Crime - Sacto 911

Prosecutor points to gruesome evidence as Winkler murder case goes to jury

Todd Winkler waits to leave court after prosecutor Lisette Suder’s closing arguments in El Dorado Superior Court on Tuesday.
Todd Winkler waits to leave court after prosecutor Lisette Suder’s closing arguments in El Dorado Superior Court on Tuesday. rbyer@sacbee.com

The murder trial of Todd Winkler went to the jury Tuesday after the prosecutor repeatedly drew the attention of a hushed courtroom to grim crime-scene photos of Rachel Winkler’s body, riddled with stab wounds – from her hands to her eye to her neck.

In a searing closing argument, El Dorado County Deputy District Attorney Lisette Suder focused on the photos – and a path of blood – to argue that Winkler killed his wife in an act of premeditated murder.

She said the former Air Force fighter pilot and wealthy pharmaceutical executive came armed with a pair of scissors into the bedroom where Rachel was sleeping. Suder described him as repeatedly stabbing his wife, leaving the room, and then returning to finish Rachel off as she cowered in a corner, clutching the couple’s infant son, Alex.

“Look at the injuries to her neck,” the prosecutor began, meticulously pointing out the injuries on the woman’s body. “Look how many times he is stabbing her, repeatedly, there, there, there, there, there, through her eye, through her mouth, on her neck.

“She puts her hands up to defend herself, and he stabs her repeatedly.”

In a case that has spun on psychological intrigue, the defense argued that Winkler killed his wife in their upscale Cameron Park home in act of self-defense. Winkler’s attorney, David Weiner, said his client delivered the fatal wound amid a psychiatric episode, triggered after Rachel Winkler, 37, had grabbed sewing scissors from a night stand and attacked Winkler during an argument over the couple’s pending divorce.

In his closing argument, Weiner talked about Todd Winkler’s right hand and arm becoming temporarily paralyzed from the stress of a deadly struggle and of his inability to speak.

Weiner drew parallels to a nervous breakdown his client said he suffered in Amsterdam – from a psychiatric condition known as conversion disorder – when Winker was found unresponsive and unable to move in his hotel room before the biggest presentation of his business career.

The defense attorney pointed to another psychotic episode when Winkler was in the Air Force. He was put under psychiatric care and grounded from flying for a condition known as dissociative disorder when he exploded in rage, followed by amnesia, after a commanding officer confronted him over a shoplifting incident.

“His state of mind is really what you need to pay attention to,” Weiner said to jurors, who will return to begin deliberations Wednesday.

Offering the defense account of the killing, Weiner said Todd Winkler lost control when Rachel Winkler told him that her boyfriend would come after him if Todd didn’t agree to her demands for full custody of their three young children.

He said the 230-pound Winkler punched his 110-pound wife, who then came at him in a fury with the scissors. He said Winkler soon became exhausted, that “he was feeling weak, and unable to defend himself further” – until he got control of the scissors and delivered the fatal blow to his wife, believing he had to kill her or that she would kill him.

“This not a murder case, ladies and gentlemen,” Weiner told the jury. “This is a self-defense case or – at most – it is a voluntary manslaughter case.”

El Dorado County Judge Kenneth J. Melikian gave jurors four options to consider – first-degree murder, second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter or justifiable homicide in self-defense.

Suder pointedly argued that Winkler, 47, “is a mastermind … a manipulator, and he is a murderer.” She portrayed him as a serial liar, who twice faked having cancer and who staged his breakdown in Amsterdam while plotting to defraud his company – Abbott Diabetes Care – in a lawsuit.

The prosecutor said Winkler set out to kill his wife with scissors he retrieved from a mantle downstairs and went into the room where his wife was sleeping at 3 a.m. on Feb. 27, 2012. He brutally attacked her in anger over how much their divorce was going to cost him, left her for dead and fled to the car in the garage, Suder said.

Pointing to physical evidence in the bedroom, Suder noted a trail of blood spots on the bed, the floor and a onesie outfit of the Winklers’ baby, Alex. She said it showed that Rachel had survived the first attack, then fumbled around the floor unsuccessfully looking for a cellphone before retrieving the baby from his crib.

