SACRAMENTO — Two key players in Yolo County’s failed prosecution of the UC Davis “sweethearts” murder case made appearances Tuesday in Sacramento Superior Court, but not to discuss the onetime suspects who never went to trial.
Former Davis police Detective Fred Turner and John Haynes, a retired Yolo County district attorney investigator, talked mostly about chain-of-custody matters — namely, the evidence they shuttled between property storage rooms and crime labs during the late 1980s and early ’90s, years before current defendant Richard Hirschfield was ever on the radar.
Both men still believe that others were involved in the Dec. 20, 1980, slayings of John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves. And both are expected to return to court later this month, when the defense begins a case that relies heavily upon the theory it was that third party, and not Hirschfield, who kidnapped and killed the UCD students nearly 32 years ago.
Yolo’s case against the so-called “Hunt group” — David Hunt, Suellen Hunt, Richard Thompson and Doug Lainer — was dismissed in 1993 after newly discovered DNA evidence from a semen-stained blanket found in Riggins’ van excluded Riggins and the three male defendants as the donors.
Investigators believed David Hunt masterminded the murders to draw heat away from serial killer Gerald Gallego, Hunt’s half-brother, who had recently been jailed for a similar double homicide in Sacramento.
However, Turner did shed light Tuesday on what may have been a missed opportunity in the investigation — his submission of the blanket to the California Department of Justice crime lab for analysis on June 21, 1989, five months before the Hunt group’s arrests.
Turner asked that the blanket be examined for trace evidence, but his paperwork mentioned only “hair and fiber” and didn’t extend to bodily fluids such as semen or saliva.
“In my mind, (fluids) would have been included … but I didn’t specifically ask,” Turner testified. As a result, “we got a report from the criminalist that found nothing.”
Later, Turner admitted he had little experience in submitting evidence for forensic analysis back in those days.
“It would have been my presumption that if they saw something, they would note what they thought it was,” he said.
The stains also went undetected during a viewing of the case’s evidence that took place sometime in 1990 or ’91, involving the Hunt group’s eight defense attorneys, as well as four of their investigators. Haynes said the blanket may have been folded at the time, and no one was allowed to touch it.
“I don’t recall any comments by anybody” about the blanket, said Haynes, who was asked by Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet whether the stains’ discovery would have been considered “a significant event.”
“Absolutely,” he replied.
Haynes returned the blanket to the DOJ crime lab for further testing in 1992, when criminalist Faye Springer spotted the four semen stains that, a decade later, identified Hirschfield as a suspect in the case.
Hirschfield has pleaded not guilty to the murders, which prosecutors say was carried out during a sexual assault of Gonsalves. He faces the death penalty if convicted.
Earlier Tuesday, the Hunt group was the focus of a lively debate outside the jury’s presence as Hirschfield’s attorneys attempted to persuade Judge Michael Sweet to revise one of his pretrial rulings on the subject.
The ruling allows the defense to refer to the Hunt group as prior suspects in the case, but bars any mention of their three-plus years being prosecuted in Yolo County or of the copycat murder theory that led to their arrests.
Hirschfield’s lawyers said they may subpoena “one or several” of the Hunt group’s attorneys to testify, and they fear the jury may be confused by their connections to the case.
“There’s no prejudice to the people for the jury to know the truth, that there was a prosecution. It gives a context to what’s going on,” defense attorney Linda Parisi said.
Bladet opposed the request and Sweet concurred, saying details of the unsuccessful prosecution are of no value or relevance to the current trial.
“It just causes more problems than it solves,” Sweet said.
— Reach Lauren Keene at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter @laurenkeene