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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.”
Saturday, May 22, 2010
When Steve hadn’t heard from his son for more than twenty-four hours he got in his car and drove.
Sammy always stayed in touch. Even in the Army, even in the war zone, Sammy managed to send messages to his family. He might not provide coordinates or specify the type of danger his unit faced, but Sam never vanished for long. Regardless of his circumstances, he made sure that his parents knew that he cared about them and he was okay.
The disappearance was even more confusing because Sam was supposed to have come to his parents’ home for the weekend. Steve couldn’t understand why his son had neglected to show up. Sam could be a wild guy if he was out in a club with his friends, but he wouldn’t blow people off—especially his parents.
It was dark when Steve pulled into the Camden Martinique apartments and found a spot in the parking lot abutting 2855 Pinecreek Drive. Sam didn’t turn off his phone. If he had lost the device, Steve knew, he’d borrow a friend’s. He’d text or e-mail. He wouldn’t evaporate. As Steve climbed the stairs toward Apartment D110, he wondered if he’d walk in to discover a perspiring Sam in bed, wrapped in sheets, fighting off a cold. But even then, he would have called to say that he was too sick to talk and they’d speak again when the illness passed.
Steve stuck the spare key he carried into the door and let himself into the apartment. The lights were on, and Steve had the sense that someone was there.
And that’s when he realized that something really bad had occurred. As he entered the bedroom, he saw a slim young woman with long jet-black hair kneeling, her torso on the bed, her knees bent on the carpeted floor. Her jeans were ripped from the rear and pulled down to just above her knees. Her top was still on, and something was scrawled across her back in black marker:
Bewildered as well as frightened, Steve noticed that there was blood in the room, too. And, even more horrifying, on the side of the woman’s head Steve detected what he knew was a gunshot wound.
As he cautiously leaned forward to examine the woman’s face, Steve’s heart skipped. It was Juri Kibuishi, the cheerful twenty-three-year-old Japanese-American student who’d been tutoring Sam in anthropology. The two attended Orange Coast College together, about a mile away. Sam and most of their mutual friends generally referred to Juri by her Americanized name, Julie. A talented dancer, Julie was a bit of a character who accessorized herself with colorful eye shadow and told comical stories about her mistakes and misadventures. Steve himself had spent time with her and immediately picked up on her innate kindness and positive energy. But what was she doing in Sam’s apartment? And why was her body exposed like that? Steve took pride in the fact that his son told him virtually everything. And he knew that Julie was Sammy’s good friend and nothing more.
Where was Sammy? Steve searched the apartment, called his son’s name, but, deep down, understood that Sam couldn’t possibly be there. Not with Julie in that kind of position. Maybe he’d gone after the person who did it. Maybe he’d left to find help. Both father and son viewed themselves as men who could take charge of virtually any situation. But not this one. A young woman was dead, and Sam was nowhere to be found.
Just after 9:00 P.M., Steve called 911. “There’s a body in my son’s apartment … a dead body,” he said frantically.
The operator asked if Sam could identify the victim.
“He’s not here,” Steve replied, his voice rising and anxious.
Before officers could arrive, another person appeared. Like Steve, Jake Swett, a fellow resident of the Camden Martinique apartments, said that he’d been unable to contact Sam. They’d had plans earlier in the day and, when Jake hadn’t heard anything, he walked over to the apartment several times and knocked. Now he spotted the door slightly ajar and entered, he said, expecting to find Sam. Instead, he was met by Steve.
Immediately Steve noticed that Jake had alcohol on his breath and didn’t want him entering the bedroom—to protect both Julie’s dignity and the integrity of the crime scene. There was a moment of uncertainty. Steve didn’t know Swett and wondered if he had something to do with the murder. And it took Jake a few minutes to realize that Steve was Sam’s father and not an intruder.
Ushering Jake into the hallway, Steve decided to wait for the police alone. The initial responders arrived at 9:20. As soon as they realized what had occurred, they called for backup and alerted the Costa Mesa Police Department to apply for a warrant to search the apartment. Det. Jose Morales was designated the lead investigator.
