Daniel Wozniak Murders: Killer Had a Larger-Than-Life Personality, Friends Say

"People really did genuinely love him," Debbie Guajardo tells PEOPLE

Photo: Costa Mesa Police Department/AP

In the late afternoon of May 21, 2010, Juri “Julie” Kibuishi started getting texts from her friend Sam Herr, who seemed distraught and needed to talk to someone. Kibuishi, who had been tutoring Herr in his community college courses, happily agreed to meet up with the 26-year-old Afghanistan war veteran later that night.

“Please don t tell anyone. Please,” he wrote.

“You can trust me,” Kibuishi responded. “I promise. I am not going to say anything. I promise. Pinkie promise.”

Kibuishi, 23, had no idea she was being set up. The man she thought was Herr was actually Daniel Wozniak, Herr’s neighbor at the Camden Village apartment complex in Costa Mesa, California.

Wozniak, a onetime up-and-coming local theater actor who was starring in the musical Nine, had murdered Herr just hours earlier by luring him into the attic of an empty theater on the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, California, where he fatally shot him twice in the head with a .38-caliber semiautomatic pistol.

His goal: to clean out Herr’s $50,000 savings so he could pay for his upcoming wedding to his actress fiancée Rachel Buffett.

Once at Herr’s apartment, Wozniak lured an unsuspecting Kibuishi, a college student studying fashion, into Herr’s bedroom and then shot her twice in the head before staging the crime scene to make it look like Herr had sexually assaulted her.

“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,” Det. Michael Delgadillo said in grand jury testimony.

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 his wedding. Wozniak confessed to the brutal double slayings, saying: “I’m crazy and I did it.”

“He had no way of paying for the wedding or the honeymoon, “said Delgadillo. “He wanted to go on a cruise, and he had no way of paying for it.”

“Loud and boisterous,” as his pal Janelle Mortensen describes him, friends knew Wozniak as a caring guy and a talented actor with a larger-than-life personality.

“He had a twinkle in his eye,” says Debbie Guajardo, whose daughter he directed in a school play. “He had a way of bringing everyone together and pulling out the best from his students. His was the type of personality that drew them out. People really did genuinely love him.”

Alex Syiek, who worked with Wozniak on the musical The Golden Dream, had a different feeling about Wozniak.

“He was not a guy I preferred to spend a huge amount of time with,” says Syiek. “When you talk to Dan, he is one of those people that don’t look you straight in the eye. He would look to the side or over your head.”

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 scheme.

“The guy was always there,” says Larry Gonzales, who served with Herr in Afghanistan. “If other soldiers had issues he was always there. He was always willing to talk to them. He would give you the shirt off his back. He protected everyone in the entire barracks. He spoke up for them. He was always there for a word of advice.”

“[Julie] was the one who always took care of everyone,” Kibuishi’s mom June tells PEOPLE. “That was her nature. She always wanted to do things for others. He took advantage of her kindness. She did not deserve this.”

While Wozniak, now 31, awaits trial in an Orange County jail, his attorney, Orange County public defender Scott Sanders, says his client is willing to plead guilty and serve life without the possibility of parole if prosecutors take the death penalty off the table.

Orange County Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy counters that the case “has been pending a very long time and the families deserve their day in court.”

“Give us closure,” says Herr’s mom Raquel. “We want to put this behind us. We have gone to court over 100 times.”

For more on the story of Daniel Wozniak, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now

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