor Matt Murphy, who had at his disposal a videotaped confession from “The Woz” from shortly after the May 2010 slayings.
But Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders managed to get the trial delayed due to allegations of systemic misconduct by Orange County’s district attorney and sheriff’s departments surrounding the use of jailhouse informants.
While Sanders was able to get the OCDA thrown off the case of another client, confessed mass killer Scott Dekraai, the Wozniak case’s Judge John D. Conley ultimately found there was no misconduct in his Santa Ana courtroom, clearing the way for the trial to begin last year.
Before handing down today's sentence, Conley denied Sanders' latest motion for a new trial.
The defense attorney has previously moved—unsuccessfully—to get the death penalty stripped as a possible punishment due to prosecutorial misconduct and alleged missteps by the judge.
On the afternoon of May 21, 2010, Wozniak drove Herr from their Costa Mesa apartment complex to the theater facility at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base, which the actor was familiar with due to plays he performed there. Once inside the theater, Wozniak shot Herr twice in the head, leaving his body there and taking the victim’s ATM card, wallet and cell phone.
Wozniak was unemployed at the time. Herr had about $60,000 in his bank account.
Later that evening, Wozniak used Herr's cell phone to text a message Herr's friend Kibuishi, who’d tutored the returned Afghanistan war veteran at Orange Coast College, which they both attended. Posing as Herr, he asked Kibuishi, who was dining with her brother, to come to the Costa Mesa apartment to help him through personal problems.
Shortly after midnight, Kibuishi arrived and was met at the door by Wozniak, who lured the aspiring fashion designer into Herr’s bedroom, where he shot her twice in the head. He then partially removed her clothing to stage the crime scene to appear as though she had been sexually assaulted.
On the afternoon of May 22, 2010, Wozniak returned to the theater, cut off Herr's clothes and removed his head, left arm and the lower portion of his right arm. He left the victim's torso and legs in the theater and took the dismembered body parts to discard them in El Dorado Park Nature Center in Long Beach.
Around 9:20 p.m. that same night, officers from the Costa Mesa Police Department were called to Herr’s apartment by his father, who had gone to check on his son but discovered Kibuishi's body. As Herr's whereabouts were unknown, he initially became the primary suspect in Kibuishi's murder, even though his father told cops that did not add up.
Meanwhile, Wozniak gave Herr's ATM card to a 17-year-old acquaintance and instructed him to withdraw money from the victim's account at various ATMs in Long Beach. Costa Mesa detectives tracking the withdrawals showed up at an ATM and arrested the teen, who told them he’d withdrawn the $2,000 from Herr's bank account at the behest of Wozniak.
Wozniak was arrested for the murders of Herr and Kibuishi on May 26, 2010, at Tsunami restaurant in Huntington Beach, where his bachelor party dinner was being held for his wedding set for two days later in Long Beach. Wozniak was cool as a cucumber before police arrived, as he had been at theater productions he starred in during the days after the murders.
Herr’s body was found by Costa Mesa detectives on May 27-28, 2010, at the base and the nature park, where animals and the elements ravaged the body parts. Also that May 27, Wozniak was taken from the jail to Western Medical Center in Santa Ana to be treated for self-inflicted head injuries. He was charged the next day and released back to the jail the day after that.
Wozniak’s former fiancée, Rachel Buffett, has a court hearing set for Nov. 10 for her alleged role as an accessory after the murders.
At today’s sentencing, four members of Herr's and Kibuishi's families delivered emotional victim impact statements pursuant to Marsy's Law.
Through tears, June Kibuishi, the murdered woman’s mother, directly addressed Wozniak to say how selfish he was to take away a shining light like her daughter, who'd done nothing but show up to help a friend in need.
Wozniak did not address her or the court.
“You, Dan Wozniak, are a coward, and a poster boy for the need of an effective death penalty in California,” Steve Herr, the deceased’s father, told the defendant with his wife Raquel by his side and members of his son’s Army troop from Afghanistan standing behind him.
Steve Herr said he was eternally grateful for Kibuishi’s kindness toward his son and later pointed out both victim families “suffer two-fold" [from] the brutal murders of our beloved children and a legal system that enables one man to abuse that system to enhance his own agenda.”
That was a reference to Sanders, who “attempted to re-try, through numerous motions, although [Sam Herr] was fully acquitted of past charges, just to get back at me," Steve Herr alleged, "for statements I had made due to the constant delays that lasted for six years, four months and two days—four months longer than the entirety of WWII and almost 10 percent of my entire life!”
He expressed relief that justice was finally served.
“In the end, throughout all the needless delays and stalling tactics, the jury got it right. The merits of the brutality and the heinousness of Dan Wozniak’s crime warranted only one conclusion. They found Dan Wozniak guilty of first-degree murder in two hours, and they recommended death for him in one hour.”
Steve Herr ended with this: “My only regret is that the state won’t let me kill this coward myself.”
A letter to him and his wife, from Army Capt. Benjamin Kilgore, who was Sam Herr’s troop leader in Afghanistan, was submitted to the court, and it stated what a “consummate professional” the soldier was and what a great leader he would have become.
“We all benefitted greatly from your son’s service,” Kilgore wrote. “Though there is no degree of sentiment that can possibly relieve you or your tremendous grief, I hope that through the passing of time you will find comfort in the knowledge that your son served his country with honor and bravery. He will be missed by all of us who knew him. He made those around him better. That’s the type of Soldier that he was. My thoughts and prayers, as well as those of my colleagues, remain with you throughout these difficult times and beyond.”