Todd Winkler tried to get out of a murder conviction by weaving a story of psychiatric breakdowns and of an ultimate, traumatic struggle in which he killed his wife to save himself.
But after four weeks of a sensational murder trial, an El Dorado Superior Court jury Wednesday roundly rejected his story. The jury found Winkler, 47, guilty of first-degree murder with a deadly weapon – a pair of scissors – in the brutal stabbing death of his wife, Rachel Winkler, 37, in their Cameron Park home.
The jury rejected lesser charges of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter as well as the defense claim of justifiable homicide. Winkler, due to be sentenced Dec. 8, faces 26 years to life in prison, including a minimum of 25 years for first-degree murder and an additional year for using the scissors to kill.
The trial had spun on a defense narrative of Winkler’s troubled psychology, including personality disorders that resulted in nervous breakdowns in the Air Force and at a marketing conference in Amsterdam. The defense had argued that Winkler killed his wife after she came at him with a pair of scissors during an argument over their divorce – triggering an extreme psychiatric episode.
But in the end, the verdict appeared to come down to graphic crime-scene photos of Rachel Winkler’s body, riddled with wounds inflicted by the scissors. It also came down to Winkler’s own admission on the witness stand that he killed Rachel as she was begging to live.
Winkler showed no emotion when the verdict was announced or as bailiffs handcuffed him and wrapped a chain around his waist.
In the gallery, Don Hatfield, Rachel Winkler’s father, teared up and brought his fist to his mouth. He also kissed the hand of Wendy Coghlan, an attorney who helped him win custody of Rachel’s three surviving children, Eva, Ariel and Alex, who were 4, 2 and 7 months when their mother was killed on Feb. 27, 2012.
“It left me with melancholy feelings,” Hatfield said afterward. “I’m sad for Todd. I’m sad for his mother and father. I’m sad for the loss of a family, which was illusory. My grandkids have no parents. My personal loss is my daughter. This case will fade into history. But there is no more Rachel.”
Winkler’s parents, George and Janeth Winkler, briskly left the courtroom after the verdict.
James White, who was Rachel Winkler’s lover and planned to marry her after her divorce from Todd Winkler, whispered, “Yes!” and hugged his weeping daughter, Katelynn, 19.
The trial had focused extensively on Rachel’s affair with White, 46, of Rescue, a real estate appraiser and handyman at the Cameron Airpark, where Rachel worked as the manager.
In addition, prosecutors 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 a severe allergic reaction to an insect bite and that he was ejected from the vehicle during the crash. He was not charged with wrongdoing – and collected insurance settlements of nearly $1.2 million.
“I have relief that he can’t do any more harm to any other woman and that both Rachel and Cathy will have some justice,” White said after the verdict. But he added, “It really doesn’t help me get on with my life. The new normal for me is pain in the heart. That’s the way it is going to be.”
Katelynn White, a former Airpark flight student who called Rachel her “best friend,” said the trial was a wrenching ordeal as she sat through testimony every day and “I felt every single wound opening up.”
“It had to get ugly before it got pretty,” she said of the trial and verdict.
On the witness stand during the trial, Winkler laid out a narrative of nervous breakdowns 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.
He described an ultimate, fateful struggle with Rachel over a pair a scissors after a 3 a.m. argument over their divorce. He said he became exhausted as his right side and hand became paralyzed from the psychological stress of the encounter.
But Winkler also said he eventually got hold of the scissors with his left hand and decided right then that Rachel had to die.
He testified that Rachel Winkler was begging to work things out and “pleading for her life” when he fatally plunged the scissors into her neck. He said he collapsed over her body and lay there for nearly 20 minutes before he rose.
“I kneeled over her body and cried,” he said.
The prosecution argued that it was premeditated murder, pointing to Winkler’s own testimony that he broke away from his wife after an initial struggle, fleeing to the garage and retrieving a heavy motorcycle jacket.
Winkler testified he re-entered the house to gather up the couple’s small children. The prosecution argued that he went back in to finish killing Rachel.
In cross-examination, El Dorado County Deputy District Attorney Lisette Suder asked Winkler if he wanted his wife to die.
“Yes,” he answered.
That was apparently enough for the jury to find him guilty of first-degree murder.
“Basically, it was because of his own testimony – when he testified to doing it,” said jury member Robert Vieira, 58. “Rachel was pleading for her life and he decided he was going to kill her anyway. That’s what got him his verdict.”
Vieira said the jury paid virtually no attention to exhaustive trial testimony on the 1999 Georgia crash that killed Catherine Winkler.
But defense attorney David Weiner said Wednesday he will appeal his client’s murder conviction on grounds that introduction of the Georgia incident may have prejudiced the jury.
Weiner, who met with jury members after the trial, said the defense couldn’t overcome the graphic physical evidence of Rachel Winkler’s wounds on her face, neck and hands.
“We knew it was a tough case,” Weiner said. “We thought those very gruesome things were going to be major, and they were.”
The images were driven home in closing arguments as Suder repeatedly showed the crime-scene photographs. She contrasted Rachel’s injuries to minor cuts on Todd Winkler’s hands and a slash on his leg to argue that he had the scissors the entire time and killed his wife in an intentional act.
“This is what (Rachel) is able to tell us,” Suder told the jury. “It was not self-defense.”
In a statement Wednesday, District Attorney Vern Pierson praised Suder for “bringing this killer to justice.”
“Nothing can bring Rachel back,” Pierson said. “But it is my hope that her family, friends and loved ones may find some peace knowing the person responsible for their loss and Rachel’s death is being held responsible.”
Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.