As a dogged, true-crime investigative journalist and doting single mom, Linda Sawyer fretted over competing demands as she raised twin daughters. Chasing down killers when you don’t have a badge isn’t an easy task, after all. But Sawyer pulled it off, comforted that her children loved to spend time performing in community-theater productions while she chased leads.
“For me, theater was a safe haven for my girls, so with less guilt I could be off playing the role of Nancy Drew, my childhood heroine, reporting and solving murder mysteries for a living,” Sawyer recently told the Weekly.
In late 2015, the East Coast native with a résumé that includes working as a producer and writer for CBS, ABC, HBO, VH1, PBS and Dr. Phil was anticipating a return flight to New York when she attended a Southern California Christmas party that unexpectedly altered her life. There, the Emmy Award winner met Jeff and Nancy Hathcock, the owners of a community theater located on a federal military installation in Los Alamitos. The Hathcocks told her about the pending double-murder trial of actor Daniel Wozniak and that one of the victims, Sam Herr, had been killed, mutilated and decapitated in their theater’s attic.
“The story captured me like no other because it hit so very close to home,” said Sawyer. “While my girls were then in their twenties, I shuddered to think of someone else’s young daughter kissing the likes of Wozniak onstage after her mom drops her off for rehearsal, thinking everything was safe, just as I would have done.”
In the wake of her discovery, Sawyer decided to journalistically own the case, and she succeeded. No other reporter worked harder during the past three years to explore every angle of who and what caused the gruesome May 2010 murders of Herr, 26, and his 23-year-old Coast Community College classmate, Julie Kibuishi. In the process, Sawyer created Sleuth, an iHeartRadio podcast that captured 2.5 million listeners nationwide.
But not everybody is applauding—especially Matt Murphy, a laid-back surfing enthusiast when he’s not serving as a superstar senior official inside the Orange County district attorney’s office (OCDA). Having earned a reputation as one of California’s top homicide prosecutors, Murphy’s trial work is frequently showcased on programs such as NBC’s Dateline, ABC’s 20/20 and CBS’s 48 Hours. Judges and juries fawn over him. He knows how to tell captivating courtroom stories that conclude with law enforcement holding bad guys accountable.
In the Herr/Kibuishi murders, Murphy remained true to form. His chilling trial account places all the blame of planning and executing the killings on Wozniak. According to the prosecutor, a broke and jobless Wozniak murdered Herr to steal more than $60,000 in savings the former U.S. Army soldier accumulated while serving in Afghanistan. In a tale full of bizarre twists, the defendant wanted Herr’s money for a wedding and honeymoon with his fiancée, Rachel Buffett, a fellow theater actor and the more dominant force in the relationship, according to their friends.
More diabolical moves ensued when Wozniak (and others?) lured Kibuishi to Herr’s Costa Mesa apartment, executed her in the bedroom and staged a sexual-assault scene with the corpse in an attempt to draw conclusions as to why Herr, whose body parts had been secretly scattered around a Long Beach public park, was missing. “How many layers of awful do we need before the death penalty is appropriate?” Murphy asked the jury before obtaining Wozniak’s 2016 one-way trip to San Quentin State Prison’s death row.
But while Sawyer—who conducted hundreds of interviews and effortlessly displays knowledge of the minutia surrounding the killings—acknowledges Murphy is a terrific storyteller, she’s not a fan. She believes the prosecutor doctored reality in a self-serving ploy to increase his chances of winning a death-penalty verdict against Wozniak by sugarcoating the acts of two others potentially tied to the killings: Buffett and the defendant’s brother, Tim. “My interviews were telling me a very different story than Murphy’s rendition in court,” she explained. “His version of events just wasn’t coinciding with what I was learning.”
The two met at a Manhattan Beach restaurant in 2016, and she told the prosecutor that evidence pointed to a manipulative Buffett as the “mastermind.” Later, the journalist found disturbing evidence that didn’t prove the fiancée was a murderer but underscored incomprehensible callousness. After the killings and while her ex-boyfriend was on his way to death row, Buffett starred with fellow Knott’s Berry Farm employees in “a back-alley, low-budget film” that “ghoulishly” depicted a double murder, according to Sawyer. She obtained photographic stills of the movie, including one showing the fictional victims.
To Scott Sanders, Wozniak’s defense attorney, the post-conviction development about the mysterious movie is an important clue.
“In my client’s case, the prosecution insisted to jurors that Buffett was a victim, someone who was supposedly left in the dark about the crimes,” Sanders said. “This video unquestionably would have devastated that false narrative and corroborated our analysis of her conduct and her character.”
He added, “The prosecution painted the picture of Rachel as someone, who unlike Dan, was willing to work to get out of their financial hole and was responsible. This would have presented far differently if jurors knew it was at her workplace where she rounded up people to do a gruesome re-enactment of the murders.”
But Murphy cast Buffett as a gullible person who acted merely as an accessory after the fact, having been duped by her evil boyfriend. He also cleared Tim Wozniak, who helped the prosecutor block a potential insanity defense by testifying about his younger brother’s normal childhood; that Wozniak later garnered a sweetheart deal on his own unrelated criminal charges, with Murphy insisting there had been no quid pro quo.
Challenging the prosecutor didn’t go over well. According to Sawyer, “He looked at me with an incredulous, almost indignant stare, as if to say, ‘How could I doubt the story he was going with in court?’”
Tension didn’t subside. “Come on, Linda,” she recalled him saying when she refused to back down. “Are you kidding me? Give me a break. . . . If there were others pointed to as accomplices, a juror could see that as a mitigating factor. I am not about to lose Daniel Wozniak.”
Murphy told me Sawyer’s claims are “absolute categorical lies.”
With Buffett convicted on the lesser charge in 2019, mutual contempt grew. Sawyer used her podcast to poke holes in prosecutor’s work with, for example, questions about why two sets of shoe prints were found at Herr’s bloody decapitation scene, one of them matching the brand of shoe typically worn by Tim. Murphy returned the favor by not only refusing to field her questions, but also belittling her several times at press conferences in front of her media colleagues. She says he repeatedly sought to censor her coverage in calls to iHeartRadio executives.
Meanwhile, Sawyer kept unearthing evidence. During Sleuth, a woman she calls “deep throat,” a Buffett friend never interviewed by detectives, bolstered her view that suspects were literally getting away with murder. The source claimed in detail how Buffett confessed she planned the crimes and was present during Kibuishi’s killing. That allegation may explain why, without invitation, Buffett entered the apartment directly across from Herr’s unit and ran to the balcony, leaving the homeowners startled over the intrusion. The journalist believes she was desperate to determine if someone on that perch with an unobstructed view could have witnessed what happened in Herr’s bedroom.
Sawyer has repeatedly sought a meeting in recent weeks with veteran case detectives, some of whom have previously expressed the view that Wozniak did not act alone. Despite cooperation in the past, they’ve refused. She has been advised Murphy is in control.
Sawyer now has another question: “Why are the authorities in Orange County so afraid for the truth to be told?”
And she has an answer: “The only reason I can see for the stonewalling by Costa Mesa police to meet and let me share what I know is because of politics and an oversized ego of a prosecutor.”
Murphy remains incredulous that his court victory is being questioned.