Crime, Fire + Courts

Judge to rule in May on ‘Hunt group’ murder theory

By From page A1 | April 15, 2012

Richard Hirschfield. Courtesy photo

Richard Hirschfield. Courtesy photo

SACRAMENTO — Attorneys in the UC Davis “sweetheart murders” case wrapped up Friday their debate over whether a third party — and not defendant Richard Hirschfield — committed the killings more than three decades ago.

Now, they’re waiting for Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Sweet to rule May 9 how much of that evidence defense lawyers can introduce at Hirschfield’s forthcoming trial.

Hirschfield is linked by an alleged DNA match to the Dec. 20, 1980, kidnap-murders of UCD students John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves, whose bodies were found two days later in a ravine along Highway 50 in Sacramento County.

Sweet already has said from the bench that he’s inclined to permit the testimony of Ray Gonzales, an ex-con and police informant who in the late 1980s helped Davis police build a case against four other people on the theory that the killings were a copycat crime.

The theory: David Hunt, his wife Suellen Hunt and friends Richard Thompson and Doug Lainer committed the murders to help Hunt’s half-brother Gerald Gallego, who had recently been arrested for abducting and killing another college couple. Gonzales said Hunt believed a similar crime would make authorities believe the real killer was still at large.

Gallego remained behind bars, however, and Yolo County prosecutors released the foursome on the eve of their 1993 trial after a DNA test on a semen-stained blanket found in Riggins’ van failed to match David Hunt, Thompson, Lainer or Riggins.

But Hirschfield’s lawyers have embraced the “Hunt group” theory and hope to present it at trial, despite the prosecutor’s argument that it’s likely to confuse the jury and cause unnecessary delay.

None of it “provides any credible evidence that this crime was committed by anyone other than Richard Hirschfield,” Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet said at a court hearing in late March.

Through live witnesses and transcripts of previous testimony, the defense is seeking to admit:

* Thompson’s alleged admission to Gonzales in 1987 of his and David Hunt’s involvement in the murders of Riggins and Gonsalves, both 18-year-old freshmen at UCD. Purportedly captured on tape, the conversation was deemed unusable due to background noise, and Davis police relied upon Gonzales’ version of Thompson’s statements.

* Evidence of David and Suellen Hunt’s wedding in Carson City, Nev., on Dec. 20, 1980, which lead defense attorney Linda Parisi alleges was carried out to serve as an alibi for the students’ murders, and to protect Suellen Hunt from having to testify against her husband.

* Statements from Bill Lansing, a friend of the Hunt group, who recalled being dropped off at a casino following the wedding while the others took care of what they called “family business.”

* Recollections by Valerie Thompson, the former wife of the now-deceased Richard Thompson, of a “blood-brother ritual” between Thompson and Hunt the night before the killings. Parisi said the incident is proof the two men were “like family” as they sought to clear Gerald Gallego’s name.

* Alleged sightings of Lainer driving Riggins’ van in the Sacramento area around the time of the 1980 crimes.

Sweet said last week he would make his ruling after a review of the attorneys’ motions and relevant case law — including People v. Hall, a 1986 California Supreme Court ruling that says relevant evidence of third-party culpability is admissible when it raises a reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt.

Hirschfield, 63, has pleaded not guilty to the murders, for which he was arrested and charged in 2004. He faces the death penalty if convicted.

— Reach Lauren Keene at [email protected] or (530) 747-8048. Follow her on Twitter @laurenkeene

Lauren Keene

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