It was obvious something important was happening at the courthouse on the morning of September 11, 2018. Media cameras were set up in a certain courtroom. Since filming was only permitted on the first and last days of proceedings, this was a clear sign it was the final day of Rachel Buffett’s accessory to murder (after the fact) trial.
Back on the first day of the trial, I’d found myself a safe little corner seat in the back row on the right side of the spectator section. Most of the press people and Sam’s and Julie’s loved ones sat on this side. It had the added benefit of an electrical outlet in the wall next to the seat. I have an iPhone, so I always appreciate a charging opportunity.
On the final day of the trial, there was camera equipment on my corner seat, and cords plugged into my outlet. Major Bailiff (remember him?) told the spectators to sit on the left. Today, only loved ones would sit on the right.
I found a seat in the back row on the opposite side of the aisle. The Blonde Coalition took up the first three rows, and I wanted to give Rachel’s people their space.
Who’s Who In the Blonde Coalition
The family resemblance is strong in this group, so it wasn’t difficult to pick them out of the crowd. I saw Rachel’s parents and her younger sister Hannah.
I had trouble figuring out which of the twenty-something blond/redheaded men were Nate, Noah and Abraham Buffett, since there were more than enough present to account for Rachel’s brothers.
A little later, podcaster Linda Sawyer sat in the seat next to mine and identified the brothers for me. I had guessed completely wrong. If I’d been on a game show, I would have heard some kind of angry buzzer telling me I’m not coming back next week to play “Name that Buffett.”
A View to a Jury
Along with phone charging capabilities, my corner had afforded me a good view of the low quality video screen. My new seat had a bad view of a higher quality, smaller, TV screen, which duplicated the view on the large screen.
This side of the courtroom also had a solid view of the jury. It’s always interesting to see if their faces give away any of their thoughts. They didn’t. Poker faces were strong with them.
Rachel Buffett Testifies?
In the last post, I wrote that Vylet Randolph was the final witness in the trial. I guess I should have written “spoiler alert” when so glibly glossing over the defense. After all, we’d only seen prosecution witnesses up to this point. Now was the time when Rachel’s defense attorney, David Medina, had the opportunity to put on witnesses whose testimony might sway the jury to believe Rachel Buffett was a victim, not a perpetrator.
Daniel and I have had numerous conversations about whether or not Rachel Buffett would testify in her own defense. She waited eight years to clear her name. She turned down offers to make a deal with the prosecution. Had she accepted, she would have served very little, or no, time at all.
One could ask why she even took the case to trial if she didn’t want to use her own words to clear herself. Rachel could have taken the stand to explain not telling the police about Chris Williams. She could tell the jury how she accidentally gave false information to the CMPD about seeing a mysterious man in a black hat. Maybe she could have told the jury she took an Ambien on Friday night, and that’s why she didn’t notice Dan’s numerous and unexplained late night comings and goings.
David Medina put on a solid defense during the cross examinations of prosecution witnesses. At the very least, he must have put some doubt into the minds of the jury. Medina and his client clearly believed that was enough to sway the jury to a not-guilty vote for Rachel.
Court started with Judge Hanson going over Rachel’s right to testify in her trial or not. If Rachel was nervous, her voice didn’t betray a note as she answered, “I don’t think I need to,” when Judge Hanson officially asked her if she wanted to take the stand.
I won’t lie; at that point I thought it was quite possible Rachel would walk out of the courtroom a free woman. The mostly male jury had me wondering if they could imagine a pretty former Disney Princess committing a crime like this.
If any jurors are reading this, I apologize. You folks took this gig very seriously. I know that now.
The next part of the trial was a process I’d never seen used before. In order to cut down on some time-consuming testimony, the defense and the prosecution made an agreement about some of the witnesses. Both sides accepted how these witnesses would answer questions if they were called to the stand.
Instead, Matt Murphy gave a quick overview of any pertinent information Rachel’s jury needed to know for her case.
Wesley Freilich, for example, didn’t need to testify about taking money out of Sam’s bank account.
Matt Murphy summarized the testimony of Bob Castillo; making sure the jury knew that Tim Wozniak and his friend Bob Castillo went to the Long Beach Police Department and turned in the murder weapon not long after Tim and Rachel talked. Even if Rachel hadn’t done the right thing, the case would still have been solved quickly.
