Killing For You by Keith Elliot Greenberg is a shocking, authoritative account of a brutal double murder (available May 30, 2017).
A KILLER PLOT
Twenty-six-year-old actor Daniel Wozniak was unemployed, facing eviction, and deep in debt for his upcoming wedding. So he devised a diabolical plan: He asked his neighbor Sam Herr, a young war veteran, to help him move some things into the attic of an empty theater. There, Wozniak shot Herr twice in the head before taking his ATM card and cell phone. Hours later, Wozniak performed on stage with his fiancée in a local production of the musical Nine, convinced that he had gotten away with murder…
A DRAMATIC LAST ACT
Wozniak dismembered his victim’s body and hid the pieces. Then he lured Herr’s college friend Juri “Julie” Kibuishi to Herr’s apartment and shot her twice in the head. The police immediately declared Herr a prime suspect—just as Wozniak had planned. But when Herr was declared missing, and his ATM withdrawals led authorities to Wozniak at his bachelor party, the actor was forced to play the role of a lifetime in a shocking murder investigation that would be his greatest—and final—performance…
On the fifth anniversary of the day his son was murdered, Steve Herr did what he normally does, taking a brisk, sloping, one-mile walk past the housing developments and shade trees in Anaheim Hills, a planned community some fifteen miles from Disneyland. Since the crime, Steve’s hair had whitened. But it might have anyway, and there were few other outward signs that betrayed what he’d endured.
Fit and tan, the former Marine was spirited and fun, his gray-blue eyes sparkling when he told a story or sent a friend a goofy video on YouTube. In his home, he invited visitors to use his exercise equipment and try his food. The graciousness came naturally. But the support network that had been built around Steve and his Argentinean-born wife, Raquel, enabled him to maintain it. Almost daily, the couple received messages from the guys and girls who’d served with their son, Samuel Eliezer Herr, in Afghanistan and partied with him near their base in Germany.
In the Army, Sammy had nicknames for a number of his friends. Five years after Sam’s death, Steve affectionately referred to the group as “the knuckleheads.”
Sam’s teen years had been a struggle. He’d drifted from his parents and had issues with the law. But he’d learned from his mistakes, and the military had instilled the young man with confidence, maturity, and purpose. At the time of his death—a week before his twenty-seventh birthday—Sam and his father were best friends. They each had tattoos commemorating their service to their country and regularly worked out together. The pair lived less than a half hour away from each other, with Sammy residing in a palm tree–laden apartment complex in the town of Costa Mesa, where he swam, hung out in the hot tub, and made new friends. He was more focused than ever before, talking about marrying Katharina, the girl he’d met while stationed in Germany with the 173rd Airborne, and attending classes at Orange Coast College in case he decided to reenlist as an officer.
After his walk, Steve rewarded himself with a cookie, a small indulgence considering what he intended to do next. With Raquel indoors nursing a cold, he cut through the muggy air, stepped into his car, and cranked up the air-conditioning. Then, he drove east on California 91 toward Riverside Cemetery, a 921-acre sanctuary dedicated to the interment of U.S. military personnel and their spouses.
It was a ritual that the Herrs tried to repeat every week. But this day carried a special burden. As he stepped onto the grounds and approached the gravesite, Steve stared at the dates etched into the stone and felt a mixture of melancholy and anger, knowing that he and Raquel would be returning in eight days to mark their son’s thirty-second birthday.
With Memorial Day coming, Steve made sure to bring a few flags to the grave, along with flowers. He noted that other Jewish people generally avoided the floral garnishment, placing a simple stone on their relatives’ graves. Flowers withered and died, the logic went, while stones were eternal. But there was a joylessness in the custom that Steve didn’t like. Sammy deserved flowers. Plus, with the grave embedded in the lawn, the lawn mowers would eventually kick the stones away.
It was only when the flowers were in place that Steve was able to relax. He’d honored his son, and thought of the happy times and the love that they had shared for each other. It felt good, knowing how close they’d truly been. Just being there, with Sam’s remains, created a sense of peace. Before returning to the car, Steve removed his phone and snapped a photo to show his wife.
Later, the two went out for lunch at El Cholo, a Mexican restaurant in the entranceway of an Anaheim shopping plaza. To aid in the recuperation from her illness, Raquel ordered a hot bowl of Albondigas soup, a combination of meatballs, vegetables, and herbs, while joking merrily with Fausto, the waiter, in Spanish. Even Steve threw in a word or two, amusing his wife and Fausto with pronunciations that divulged a childhood spent not in Buenos Aires or Tierra del Fuego but an industrial section of New Jersey.
