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YOLO COUNTY NEWS
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Traumatic Davis murder case makes prime time

sabrina and johnW

Sabrina Gonsalves and John Riggins were carefree 18-year-olds in the summer of 1980, when they met while working in summer recreation programs for the city of Davis. The couple were kidnapped and killed on Dec. 20, 1980, by Richard Hirschfield, who was convicted last year of their murders and sentenced to death. Courtesy photo

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From page A1 | September 24, 2013 | Leave Comment

Join in

What: Warm Remembrance Family Picnic, featuring the U.S. Air Force Band of the Golden West

When: 5-6:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 20

Where: Redwood Park on Anderson Road (biking and walking encouraged due to limited parking)

Needed: Volunteers to set up, clean up and supervise children’s activities; and service groups to sell food and drinks at the event.

Contact: Beth Gabor, warm.remembrance@gmail.com or 530-756-8119

A Davis double-murder case that shook the city to its core — then took the victims’ families on a long and painful road to justice — is the subject of CBS’ “48 Hours” season premiere on Saturday.

“The Sweetheart Murders” airs locally on Channel 13 at 9 p.m. and features interviews with family and friends of teenage victims John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves, as well as investigators and onetime suspects in the decades-old case.

Viewers also will see footage of defendant Richard Joseph Hirschfield’s three-month trial last year in Sacramento Superior Court, which ended with Hirschfield being convicted of two counts of first-degree murder with special circumstances and condemned to death.

Riggins and Gonsalves were 18-year-old freshmen at UC Davis when they were abducted from outside Gonsalves’ North Davis condominium on the foggy night of Dec. 20, 1980. The couple had just ushered a performance of the “Davis Children’s Nutcracker” and were on their way to a surprise birthday party for Gonsalves’ sister, Andrea.

They never made it.

A two-day search spanning both Yolo and Sacramento counties led to the discoveries of the slain couple’s bodies in a wooded ravine off Highway 50 in Rancho Cordova, more than 30 miles away from Davis.

But it would be another 22 years before Hirschfield was identified as a suspect in the murders, the result of a book about the case by former Davis Enterprise reporter Joel Davis, a fresh look at the evidence by investigators and modern DNA technology that detected Hirschfield’s genetic profile on a blanket found in Riggins’ van, which had been used to transport the couple to Sacramento County.

Hirschfield’s brother Joseph committed suicide after being questioned by detectives about the murders, leaving behind a note that said in part, “I have been living with this horror for 20 years. I was there. My DNA is there.”

Richard Hirschfield was formally charged with the murders in 2004, with another eight years passing by before the case went to trial.

Complicating the matter was an earlier prosecution of the murders by authorities in Yolo County, who charged four other suspects — known as the “Hunt group” — on the theory that leader David Hunt orchestrated copycat killings to aid his half-brother, serial killer Gerald Gallego, who at the time was incarcerated for a similar crime.

DNA from the blanket failed to match any of the Hunt group’s three male members, however, and the case fell apart on the eve of their 1993 trial. Two of the group’s members, David Hunt and Richard Thompson, have since died.

“48 Hours” featured the sweethearts case one other time, in January 2007, as Hirschfield’s preliminary hearing was underway and the details linking him to the murders were aired publicly for the first time.

Meanwhile, fundraising efforts continue toward the construction of a playground memorial at West Davis’ Redwood Park, where Riggins spent countless hours as a child and Gonsalves worked as a playground leader for the city’s parks department.

Riggins family cousin Beth Gabor says more than $17,000 has been raised for the Warm Remembrance Family Play Area, which will feature new play equipment, landscaping, improved lighting and memorial benches. The project’s name pays homage to the Warm Remembrance Festival, a family-oriented gathering held in Davis for years after the couple’s deaths.

To raise awareness of the project, organizers are planning a Warm Remembrance family picnic on Sunday, Oct. 20, at Redwood Park, with entertainment including children’s activities and music by the U.S. Air Force Band of the Golden West.

Fundraising efforts toward the park project will conclude on Dec. 31. To learn more, visit http://city-managers-office.cityofdavis.org/warm-remembrance-project.

— Reach Lauren Keene at lkeene@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene

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