The prosecution and the defense agreed that the gun used in both murders was a Llama 380 handgun. Dan’s DNA was found on the gun, but Rachel’s wasn’t. No silencer for the gun was located. Rachel’s DNA was not found on any of the evidence from the backpack.
No witness would be called to tell how lividity proved Julie Kibuishi’s body was moved two to four hours after she was murdered. Julie’s body wasn’t staged to look like she’d been sexually assaulted until hours after she was shot. This information was summarized for the jury, accepted, and added to the official record.
After that, the defense officially ended its case without calling any witnesses. Judge Hanson gave the jury some basic instructions, and then it was time for closing arguments.
Matt Murphy’s Close
Following the normal procedure, Matt Murphy would speak first and last. Murphy would have the chance to make final comments about any questions brought up during David Medina’s closing arguments.
Matt Murphy started his address to the jury explaining how some prosecutors will hold off sharing nuggets of evidence until after the defense’s closing argument, making it impossible for the defense to explain away any incriminating information.
It’s called “sandbagging,” but that was not Matt’s plan. He didn’t need to do that.
Added all together, the jury had over “500 years experience studying human behavior,” and Murphy had no doubt they could look at all the evidence objectively. Even if Dan attempted to hide the murders from Rachel, was it possible Rachel Buffett was completely in the dark? Matt Murphy reminded the jury it was only their job to decide guilt or innocence. They were not to consider punishment. That is the judge’s job.
If This Then That
Murphy asked the jury if lies and hiding information is the same as helping with the crime, and then he went into a typical Matt Murphy example tangent.
- If your neighbor is growing weed, do you have to call the police? No. You don’t.
- If the cops show up at your house and ask about your neighbor, you don’t have to cooperate.
- But if you agree to cooperate and then lie – that is a crime.
- And if you are growing weed, and the cops show up to ask about it, you will be committing a crime if you lie to them.
In Toto (Not a Band That Sings About the Rains Down in Africa)
Matt Murphy went over the “totality of the evidence” with the jury so they could see how many times Rachel Buffett either lied about or hid information from the police during the early investigation of Julie Kibuishi’s murder.
According to numerous witnesses, Dan and Rachel were inseparable. Rachel knew she and Dan were in a grave financial situation, but she saw Dan with cash after Sam’s murder. According to Murphy, Dan Wozniak was a terrible liar and Rachel knew it. So how did he explain his comings and goings during the weekend of the murders?
Dan Wozniak wasn’t doing a great job of hiding evidence from Rachel, either. When the police searched Dan and Rachel’s apartment, they found Sam Herr’s laptop sitting out on their bookshelf. Rachel told the police she frequently used both the computers that were in her and Dan’s apartment., but she didn’t see this third computer sitting out in the open in her living room. Additionally, how could Dan have sent texts using Sam’s old flip phone without Rachel ever noticing?
If Dan Wozniak was attempting to hide his deeds from his fiancée, why did he even bring Sam Herr into their apartment on the morning of Sam’s murder? Why not leave from Sam’s place?
Why Was Julie Murdered?
The questions regarding the murder of Julie Kibuishi also cast doubt on Rachel’s claims she knew nothing about either murder. Matt Murphy acknowledged that the Julie Kibuishi’s murder made no sense if Dan wanted to steal Sam’s money via ATM withdrawals. Murphy explained that without the discovery of Julie’s body, Dan might have been able to “drain the account” before the police even cared Sam was missing.
Side note – I’ve made this point numerous times in my blog. If Dan Wozniak planned to empty Sam Herr’s bank account, he would not want the police searching for Sam. Steve and Raquel Herr were worried about their son, but the authorities weren’t immediately interested in a “missing” 26 year old Army vet. When Steve Herr found a dead body in his son’s apartment, his 911 call resulted in immediate action from the Costa Mesa Police. If his son’s apartment had been empty, only Sam’s parents would have been looking for him. Why bring on the attention of the authorities with Julie Kibuishi’s murder?
I know – lots of questions. I plan to answer them in my book.