When the order was completed, Fausto walked away, never reading the pain that his customers carried. Reaching into his pocket, Steve showed his wife the photo he’d taken at the cemetery: a plaque flanked by American flags and flowers, with the words “Samuel Eliezer Herr, PFC Afghanistan, May 29, 1983–May 21, 2010. ’Til We Meet Again, Our Precious Sam.”
Raquel stared at the image on the small screen and appeared to grow content. “I believe my son is alive in heaven,” she said. “I really know that, and I know I’m going to meet him again.”
Steve’s lips curled. “We have a whole different perspective, obviously.”
While the tragedy had turned Raquel more spiritual, Steve viewed himself as a realist whose mission it was to bring Sammy justice. It was a daunting and aggravating task. In the five years since their only child had been lured to a theater, shot, and beheaded, the man whom the authorities held responsible, thirty-one-year-old Daniel Patrick Wozniak—a local actor who charmed acquaintances, sang karaoke, and taught theater classes to children—had yet to go to trial. “It’s a travesty,” Steve said, the skin tightening around his face. “It’s shocking. It’s ludicrous. I have literally been to court more than one hundred times.” By his estimation, he’d attended seventy hearings for Wozniak, and at least thirty for others associated with the case. “They put our family through this, and every time it’s postponement, postponement, postponement.”
During each session, Steve made it a point to look straight at Wozniak. Invariably, the grieving father received a nod and, from time to time, the actor’s thousand-watt smile. Steve never believed that the defendant was mocking him. After five years, the pair had seen each other so much that they enjoyed a dysfunctional familiarity. This despite the assertion that, after he’d killed Sam and hidden the body in the attic of the theater, Wozniak had murdered another member of their social network, Juri “Julie” Kibuishi, scrawled vile messages on her body, and tried to imply that the still-missing veteran was responsible for the crime.
It was all very confusing, and, in an effort to understand the precise circumstances of Sam’s demise, Steve had even visited Wozniak in jail. Viewing each other through the Plexiglas, they chatted guardedly but with a surprising degree of decorum. Still, Wozniak and his defense team knew that Steve Herr was never going to feel compassion or sympathy for the accused. In interview after interview, Steve declared that he would settle for nothing less than Wozniak’s execution.
“I get so angry about what happened,” said Leah Sussman, Sammy’s first cousin who viewed him as a brother. “It’s more than just what happened. It’s the absence of family. [Wozniak] … took away somebody who my daughter loved, who I was looking forward to being in my daughter’s life and my life.”
The fact that Wozniak hadn’t been tried, much less sentenced, filled Steve with fury. Another man might have fallen. Fortunately for the Herrs, there were loving relatives and friends from Sam’s Dark Horse military unit around to catch them.
Back at home, Steve and Raquel took solace in the posts on a Facebook page called “Sam’s Buddies.” Sitting at a laptop, the two were surrounded by signs of Sam’s accomplishments in the military: a National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with two campaign stars, Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon, Parachutist Badge, Combat Action Badge, NATO Medal, and other awards. One friend, Adam Zierer, posted a photo of the large tattoo on his arm dedicated to Sam. Nathan Ray, who’d chosen Samuel as his son’s middle name, simply wrote: “Miss you, brother.” George Clouse remembered, “You were fearless on the battlefield, a great friend to many people and touched many lives. Your memory lives on through your Airborne brothers.”
Larry “Gonzo” Gonzales offered a photo of himself and Sam in Germany, holding plates of the Turkish döner kebabs sold near the base, describing his late friend as “not a brother by blood, but … a brother by Dark Horse comraderie.… Sammy, you asked me to never leave and disappear like a lot of people do when they get out. I’m still here, brother, still sharing the stories.… This is a special honor for me, and I’d like to introduce Samuel Herr into my family Hall of Fame.”
Commented one mutual associate: “I still remember all the food binges and hard workouts like it was yesterday. RIP, brother.”
Said another, “Thanks, Gonzo. Now, I miss Sam AND doners.”
The reminiscences heartened Steve and Raquel, and they read them repeatedly, secure in the reputation that Sam had left behind. But there was another post on the page—the first one, in fact—tempering the pleasant thoughts with the harsh pragmatism of the current situation.
It had been written by Steve himself, at 10:30 the previous night:
“It’s been five years since Sam and Julie were brutally murdered. Shame on the California justice system. Shame on Scott Sanders, the murderer’s defense lawyer. Dan Wozniak, rot in hell.”
Copyright © 2017 Keith Elliot Greenberg.
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Keith Elliot Greenberg is a television producer and New York Times-bestselling author. He's written for Maxim, Men's Journal, Playboy, the New York Observer, Village Voice, Huffington Post and USA Today, among others, and authored more than 30 non-fiction children's books.