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Crime News Dateline

Local Theater Actor Takes Time to Perform in Play Between Murdering 2 Friends

Dan Wozniak needed money for his upcoming wedding, so he betrayed two friends to get it.

By Jill Sederstrom
Rachel Buffet featured on Dateline unforgettable Episode 246

When Steve Herr went to check on his kid Sam, he was shocked to find a woman’s dead body in the apartment and no sign of his missing Army vet son. 

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Catch up on Dateline: Unforgettable on Peacock or the Oxygen App.

“There’s a body in my son’s apartment,” a panicked Steve told the 911 operator. 

In the days that would follow, police began searching for their prime suspect: the missing 26-year-old Sam Herr. But they soon uncovered a sinister plot twist so “shocking” it would leave investigators stunned.

“Unthinkable is a word I don’t use lightly but in this case, it was almost an understatement,” reporter Josh Mankiewicz said on Oxygen’s Dateline: Unforgettable. 

Who is Sam Herr? 

Sam was a student at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California when he mysteriously vanished in May 2010.

The 26-year-old veteran started college after returning home from fighting in Afghanistan and was known to his fellow students, like 23-year-old Julie Kibuishi, as a fun, responsible guy.

Julie’s mom, June, said her daughter described Sam as a “big teddy bear” who was “always nice to everybody.” 

What happened to Julie Kibuishi?

Sam and Julie had always had a pseudo-brother-and-sister relationship. It was one reason why on the evening of May 21, 2010, Julie cut a night at dinner with her brother short to go check on Sam after she got a series of unusual text messages from him.

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“Can you come over tonight at midnight alone. Going out for a bit. Very upset. Need to talk,” Sam had written. “Please. No sex. I need to talk to someone.” 

 “Lol ew sam we’re like bro and sis no sex,” Julie responded. 

Sam told her he was “hurting” because of some “bad fam crap” and didn’t want to be alone. 

“Ya thats fine, sam im here for you like family,” the 23-year-old fashion major responded. 

Julie — who was still wearing a tiara her brother had given her when he asked her that night to be in his wedding — went over to Sam’s apartment later that night. The  next morning June woke up to discover her daughter had never come home and called the police. 

Sam’s father, Steve, was also growing concerned after his son’s phone kept going straight to an answering service, which was unusual for a Saturday. 

He decided to drive over to his son’s apartment. After there was no answer at the door, Steve let himself in with a spare key and made a chilling discovery inside. While there was no sign of Sam anywhere, Julie lay dead on the bed. 

“I freaked out,” Steve recalled. 

Julie, who was still wearing the tiara, had been shot twice in the back of the head. Her jeans were pulled down around her knees and had been cut. Someone had written “All Yours” and “F-ck You” across her sweatshirt.

A stunned Steve frantically called 911. 

Why did police suspect Sam Herr?

In the hours that followed, Costa Mesa Police focused on trying to track down Sam. Not only was Julie discovered dead inside Sam’s apartment, but they learned that Sam had been arrested once before. 

When he was 18 years old, Sam had been accused of luring a man to a parking lot where he was attacked and killed by more than a dozen other men in what police said was a gang-related case. While some of those charged were later convicted and sent to life in prison, Sam had been found not guilty and later joined the Army to straighten his life out. 

Rachel Buffet featured on Dateline unforgettable Episode 246

Police also discovered those bizarre text messages on Julie’s phone.

“We were pretty confident he was our guy,” said Costa Mesa Police Detective Ed Everett.

The challenge was trying to track Sam down. There was no sign of Sam or his missing vehicle, until police finally got a break in the case that would turn the investigation in a surprising direction. 

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Police learned that Sam’s bank card had been used at a local ATM and again at a pizza parlor. When they pulled surveillance footage, however, the man spotted withdrawing the money was not Sam. 

An employee of the pizza place thought he knew the teen who had used the card and gave police an address.

They surrounded the Long Beach home, believing that Sam was likely hiding out inside. Instead, they found Wesley Freilich, the same teenager who had been captured in the footage at the ATM. 