Just Some Stuff Dan Left Around the House
If Dan Wozniak was trying to keep his fiancée Rachel in the dark, Matt Murphy thought he should have done a better job at it.
- Dan left his blood-splattered tennis shoes out in the open in the couple’s bedroom.
- Dan made no effort to hide his loan from Chris Williams.
- Dan took Rachel with him to Wesley’s house twice (on the phone with Dan, she asked him, “Who’s Wesley?” as though she’d never heard the name before).
- Dan had cash when he came home on Friday after murdering Sam.
- Dan was extremely upset and worked up–heart-attack-like–when he came home.
- Dan used Sam’s cell phone to send numerous texts back and forth to Julie Kibuishi. Sam had an old flip phone that vibrated every time it got a text, and it looked nothing like Dan’s smart phone.
- Dan and Rachel were almost always together.
Side note – Murphy suggested Rachel Buffett wasn’t just aware of Julie Kibuishi’s murder, but likely culpable in the deed as well. There was no attempt made to lure Julie over to the Camdens until Dan and Sam’s cell phone arrived back at the apartment with Rachel.
Ironically, Dan’s defense attorney Scott Sanders made the exact same point in his closing arguments.
- Dan shot Julie in an apartment that was only three floors up from Dan and Rachel’s (it was the month of May, so maybe windows were open).
- Moments after shooting Julie Kibuishi, Dan returned to his apartment. Since Dan was so visibly upset for hours after shooting Sam, how could he seem perfectly normal to Rachel right after killing Julie?
A Little Dig at Scott Sanders… and A Hint of What’s To Come
On more than one occasion during Rachel’s trial, Matt Murphy made mention of the actions of unethical attorneys. It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to know Murphy was alluding to Daniel’s defense attorney, Scott Sanders.
Opposing attorneys often appear to be fierce combatants when court is in order, but out in the hallway, there is comradery with the fellow lawyer. They don’t actually hate each other. They are just doing their jobs.
I think Matt Murphy genuinely hates Scott Sanders. Murphy told Rachel’s jury he’d make sure to say nothing during this trial that could be used to help Daniel Wozniak’s appeal.
With a foreboding, “winter is coming” vibe, Murphy warned us all that Dan Wozniak’s appeals are inevitable. Murphy was already mentally prepping for the unavoidable storm.
Murphy continued to point a suspicious finger at Rachel Buffett.
Dan Wozniak had told her he was teaching an insurance class on the Saturday morning of May 21. Yet when Rachel learned Dan had actually been to the faux-partment to borrow tools from her brother Noah, she didn’t question him about his change of plans. Murphy made a joke here about how it seemed like Dan was teaching a “lumberjack class” (he borrowed a saw and ax).
“How could she not know?” Matt Murphy asked the jury. He believed Rachel Buffett knew a lot. Even if she thought Sam murdered Julie, and Dan was just an accomplice, Rachel broke the law by lying to the police.
By Murphy’s count, there were nineteen lies in total, but he only needed the jury to convict Rachel Buffett of one of them.
David Medina’s Closing
Attorney David Medina began the defense with a thought-provoking statement: To find Rachel guilty, the jury had to believe she knew her fiancée butchered two of her friends, and she was okay with it.
Lies Lies Lies Yeah-ah
Dan and Rachel’s entire relationship was based on lies. Dan didn’t feel worthy of Rachel. He constantly lied to her so she wouldn’t know he was a failure. Why, Medina argued, would he tell her the truth about the murders?
When Dan and Rachel were first questioned outside the faux-partment, according to the detectives, Dan was visibly nervous. Rachel was perfectly calm. Her behavior shows she knows nothing because she has nothing to hide. If Rachel was trying to help Dan, why tell the police he was with Sam at all?
You know that story about a “third man?” The guy with the black baseball cap who Rachel told the police she “saw” in her apartment? Well, Medina reasoned, Rachel could have been referring to Chris Williams.
Maybe Chris was the third man and Rachel didn’t tell the authorities about him because she was afraid. Rachel might have believed Chris Williams had actual Mafia connections. The man stayed in her apartment for hours and wouldn’t leave until he got his money. That could be scary.
