SACRAMENTO — It was a closing argument fit for All Hallows’ Eve.
Sacramento prosecutor Dawn Bladet hurled words such as “evil,” “predator” and “sexual deviant” repeatedly Wednesday as she summarized her case against Richard Joseph Hirschfield, the man accused of abducting and killing UC Davis sweethearts John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves on a fog-shrouded night nearly 32 years ago.
“It’s like that bad Halloween horror movie, but it was real for John and Sabrina that night,” Bladet said of the 18-year-olds who were kidnapped on Dec. 20, 1980, just after they ushered a performance of the “Davis Children’s Nutcracker,” and as they prepared to attend a surprise birthday party for Gonsalves’ older sister.
Their bodies — heads wrapped in duct tape, their throats viciously slashed — were found two days later in a remote, wooded ravine off Folsom Boulevard in Rancho Cordova, some 30 miles from home.
“The slow and horrific way that he tortured and killed these two young people, it tells you what you need to know,” said Bladet, who asked the seven-man, five-woman jury to convict Hirschfield of first-degree murder.
Hirschfield, 63, is charged with two counts of murder, each of which carry four special-circumstance allegations that he carried out the killings in the commission of kidnapping, rape and oral copulation, and that he committed multiple murders.
If he’s convicted, the case proceeds to a penalty phase, where jurors will recommend whether Hirschfield should be punished with a sentence of death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Attorneys for Hirschfield, who has pleaded not guilty, were slated to deliver their closing arguments today.
Bladet gave her 2 1/2-hour summation in a courtroom so packed with the victims’ family and friends that court officials set up an audio feed in a second courtroom across the hall. It was the largest audience the trial has attracted since it began on Sept. 4 — a decade after a cold-hit DNA match identified Hirschfield as a suspect in the case.
Although more than 20 years passed between the murders and Hirschfield’s arrest, “the evidence was always there,” Bladet said, referring time and again to the semen-stained blanket found in Riggins’ van that, according to a state Department of Justice criminalist, pointed to Hirschfield as the donor with 1-in-240-trillion odds.
“DNA does not lie. It does not forget,” Bladet told the jury. “In his defiling of Sabrina Gonsalves, he left a part of himself behind.”
It was conduct familiar to Hirschfield, said Bladet, taking the jury back to Hirschfield’s 1975 conviction for raping a woman in Mountain View while her sister and sister’s boyfriend sat bound in another room. But this crime, she said, escalated to a whole new level.
“He wasn’t going to leave witnesses behind this time,” she said. “He learned lessons in Mountain View.”
Bladet theorized that Hirschfield was “on a quest for new victims” when he was paroled from a Vacaville prison in July 1980. And he was familiar with Davis, having crashed in the early 1970s at a friend’s house on Benicia Court — about a block from the apartment Gonsalves shared with her sister on Alta Loma Street.
By late December, Davis had become deserted for the holidays, “a very convenient time if you want to abduct a couple of college students and not be seen or detected,” Bladet said. While he may have targeted Gonsalves, “the fact that she had a boyfriend with her didn’t really bother him. It just increased the thrill.”
“It’s part of what he likes — the degradation of a woman in front of her man,” Bladet said. It’s why, she said, he wrapped Gonsalves’ head mummy-like in duct tape, but left the tape on Riggins’ face loose enough for him to breathe while Hirschfield sexually assaulted and killed his girlfriend.
“So he could live long enough to hear what’s happening to the woman he loved,” Bladet said. Beaten on the head, his wrists and ankles bound, “he can’t do anything to stop it.”
Bladet said Hirschfield found an accomplice in his younger brother, Joseph Hirschfield, who in 1980 lived and worked near the Rancho Cordova crime scene and who killed himself after Sacramento investigators came knocking on his door following the 2002 DNA hit.
“I have been living with this horror for 20 years,” Joe Hirschfield wrote in the suicide note he left behind. “I was there. My DNA is there.”
“He knows he’s going to be charged as an aider and an abettor,” Bladet said. “(He) is just as guilty and he knew it, and he took the cowardly way out. But he left the truth behind.”
Evidence at issue
Hirschfield’s lawyers are expected to argue that faulty handling and storage practices over the past three decades have rendered the evidence against their client contaminated and therefore unreliable — a theory that Bladet chalked up to “speculation and conjecture.”
“Where is the evidence in this trial that anything was contaminated? There is none,” Bladet said. “It’s not some casual, random body fluid. It’s semen, OK? You don’t get possession of someone’s semen without their cooperation.”
Bladet also dismissed the testimony of star defense witness Ray Gonzales, who while working as an informant with “well-intentioned” but inexperienced Davis police Detective Fred Turner in the late 1980s claimed to have elicited a confession from onetime suspect Richard Thompson. He, along with David Hunt and two others, were prosecuted for the murders in Yolo County before early DNA testing cleared them in 1993.
“He lies with ease — that’s what he does,” Bladet said of Gonzales, who during his testimony admitted to being motivated by a $30,000 reward in the homicide case, and to hiding from investigators his troubled past relationship with Hunt.
“DNA exonerated David Hunt and Richard Thompson, and that’s what it’s supposed to do. It’s supposed to tell the truth,” Bladet said. Pointing at Hirschfield, she added, “It took time to get here, but you can be confident … that is the man who committed these acts of evil on John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves.”
Bladet will have a chance to rebut the defense’s closing remarks before the case goes to the jury, either late today or Friday.
— Reach Lauren Keene at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 747-8048. Follow her on Twitter @laurenkeene