Wesley told police he had been approached by his one-time theater mentor, Dan Wozniak, who told him he was working for a bail bonds agency and needed him to withdraw money using the ATM card because the card’s owner had skipped out on bail.

“He showed me paperwork, it looked legit,” Freilich told the show. “It looked like federal police paperwork so I assumed that he was good, he wasn’t lying to me, and I trusted him.“ 

Who is Dan Wozniak? 

Police now needed to learn how Wozniak — a respected actor in the local theater scene — had gotten Sam’s bank card. 

Wozniak and his fiancée, Rachel Buffett, an actress, lived in the same apartment complex where Sam lived.

“[Sam] was really nice to everybody and liked to have fun and hang out with everybody,” Buffett said.

Wozniak and Buffett had both previously told police they hadn’t seen Sam since Friday when they saw him walking with another man wearing a black hat. 

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Police decided to bring Wozniak in for questioning and tracked him down at his bachelor party. Wozniak admitted to having the bank card and said it was part of an insurance scheme he and Sam had cooked up together, but initially told police that before they could earn much money, Sam told him he had killed Julie in a drug-induced haze and needed to go on the run. 

Wozniak claimed he agreed to help Sam after he threatened him. 

“He’s like, ‘You rat me out, I'm gonna f-cking kill you. And better yet, I’m going to start with your wife,'" Wozniak told investigators. 

He claimed he dropped Sam off at a shopping center parking lot and got rid of Sam’s car, but insisted he didn’t know where Sam was. 

After investigators collected his DNA, Wozniak changed his story, telling investigators he had been in Sam’s apartment and saw Julie’s dead body, but continued to insist he didn’t know where his friend was hiding out. 

Who killed Julie Kibuishi and Sam Herr?

Wozniak finally dropped the act after speaking on the phone to Buffett and chillingly admitted to killing both Sam and Julie. 

He told officers he needed money for his wedding and killed Sam to gain access to the soldier’s more than $60,000 in savings. 

As he explained to investigators, Wozniak lured Sam to a theater he once performed in and asked him to help carry down something heavy from the attic. When Sam leaned over to pick the item up, Wozniak shot him in the head, then shot him a second time as Sam was begging for help. 

He took Sam’s phone and then went on to give a flawless performance that night in a local theater production of Nine. While backstage at the show, he texted Julie those odd messages to lure her to Sam’s apartment. 

When she arrived later that night, Wozniak met her at the door, pretending to be a friend concerned about Sam’s welfare. Together they went inside, and as Julie was looking at something on the bed, he shot her twice in the head, then staged the scene to make it appear as if it had been a sexual assault. 

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Wozniak told detectives he killed Julie in an attempt to get away with Sam’s murder, to make it look like Sam had taken Julie’s life and then went on the run.

“It was shocking and these were two of his so-called friends,” Everett said. “It’s horrific. It’s sad.” 

The next day, Wozniak returned to the theater attic and dismembered his friend’s body, disposing of pieces around town and leaving the torso still hidden in the attic. 

Just days before his planned wedding, Wozniak was arrested and charged with two counts of murder. 

He was later convicted and sentenced to death.

What role did Rachel Buffett play? 

Although Buffett insisted she didn’t know anything about her partner's plans, investigators didn’t believe her story.

They pointed to Buffett’s odd behavior at the time like telling police she had seen Sam with an unidentified man with a black hat (although the man never existed), breaking down in tears during her performance in Nine after the murder, and sending a message to Julie on social media around the time she was killed, although she told police she had been sleeping at the time. 

Investigators also pointed to a strange exchange Buffett and Wozniak had in the interrogation room, where Buffett seemingly had no reaction to her fiancé's involvement in the crime. 

Buffett was later charged with being an accessory to murder after the fact. 

“I’m innocent and that’s what hurts me most I think in this whole situation is they’re trying to say that I’m somebody that I’m not,” Buffett insisted to Mankiewicz. 

Yet in Sept. 2018, Buffett was found guilty of being an accessory to murder after the fact. She was sentenced to 32 months behind bars.