After Local Theater Star Commits Grisly Double Murder for Cash, a Two-Year Quest for the Truth

Linda Sawyer believes there's more to the Daniel Wozniak case than has been revealed — and her work is chronicled in the iHeartRadio podcast Sleuth

Photo: Courtesy Kibuishi Family; Courtesy Steve Herr

The 2010 double murder of Juri “Julie” Kibuishi and her friend Sam Herr was as gruesome as it was surprising.

Their killer, Daniel Wozniak, a former theater actor and Herr’s friend and neighbor in Orange County, California, was sentenced to death in 2016. But reporter Linda Sawyer believes there is more to the case than has been revealed — and her two-year quest to prove it is chronicled in the new iHeartRadio podcast Sleuth, which debuts on Wednesday. (A preview is below.)

“[Wozniak] was like a real life Phantom of the Opera,” Sawyer tells PEOPLE, referring to how he lured Herr into the attic of an empty theater and then fatally shot him twice in the head.

“It horrified me at the idea that my daughters could have been next to him in a performance, kissing him in a performance, and I had questions that needed answers,” Sawyer continues.

“Off I went on this odyssey,” she says, “and never looked back.”

The murder case began in May 2010 when the body of 23-year-old Kibuishi was discovered in the bedroom of Herr’s Costa Mesa, California, home. A college student studying fashion, Kibuishi had — like Herr, a 26-year-old Afghanistan War veteran — been shot twice in the head.

Then, within days, Herr’s decapitated remains were found scattered around the nearby El Dorado Nature Center. His torso had been left behind in the theater where he was shot.

Prosecutors contended that Wozniak — who was quickly arrested — was so desperate for money for rent and his upcoming wedding to his then-fiancée, Rachel Buffett, that in a get-rich-quick plot he killed Herr, who lived near him in the Camden Martinique apartment complex in Costa Mesa.

Wozniak’s plan was to clean out the $62,000 that Herr had in his bank account, earned from his deployment to Afghanistan.

Just hours after Herr’s killing, Wozniak performed as the lead in the local play Nine at the Hunger Artists Theatre Company in Fullerton, California.

Later that night, in an attempt to throw off the police, Wozniak then lured an unsuspecting Kibuishi into Herr’s bedroom and shot her twice in the head before staging the crime scene to make it look like Herr had sexually assaulted her.

Wozniak eventually confessed to police, saying, “I’m crazy and I did it.”

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Costa Mesa Police Department (2)

Buffett, a former actress and Disneyland princess, has not been charged with homicide but authorities accused her of being an accessory after the fact. Her trial opens on Wednesday, the same day Sleuth is released.

Prosecutors allege that she lied to police to protect Wozniak. If convicted, she faces up to three years in prison.

(Buffett’s attorney could not be reached for comment by PEOPLE. Prosecutors declined to discuss the case on the record.)

After Wozniak’s arrest, Buffett went on national television, including NBC’s Dateline, and denied any involvement in the murders.

“I’m innocent and that’s what hurts me most in this whole situation is they’re trying to say I’m something I’m not,” she said.

However, during Wozniak’s murder trial, Costa Mesa Police Lt. Ed Everett testified that he believed Buffett played a larger role. “In my opinion, she should be sitting next to Mr. Wozniak right now,” he said, according to the Orange County Register.

Sawyer further explores that suspicion about Buffett in Sleuth. She says she became fascinated with the case in 2015, after meeting the owners of the theater where Herr’s body was found.

“The thrust is to reveal to listeners the things I learned along the way and [bring] on interviewers so they can give first-hand accounts of what they told me,” Sawyer tells PEOPLE.

For Sleuth‘s 10 episodes, she interviewed friends of Wozniak and Buffett.

She also talked to Michael Cohen, a retired detective who was interviewing Wozniak when he confessed, and a former boyfriend of Buffett, who claimed that Buffett mistook him for Wozniak during a drunken bender and allegedly blurted out “I told you to burn the body.”

“What is creepy about it [the ex-boyfriend’s claim about Buffett] — and rings so true — is the theater where the murder took place the building behind the theater was an old military hospital with a morgue and incinerator,” Sawyer says.

She says she is hoping her podcast will force a fresh look at the case and garner public outcry about Buffett’s alleged role.

“If that doesn’t happen then I have to accept that at least the victims’ family members know that, in the court of public opinion, she [Buffett] will always be attached to these murders,” Sawyer says. “That is a form of justice I can give to them. That is what they deserve.”

Sleuth premieres on Wednesday.

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