Samuel Herr was kind-hearted and Juri “Julie” Kibuishi was always willing to help.
And two years ago, Daniel Wozniak of Costa Mesa took advantage of the couple’s compassion and brutally murdered them, family members said.
Now, a jury will decide if Wozniak’s ex-fiancée is another good-hearted soul victimized by Wozniak or if she’s a cold-hearted criminal who helped her beau cover up two murders.
An Orange County Superior Court judge ruled Thursday that there was enough evidence to try Rachel Mae Buffett, 25, who is charged with three counts of accessory after the fact to the crimes her fiancé allegedly committed.
Wozniak faces the death penalty if convicted of murdering and dismembering his neighbor Herr in a Los Alamitos Theater in order to gain access to Herr’s bank account, and then killing Kibuishi, Herr’s friend, in an elaborate ploy to cover up his crime.
He is also accused of taking parts of Herr's body and hiding them around Long Beach's El Dorado Park, where they were found after Wozniak's arrest.
Buffett, dressed in a brown suit coat with white pin stripes and a brown hair barrette, prayed with her mother Marianne before entering the courtroom.
During an interview before the hearing, Buffett said she had told the police “the truth to the best of my knowledge” and she was “shocked” and “in a daze” when she first heard about the charges – initially fraud charges – against her then-fiancée.
“It didn’t sound logical or possible to me,” said Buffett, who called off the wedding after Wozniak was arrested. “You think you know someone.”
Buffett told Patch she feels the prosecution has found her guilty “just because I was too close to the wrong person.”
In courtroom C-62, both Herr and Kibuishi's family sat in the front row on the right side while family members and friends of Buffett sat mostly on the left.
During the Thursday hearing, the prosecution called three witnesses, all members of the Costa Mesa Police Department, which investigated the Wozniak and Buffett cases. The three detectives talked about the alleged lies Buffett told officers in 2010.
As investigators detailed the condition in which officers found Kibuishi’s body, her mother began to weep. Her son Taka, Juri Kibuishi’s brother, took his mother’s hand and then put his arm around her.
“It was difficult for all of us to relive it all over again,” Taka said afterward. “But we believe in the justice system and we support the D.A.”
Though he respects the Buffett family, Taka said, he wants people to remember “the victims here are Julie and Sam, not Rachel.”
He described Julie as a sweet, funny, college student who wanted to go into fashion design. He added that he thinks her brotherly friendship toward Sam and her “willingness to help” a friend was what Wozniak took advantage of in order to kill her.
Kibuishi said he was having dinner with his sister the night Wozniak allegedly used Herr’s phone to text her, luring her to her death.
In a separate interview, Raquel Herr, Sam’s mother, said she felt Wozniak took advantage of Sam’s kindness to murder him, as well.
Despite only knowing Wozniak a short time, Herr loaned him about $2,000 to help him pay his debts, according to prosecutors. The day Herr went to get his loan repaid, Wozniak allegedly murdered him.
Raquel said that Sam Herr’s former Army buddies described him as a having a “heart of gold.”
She said she attended the hearing with her husband to represent her son “because he doesn’t have a voice” on Earth anymore.
“Basically, we are his voice,” she said during a recess in the hearing. “The D.A. is his voice.”
Before the end of the hearing, Matt Murphy, senior deputy district attorney, argued Buffett had misled investigators in three separate instances:
-- One, Buffett allegedly lied about a third person being at their apartment the last night Herr was seen alive, a person Wozniak allegedly fabricated to deflect guilt.
--Two, on the day of the murder Buffett allegedly said she and Wozniak “went home and went to bed” but neglected to mention that Wozniak left the apartment that night.
--Three, Buffett allegedly described fake problems in Herr’s family life to throw suspicion off Wozniak.
Defense attorney Ajna Sharma-Wilson said Buffett was only repeating what she’d heard from Wozniak not knowing they were lies and that she was a victim, too.
“Her life basically fell apart,” said Ajna Sharma-Wilson, Buffett’s attorney. “And in trying to figure out what happened, she did go to the police.”
Sharma-Wilson said Buffett had been completely open with investigators.
“I don’t think the police would have gotten this far in the investigation without the assistance of Miss Buffett.”
“You have enough for a preliminary hearing,” Judge Kazuharu Makino (ret.) Makino told the prosecution. “I have my doubts whether that’s going to get a conviction at trial.”
Arrested Nov. 20, Buffett pleaded not guilty in court on Dec. 3.
If convicted of all three charges, she would face a maximum sentence of three years and eight months in state prison.
Buffett, an actress who grew up in Seal Beach, worked as a princess at Medieval Times and played several characters at Disneyland, including Princess Ariel and Alice from Alice in Wonderland.
Buffett’s next hearing is scheduled for Dec. 26 at 8:30 a.m. C5.