Jurors Monday recommended the death penalty for an Orange County community theater actor who killed and dismembered a neighbor and then murdered the man’s friend and staged it to look like the first victim raped and killed her.
The Orange County Superior Court panel deliberated about an hour before determining that capital punishment, rather than life in prison without parole, was the fitting punishment for Daniel Patrick Wozniak, who will be formally sentenced on March 11.
Court observers could not recall a shorter deliberation in a death penalty case.
The same jury convicted Wozniak last month of the May 2010 murders of 26- year-old Samuel Eliezer Herr and 23-year-old Julie Kibuishi.
Kibuishi’s parents and her siblings gasped, cried and hugged upon hearing the recommendation. Wozniak had no visible reaction.
Jury forewoman Jenny Wong said the evidence in favor of the ultimate punishment far outweighed what defense attorneys presented to offset it.
“The mitigating factors tended to be irrelevant and insignificant,” said Wong, who hugged several members of the Herr and Kibuishi families after the verdict.
“I have two children, one 24 and one 22, and just the thought of them being in the wrong place at the wrong time like that … well, it just breaks your heart,” Wong told reporters.
In his closing argument in the defendant’s penalty trial, Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy said Wozniak should be put to death for “desecrating” the victims’ bodies for the “worst” motive — money.
Murphy ridiculed any notion that Wozniak may have been “manipulated” by his then-fiancee, Rachel Mae Buffett, who has been charged as an accessory after the fact for lying to investigators.
Murphy conceded that there appears to be some indication Buffett may have been in on the killings, but investigators could never come up with enough evidence to charge her.
“They need a villain — someone to point a finger at to distract you from what Daniel Wozniak did,” Murphy told the jury.
“If she was in on it with him, it would be the dumbest thing she could do — it just doesn’t make any sense,” he said, noting that Buffett told investigators where to find a “bonanza” of evidence in a backpack that contained the murder weapon with Wozniak’s DNA on it.
Wozniak, Murphy noted, repeatedly denied that Buffett was involved in the planning or execution of the murders.
The prosecutor invited jurors to go ahead and hypothetically consider she was a co-conspirator, then asked: “How would her involvement lessen his responsibility in any conceivable way?”
Pointing to Wozniak, the prosecutor added, “That man made a series of decisions that brought us all together, and Rachel is not responsible for what he did. Each one of us is responsible for our own decisions.”
Murphy also brushed off another of Wozniak’s witnesses — convicted gun burglar Daniel Munoz, who testified that his former fellow inmate was “generous” with sharing soup in jail and “talked about God.”
“I’m surprised that guy didn’t get arrested again going out of the court house,” Murphy said.
Wong said it really didn’t matter what extent Buffett played in the murders.
“The fact that she didn’t get up on the stand didn’t have any bearing our our decision,” the jury forewoman said.
Wong also said Munoz wasn’t much of a factor.
“I don’t think he hurt the case, but he sure didn’t help the case,” she said, adding Munoz came off as “very defensive, hostile” as a witness.
The prosecutor said Wozniak treated his victims like “trash,” and that he was “laughing as he cut off a human head.”
Wozniak’s attorney, Scott Sanders, told jurors “there are no words” to describe the horrific nature of the crimes. But, he added, “If you return a verdict of life in prison without the possibility of parole, that’s not like saying their lives were trash.”
Sanders, who declined comment after the verdict, claimed Wozniak was essentially manipulated by his fiancee into thinking a loan he received from a friend, Chris Williams, had to be paid back quickly or they faced consequences from loan sharks. That was a lie because Williams had gotten the money from a benefit concert to help him pay medical bills, his attorney said.
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 the 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, who was arrested at his bachelor party at Tsunami Sushi in Huntington Beach, concocted a story about getting into a credit card scam with Herr and then trying to help his friend get away with the murder, Murphy said.
Part of the scam involved Wozniak sneaking money out of Herr’s account to help with his getaway, the prosecutor said.
Wozniak’s ultimate undoing was a collect call he made from the Costa Mesa jail in which he made incriminating statements to Buffett as he implored her not to tell investigators about the backpack with the murder weapon in it, Murphy said.
— City News Service
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