James White came to court Thursday to tell the story of his lover, Rachel Winkler, and to face down her husband, her accused killer.
In raw courtroom drama, White, 46, of Rescue, took the stand as a prosecution witness and aimed an angry finger at Todd Winkler. White identified the defendant – by first, last and middle name – in a powerful voice as Winkler sat passively in his dark suit.
“Suffice to say, Mr. White, you don’t have a lot of good feelings for Mr. Winkler?” said the prosecutor, El Dorado County Deputy District Attorney Lisette Suder.
“None whatsoever,” White answered.
White, a former handyman at the Cameron Airpark, then discussed his extended affair with Rachel Winkler, the airpark manager. He said they had planned to get married. And she was at his Rescue residence Feb. 26, 2012, the day she finished working on divorce papers to send to her lawyer the next morning.
In the predawn hours of Feb. 27, Rachel Winkler, 37, a mother of three young children, was stabbed to death with a pair of scissors in the upscale Cameron Park home she shared with Todd Winkler near the airpark.
On Thursday, White appeared as a key prosecution witness in the murder trial of Winkler, 47, a former Air Force pilot and pharmaceutical company executive.
The divorced father talked about Rachel, the woman he called the love of his life. He told of her complaints about Todd Winkler’s lavish lifestyle, reckless spending and their fights over money. He testified that she told him that Todd once tried to fake a mental collapse in Amsterdam in a scheme to defraud his company.
And he spoke of Rachel Winkler telling him of mounting fears of her husband, and her worries that she might not live to see her children grow up. She first mentioned her fears as her relationship with White began in June 2010.
“She grabbed my hands and said, ‘James, I’ve got something I really need to tell you. I love you,’ ” White said. “Then she kissed me. And she said, ‘If anything happens to me, I want you to look at Todd. And then as my kids grow up, I want you to tell them I love them.’ ”
Winkler, who has pleaded not guilty of murder, has admitted killing his wife. But he claimed he acted in fear for his life during a struggle after Rachel came at him with the scissors during an argument over the pending divorce. Defense lawyer David Weiner also contended that Todd Winkler acted in the throes of a psychotic episode provoked by the stressful encounter.
The murder case has attracted national media attention, with crews from three network newsmagazine programs covering trial sessions at the downtown Placerville courthouse.
It has also been energized by prosecutors introducing evidence of a fiery car accident off a Georgia forest road in 1999 that killed Winkler’s previous wife, Catherine Winkler, 32. Todd Winkler collected nearly $1.2 million in life insurance settlements after the crash, in which he claimed he was thrown from the pickup truck.
Winkler was never accused of wrongdoing in the Georgia crash.
White, a former Marine and sheriff’s deputy, said Rachel told him her husband once beat a man in a jealous rage while on vacation. He said she told him he also frightened her with risky actions – once accelerating and nearly toppling her from a motorcycle and another time abandoning her in deep water while scuba diving.
He said Rachel was particularly unnerved when she found ashes of Todd’s previous wife in their combo garage-aircraft hangar and she asked her husband, “Is this going to happen to me?”
Prosecutors say Todd Winkler had told Rachel Winkler that she could die in a similar incident and he would collect another settlement.
White testified that Rachel told him that Winkler also emailed her from a business conference in Amsterdam in 2011, threatening to stage an accident by crashing his car near his company headquarters after the flight home.
Eric Davis, Winkler’s supervisor with Abbott Diabetes Care, had testified Wednesday of an episode in Amsterdam when Winkler became paralyzed and unresponsive in his room before a scheduled business presentation and had to be hospitalized for the week.
White testified that Rachel Winkler came to him that week, tearful and frightened. He said she got an email from Todd, telling her he was “intentionally” faking a nervous breakdown.
“She said that Todd had told her that he wanted to sue Abbott. And he was preparing the groundwork for that lawsuit,” White said.
He told of financial problems that dogged the Winkler family, even as Todd Winkler was earning some $250,000 in pay, bonuses and stock as a pharmaceutical executive.
White said Rachel told him Todd had monthly payments of $1,000 on a plane, $4,000 on a mortgage and $1,000 on a second mortgage. He also said Rachel told him Todd owed back taxes, hangar fees and other expenses and was facing bankruptcy. He said Rachel sent him a text suggesting potential child support payments threatened Todd’s desired lifestyle, adding: “He spends too much so divorce is going to piss him off.”
Prodded by Suder, White read a text in which Rachel addressed conflicts in her marriage and expressed her devotion to him.
“Being with him (Todd Winkler) is like disappearing,” she wrote. “I can’t relate to his touch. I can only relate to his love for the children and desire for family. I only feel real with you, like I’m holding my breath to see you again. ... Talking to you is like going to church. It feels right and healing.”
The day before her death, Rachel Winkler sent White another text. She said her husband was expressing “doomsday and dramatic” emotions about the divorce and “crying and pleading.”
Winkler would later tell an El Dorado County sheriff’s detective that, after “a protracted struggle” at 4 a.m. the next morning he plunged the scissors into Rachel’s neck as she was “begging ... for her life.”
On the witness stand Thursday, White admitted he felt such anger that he thought of killing Winkler if the defendant was ever released from custody.
“There is no word in the English language or any other language,” he said, “to say how much I hate that man.”
White testified for the prosecution for more than two hours before he was briefly cross-examined by Weiner about his professional experience, including time spent with the Marines. White said he was trained in hand-to-hand combat and was an “expert rifleman.”
He also told the defense lawyer that his affair with Rachel was “probably the biggest open secret at the airport.”
Defense questioning will resume Tuesday.