It’s The Holiday Season… In Prison

We are smack dab in the middle of the holiday season. You can’t turn on the TV, listen to the radio, or go into any store without being reminded of this fact.

Occasionally, when I’m talking to Daniel Wozniak I will mention something fun I’m doing with my family, like going Christmas tree shopping, and then I immediately feel a little bad. I assume it must be so depressing to be reminded of the holidays when you are incarcerated.

Last year at this time, Daniel was being found guilty by a jury of his peers, and the topic of Christmas wasn’t in the forefront.

But this year is his first Christmas on death row, and he is living pretty far away from his family and friends. It’s also the first holiday season since Daniel’s father passed away.

This situation would get anyone down, and I was worried about my friend. I asked Daniel if it was OK for me to even broach the topic of how he is feeling around this time of the year, and he said he was fine with that. I told him I would come up with some questions so I could “interview” him during our next phone call.

The first thing I asked about was Daniel’s first Christmas incarcerated. I’ll be honest with you guys, I was expecting a tale of woe about the difficulties of that first year locked up at the Orange County Jail.

Nope.

Daniel’s First Christmas At The Orange County Jail

Daniel cheerfully told me about how he, “Raphly, and Doug” preceded to make a “little spread” for the other 28 inmates on their tier during their dayroom time. They made bowls of soup (ramen), with beans and Cheetos and crumbled up Sun Chips for the topping. The guards let them pass the food out to everyone in their cells. Daniel got to have a Christmas show on the television during food prep (the Jim Carey Grinch movie), and Ralphy led the tier in a song and then said a prayer.

I could tell by his voice that Daniel is still moved by the memory of making sure everyone on his tier got a good meal on Christmas.

That first Christmas wasn’t sad. Why, that first Christmas sounded glad.  

Making food for his fellow inmates became a tradition he continued each Christmas at the Orange County Jail. Leave it to Daniel (Mr. Glass Half Full) to manage to have fond memories of Christmas at County.

Daniel’s First Christmas On San Quentin’s Death Row

I asked Daniel about the general atmosphere behind bars during these weeks leading up to Christmas. For the most part, the inmates just ignore the holidays. As opposed to the OC Jail, at least San Quentin has special visiting days on holidays (even when the holiday doesn’t land on a regular visiting day). Other than that, it’s just like any other time of the year.

I can’t imagine trying to block out the holidays when every other television commercial shows a new car with a bow on it, or people baking pies, or children on Christmas morning happily playing with their recently unwrapped toys.

I guess when you’re incarcerated, you do your best to block out that sort of thing. For most of the inmates, the best part of the holidays is getting a good meal (traditional holiday fare) and watching football on Thanksgiving and basketball on Christmas.

At the OC Jail, there was one TV for each tier. Located in the day room, it wasn’t visible from all the cells.

When Daniel talked about “watching” football and basketball, that often meant just listening to the games and relying on the person in the dayroom to keep everyone else updated on the score.

This year he’s most pleased to have his own TV inside his cell. See, aside from football and basketball, Daniel really enjoys Christmas movies and specials, whereas most of the OC Jail prisoners had no interest in watching Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

I have numerous programs I need to watch every year or else it doesn’t feel like Christmas. They are (in no particular order):

  • A Christmas Story
  • Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
  • It’s a Wonderful Life
  • Elf
  • Miracle of 34th Street
  • Home Alone (only the first one)
  • The Year without a Santa Claus
  • The Grinch (animated – I do not need to watch that Jim Carey movie)
  • Santa Claus is Coming to Town
  • Frosty the Snowman
  • The Santa Clause (only the first one).

 And two that aren’t for the whole family: 

  • An Always Sunny Christmas
  • The Trailer Park Boys Christmas Special.

This year Daniel has already watched Rudolph, The Grinch, Frosty, and his favorite Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life.

What Daniel Misses

Of course, Daniel misses being with his family.

He spoke fondly of how they would pick up his grandma on Christmas eve and go to “vigil” at five o’clock (a vigil is a Catholic mass held on the evening before the event being celebrated. Mass on Christmas Eve would be the Christmas Vigil mass). Then they’d visit various aunt’s and uncle’s houses to eat and socialize, and end the night with midnight mass. When the family got home, he and his two brothers would each get to open one present.

Daniel’s mom visited him on Thanksgiving Day and will visit again over Christmas.

I just got approved to visit, so I’ll be doing that early in the new year.

