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‘Sweethearts’ jurors hear of suicide note, Hirschfield’s prior crimes

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From page A1 | October 04, 2012 |

SACRAMENTO — Jurors in the UC Davis “sweethearts” murder trial heard dramatic testimony from four witnesses Wednesday: a rape victim, two women molested as young girls and a widow whose husband took his own life a day after a mysterious visit from Sacramento homicide detectives.

Prosecutors say they share one thing in common — Richard Hirschfield, who served prison time for the rape and molests, and who was the subject of the detectives’ stopover at Joseph Hirschfield’s Beavercreek, Ore., farm.

Hirschfield, 63, is on trial in Sacramento Superior Court for the Dec. 20, 1980, murders of UCD students John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsavles, who were kidnapped from Davis after ushering a children’s “Nutcracker” performance and left to die in a Folsom-area ravine. He has pleaded not guilty to the allegations.

The slayings went unsolved for more than 20 years until DNA extracted from a semen-stained blanket in Riggins’ van identified Hirschfield as a suspect in the case. On Nov. 19, 2002, the two Sacramento detectives showed up on Joe Hirschfield’s front porch, asking about his brother Richard and a long-ago crime.

Joe Hirschfield was at his mechanic’s job at the time, so his wife Lana Hirschfield, who never met her husband’s siblings, gave them directions to his workplace and sent them on their way. That afternoon, Joe uncharacteristically came home a few hours early.

“He was upset, and he was very red-faced,” Lana Hirschfield recalled. He immediately poured himself a glass of whiskey, another anomaly for a man who drank only a couple of nights a week.

At one point, their conversation turned to the detectives’ visit.

“I asked him if he was involved (in the crime), questions along that line,” Lana Hirschfield said. “He told me he wasn’t involved, and I was relieved. … It would disrupt our lives quite a bit.”

The next day began as usual, except Joe Hirschfield bid his wife goodbye not once, but twice, pledging his love to her both times. He was scheduled to attend a computer technology class after work, but he never came home.

When he stayed gone the next morning, Lana Hirschfield worked the phone, eventually learning that Joe never made it to his class or to work the day before.

“So at that point I knew that there was something wrong,” she said. Soon after, she went out to the couple’s barn to feed the farm’s animals and heard music coming from the metal structure.

The first thing she noticed when she peeked inside was the dirty film covering the windows of her husband’s car. Joe Hirschfield, dead from carbon monoxide poisoning, lay reclined in the driver’s seat, a two-page note written on a yellow legal pad at his side.

“I have been living with this horror for 20 years,” the note said. “I was there. My DNA is there. I am so sorry, but it is in the past. … I wanted to tell you last night, but I couldn’t bear to see the hurt on your face.”

Authorities believe the note referred to the Riggins-Gonsalves murders. It also implicated Richard Hirschfield in the crime, but a pretrial ruling by Judge Michael Sweet required prosecutors to omit any mention of the defendant, since the note’s author isn’t alive to be cross-examined.

Joe Hirschfield’s first wife, Bobbie Keaton, testified earlier this week that the couple had been living in a Rancho Cordova mobile home park — roughly nine miles from the body-dump site — in the winter of 1980.

Pattern emerges

That same year, Richard Hirschfield was released from a Vacaville prison, having served five years for an April 30, 1975, rape and robbery at a Mountain View apartment.

The rape victim took the witness stand Wednesday as Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet, who is alleging that Hirschfield killed Riggins and Gonsalves in the commission of Gonsalves’ sexual assault, sought to demonstrate his history of sex-related crimes.

The woman, whose name is being withheld by The Enterprise because she is a sexual assault victim, said she was home with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend when an intruder interrupted their night of household chores.

“There was this guy standing there with a gun in his hand and a nylon stocking over his head,” said the woman, who was 22 at the time. He demanded “bread” — slang for money — and “he said he wasn’t going to hurt us if we did what he said.”

She said the man used rope and a box cutter to tie up all three victims. He then apparently touched the sister, 16, who let out a scream.

“OK, then, who wants to be raped?” the woman recalled the intruder saying. Hoping to spare her sister, she acquiesced to the assault, but asked that her sister and the boyfriend be moved to another room.

Afterward, the man rifled through cabinets, purses and drawers, then undressed the other two victims, cut the phone line and left. The woman said she went to a neighbor’s apartment and called police.

Hirschfield was arrested about a week later in nearby Sunnyvale by an off-duty officer, James Brice, who testified he recognized his distinctive green jacket from a police bulletin about the Mountain View rape. In his car, Brice said, police recovered rope, a box cutter, nylon stocking, a garrote and a .38-caliber revolver with a homemade silencer.

Bladet displayed a photo of a younger, bearded Hirschfield on a courtroom projection screen, and asked the woman to identify him.

“Richard Joseph Hirschfield,” she said. “I will never forget him. He’s the man that raped me in 1975.”

Database connection

At the time of the DNA match in the “sweethearts” case, Hirschfield was serving time in Washington state for child rape — a conviction that put his genetic profile in a national DNA database.

The conviction, overturned on appeal in 2005 because Hirschfield was denied his request to act as his own attorney, stemmed from the July 28, 1996, molests of two girls, ages 9 and 11, at the Aqua Barn Ranch water park in Renton, Wash.

“He said he plays with lots of children,” one of the victims, now 27, testified Wednesday about the man who introduced himself as “Rich.” The Enterprise is withholding the molest victims’ names.

The woman said she and her younger friend would sit on Hirschfield’s hands in the park’s pool so he could toss them into the air. After awhile, his fingers began slipping underneath the girls’ bathing suits, touching their private areas in ways that made them uncomfortable.

“He said I had a nice butt for a 9-year-old,” testified the second victim, now 25, who broke down in tears on the witness stand. She said Hirschfield later apologized to them outside the pool’s locker room, but there was an edge to his words.

“I was scared that he would find me and hurt me, and I was terrified to be by myself,” she said, adding that she slept in her mother’s bed until the age of 13 due to her fears.

Under cross-examination, the first woman said while she told Hirschfield that one of his gropings hurt, she never told him to stop. But she also said the touching left her “definitely unsettled.”

“The truth is, I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t understand the gravity of it at the time,” she said.

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

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