The trial of Todd Winkler, a pharmaceutical company executive and former Air Force fighter pilot charged with murdering his wife with a pair of scissors, was expected to be intense.
But no one predicted that it would open Tuesday with a courtroom outburst.
“You do not speak truth. You only want to destroy!” Winkler, 47, screamed at Deputy District Attorney Lisette Suder as she delivered her opening statement. Winkler flailed his arms and began to rise in his chair, prompting a bailiff and his defense lawyer to place their hands on his shoulder.
The eruption caused the bailiff to clear the courtroom of the judge, jurors and a gallery that included three network news crews tracking the case for television specials on a macabre crime in an upscale Cameron Park community.
Never miss a local story.
Winkler is charged with fatally stabbing his wife, Rachel, 37, manager of the Cameron Park Airpark, and the mother of their three young children during a February 2012 argument over a pending divorce. The defense claims it was self-defense – carried out by Winkler in the midst of the psychotic episode.
The network crews were on hand because of an added mystery. Winkler’s previous wife Catherine Lynn Winkler died in a 1999 car accident on a remote forest road in Georgia after Winkler was ejected from the car. Todd Winkler, who faced no charges, got a nearly $1.2 million insurance settlement.
Now prosecutors are making the Georgia accident a feature in his murder case in Cameron Park.
In opening arguments, El Dorado County prosecutor Suder portrayed Winkler as “a mastermind, manipulator and murderer.”
She showed graphic photos of Rachel Winkler’s body as she laid out a case that Winkler brutally murdered his third wife to avoid paying alimony and child support as a result of their pending divorce.
“The evidence will show that this mom who weighs 110 pounds was in her room with her 7-month-old child when this 230-pound man comes in and repeatedly stabs her with scissors, kicks her and bites her and leaves her for dead,” Suder said.
The prosecutor said Rachel Winkler survived the initial attack only to have her husband return to the room and plunge the scissors “into her neck right above her jugular vein, all as she is pleading they can work it out.”
Winkler sat passively in his chair as she said that.
But then Suder brought up the 1999 accident. Winkler had claimed the collision that killed his then-wife occurred as she was rushing him to a hospital after he suffered an allergic reaction to an insect bite during a camping trip.
Suder noted that Winkler walked away unharmed as his wife, trapped under the toppled car, died of burns and smoke inhalation.
“Rachel Winkler is not the only wife of this defendant that died when the defendant was the only witness,” Suder said.
Winkler erupted, screaming out in a thunderous voice.
The bailiff, El Dorado Deputy Scott Crawford, immediately signaled for the judge, Kenneth J. Melikian, jurors and spectators to the leave the courtroom. He rushed to Winkler and calmed him down along with Winkler’s attorney, David Weiner.
“Put your hands down! Put your hands down!” the bailiff said in stern whisper.
After about 30 minutes, jurors were allowed back into the courtroom. At that time, the judge said to jurors, “I want to apologize for the interruption, and I want to thank you for your patience.”
In a later break, with the jurors out of the room, Melikian spoke directly to Winkler.
“Mr. Winkler, is everything OK?” the judge asked as the defendant nodded. “If you’re not for any reason, talk to Mr. Weiner and let me know.”
Weiner didn’t offer an opening statement on his client’s behalf, reserving the right to do so later in the trial.
However, addressing his client’s case before the trial, he said Todd Winkler had reacted in self-defense – and in the throes of a psychotic episode – after his wife came at him with the scissors during the argument.
He said Winkler, a graduate of the Air Force Academy who flew F-16 fighter jets, was twice hospitalized for mental illness while serving in the Air Force in Japan and while working for Abbott pharmaceuticals in Amsterdam.
Weiner said his client had multiple psychiatric evaluations for dissociative identity disorder, which he said results in both an altered consciousness and loss of physical function.
Offering a graphic interpretation of the fatal struggle with Rachel Winkler, Weiner said Todd Winkler lost the use of his right hand amid the stress of the encounter as he tried to wrest away the scissors. He claims Todd tried to restrain his wife by biting her left wrist while grabbing for the scissors with his left hand.
While Weiner argued before the trial that the case is about self-defense” or, at worst, involuntary manslaughter, Suder portrayed the murder as a brutal encounter by an enraged husband who overwhelmed his wife and then returned a second time to finish her off.
“He admits he did it,” Suder said of Winkler. “He offers a lot of manipulation, and self-serving statements. He says she was one who attacked him and that it was a long, protracted struggle.”
Suder said that, while Winkler had minor nicks on his hands, his wife had severe defensive wounds, with gashes in her palms slicing to the tendons and “abrasions and contusions all over her face” in addition to severe stab wounds to her neck and eye.
She then drew jurors to the crime scene photo, in which Rachel Winkler lays bloody and contorted on the ground.
“That’s how he left her body,” Suder said.
The prosecution’s first witness, Dean Essenmacher, a pilot who used Cameron Park Airpark, said Rachel Winkler told him she was frightened of her husband in the months leading up to her death.
Essenmacher, said Rachel Winkler, who worked as the airport manager, told him of finding a box containing the ashes of Catherine Winkler, the defendant’s previous wife, in the combo garage/airplane hangar at their home.
“She asked Todd what that was,” Essenmacher testified. “She (Rachel) said Todd told her those were the ashes of his (previous) wife, who died in an auto accident. She burned to death. Todd said he got stung by a bee and walked away.”
Essenmacher said Rachel Winkler told him she questioned her husband about the car accident.
“She asked if ‘that was going to happen to me,’ ” Essenmacher said Rachel Winkler told him. “And (she said) Todd told her, ‘Not if you watch yourself.’ ”