SACRAMENTO — Although hundreds of leads poured in to Sacramento County authorities in the wake of the December 1980 UC Davis “sweethearts” slayings, none managed to produce a viable suspect, and by the mid-1980s the case had gone stone cold.
One day, a law-enforcement colleague told Lt. Ray Biondi, then head of the Sacramento sheriff’s homicide bureau, he knew someone with information that could potentially jump-start the dormant investigation.
The informant’s name was Ray Gonzales, and he told Biondi he thought David Hunt, a career criminal and Gonzales’ former brother-in-law, had abducted and killed 18-year-old UCD students John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves.
Though wary of informants — “they usually have their own agenda” — Biondi saw value in Gonzales’ connection to Hunt and agreed to hear him out, he testified Tuesday in Sacramento Superior Court. He said one of his detectives had contacted Hunt as a “person of interest” in 1981, but the probe never panned out.
“He was vague (about his whereabouts), as I recall,” Biondi said under questioning by defense lawyer Linda Parisi, whose client Richard Hirschfield is on trial for the Riggins-Gonsalves killings. Biondi said he chalked it up to Hunt’s pending parole hearing at the time and his recent involvement in a multistate robbery spree.
But Hirschfield’s lawyers have another theory — that 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.
It’s a premise Hirschfield’s jury is unlikely to hear, given a pretrial ruling by Judge Michael W. Sweet barring any mention of the copycat claims he described as “highly speculative.” Parisi’s attempts to bring up Gallego’s name during Biondi’s cross-examination Tuesday brought swift objections from prosecutor Dawn Bladet, which Sweet sustained.
Biondi was allowed to describe how he and then-Davis police Detective Fred Turner worked for months with Gonzales on the “Hunt group” angle. In July 1987, Turner and his informant traveled to Los Angeles, where Gonzales arranged a meeting with known Hunt associate Richard Thompson, who also was believed to have played a role in the killings.
With no direct physical evidence available at the time, “I thought the case would be solved by playing these various suspects against each other, and hope that somebody would break loose and confess,” Biondi testified.
Gonzales was wired for his meetup with Thompson at a seedy hotel bar, but the recording turned out “unintelligible” and yielded no usable details, Biondi recalled. He said investigators attempted several operations with Gonzales — including a visit with Hunt, by then in federal prison for kidnapping, and his wife Suellen — before deciding “we weren’t getting anywhere with this one.”
But Turner surged ahead, and although Sacramento was technically the lead agency in the case, Biondi said Turner no longer sought their involvement.
“We thought he had lost his objectivity,” said Biondi, who retired in 1993 and has authored several books about high-profile killers — including Gerald Gallego, a case he helped solve as head of the homicide unit.
Yolo County authorities eventually took over the Riggins-Gonsalves case, arresting Hunt, Thompson, Suellen Hunt and their associate Doug Lainer in 1989 under the Gallego copycat theory.
The case fell apart in early 1993, however, when DNA testing on a semen-stained blanket recovered from Riggins’ van showed none of the three male defendants had contributed the genetic material.
It was crucial evidence that took years to come to light. Earlier Tuesday, Biondi testified that the day after Riggins and Gonsalves’ bodies were recovered from a secluded ravine off Highway 50, about 30 miles east of Davis, a criminalist phoned him with some discouraging news.
“There was negative activity in all swabs taken from the victims for acid phosphatase. …That would indicate (there was) no semen involved,” Biondi said.
Today, the jury is expected to hear testimony from pair of criminologists who conducted the initial analyses of the semen-stained blanket back in 1992. Another decade would pass, however, before DNA extracted from those stains yielded a suspect in the case.
Sacramento sheriff’s homicide detectives Ed Newton and Dan Cabral had just been assigned to the cold Riggins-Gonsalves investigation when Hirchfield’s name surfaced through a DNA hit in 2002.
Newton testified Tuesday that he and Cabral traveled that November to Washington — where Hirschfield was serving prison time for child molestation — to collect blood, hair and cell samples from their newly identified suspect.
While there, he said, the detectives learned that Hirschfield’s brother, Joseph Hirschfield, had committed suicide the day before in Oregon after being questioned by Sacramento authorities about his brother’s whereabouts around the time of the murders.
His suicide note, reportedly confessing to his and Richard Hirschfield’s involvement in the killings but which under a pretrial ruling will be redacted to remove potentially prejudicial references to the defendant, is expected to be introduced later in the trial.
Hirschfield, 63, has pleaded not guilty the murders. He faces the death penalty if convicted of the crimes.
— Reach Lauren Keene at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter @laurenkeene