March 23, 2015 12:00 PM

The Killer and the Bride

He was an actor who “had performing under his belt,” former pal Alex Syiek says of Wozniak (after his 2010 arrest). Buffett (after her 2012 arrest) was raised with “homeschool values,” adds Syiek.

Daniel Wozniak had a lot to celebrate: The well-known Costa Mesa, Calif., theater actor was getting married in a little more than a week, and he and his beautiful actress fiancée, Rachel Buffett, had both scored lead roles in a local production of the musical Nine. But underneath his joyful, charismatic facade, Wozniak was hiding secrets that quickly turned deadly. On the verge of being evicted from his apartment and without the money he needed for his wedding or honeymoon, police say, an increasingly desperate Wozniak carried out a shocking get-rich-quick scheme that ended in a brutal double homicide. “I didn’t think he was capable of this,” says a longtime friend of Wozniak’s. “Then again, anyone is capable of anything when your life is crashing around you. I think he felt his was. And he wanted to give Rachel everything in the world.”

It came at a staggering price. Wozniak, now 31, is in Orange County jail facing trial in the upcoming months on two counts of felony murder in the May 2010 deaths of his neighbor Samuel Herr, 26, an Afghanistan war veteran, and Juri “Julie” Kibuishi, 23, a college student studying fashion. (His former fiancée, Buffett, 27, has been charged as an accessory after the fact but is free on bond and denies any involvement.) Police zeroed in on Wozniak after he pocketed money from Herr’s bank account and arrested him at his bachelor party just two days before the wedding. “I’m crazy and I did it,” he confessed to police. “He was a financial mess,” said Det. Michael Delgadillo, according to grand jury testimony. “He had no way of paying for the wedding or the honeymoon. He wanted to go on a cruise, and he had no way of paying for it.”

According to court documents, the groom-to-be lured his neighbor Herr – who had amassed some $50,000 in combat-pay savings – into the attic of an empty theater on the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, Calif., where he fatally shot him twice in the head with a .38-cal. semiautomatic pistol he’d stolen from his father’s home. Astonishingly, Wozniak then hit the stage as scheduled in Nine. “People really did genuinely love him – he was the life of the party,” says Debbie Guajardo, who caught his performance the week of the murders. “He was happy. Everything seemed great.”

Following the show, Wozniak lured Kibuishi to Herr’s apartment by posing as Herr via texts from the dead man’s phone. When she arrived, Wozniak fatally shot her twice in the head with the same pistol and posed her body in an attempt to frame Herr. “He said he tried to orchestrate it to try to make it look like it was Sam who had [killed Julie] out of a rage of jealousy,” Delgadillo testified. To complete the scene, Wozniak returned to the theater attic and meticulously dismembered Herr’s body, scattering the pieces throughout El Dorado Nature Center in Long Beach.

That the charismatic Wozniak could commit a crime so gruesome has stunned all who knew him. “He always made you laugh, and you could always talk to him,” says his friend Janelle Mortensen. A film buff who grew up in a middle-class home in Long Beach, he was eager to include his friends in his wedding day, says Mortensen, who received an invitation: “He was so excited.”

Friends and family of Herr and Kibuishi say both were known to offer help to pals in need – making them unwitting prey in Wozniak’s murderous plan. “Sam saved every penny during deployment,” says his dad, Steve. His late son, he adds, “would give you the shirt off his back.” Similarly, loved ones describe Kibuishi as a nurturer who had been tutoring Herr in his community college courses. “She was the one who always took care of everyone,” says her mom, June. “She always wanted to do things for others.”

As the court date continues to face delays, leading to mounting frustration for the victims’ families, those who knew Wozniak remain baffled. “Who was the real Dan?” asks Guajardo. “He was a great actor, because he sure had all of us fooled.”

A Gruesome Plot Unfolds

2010 Wozniak and Herr meet as neighbors at the Camden Village apartment complex in Costa Mesa. “Sammy had a heart of gold,” says Herr’s aunt Miriam Nortman.

MAY 21, 2010 Wozniak lures Herr to the Los Alamitos Joint Training military base theater, killing him with two shots.

MAY 21, 2010 That evening, Wozniak performs the lead role in the musical Nine at a local community theater.

MAY 21, 2010 After the show Wozniak kills Kibuishi and poses her body in an attempt to frame Herr for the crime.

MAY 22, 2010 Wozniak dismembers Herr’s body – which had an identifying tattoo – and scatters the parts in El Dorado Nature Center, where Capt. Ron Smith of the Costa Mesa Police Dept. (pictured) directed the search.

MAY 27, 2010 Wozniak is arrested at his bachelor party and confesses to the crimes in interrogation.

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