How a California Community Theater Actor Tried to Frame a War Veteran for Murder
Daniel Wozniak was convicted of killing Sam Herr and Julie Kibuishi.
— -- Anyone who knew Julie Kibuishi described the 23-year-old dancer and college student from Southern California as kind and full of life.
“She was beautiful, she was graceful, she was dynamic, she was strong, she was emotional,” said Cindy Peca-Dolan, Kibuishi’s jazz instructor at the prestigious Orange County School of Arts. “Julie’s kindness was really immeasurable. ... Everybody loved Julie. She was very compassionate and warm and talented as well, very fun to watch on stage.”
Her mother June Kibuishi cherished her.
“I’m just so proud that she grew up to be very kind and very honest and very caring, loved to take care of other people,” she said.
So when Kibuishi was found dead in the bedroom of Sam Herr, a 26-year-old Army war veteran she had been tutoring for an anthropology class, all suspicion turned to Herr.
“I said, ‘Sam, is there anything going on with you and Julie?’” his father Steven Herr told ABC News' "20/20." “And he says, ‘Absolutely not, Dad. She’s like my kid sister.’”
Police would later discover that the real killer was Daniel Wozniak, a local community theater actor and Herr’s neighbor. But all the while, Sam Herr was missing.
Here’s what happened:
May 22, 2010, 9:20 P.M.: Julie Kibuishi Is Found Dead in Sam Herr’s Apartment
Sam Herr’s parents Steven and Raquel Herr became concerned when they hadn’t heard from their son in a while.
“Sam was supposed to come to our house for the weekend,” Steve Herr said. “And throughout the day, I was calling his phone, but his phone would just -- it was off ... and Sam never turned his phone off. So, the more I called -- I was a little bit more concerned.”
Steve decided to go over to his son’s apartment in Orange County, California, where he discovered a gruesome scene. Steve Herr said he found Julie Kibuishi’s body lying face down on Sam’s bed with some of her clothes ripped off and a gunshot wound to her head. Strangely, she was wearing a tiara and on her sweater the words “All yours **** you” were written on the back.
There was no sign of a struggle and Sam Herr, a combat veteran who had served in Afghanistan and had shown signs of PTSD, had disappeared.
“Obviously, there’s a dead woman in my son’s apartment and he’s missing. He’s gone. I’m not stupid,” Steve Herr said. “I get it, you know, the suspicions are going to be on him.”
May 22, 2010, Late Evening: Police Begin Investigating Sam Herr for Julie Kibuishi’s Murder
After Steve Herr called 911, police issued an all-points bulletin for Sam Herr.
Det. Jose Morales and Lt. Ed Everett with the Costa Mesa Police Department believe that given Sam’s military history, he knows how to use a firearm, and possibly suffering from PTSD could have caused him to snap.
They said text messages on Julie Kibuishi’s phone showed Julie Kibuishi received a text from Sam Herr's phone at 2:45 p.m. on May 21, 2010, saying he was helping out his neighbor, community theater actor Dan Wozniak, “then heading to folks for the weekend.” But two hours later, another text to Julie Kibuishi from Sam Herr's phone read, “can you come over tonight at midnight alone ... very upset. Need to talk.” Then later, “I’m hurting with some family crap. I can’t be alone. No sex. Please I’m begging as a brother.”
“We looked at the phone and thought, ‘OK, maybe he’s drinking, using drugs, and there was an incident and he just snapped and sexually assaulted her and wound up killing her and then fled,” Everett said. “We believed Sam Herr was our guy.”
As detectives started digging into Sam Herr’s background, they discovered he had been previously charged with murder, but was acquitted.
Steve Herr began conducting an investigation of his own. He shared a bank account with his son and realized there had been withdrawals made from ATMs in Long Beach, California -- some 20 miles away -- in the days since his son's disappearance. Police had discovered this information as well, but when the bank sent them footage from the ATM cameras, they couldn’t believe who they were seeing.
“It’s not Sam,” said Orange County Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy, who was supervising the case. “His parents don’t know who it is. Nobody knows who this guy is.”
May 26, 2010: Police Raid the House of Mystery Teenager Seen at Long Beach ATM
Police say Sam Herr’s credit card activity showed four ATM withdrawals and a pizza delivery in Long Beach, and the person showing up on the ATM cameras was a teenager no one could identify. When police learned of a second pizza delivery, they thought they had found Sam Herr’s hideout.
They stormed a house, thinking they would find Herr, but instead found 16-year-old Wesley Freilich, along with some of his friends.
“I open the door and that's when they say, ‘Don't move. Sir, come here immediately. Get on the ground,” Freilich told “20/20.” “And they put me down first with handcuffs and then they go inside."
“We're all outside handcuffed,” he continued. “The police go inside. My mom's door to her bedroom is shut and locked, and the police are assuming that he's in there. ... Everything is going on, crazy -- I'm freaking out.”
Police quickly figured out Freilich was not involved in Julie’s murder, but they did find Sam Herr’s ATM card in his possession.
