While digging into one of Southern California’s most bizarre double-murder case, investigative journalist Linda Sawyer answered her phone in 2015 to hear the voice of Daniel Wozniak, the killer.
A veteran of ABC, MTV, CBS, FOX, PBS and HBO as a producer/writer, Sawyer—as most crime reporters would—felt a mix of apprehension and excitement. Wozniak’s gruesome May 2010 acts grabbed national news coverage, including a Dr. Phil broadcast, but he was not a serial killer or a hitman. Friends described the tall, husky community-theater actor as a “goofy” clown intent on winning laughter, backslaps or applause, but never as a future homicidal maniac.
Nonetheless, Wozniak proved that, at least on a single day in his life when he was broke and desperate to impress his demanding fiancée, he could commit unthinkable crimes. Lost in the wake were his friends Samuel Herr, 26, and Julie Kibuishi, 23, two popular classmates at Coast Community College in Costa Mesa. Herr had been decapitated, his body dismembered and portions of his corpse scattered in a Long Beach park days before being discovered. Kibuishi’s execution and possible sexual assault in Herr’s bedroom was meant to explain his disappearance.
Wozniak’s motive for the carnage? Having spied Herr’s ATM pin number, he planned a raid on the former combat soldier’s substantial savings account to pay for his upcoming honeymoon cruise.
Despite the horrific circumstances, the case became a fading memory for the public at large beginning two and a half years ago, when prosecutor Matt Murphy convinced a jury to permanently place the defendant in San Quentin State Prison.
But Sawyer couldn’t let go. The murders became a journalistic obsession. “This [story] has it all: intrigue, greed, lust, love, jealousy and, of course, a [blackmail] sex tape with an old flame who came back into Dan’s life for one last fling,” she explains on Sleuth, her new iHeartRadio Original true-crime podcast.
It’s compelling work. The show educates even people like me, who attended Wozniak’s emotional trial in Orange County Superior Court. New episodes, as many as 10 or 12, are set to be release every Wednesday.
“My investigation only grew deeper,” she tells her inaugural Aug. 29 audience about what happened after a steel door locked Wozniak in a death-row cell. “Why? Because I suspected there were other accomplices that were walking free—accomplices that the courts knew about, that the police knew existed—and I had to find out why they weren’t being charged. I wondered: ‘What kind of justice is this for the victims’ families?’”
Her suspicions aren’t wild speculation. Several years before the trial, Steve Herr assured me Wozniak did not act alone against his son and Kibuishi. He was more than positive. He angrily couldn’t accept that other suspects had not been charged for the murders. And, at one point, Sawyer and Herr had a surprising backer: Wozniak.
Though insisting during police interrogations he was solely responsible, Wozniak dropped a bombshell to Sawyer in a call from the Orange County Jail. “He told me one of his victims, Julie, was supposed to be killed while he was still performing onstage,” she recounts during the podcast. “So, who was supposed to carry out that murder [while Wozniak supposedly had an alibi]? I had to find out.”
Rachel Buffett—a crafty former Disneyland princess, as well as Wozniak’s acting partner onstage and fiancée during the killings—comes under Sawyer’s intense scrutiny. Buffett is presently fighting charges of accessory after the fact for allegedly lying to detectives. She claims a pathological liar duped her, that she’s innocent of any crimes and now lives with an unfair public stigma.
But Sleuth rejects that glossy self-portrait. Sawyer’s investigation found that a “pre-Rachel” Wozniak was seen as “this happy-go-lucky theater geek” who “didn’t really do too much of anything that didn’t make his parents proud.” Once in the relationship, however, he changed, according to Sawyer, who claims the couple’s lifestyle “included stealing, lying, cheating and conning people out of money.”
She also notes that an in-custody, pretrial Wozniak, unaware he was speaking with prolific Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) informant Fernando Perez, reported that Buffett encouraged the murder plot, allegedly saying something akin to “Do whatever you have to do to make us happy.” Perez memorialized the information in once-hidden OCSD files that surfaced during the county’s jailhouse-snitch scandal.
There are multiple jaw-dropping moments in Sawyer’s podcast, but perhaps none is more riveting than a recorded call between the couple after the arrest.
Buffett: Hi, baby!
Wozniak: [weeping] Baby, where are you?
Buffett: [elsewhere at the police station, but apparently anxious to learn if he’d implicated her] I’m here still. They won’t let me see you because you already told them.
Wozniak: No! No! No!
In another call, an annoyed Buffett, who repeatedly cautioned that their conversations were being recorded by police, swiftly interrupted her fiancé when he began to talk about her knowledge of “something bad” involving Sam Herr.
Sawyer advised her audience, “This odyssey I’ve been on for the last two years has not only been about answering the questions for me on a personal level, but, more important, helping these victims’ families, helping them understand what really happened to their loved ones, hoping that the rest of the people involved are found guilty of the crimes they committed as well. Because it wasn’t just Daniel Wozniak. It just wasn’t.”
She is not alone in her view.
“There’s no doubt in my mind [Rachel] might be the mastermind in this whole thing and Dan is just taking the hit on his own,” Mike Cohen, a Costa Mesa detective who worked on the investigation, told Sleuth. “There’s no statute [of limitations] in homicides. So, we have one guy in prison right now on death row. There’s still plenty more room for others to follow.”
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.