“She is dying and what does she do? She scoops up her baby, holds her baby and she cowers in the corner wondering what he (Todd) is going to do next,” Suder said. “That’s the scientific proof, ladies and gentlemen.”

Winkler testified in the trial that he broke away from his wife during the first struggle, went to a car and donned a heavy leather jacket to protect himself from his wife’s rage and her scissors as he went back inside to rescue their three children.

Suder said the evidence suggests that Winkler merely took Alex out of his wife’s arms and set the baby aside before he finished the task of killing Rachel with a fatal plunge of the scissors into her jugular vein.

Weiner said the blood evidence doesn’t support the prosecution claim that Rachel had been holding the baby.

During his three days on witness stand, Winkler testified that he got the scissors and Rachel was begging to work things out and “pleading for her life” but that he decided she had to die for his own safety. After killing her, he said, “I kneeled over her body and cried.”

Suder argued that Winkler lay on his wife for as much as a half an hour to ensure that she bled to death from the scissors driven deeply into her neck.

A former manager of the Cameron Airpark, Rachel Winkler, 37, was portrayed by her father and friends before the trial as an intelligent, 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 trial has also focused on Rachel’s affair with an airpark handyman, James White, 46, of Rescue. The defense has claimed that Todd Winkler feared White, a former Marine, trained marksman and firearms enthusiast.

Testifying for the prosecution, White expressed his hatred for Winkler and admitted he told friends he would kill Winkler if the husband was ever freed from custody after Rachel’s death.

But Suder said Winkler’s story that Rachel told him White was coming to get him was pure fiction. Meanwhile, she described multiple acts of erratic behavior by Todd Winkler and said Rachel had told friends and her father about a growing fear of her husband.

During the trial, prosecutors also dramatized the mysterious death of Winkler’s previous wife, Catherine Winkler, in a fiery car crash off a Georgia forest road. Winkler told investigators at the time that Catherine, 32, was racing him to the hospital after he had a severe allergic reaction to an insect bite, and that he was ejected from the vehicle in the crash.

He was not charged with wrongdoing – and collected insurance settlements of nearly $1.2 million.

Offering the Georgia accident as a virtual murder trial within a murder trial, Suder argued that there were too many inconsistencies in multiple accounts Winkler offered of the accident for anyone to believe him.

“The defendant has now had two dead wives,” Suder said Tuesday. “And in both cases – look at these similarities – he is the only witness.”

Suder drew parallels between the fatal crash and Rachel’s murder. She said Todd Winkler had financial troubles at both junctures of his life and a motive for money – the insurance payout in Georgia and avoiding hefty spousal- and child-support payments in California.

Weiner lashed out at the prosecution’s theory.

He said the trial in downtown Placerville had produced no new evidence to change what Georgia investigators determined – that the crash was an accident involving no criminal motive.

“To find that Todd Winkler killed Catherine Winkler, you have to rely on wild, blind, idiotic speculation,” Weiner said.

He labeled as absurd Suder’s contention that Winkler, in one case, had orchestrated a spectacular car crash and then resorted to killing with a pair of scissors the second time around.

“If you were a mastermind figuring out how to kill somebody and had this wonderful mind and all the time in the world to lay it out, would you do it like that?” Weiner said of Rachel Winkler’s death. “I don’t think so.”

The defense pointed to a slash on Winkler’s leg and small nicks and gashes on his hands to argue that Winkler felt that he was in a struggle for his life with Rachel and acted in self-defense. Suder contended that Winkler inflicted the wounds on himself after murdering his wife.

The prosecutor closed with still more photos – of Todd’s nicked hands and Rachel’s deeply wounded hands. She then finished with Rachel’s bloodied face, dotted with puncture wounds. Next to it, she displayed Todd Winkler’s police photo, showing nary a mark.

“This is what (Rachel) is able to tell us: It was not self-defense,” Suder said. “Look at the wounds. … That is the evidence, ladies and gentlemen.”

Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916)326-5539.

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