“I immediately told them everything. I said, ‘This is what happened,’” Freilich said.
The teen told police that Dan Wozniak, an older guy that his mother had met in community theater, had given him Herr’s card and had asked him to make the withdrawals. Freilich said Wozniak told him he was a bail bondsman and needed to collect money Sam owed.
“He had an actual folder of paperwork ... saying that this was all legal and that since I was a minor ... I can't be charged,” Freilich said. “And that's when he pulled out the ATM card and gave me the instructions to withdraw the full amount, and to make sure I wore a hat and glasses.”
In all, $1,900 was taken from Herr’s bank account.
May 26, 2010, Late Evening: Police Bring in Daniel Wozniak for Questioning
After talking with Wesley Freilich, detectives called community theater actor Daniel Wozniak, and asked him to come in for questioning. At first, Wozniak told Lt. Ed Everett he couldn’t come because he was on his way to his bachelor party. Wozniak was marrying fellow performer, Rachel Buffet, two days later. So, officers decided to show up at his bachelor party.
“Dan Wozniak was there with a couple of his friends and immediately when he saw me, you could see the blood drain from his face. He turned pale and immediately looked down,” Everett said.
During his first interrogation, Wozniak admitted he talked Freilich into making withdrawals for him at the ATM using Herr’s card. But he told detectives he and Herr were working on a credit card scam where Herr was supposed to report his card stolen, then Freilich would make the withdrawals and Herr would call the bank and ask for the money back.
Wozniak told police that the morning of Julie Kibuishi’s murder, Herr came to see him and said he had “done something bad,” and that Herr had killed Kibuishi. When police said they needed a DNA sample from Wozniak to rule him out as a suspect, he admitted to being in Herr’s apartment the day of the murder.
“Yes, I saw the goddamn body. Is that what you want to hear?” Wozniak told detectives. “Saw two gun shots in her head.”
That was a major red flag for detectives because they had only noticed one gunshot wound in Kibuishi’s head, not two, which to them meant that Wozniak had been there when she was killed. During the autopsy of Kibuishi's body, a second gunshot wound was indeed found.
“His story kept changing,” Lt. Everett said. “I think he thought that his acting ability was going to carry him through this performance, so to speak, and it wasn’t doing it.”
Wozniak called his fiancé, Rachel Buffet, from jail. Their conversations were recorded, and on one recording, Buffet revealed that Wozniak’s brother, Tim Wozniak, had a backpack full of incriminating evidence, including the murder weapon. Who gave Tim Wozniak the backpack? His brother, Daniel.
Dan Wozniak begged Buffet not to tell the detectives because, he said in the phone call, “Then I’m doomed.”
May 27, 2010: Daniel Wozniak Admits to Committing Murder
After his initial interrogation and the phone call with his fiancée, Dan Wozniak talked to detectives again and admitted to not only killing Julie Kibuishi but also Sam Herr, who had been missing this whole time.
“I’m crazy and I did it,” Wozniak told detectives. “I killed Julie and I killed Sam.”
Wozniak then went on to explain that Herr had told him he had saved $62,000. Authorities say Wozniak, who had no job, no money, was about to be evicted and was getting married at the time, saw killing Herr and stealing his money as his way out.
“This is the latest scam in a lifetime of dodgy scams,” Senior Deputy D.A. Matt Murphy said. “So [in] Daniel Wozniak’s world -- there was no problem in his mind murdering two people so he can go on a honeymoon.”
Police said Wozniak told them he asked Herr to come to the Liberty Theater on the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, California, telling him he needed help moving some boxes, but after they arrived, Wozniak said he shot and killed Herr, then dismembered him and dumped some of his body parts in a nearby park.
That same night Wozniak performed with his fiancé in a local production of the musical “Nine.” He killed Kibuishi hours after murdering Herr, police said, after he lured her to Herr’s apartment by using Herr’s cell phone to text her, pretending to be him.
“Julie ... is basically being killed to cover this thing up. And it just -- I mean, it's horrific,” Lt. Everett said.
Armed with new information, police began searching for Herr’s body. His head was found on his birthday, when he would have been 27 years old.
Dec. 16, 2015: Daniel Wozniak Is Found Guilty of Murder
After taking Wozniak's confession, police then recovered the backpack which contained the murder weapon, Wozniak’s DNA and Sam Herr’s bloody clothes and personal effects.
At his trial, which lasted five days, Wozniak’s defense didn’t make an opening argument.
On Dec. 16, 2015, Wozniak was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder.
Jan. 11, 2016: Jury Recommends the Death Penalty
The same jury that convicted Daniel Wozniak found itself initially deadlocked on whether he should receive the death penalty.
“It was just an agonizing decision,” said juror Kent Rylander.
“I was conflicted with the whole thing the whole time,” said another juror, Brad Bryeans.
But in just over one hour -- in what’s described as one of the shortest death penalty deliberations -- the jury recommended that Wozniak be put to death.
He is scheduled to be sentenced on March 11.
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