In the moments before he fatally plunged a pair of scissors into the neck of his 110-pound wife, Todd Winkler, a 230-pound former Air Force fighter pilot, was “exhausted,” he recounted Tuesday.
Testifying for the second day in his trial, he said that his right side and hand had become paralyzed from the psychological stress of his struggle with his wife, Rachel Winkler, 37. He said he resorted to biting her forearm and hand to free the scissors from her grasp.
Winkler, 47, said he then got hold of the scissors with his left hand and decided right then that Rachel had to die.
“I am exhausted. I am burnt. I have no energy left,” Winkler said in a Placerville courtroom, where he stands accused of murdering his wife in their upscale Cameron Park house on Feb. 27, 2012. “You realize you are in a kill or be killed situation. … This wasn’t going to end until someone can’t leave the room.”
Winkler admitted before the trial that he killed his wife. But Tuesday, he tried to answer the question that hangs over the proceedings, which may decide whether he is guilty of premeditated murder, is guilty of a lesser offense or is acquitted.
“Why didn’t you stop right then?” defense lawyer David Weiner asked Winkler of the moment when the wealthy pharmaceutical executive said he took control of the scissors from his wife during a violent struggle after they argued over their divorce.
“If she could have had the upper hand, she would have killed me,” Winkler testified, spitting out bursts of explanation. “I knew that. I didn’t have the ability to defend myself anymore.”
But Winkler testified that he also clearly knew that he could let Rachel Winkler live – because she was begging for her life.
“She is telling me that she wants to resolve this,” he said. “She is telling me that she will reconcile. She is telling me that she wants to get back together, that we can work this out.”
By then, Winkler testified, he had also lost his voice and couldn’t speak. He said he stabbed down with the scissors, killing her. He then collapsed over her body. Winkler said he lay there for nearly 20 minutes and then rose.
“I kneeled over her body and cried,” he said.
The defense asserts that Winkler killed Rachel in self-defense after she came at him with the scissors, saying the encounter also provoked a psychiatric episode.
Winkler testified that the physical stress of the encounter mirrored what he had faced during a nervous breakdown at an international business conference in Amsterdam months earlier. In that earlier instance, Winkler said he had gone mute and become paralyzed, requiring hospitalization for mental stress after he had stayed up reworking what was supposed to be the business presentation of his life.
Prosecutors portray Winkler as a master manipulator and liar who twice faked cancer, staged the Amsterdam breakdown in a bizarre scheme to defraud his company and ultimately, deliberately murdered Rachel Winkler.
“You lie to people all the time, correct?” Deputy District Attorney Lisette Suder asked as she began her questioning of Winkler shortly before noon Thursday.
“No,” Winkler answered.
Then, over 21/2 hours of cross-examination, Suder tore into Winkler’s credibility and his story of the killing. She aggressively questioned him about his claim of having suffered amnesia in the Air Force, where his promising career as an F-16 fighter pilot blew up when he exploded at a commanding officer who questioned him about a shoplifting incident.
She went after his account of having a nervous breakdown at the conference in Amsterdam. She asked him if it all wasn’t just a ruse.
Winkler defended his accounts, calmly saying he was telling the truth. Suder then lit into him as she examined the final moments of Rachel Winkler’s life.
The prosecutor challenged Winkler after his claim that he retreated to the garage after the first struggle over the scissors and put on a heavy leather motorcycle jacket for protection. Winkler had insisted he went back into the house, intending only to gather up the couple’s three small children because he feared the kids’ lives were in danger.
On questioning from Suder, he acknowledged that Rachel Winkler never previously laid a hand on their children. The prosecutor followed up, waving her arms in apparent incredulity as she asked: “So did you worry that this wild woman out there could kill all your kids?”
“Yes,” he answered.
Then she grilled him over what he did when went back into the room where Rachel was, where their 7-month-old baby was in a crib. Winkler testified that he fell at his wife’s feet and they resumed the struggle.
“Do you go in there and grab that baby and run out of there?” Suder asked.
“No,” he answered.
Suder jumped in.
“What you do is you crawl up her body, choke her (Rachel) and stab her in the neck?” she asked.
“In summary, yes,” Winkler answered.
Rachel Winkler, former manager of the Cameron Airpark, was portrayed by her father and friends before the trial as a brilliant, vivacious woman who loved outdoor adventures from rafting to bungee jumping and delighted in motherhood and painting fairies and unicorns for her children.
But the sensational trial has also focused on Rachel Winkler’s prolonged affair with an airplane park handyman, James White, 46, of Rescue. The defense has claimed that Todd Winkler feared White, a former Marine, trained marksman and firearms enthusiast.
In addition, prosecutors have homed in on the mysterious death of Winkler’s previous wife, Catherine Winkler, 32, in a fiery car crash off a Georgia forest road. Winkler told investigators at the time that his wife was racing him to the hospital after he had an severe allergic reaction to an insect bite, and during the crash he was ejected from the vehicle. He was not charged with wrongdoing – and collected insurance settlements of nearly $1.2 million.
On Thursday, Suder challenged his account of the accident and then asked what he did with the money. He said blew most of it on bad stock investments.
“I invested it in the stock market at the height of the Internet bubble,” Winkler testified. “I did margin trading, borrowing off assets, and I lost badly.”
The prosecution has argued that Winkler was spiraling downward in debt as his marriage to Rachel crumbled, and that the couple fought over financial details of their divorce. Winkler denied it Thursday.
Then Suder took him back to his wife’s final moments, when Winkler had the scissors and decided to finish her off.
“She was begging for reconciliation?” Suder asked, referring to Rachel.
“Yes,” Winkler replied.
“She was pleading for her life?”
“Yes,” Winkler said.
“And at that point you wanted her to die?”
“Yes,” Winkler answered.
Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.