Morales had been at a communion party that day with two of his children. “We were out there with a clown and were doing the cake thing and all the kid stuff,” he said. He’d just put his children to sleep and was ready to go to bed himself when the phone rang.
“We need you to come in. We have a homicide.”
It was close to midnight when he entered Sam’s building. The apartment was cordoned off with yellow tape, and an officer was stationed at the scene, keeping a log of those coming and going. Juri’s purse was still on the dinner table bench. Morales surmised that she’d innocently placed it there upon entering the apartment, oblivious to how the visit would end.
In the bedroom, her body had yet to be moved. Morales moved in close to the cadaver and made his own observations. “We are looking at the back of her sweater,” he’d later testify. “There is a tear in the sweater. It is a long-sleeve sweater, and the words ‘ALL YOURS, FUCK YOU’ written on the back of it in what appeared to be to us in black marker.”
There was still no sign of Sam. Steve claimed he didn’t know the whereabouts of his son, and neither did any of the neighbors.
Judging the scene at face value, investigators concluded that Sam Herr was their primary suspect.
Steve Herr told police the same thing that he told everyone else: he knew Sammy was innocent of the crime. He was sure of it because he and his son were as close as brothers.
“We were the best of buddies,” Steve said. “Sam and I confided in each other about everything. Everything. Up until the day he was murdered, we worked out at least once a week together. I worked twelve miles from where he lived, so after work, I’d go over there, and then, we’d go to Twenty-Four Hour Fitness, go out to dinner, and just hang out together.”
The relationship was starkly different from the one Steve had with his father. He was born in the Bronx, the son of a clothes cutter in New York’s Garment Center.
“My dad loved me,” Steve said. “I knew that. But he never shared much with me, and he died at a young age, so I didn’t get to know him further. And I remember swearing—making a note to myself—that my son would know me backwards and forwards.”
Although Steve’s parents had both been born in the United States, their home had an immigrant flavor. All four of Steve’s grandparents were Yiddish-speaking immigrants—from Ukraine on his mother’s side and Austria-Hungary on the Herr side of the family. When the adults wanted to exclude the children from the conversation, they’d switch to Yiddish.
“If it was in Yiddish,” he’d recount, “it usually wasn’t good.”
By the time Steve was a teenager, the family had relocated to Freehold, New Jersey, close to the oldest racetrack in the United States. There was a familiarity in the way everyone’s father struggled to support his family, and Steve remembers the blue-collar spirit bonding the students at Freehold High School. Of everyone he knew, though, the one person who expressed the mood best was a fellow pupil named Bruce Springsteen.
“He was a year behind me in school,” Steve said. “I knew him well.”
Sometimes, Bruce was among the group of kids who cut school with Steve. Other times, Steve watched Bruce perform with his band, the Castiles, alongside other friends such as George Theiss, Vince Manniello, and Bart Haynes, who’d later be killed by mortar fire near Quang Tri in South Vietnam.
Reportedly, Haynes hated the scenes of horror he’d witnessed in Vietnam. But Steve was excited when he joined the Marines in 1967; he attributes his enthusiasm to “John Wayne syndrome.” Unlike Sam, Steve never saw active combat but gained a great deal from the valuable life experience of being around the other servicemen.
“I wasn’t as screwed up as I thought I was,” he said. “When you’re out of your hometown, and you meet guys from all over the country, you realize you’re not as bad as you thought you were, that you have more potential to accomplish things in your life. It was an epiphany for me.”
Upon his release in 1970, he took advantage of the GI Bill and attended college, first Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, New Jersey, then Monmouth College in West Long Branch. While in the Marines, he’d experienced the West Coast while stationed at Camp Pendleton and Twentynine Palms in California and become fond of its slower pace. After initially teaching in New Jersey, he relocated to the LA area and began a junior high school career that lasted a quarter century.
It was at Olive Vista Junior High School in Sylmar that he met a Spanish teacher named Raquel.
The two shared a similar background. Raquel’s parents were Jewish refugees from Germany who’d charted the rise of Adolf Hitler and tried gaining admission to the United States. When Argentina accepted them instead, they moved to South America.