Despite Daniel’s ability to put on a happy face, I asked him to tell me a tradition he misses about Christmas on the outside.

He told me about setting up little “villages” all around his house every year. The family custom started at his aunt’s and grandma’s houses. That is where Daniel apprenticed in the art of setting up these elaborate displays of moving parts, twinkling lights and snowy landscapes. He told me he got a kick out of people enjoying the moving ice skaters and miniature scenes of children waiting in line to see Santa.

Daniel seems to be doing fine, though. He’s been behind bars for seven Christmases now, and he’s used to it.

Perspective

The Herr and Kibuishi families have had seven Christmases without Sam and Julie. I’m sure they are not used to it, and never will be.

Every year I unpack ornaments my kids made when they were little; photos of them in Santa hats (and missing front teeth) that are glued into snowman picture frames. I smile when I pull the ornaments out of the box and reminisce about those Christmases years ago. Sometimes I even tear up a little. My kids are safe and sound. I have them.

When you get right down to it, Daniel’s family still has him, even if he is in San Quentin. Daniel can still celebrate the holidays with friends (even if they are also murderers). Sam’s and Julie’s families don’t get that luxury. They only have memories of Christmases past.

These Are The People In Your Neighborhood

Recently I was watching an episode of The Perfect Murder about a man from Orange County named Kevin Green. He spent 16 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Green was found guilty of the rape of his pregnant wife (she survived) and the murder of his unborn daughter.

I’d seen this story before on other true crime shows, so I was only half watching it while I was writing. The man was finally exonerated when DNA proved that his wife and unborn child were actually victims of another man, Gerald Parker. Before his capture, Parker was known only as “The Bedroom Basher.”

Gerald Parker received that dubious nickname exactly how you would imagine. Along with the rape of Green’s wife and the murder of her unborn baby, The Bedroom Basher raped and murdered five other women in Orange County in the 1970s.

The episode ended by announcing that Gerald Parker is currently on death row in San Quentin. He was sentenced to lethal injection in January of 1999. He’s 60 now. He’s also two cells down from my friend Daniel Wozniak.

A couple of days before I watched the show, Daniel and I had a phone conversation, and he told me about an older guy he’d met in one of his classes. They got into a conversation about how they were both from Orange County. Parker was impressed that Daniel had spent six years in the OC Jail without getting one major write up. Daniel didn’t ask about Gerald Parker’s crime, but when I mentioned watching the show, Daniel made the connection.

When you’re on death row, you can probably assume everyone around you is there for doing something pretty bad. I had already wondered if Daniel would eventually come in contact with some of the more infamous killers I’d seen profiled on so many ID Network programs.

People Magazine dubbed Daniel Wozniak “The Grizzly Groom,” but I’m happy that moniker didn’t catch on. Daniel’s crimes are heinous, but I don’t think he warrants a nickname.

There are currently 745 condemned killers on San Quentin’s death row. The majority haven’t been given a lot of press. But there are quite a few inmates who’ve acquired enough notoriety to show up repeatedly on the ID Channel and have their own Wikipedia page. There’s the Yosemite Park Killer, the Freeway Killer, the Trailside Killer, the Toolbox Killer, and even Scott Peterson.

Daniel does not have a Wikipedia page. I checked. There is a Daniel Wozniak who does have a Wiki page, but he’s “a Paralympic athlete from Poland.”

Daniel’s case has been profiled quite a lot, though. Perhaps certain crimes grab the public’s attention because the circumstances are particularly bizarre. A higher number of murders committed probably draws more interest, as well. In the case of serial killers like the Bedroom Basher, the nickname often comes from the press during the investigation of the crimes.

For me personally, I find the cases that include torture or sexual assault or the murder of a child to be the most terrifying and incomprehensible. In those situations, I’m not sure if even I could look beyond the crimes to try to see the human being inside the killer.

I’m sure many of you feel the same exact way about Daniel Wozniak. Fair enough.

I’m sure if Daniel ends up meeting more of his notorious new neighbors, he will have no trouble seeing the human being behind the killer. It’s likely he won’t even know what that person did to end up on death row.

Ironically, the episode of 48 Hours and the re-airing of the Dateline episode about Daniel’s case were both shown soon after Daniel’s arrival at San Quentin. He didn’t have a TV yet, but many of his fellow inmates watched the programs.

 So, who is on death row with my friend Daniel Wozniak?

The Toolbox Killer

There were actually two Toolbox Killers: Lawrence Sigmund Bittaker and Roy Norris. However, after the men were arrested, Norris made a deal and testified against Bittaker, who ended up on death row.

