{UPDATED:} Truth Way Stranger Than Fiction: The Case of Dan Wozniak

The horrific deaths of Orange County residents Samuel Herr and Julie Kibuishi three weeks ago made nationwide news in no small part to the grotesque fact that Herr's decapitated head was found in Long Beach's El Dorado Regional Park.


Grisly news indeed, and the media's obsession with trumpeting the most ghastly and perverse corners of the human psyche–and the public's fascination with reading and hearing about them–makes it no surprise that the story surfaced in outlets ranging from Australia to India. (Read OC Weekly's coverage here.)

The story's proximity obviously made it immediate to Southern Californians–but it was absurdly relevant to the approximately 20 people who were part of a local theater production: The Hunger Artists' Nine. Because the lead of that show, Daniel Patrick Wozniak, is the man accused of killing Herr, on the afternoon of May 21, and Kibuishi, in the early morning hours of May 22.

Some seven hours after police say he killed Herr in a theater on the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base, Wozniak appeared on stage in Fullerton. A few hours later, early Saturday, Wozniak allegedly shot Kibuishi in the head in a Costa Mesa apartment. He finished the show's four-week run that night and Sunday. Three days later, on May 26, he was arrested and, police say, confessed.

Making the accused murderer rather than his victims the focus of any conversation about a crime is an unfortunate reality. Victims of violent crime can be anyone; perpetrators are the agents who break our collective social covenant, exposing the rank currents that lurk beneath the apparently placid surface of daily reality. As such, they are fascinating, if wholly unsavory, trainwrecks.

But the very real possibility that the man who played the lead in the musical version of Federico Fellini's landmark 1963 film 8 1/2 is the sociopath in question diverts this particular story into an even more fantastic region.

That character, Guido Contini, is anything but a minor role. He's the play's towering presence, an egomaniacal film director whose many faults–serial infidelity, lying, hallucinations and naked hubris–are largely excused by the people around him on the grounds that he is such a brilliant force of creative nature. As Guido's professional and personal life spirals out of control–his film is a disaster, his hallucinations heighten, his wife and lovers drift away–he is forced to look into the darkest recesses of his soul. He contemplates suicide until a message from his past, borne out by his 9–year-old self, convinces him that it's finally time to shelve his self-destructive creative instincts in order to fully develop into a fully mature person.

The juxtaposition of an actor involved in the implementation and execution of a grisly double homicide while playing a character in the throes of his own great dark night of the soul is difficult to not trip out on. Even more remarkable was Wozniak's performance.

In a review of Nine is the May 9 issue of OC Weekly, I wrote:

“Dan Wozniak's Guido is superb. Though his character should be an unlikable pig–he's self-obsessed, egotistical and a liar who uses women as checkers pieces–Wozniak somehow manages to make Guido eminently likeable and even sympathetic. This is a man absolutely into himself–both his virtues and his flaws. And Wozniak captures the angst of a man staring into the abyss of his own being and seeing his own frailty.”

I'd like to say that my psychic powers of divination were on high alert during the performance, that I picked up on the turmoil at work in the mind of an actor who channeled it into a role. That, of course, would be complete bullshit. Wozniak merely contributed a stellar performance, as many an actor is capable of. To imbue that performance with any more substance due to his personal nature would be an affront to the memories of the people he is accused of killing.

But it's still a fucking trip. Even more so is that Guido's life truly begins falling apart when his artistic muse, Claudia, a woman who has served as the cinematic stand-in for his tortured relationship with his wife, leaves him. Weary of Guido using her talents as a ruse to explore his own tangled mess of matrimony, Claudia bails on him and his project, propelling Guido further into his abyss.

What's remarkable about that in the case of Wozniak? The actress who played Claudia, Rachel Buffet, is the woman Wozniak was supposed to marry a few days after he was arrested.

It's tempting for creative-minded people to look at this story as a case study of a highly talented actor obviously wrestling with deeply disturbed and submerged issues finally snapping during a  well-received run in a challenging play and on the verge of marriage. A case of self-sabotage to an unimaginably horrible degree.

Some could even wonder if playing a role like Guido perhaps stirred within Wozniak tendencies that had lain dormant for years, thoughts distilled through the creative process that manifested in actions that are perfectly acceptable in the realm of drama, but that rational human beings would never seriously contemplate.

And before you choke on indignation and howl about the ridiculous assertion that anything other than vile nature can help explain horrible actions, consider this: Dan White got slapped with manslaughter rather than murder in his 1979 trial for assassinating two San Francisco politicians, in large part on a defense that claimed an addiction to junk food worsened his mentally imbalanced mood swings. It's the so-called Twinkie Defense.

It's not inconceivable that Wozniak's legal defense, or his apologists, might make a similar claim: A young man with serious psychological issues and under economic and emotional strain was led to a breaking point through the process of laying his emotions bare by crawling into the skin of a greatly tortured egomaniac. 

Not inconceivable perhaps, but it'd be really shitty. Because the simple truth is if Wozniak indeed did commit the murders, he deserves no empathy, analysis or explanation. Though we all yearn to make sense of the senseless, those who choose, for whatever reason, to open the door of the dark corridors of the human psyche and unleash nightmares like this upon the real world, are worthy of nothing but condemnation and exile.

I mean, hell: Giving a forum to the darker impulses and base drives of humanity sparked drama in the first place. It's called catharsis. We're supposed to see mothers killing their babies and sons fucking their mothers on stage, so we don't see them off the stage. Those who do choose to take the stuff of dramatic fiction out of the theaters and into the sunlight are not tragically flawed heroes: They're just evil fucks.

UPDATED: 12:31 P.M. Apparently, OC District Attorney Tony Rackauckas agrees. The Orange County Register reports this afternoon that, at a press conference this morning, Rackauckas said Wozniak had no regard whatsoever for human life, calling him callous and heartless. “He's an actor that considers himself to be a star and all other people to be living props in his play,” Rackauckas said..


Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???

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