Long Beach's Eldorado Park has likely never starred in a more bizarre true drama. It begins with dismembered body parts and leads to a groom's arrest at his bachelor party for allegedly murdering two people in a scheme to pay for his wedding. And the story was still unfolding Friday in an Orange County courtroom.
The local actor accused of shooting a combat veteran in a Los Alamitos Army base theater, depositing his head and arms at Eldorado Natura Center, and then murdering a second person to cover up the crime, pleaded not guilty. Handcuffed and wearing a jail jumpsuit, he stood across the courtroom from the parents of the murdered veteran.
“It’s been long overdue,” said Steve Herr, whose son Samuel Herr was shot to death in the Liberty Theater on the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base. “I wanted this to be done a year ago. I just want to find out the whole story. We still don’t know everything that happened. Sam was our only son. As a family, the most important thing for us is knowing the whole story.”
Daniel Patrick Wozniak faces the death penalty if convicted of two counts of murder with special circumstances including multiple murders and murder for financial gain. He was arraigned Friday, nearly two years after his arrest, following a Grand Jury indictment announced Thursday aimed at speeding up the prosecution.
Only during the trial will all the details come out, Steve Herr said Friday. Sitting in the courtroom 20 feet from the man who allegedly killed his son, Herr's emotions remained raw.
“I have always said, ‘Just give me five minutes in a room alone with him',” he said. “If there was ever a reason to keep the death penalty, this is it. He needs to die for what he did to my son and Julie.”
Wozniak, 28, is accused of shooting his neighbor, Samuel Herr, inside the Liberty Theater in May of 2010 in order to steal Herr’s savings account funds. According to the Orange County District Attorney’s office, Wozniak shot Herr at the theater where Wozniak acted, and the next day went to Herr’s apartment in Costa Mesa, to which he lured Herr’s friend, Juri “Julie” Kibuishi. He got her to the apartment, prosecutors contend, by texting her from Herr's cell phone.
Police allege that once Kibuishi arrived, Wozniak shot her twice and staged a sexual assault to make it look as though Herr was the killer. And it briefly worked.
The staged crime scene made Sam Herr the number one suspect for detectives.
Steve Herr is the one who found Kibuishi’s body when he went to his son’s apartment to look for him.
“We know Sam," he said. "We knew he wouldn’t do something like that."
As news crews reported that the Herrs' son was the prime suspect in the killing, Sam and Raquel Herr knew their son was innocent but worried that something terrible had happened to him.
“I knew something was wrong, but I still had hope,” Raquel Herr said of her son. “I thought maybe he was being held hostage but was still alive.”
In the meantime, Wozniak, a community theater actor, performed in a Fullerton production of “Nine” on the night of both murders.
According to investigators, Wozniak returned to the Liberty Theater that day after killing Kibuishi and dismembered Herr, leaving his legs and torso and dumping Herr’s head and arms at the El Dorado Park Nature Center in Long Beach. Investigators also accuse Wozniak of giving Herr’s ATM card to a 17-year-old and asking the boy to withdraw $2,000 for him. The teen was arrested, and Wozniak became the prime suspect in the slaying.
Five days after Herr's death, Costa Mesa police arrested Wozniak during his bachelor party at Tsunami in Huntington Beach the night before his wedding. Investigators believe Wozniak committed the murders to help pay for his wedding.
Wozniak appeared in court Friday, wearing shackles and a mustard-colored jumpsuit. Heavyset, with dark hair, long sideburns and a salt-and-pepper goatee, Wozniak chatted calmly with his attorneys. He showed little emotion throughout the brief hearing. He is scheduled for a May 25 pretrial hearing, but it seems unlikely that the trial will actually take place this year.
In the two years since her son’s death, Raquel Herr says she finds peace through her faith in God. Surviving a mother’s worst nightmare, she takes comfort in small mercies.
“It is good that they found him,” said Raquel Herr, recalling the horrible day when her son’s body was recovered in pieces. Otherwise, he might still be a suspect and she would still be left wondering if her son was alive, she said.
Also, her son’s Army buddies continue to visit with her, offering new stories about her son each time. Samuel Herr had served 15 months in heavy combat in Afghanistan. He returned from his tour of duty and attended Orange Coast College in hopes of earning a degree and becoming a military officer.
“Our son was cut up into pieces,” said Steve Herr. “He was just a guy, a regular guy. He was a guy going to college and a decorated combat veteran. He died just before his 27th Birthday.”
“His friends tell us how brave he was,” added Raquel Herr. “Everybody felt he had their back. People felt he was very loyal and would never let them down.”