Together, Bittaker and Norris kidnapped, raped, tortured and murdered five teenage girls in 1979. They earned the name Tool Box Killers because their instruments of torture were items that could generally be found in the average tool box.

Richard Allen Davis

Maybe Daniel will meet Richard Allen Davis. He doesn’t have a nickname.

Davis was found guilty of molesting and murdering twelve-year-old Polly Klaas. He abducted her from her own bedroom during a slumber party with two of her friends.

Davis’ case was the impetus for the three strikes law in California. Adding to the Klaas family’s pain, just before his sentencing, Davis made a claim in court that Polly told him she’d been molested by her father, Marc Klass.

*Writer’s note – I apologize for not pointing out that Davis was lying about Polly’s father. This was just an attempt to hurt the family even more.*

The Yosemite Park Killer

Then there is Cary Anthony Stayner, who is also known as the Yosemite Park Killer. Stayner was sent to death row for the murders of 4 people.

Stayner was a handyman who worked at a motel just outside of Yosemite Park. A woman and two teenage girls were staying at the motel (mother and daughter and a family friend whose family was visiting from Argentina). Stayner used a ruse to gain access to their room by claiming he needed to repair something in the bathroom.

He bound and gagged each of them. After murdering the mother and one of the teens, Stayner loaded their bodies into the trunk of a rental car which was later found burned.

He drove the other girl away for about an hour. Then he took her out of the car and slashed her throat.

Stayner’s fourth victim was a twenty-six-year-old Naturalist who was working at Yosemite Park. Stayner attacked her when they crossed paths. When she tried to escape from him, Stayner cut her throat so deeply that he decapitated her.

Scott Peterson

Daniel actually has met Scott Peterson. It was a brief interaction in the San Quentin law library. Daniel recognized Peterson by sight, because the guy’s face was everywhere in 2002 when his wife Laci Peterson went missing in Modesto, California.

Laci was eight months pregnant at the time. She had already named the baby Connor. Authorities presumed foul play and it was believed that Laci had probably been murdered.

Suspicion fell on her husband pretty quickly, especially when a woman named Amber Frey came forward and admitted to having an affair with Scott Peterson. According to Frey, Peterson claimed to be single and a widower.

In April 2003, the bodies of Laci and her unborn baby Connor washed up on the shore of San Francisco Bay, and in March of 2005, Scott Peterson received a death sentence for their murders.

Daniel’s thought Scott Peterson seemed like a nice guy.

Charles Ng

From the first time I saw Ng’s crimes profiled on a true crime show, he and his partner, Leonard Lake, have stuck in my brain as being the most terrifying of killers.

These two men were responsible for up to twenty-five murders. They kidnapped entire families, including infant children.

The men and children were murdered first. Then Ng and Lake would rape and torture the women to death. Most of this horror took place in a makeshift torture dungeon that Lake had built outside of his remote cabin out in the Sierra Nevada Foothills.

The men were captured after Ng was caught shoplifting a vice (it was to be used as a torture device since he’d broken the one they had). He was using the identification of a missing man, and this led the police investigate Ng.

Eventually the police would find copious amounts of physical evidence to link Lake and Ng to multiple murders. This included video recordings of the two men torturing their victims.

Leonard Lake never stood trial because he committed suicide soon after being apprehended. He’d sewn two cyanide pills into his clothes.

Charles Ng was eventually sentenced to death in 1999, after being extradited from Canada where he’d been apprehended for a separate crime.

And All the Rest…

San Quentin’s death row also houses Randy Kraft (the Freeway Killer), Rodney Alcala (the Dating Game Killer) and David Carpenter (the Trailside Killer). Carpenter has been on death row so long (since 1988) that he was sentenced to be executed in the gas chamber.

They say “good fences make good neighbors.” In the case of Daniel’s neighbors, maybe the expression should include “strong bars.”

The idea of interacting with these men would terrify most of us. I’m not worried about my friend’s safety though. He doesn’t seem to have any concerns. He has no gang ties. Also, he’s well known as the guy whose case is attached to the Orange County informant scandal.

Daniel has explained to me that on death row, no one goes into details about their cases. He prefers that. He can enjoy a person’s company and get to know him for who he is today. The guy in the next cell could have committed the most monstrous acts imaginable, but that won’t change Daniel’s opinion of him. He’ll just see a guy who gave him a shot of coffee when he first moved in.