In 1960, Raquel picked up a newspaper and examined a photo on page 1. It featured Adolf Eichmann, the SS lieutenant colonel charged with being one of the chief engineers of Hitler’s “Final Solution”—the total extermination of European Jewry. Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, had recently found him in a Buenos Aires suburb and smuggled him back to Jerusalem, where he was eventually tried and hung.
Raquel studied Eichmann’s benign smile, long nose, and large ears and instantly recognized him. In Buenos Aires, he’d painted her house. Eichmann always claimed that he never had a personal issue with Jews and was simply following orders. Certainly, no one in Raquel’s family sensed that, had they remained in Germany, the polite housepainter would have shipped every member of the clan to the death camps.
Like many Argentinean Jews, Raquel studied in Israel. But after a year or so in the Holy Land, she opted to immigrate to the United States rather than return to South America.
In 1979, eleven months after their first conversation, Steve and Raquel married. It was the second marriage for both.
Sam was born on May 29, 1983. Raquel was thirty-five at the time, and both teachers were established in their careers. Very quickly the two decided that Sam would be an only child. “She said her childbirth was miserable, and she literally screamed, ‘No más. No más.’” It was the same phrase boxer Roberto Durán had shouted at the conclusion of his rematch with Sugar Ray Leonard three years earlier. “If you’re a boxing fan, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.”
From the beginning, Steve felt an unconditional commitment to his son. “I could never understand how fathers, after they get divorced, can ever leave their children and not be part of their lives,” he said. “To me, that is the lowest kind of person, the lowest kind of man.”
Although Sam lacked siblings, there were close relatives willing to fill the void. His cousin Leah Sussman, the daughter of Steve’s sister, was eleven and a half years older and had grown to view the Herrs as a second set of parents. But that was the way the family was structured. Steve and his two sisters talked twice a day. And Raquel and her twin sister, Miriam, spoke even more.
Every other weekend, Leah and her brother spent time with her uncle Steve and the aunt she called Raqi, sometimes hiking in Newhall, a vast rustic area on the northern edges of Los Angeles County. “I can’t even explain the importance of my uncle Steve in my life,” she said. “He was the coach of my T-ball teams. He was the coach of my football teams.
“When Sammy came into the picture, I was, of course, a little jealous. But I was grateful to have a little cousin. He was always ‘Sammy’ to me, never ‘Sam.’ And as he got a little older, I could see that he was a lot like my uncle Steve, a very friendly, very silly, very macho but kind of a big teddy-bear type of guy. I think that’s why he joined the military, as well. Both of them have a sense of duty to family, to country.”
While he was stationed in Afghanistan, Sam and Leah remained close. Every morning when she woke up, there was usually an e-mail from her cousin. When he couldn’t communicate that way, he’d tell his German fiancée to send Leah a message on Facebook. “That’s just how he was,” Leah said.
At home, Steve encouraged Raquel to teach their son Spanish. But after instructing a room full of unruly pupils all day, Raquel had little patience to begin yet another Spanish lesson. Plus—despite Raquel’s ability to also converse in German and Hebrew—the family communicated in English, except when she had something private to convey to Steve.
“I guess I understood enough Spanish to get the gist of what Raqi was trying to say,” he recollects. In some ways, Spanish was used the way Yiddish had been employed in Steve’s childhood home.
Because of his background as a coach, Steve tried introducing Sam to a number of team sports. Although the boy liked roller hockey, his favorite competitions involved contests in which he could thrive independently: track, jiujitsu, and weight training.
“He was very sort of macho, even as a child,” Leah said. “We’d wrestle and he’d like when I’d beat him up. He’d ask me to beat him up. But when the day came when he was clearly able to beat me up, he never really did. He knew he was stronger, but he would just tickle me and stuff.”
At that point, Sam would occasionally ask his cousin to intercede with his parents when they appeared to be intractable on a particular issue. “I remember he wanted a Stone Temple Pilots tape,” Leah said, “and he asked if I’d talk to my aunt Raqi, and see if I could persuade her. She’s a bit conservative, and she didn’t like the vulgar language. He’d always come to me because he knew how close I was with her. But his parents’ rules were his parents’ rules and I told him, ‘Nope. There’s no persuading her.’”
