The trial of a former Air Force fighter pilot charged with killing his wife with a pair of scissors in their Cameron Park house took a step back in time Tuesday to a fiery crash on a remote Georgia highway 15 years ago.
Todd Winkler, 47, is charged with murder for the 2012 killing of Rachel Winkler, 37, his third wife. On Tuesday, El Dorado County prosecutors began presenting a circumstantial case questioning his role in the death of his previous wife.
Deputy District Attorney Lisette Suder brought forth two witnesses who described Winkler as acting erratically after he scared awake other campers in a Georgia national forest with chilling wails, “Help! Help! Help! My wife is dead!”
She also introduced a co-worker of Winkler’s second wife, Catherine Winkler, who testified that the couple had financial problems and that Catherine was in the process of updating her life insurance coverage weeks before the accident.
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Suder also summoned Christina Carlisle, Catherine Winkler’s sister. Carlisle testified that her sister resisted taking the last vacation of her life, saying, “Todd had been hounding her for a camping trip and she really didn’t want to go.”
Winkler collected nearly $1.2 million in life insurance settlements after Catherine Winkler died as their pickup truck flipped and rolled off a rural forest road, bursting into flames.
Winkler told authorities in Georgia he was ejected from the truck as his then-wife was rushing him to the hospital after he had a severe reaction to an insect bite. He wasn’t charged with any wrongdoing.
But now authorities in El Dorado County are making the Georgia crash a key theme in the death of Rachel Winkler. They allege that Winkler had threatened Rachel that she could die under similar circumstances in the months before she was stabbed to death during a Feb. 27, 2012 argument over a pending divorce.
Witness Woody Depew, who was camping with a buddy in the Chattahoochee National Forest in September 1999, testified Tuesday of how the predawn calm was disrupted by Todd Winkler’s screams.
He said Winkler had hiked back to the camping area after the crash more than a mile away on a winding mountain passage, Forest Service Road 244 in White County, Georgia.
“He told me that that he and his wife had been camping and he had been stung by a bee and he had an allergic reaction and that he was incoherent in the vehicle and she lost control, and he was ejected from the vehicle,” Depew testified.
He said Winkler, who looked uninjured, told him that “maybe the adrenaline (from the crash) made the allergic reaction to the bee sting go away.” He never made it to the hospital.
Depew’s camping partner, Michael Hodnett, testified that he called 911 to report the accident. Both men said Winkler insisted on being driven back to the crash scene.
Once there, they said, Winkler waited on the road as they found the mountainside engulfed in flames from the crash. Both men testified they ran down a steep embankment, dodging flames to see if they could save Catherine Winkler from the wreckage.
“There was nothing I could do,” Hodnett said. “By the time I got there, the whole truck was charred and on fire. I tried. I went as close as I could. I couldn’t get any closer, it was too hot.”
Depew said the Winkler family pickup truck was some 200 feet down the ridge, with towering flames pouring out of the vehicle. “I could tell it had been burning a long time and there was no way anybody would have survived at that point,” he said.
Georgia investigators concluded that Catherine Winkler, 32, died of burns and smoke inhalation after being trapped beneath the vehicle. They ruled that there was no evidence of foul play or of a deliberately caused accident or fire.
Depew and Hodnett testified that they found it strange that Todd Winkler then insisted on being driven to his remote campground site to look for his wife – even though it seemed clear she hadn’t survived.
“I thought it was very strange that he requested that I take him there,” Depew said.
Hodnett, who said the men spent 45 minutes with Winkler, became increasingly suspicious. He said they found his demeanor, which went from wailing to near total calm, very strange.
“He was sobbing when he came to our campsite,” Hodnett said. “But in my mind, it didn’t seem believable. It was just such a hard story to believe. He just didn’t seem to be really genuine. He just didn’t convince me. It grew more and more suspicious.”
Winkler, an Air Force Academy graduate and a former pharmaceutical executive, is accused of killing Rachel Winkler by plunging a pair of scissors into her neck.
Prosecutors say the couple were arguing over financial details of a divorce. They are attempting to draw a circumstantial link to purported financial stress that Todd Winkler was having in 1999.
Defense attorney David Weiner said the prosecution’s attempt to suggest a link between the two deaths is a “total fabrication.” He says his client acted in self-defense in Rachel Winkler’s killing, reacting to the throes of a psychotic episode after she came at him with the scissors in their bedroom.
Before the trial, Judge Kenneth J. Melikian ruled that jurors in the case could learn about the deaths of Rachel and Catherine Winkler.
So Tuesday, witness Nanette Davis, a former colleague of Catherine Winkler in Cummings, Ga., said the former wife told her that Winkler was frustrated over financial challenges as he was attempting to start an Internet-related business.
Catherine Winkler worked as an instructional designer for a professional staffing firm. Davis said Todd Winkler had recently purchased an airplane and the couple lived in a well-to-do community overlooking northern Georgia’s Lake Lanier.
She said she was surprised one day, weeks before her death, when Catherine Winkler told her that she needed to see a doctor to update her life insurance.
“I said, ‘Life insurance?’ I was kind of surprised,” Davis said. “She (Catherine) said yes, that they were getting life insurance.” She said Catherine Winkler added that “if something happened to her, she would not want Todd to have to go back to work right away.”