The fiancee of a community theater actor convicted of murdering and dismembering a neighbor, then trying to cover it up with the killing of a female friend of the victim, may factor into the penalty phase of the defendant’s trial, a prosecutor told jurors Monday.
Rachel Mae Buffett, who was 31-year-old Daniel Patrick Wozniak‘s fiancee at the time of the murders, may come into play in the second phase of his trial as jurors hear evidence about her potential involvement in the May 2010 crimes, said Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy.
Buffett was charged with three counts of being an accessory after the fact, but has not been charged with direct involvement in the killings of 26- year-old Samuel Eliezer Herr or 23-year-old Julie Kibuishi.
Jurors in the trial’s penalty phase will decide whether to recommend the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole for Wozniak.
During the guilt phase of the trial, Costa Mesa police Lt. Ed Everett testified that he felt Buffett was involved in the murders, but that investigators could never compile enough evidence to prove it.
Murphy said Buffett’s actions after the killings “cuts both ways” to her guilt or innocence, which is why she was never charged as a co-conspirator.
Buffett was crying at the Hunger Artist Theater’s performance of “Nine” the day of Herr’s killing, “which is interesting because it indicates she knows something,” Murphy said before adding, “It could be because she’s marrying him. Who knows?”
Buffett gave police a “treasure chest” of evidence in the case when she told investigators where to find a backpack containing the murder weapon, the prosecutor said.
Also on the day of the murder, she was searching for “topless jobs” online, which would seem unusual given she was going to come into money with Wozniak, who murdered Herr for his money to pay for the couple’s honeymoon and wedding, Murphy said.
Murphy indicated it’s possible Wozniak’s defense team will raise the issue of Buffett’s involvement. Ultimately, however, “How would her involvement mitigate his guilt?,” he said.
Herr’s and Kibuishi’s family and friends are expected to testify about the impact the victims’ deaths had on them.
If jurors reject the death penalty, the only other alternative is life in prison without the possibility of parole. Orange County Superior Court Judge John Conley will make the final call based on the jury’s recommendation.
In the first phase of the trial, Murphy told jurors that Wozniak was deep in debt in May 2010, facing eviction and without money for his pending wedding, when he came up with a plan to kill his neighbor and throw police off his trail by making it look like Herr murdered and raped a female friend.
Wozniak, who grew up in Long Beach, further tried to confound investigators by dismembering his first victim and dumping Herr’s body parts in the El Dorado Nature Center in Long Beach, Murphy said.
After killing Herr at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base, Wozniak used one of the victim’s phones to lure Kibuishi to Herr’s apartment so he could shoot her and stage the crime scene, Murphy said.
Wozniak also tricked a 16-year-old boy who looked up to the defendant into withdrawing cash from Herr’s bank account in order to pay his rent, avoid eviction and have money for his wedding and honeymoon, the prosecutor said.
The complex scheme worked initially, as Costa Mesa police continued to focus on Herr as a suspect in Kibuishi’s killing, Murphy said.
Wozniak’s attorney, Tracy Lesage, implored jurors to keep an open mind and be fair to her client.
Lesage told the panel it would be right for them to consider the “unbearable losses and deserved anger,” but she added that despite any emotional response to the crimes and grief of the victims’ loved ones it was important that “You can still keep an open mind.”
Lesage said any evidence she and her co-counsel, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, puts before the jury is “in no way an excuse or justifies” the killings.
However, Lesage said she wanted to show the jury how Wozniak “took a tragic detour” in his life.
Herr’s best friend and Army buddy, Miles Foltz, testified that the two met while serving in Afghanistan. He recounted how the two, while “world traveling” were narrowly blasted by mortar in Israel and “laughed it off” because of their combat experiences.
The two earned quite a bit while in the service because they had nowhere to spend their salary due to the “spartan” conditions of their army base.
Foltz choked up as he recalled how the two promised to be the best man at each other’s weddings. Foltz had Herr’s father stand in for him at his wedding.
Foltz testified how Herr persuaded him to come down by the pool in the victim’s Costa Mesa apartment complex so he could meet the woman Foltz eventually married. Foltz also testified how one of Herr’s nicknames for his Army buddy was “Suit” because of Foltz’s fondness for dressing up everywhere he went.
“I don’t wear them anymore,” Foltz testified. “The only thing I think of when I put them on his how much I miss him.”
–City News Service