By and large, Sam followed his parents’ directives. At school, though, he bristled when confronted by authority. “Most of us guys, we become teenagers, our horns sprout out, our fangs grow,” Steve said. “We tend to break off. When he got to be sixteen, he didn’t want much to do with us.”
Despite the affection that they had for one another, the Herrs faced the same challenges as any family. According to a psychological report later introduced in court, Sam had been treated for bulimia and obsessive-compulsive disorder since age twelve but stopped both his medication and psychiatric treatment at sixteen years old.
At five foot ten and a muscular two hundred pounds, Sam was not someone who backed down from physical altercations. Although he was never in a gang himself, he had friends with gang affiliations. One was reportedly Byron Benito, a Guatemalan immigrant with a reputation as a street fighter. In January 2002, after an apparent rival of Benito’s was shot to death, authorities said that Sam helped lure the nineteen-year-old to a deserted business park on Soledad Canyon Road on the eastern edge of Santa Clarita. There, police said, he was set upon by a mob that beat and punched him. The assault was so vicious that court records said that some of the attackers accidentally knifed each other.
Benito was also hit with a crowbar, prosecutors said, and stabbed thirty-three times. He died of a stab wound to the lung.
Authorities called it the bloodiest gang fight ever in Santa Clarita, home to the Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park, some thirty-five miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. As it turned out, there was no evidence linking Benito to the earlier killing.
Eighteen people, including five juveniles, were accused of participating in the murder. Sam was eighteen at the time. He was close to Benito, police said, and knew his family. Along with another friend, Sam was accused of persuading the victim to come to the crime scene, under the pretense of smoking marijuana. Sam never struck Benito, a witness told prosecutors, but attempted to deceive him about setting up the ambush by pretending to fight with someone else.
When Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies heard that Sam was the one who drove Benito to the industrial park, they began staking out his home. Sam drove by but didn’t stop. He was followed by deputies, who reported that he was driving 37 miles per hour in a 25-mile-per-hour zone and failed to signal before he made a left turn. He was immediately pulled over and taken in for questioning.
His attorney later claimed that, during the twelve-hour interrogation, Sam’s request for legal assistance was ignored while Steve and a lawyer were deliberately stalled outside the station. Furthermore, Sam should have never been pulled over, the attorney stated, because he’d been “driving prudently.” A judge eventually agreed, ruling that the fingerprints, fibers, and other contents taken from Sam’s car—as well as the statements that he made in police custody—should be excluded from the jury trial.
He was acquitted and cleared of any wrongdoing in the case.
But in between, he sat in a jail cell for the better part of a year, waiting for the wheels of justice to turn. About six months after his arrest, he was interviewed by Dr. Kaushal K. Sharma, a psychiatrist specializing in diagnosing criminal defendants. Sharma wrote that Sam was wearing a suicide prevention suit and spoke about thoughts of harming his parents—even though he professed to love them. To the psychiatrist, Sam appeared to be “mentally ill and in need of continued medication and treatment.”
But was the assessment really accurate? Sam was a teenager from a loving family who was now locked up in jail, isolated from his parents, relatives, and other positive influences. That he felt hopeless should not have surprised anybody. Because of some bad choices, he’d reached his lowest point and shared his pessimistic sentiments with a mental health counselor—never imagining that the information would later be made public.
This was the one aspect of their son’s life that Steve and Raquel were most hesitant to discuss. “We’re kind of hedging between the two of us because it’s a sore point,” Steve said. “He was acquitted, totally acquitted. You’ve done your research on this. You know the past.”
Yet Steve admitted thinking about the case later when he’d enter court for a hearing involving the man accused of murdering his son. “I’ve done both sides of this. You know what I’m saying? Sam was implicated with a gang, and got acquitted of that. We all knew he was innocent. And now, I’m sitting on the other side, so it’s tough. No parent should have to go through that.”
Copyright © 2017 by Keith Elliot Greenberg