In his 4 1/2 hours on the witness stand Thursday, Todd Winkler worked his way through the emotional odyssey of his adult life.
He got right up to the point when he was struggling over a pair of scissors with his wife, Rachel, and said, “I started to feel I might not win this battle.”
But the former Air Force fighter pilot and pharmaceutical executive never got to what he told detectives in 2012. He didn’t make it to the part when he got control of the scissors – and fatally plunged them into his wife’s neck.
Getting to the moment when Rachel Winkler, 37, was killed in the family’s Cameron Park home didn’t seem to be the point Thursday.
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In a trial that is turning on psychological intrigue, defense lawyer David Weiner put his client on the witness stand for a methodical, tactical journey through the mind of Todd Winkler until his first day of testimony ended at 4:30 p.m.
Under questioning from his lawyer, Winkler laid out a narrative of nervous breakdowns he suffered that ended his Air Force career and disrupted an international conference in Amsterdam before he was scheduled to give the biggest presentation of his business career.
The day also brought revelations, from both the defense and the prosecution, that Winkler twice pretended he had cancer to escape the stress of high-level corporate jobs, carrying out elaborate ruses in which he shaved his head and even coughed up fake blood.
With each detail, his testimony wove the defense case for why Winkler shouldn’t be found guilty of murdering his wife – even though Winkler has admitted killing her and doing it knowingly.
But the defense contends Todd Winkler killed Rachel Winkler on Feb. 27, 2012, because she came at him with the scissors in an intense argument over their pending divorce – and Todd then entered an altered psychological state.
Rachel Winkler had been having a prolonged extramarital affair with a former airport handyman, James White, 46, of Rescue. The day before she died, she had gone to the house where White lived and had filled out divorce papers, according to prosecution testimony.
Todd Winkler testified that Rachel returned to their home near the Cameron Airpark and “made a pronouncement” that he wasn’t going to have custody of their three children “and I was going to be a visiting dad and that is how it was going to be.” He said he thought they had worked out financial and shared custody agreements and was furious.
The next morning at 3 a.m., Winkler said, he arose for his commute to Alameda, where he worked as a software executive for the Abbott Diabetes Care division. He climbed into bed with Rachel – she had moved to a separate bedroom – and they began arguing over the divorce.
Winkler claimed that Rachel got angry and said she would call White, her lover, to come after him if Todd gave her trouble.
He testified that he punched his wife in the face, shocking himself because he had never hit her before. He said he tried to apologize and started rubbing her back to console her when she grabbed a pair of sewing scissors.
Winkler described two separate, prolonged struggles over the scissors. He said he broke away after the first one and ran to the garage, planning on fleeing in a family car. But then, he said, he decided to double back to retrieve the children.
He said he grabbed his heavy motorcycle jacket from the car and put it on to protect himself from the scissors. He re-entered the room, where Rachel remained and their youngest baby was in a crib.
Winkler said he fell and soon he and Rachel were wrestling, and he was grabbing at her throat “and the scissors were back in the fight.” He said he became “exhausted” during the stress of trying to wrest the scissors away and he feared he might die.
Then testimony stopped before he got to the part when he got scissors into his own hands, with Winkler left to pick up his story when he returns to the stand Tuesday.
Earlier Thursday, as Weiner worked to dissect Winkler’s psychology, El Dorado County prosecutor Lisette Suder went after his credibility.
She announced she will introduce rebuttal witnesses next week who will testify that Winkler lied about having throat cancer and liver cancer, that he kept a vial of fake blood in a briefcase and once fooled a fellow Abbott executive by coughing the fluid into a napkin.
Outside the presence of jurors, Suder portrayed him as someone who “lies and creates situations just because he doesn’t want to deal with what is front of him.”
Winkler later admitted on the witness stand that he faked having cancer while working for a technology firm and again at Abbott when he feared he was on the verge of a breakdown.
“I discovered that Rachel was having an affair, and I was feeling my emotional signatures coming on and I couldn’t be around the office,” he said.
The Air Force Academy graduate also described an “emotional outburst” after a superior officer told Winkler he had been videotaped shoplifting from a military base store in Korea. At the time, Winkler was an F-16 fighter pilot based in Japan.
He said he was put under psychiatric care for four months at a military hospital in Hawaii and hospitalized briefly in Washington, D.C., before he was honorably discharged with a 50 percent medical disability.
On the first day of the trial, as prosecutor Suder was presenting her opening statement, Winkler erupted. He shouted out in a foreign accent, “You don’t speak truth! You only seek to destroy!”
Because of the previous behavior, El Dorado Superior Court Judge Kenneth J. Melikian ordered a sheriff’s deputy placed near Winkler as he testified Thursday, saying he was concerned for the safety of nearby jurors and court staff.
Winkler testified in his normal voice. He broke into sobs on multiple occasions. He wept when Weiner showed him photographs of his children with Rachel Winkler and also when questioned about the death of his previous wife, Catherine Winkler, 32, in a fiery, mysterious car crash off a Georgia forest road in 1999.
Winkler had told authorities that Catherine Winkler was racing him to a hospital after he had a severe reaction to an insect bite while camping. He wasn’t charged with wrongdoing and collected nearly $1.2 million in insurance settlements.
Prosecutors, saying he has offered conflicting statements about the accident, are suggesting that Winkler was responsible for the death of not just one wife but two.
Winkler emotionally spoke of regaining consciousness after being thrown from the car in the Georgia accident. He recalled responding officers telling him his wife was dead in the fiery wreckage below and that they needed to take him to a station house to question him.
Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.