Chris Williams testified about Rachel’s desperation to make money. She certainly wasn’t acting like someone who was about to come into sixty thousand dollars.
It sure didn’t seem like Rachel was trying to protect Daniel Wozniak as she bad-mouthed him to detectives.
It’s true, Rachel Buffett seemed emotionless when being interviewed, but Dan’s own father had a similar response. She shouldn’t be judged, Medina claimed, for how she responds to shock and stress. Rachel’s fiancée had just been arrested. Rachel had been planning her wedding for months and now it would need to be cancelled. She was questioned at three o’clock in the morning.
David Medina wanted the jury to consider all these details so they would understand Rachel’s mistakes and omissions during her interview.
When Rachel learned Tim Wozniak was in possession of a murder weapon, she contacted the Costa Mesa detectives. She didn’t know Tim was going to take the gun to the Long Beach Police. Rachel didn’t have to tell Vylet about the murder weapon. If she were trying to help Dan, she would have kept that information a secret.
David Medina also noted that Tim Wozniak could have been charged as an accessory to murder because he had knowledge of a crime and he was trying to protect Dan. There was direct evidence to prove this, but there was only circumstantial evidence against Rachel Buffett.
If You Doubt, She Gets Out
David Medina ended his closing arguments by reminding the jury if they had any doubts about Rachel’s guilt; they had to find her not guilty. If there was more than one explanation for circumstantial evidence, the jury needed to “choose innocence.”
Most importantly, Medina explained that the jury didn’t have to like Rachel Buffett to find her not guilty.
As is the practice, the prosecution had the final say in closing arguments. Murphy responded to Medina’s points one by one.
Circumstantial evidence holds the same weight as direct evidence. Maybe it’s supposed to, but does it really?
Rachel said the “third man” was a friend of Sam’s and he left with Sam and Dan. Murphy told the jury there was no way Rachel was referring to Chris Williams when she told the police about a third man. That did seem like a stretch.
Tim Wozniak was not on trial. He testified against his brother. In a way, “Tim is a victim.” Evil Spicoli is now a victim? That’s a big turn around from day one of the trial.
Rachel was interviewed at three in the morning because she wouldn’t come in earlier. She had an appointment at a tanning salon and a bachelorette party to attend.
Then, Matt Murphy dropped a bomb on the defense’s claim that Rachel told Vylet about the murder weapon because Rachel planned to do the right thing.
From her testimony, we know Vylet Randolph did not overhear the conversation between Rachel and Tim. But when Vylet exited the Mazda Miata and headed toward Rachel with Rachel’s phone in her hand, there was no way to know what Vylet did or didn’t hear. Rachel’s hand was forced, according to Murphy; she couldn’t chance lying to Vylet.
Matt Murphy ended his closing with a strong reminder to the jury: Rachel Buffett was not on trial for murder. He only needed them to find Rachel guilty of one of the nineteen lies.
“Take your time, but take care of business.”
The Jury Deliberates
It was past 4:00 pm when the jury went into deliberations. I decided to stick around until they went home just in case this jury was as zippy as Dan’s.
I got to the courthouse at 9:00 am the next morning and spent the entire day writing on my iPad and checking my watch. Most of that time, I was sitting on a bench down the hall from the courtroom. It was the only way I’d know when the jury came back.
A Kind Gesture From Steve Herr
Late that afternoon, I saw Steve and Raquel Herr coming off the elevator and heading toward the courtroom. As they walked by, Steve looked over at me and gave me a “Come on. It’s time,” head tilt. I quickly packed up my belongings and headed to the courtroom.
Thanks Steve. I really appreciated that.
You already know how this ends.
The jury found Rachel Buffett guilty of all charges.
The relief from Julie’s and Sam’s loved ones was palpable.
David Medina attempted to get Rachel released on bail until her sentencing in November. This was denied. When Rachel was out on bail in the past, she had a presumption of innocence. That was gone now.
Rachel was put in handcuffs. She didn’t turn back to look at her family. The Buffetts looked devastated as they watched Rachel, her head low and her hair covering the side of her face, being led through a door at the back of the courtroom.
Next Up: The Sentencing Hearing
Rachel Buffett’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for Thursday November 8th. I plan to be there.