Teaching Murder to the Kids

I’ve been writing about Daniel Wozniak and the murders of Sam Herr and Julie Kibuishi for about three years now (wow). During this time, I’ve come to realize just how many people are fascinated by the True Crime genre.

I used to think it was just me who would ask Santa to put a deck of serial killer trading cards under my Christmas tree. But True Crime is everywhere these days. Even people who don’t think of themselves as True Crime fans give me their undivided attention when I attempt to deliver a condensed version of what I’m working on.

The True Crime bug has even made its way into high school matriculation.

Behind Behind the Curtain

This past April, I received a message from an Irvine, California high school student named Tess Ortego. She was the team leader of a trio of teens, including Collin Press and Sydney Guanga*, who were working on the final project for their Forensics Core classes. As part of the curriculum, they took an Honors Forensic Science class, an Honors Forensic Psychology class, and an Honors Critical Theory and Literature class.

Impressive, right? I thought my honors Algebra class was challenging.

According to Tess, the assignment was pretty open ended. It was to use a medium (suggested mediums included podcast, documentary, or website) to answer the essential question, “How do we determine a reliable understanding of truth within the criminal justice system?”

I believe the children are the future – for reals.

The students were supposed to focus on a cold case and act as their own investigative team. Interestingly, Tess, Collin and Sydney were given permission to work on a case that wasn’t so cold. Considering all the publicity surrounding Daniel Wozniak’s trial and the Orange County snitch scandal, the students couldn’t have found a better case to study truth within the criminal justice system.

They decided to do a podcast, which they cleverly titled Behind the Curtain, and their research let them to my blog. They figured I’d be a good source of information on the topic.

I’m a busy person. Active life. I have a book to finish. But I enthusiastically agreed to be interviewed and recorded for their podcast. These kids are barely older than my own son, and since I’d hope someone would help him out on an important school project, I could do no less.

An Opportunity To Share

Also, I’m not ashamed to admit I was glad for the opportunity to actually talk about some of what I’ve been writing. In the theatre world, it’s common for a director to ask a trusted and perceptive peer to attend an early rehearsal and provide audience feedback. These kids are smart (the two seniors, Tess and Collin, are starting at prestigious colleges this fall) and they’d done quite a bit of research on Daniel’s case. They really wanted to know the story Daniel has only shared with me, and Tess agreed to not use anything I told them in confidence.

Tess and I emailed back and forth for a bit in order to plan an interview time. The team sent me a list of well-crafted interview questions, such as:

  • How did you know Daniel Wozniak prior to his conviction?
  • What about Daniel Wozniak interests you the most?
  • Do you know anything about Wozniak’s family/parents?
  • Have you ever been criticized for writing your blog?

The Interview

We decided to meet at a local Starbucks, because all my important meetings take place at a local Starbucks.

The three students were seated outside when I arrived. It was a hot day, and our four o’clock meeting time landed us with the bright sun beating down between the gaps where two patio umbrellas attempted to protect my pasty white skin. Sydney ended up trading seats with me when I still couldn’t stop making a squinty-eyed pirate face in spite of wearing sunglasses.

Honestly, I would have preferred sitting indoors, but I didn’t want to sound “complainy” asking about it. Maybe they looked indoors before I arrived; and they weren’t any tables available that were large enough to seat four.

Being outdoors did mean I had to be more aware of acoustics and background noise for the podcast recording. I was wearing Invisalign braces at the time, so I felt the need to make an extra effort to speak clearly and loudly enough for their microphone. I have a good strong voice. It’s not super loud and intrusive (I hope), but if other patrons at nearby tables happened to want to focus in on the conversation at our table, it wouldn’t have been much of a challenge to catch the majority of what was being said. (Foreshadowing!)

We spent the next two hours discussing the horrible murders of Sam Herr and Julie Kibuishi. We went over the details of the story known to the public; which can be complicated to follow even for those who have studied the case extensively. We discussed aspects of Daniel Wozniak’s confession that are illogical and weren’t actually proven in court with any corroborating evidence. I shared some of Daniel’s claims of what actually took place when Sam and Julie were murdered.

I wanted to make sure the students understood that Daniel in no way exonerates himself with this other story.  He is a murderer. There is no version of the story where Julie Kibuishi and Sam Herr don’t lose their lives.

However, what Daniel has told me sure does add quite a few new layers to the cake. There are a lot of extra ingredients, and Daniel claims he wasn’t the only chef in the kitchen.

The Podcast

Listen to a special composite version of Behind the Curtain (edited to maintain my privacy) by clicking on the player:

(Audio is used by permission. Behind the Curtain is copyright 2018 Tess Ortego, Collin Press, Sydney Guanga. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication in any media is a violation of international copyright laws.)

An Unintended Guest

I used to feel uncomfortable discussing my writing project. Even in a crowded restaurant, my voice would instinctively drop to a whisper when saying words like “murder” and “mutilation.”

The popularity of True Crime had made me let down my guard. That’s why I was so surprised about what happened just when we were wrapping up the interview.

Unseen by me, a man had sat down at the table behind ours. The seating order at our table allowed all the kids to see the man while my back was turned away from him.

“That isn’t a very nice conversation you’re having,” he loudly called over to us. “It isn’t appropriate for such a beautiful day.”

He wouldn’t have been bothered if it were raining?

I turned around in my seat and faced the man. He was small and pale with thinning dark hair. I detected an Eastern European accent. I kindly explained to him that our conversation was all for the purpose of education. Unfortunately, he wasn’t appeased.

“Oh” he said. “It’s so lovely out, I thought you should talk about something more appropriate.”

“We are almost finished, and we want them to get a good grade.” I answered, turning back to the kids.

I wasn’t exactly sure what he was attempting to accomplish. It’s a free Starbucks. We can discuss whatever we want. Our language was clean. Nobody was smoking or doing anything offensive. This man had no right or reason to try and shame us for our conversation topic.

That being said, if we hadn’t been leaving, I would have tried to keep my voice lower, or move us to another table, for the sake of peace and harmony.

“There are so many nicer things to teach children.” He spoke louder to the back of my head. He had that passive aggressive nature that some men reveal when they decide, “you should smile more because you are such a pretty girl.”

The teenagers looked amused. Eye rolling ensued.

 It wasn’t just me; the kids rolled their eyes, too.

I looked at him over my shoulder. “I’m not their teacher. I’m not their parent. I just know a lot about their topic.”

 “And we all come from loving homes, by the way,” Tess added. Well played, I thought!

People are drawn to True Crime for a wide variety of reasons. Is it a fascination with the darker side of humanity? Is it the excitement of a good scare? Or does having an in-depth knowledge of murderers and their victims makes us feel a little more prepared to fight off anything bad that comes our way?

It’s possible these kids only wanted a good grade on their final. But Tess has aspirations to join the FBI, and both she and Sydney say they can’t wait to read my book.

So I better get back to work.

Update on Rachel Buffett’s Trial

Once again, Rachel has a scheduled trial date. She is supposed to be in court Monday August 20th, 2018. I’ll keep you updated if anything happens.

*Permission was granted to use the names of the students.

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