SACRAMENTO — The blue-and-red blanket at the heart of a 32-year-old murder case made its first appearance Thursday in a Sacramento courtroom.
It was called the “Bundle Up,” billed on TV as “the body garment for all seasons.” Sabrina Gonsalves had purchased it as a birthday present for her sister and roommate, Andrea, whose surprise party she looked forward to attending on the night of Dec. 20, 1980.
Instead, Sabrina’s body was found two days later at the bottom of a Sacramento County ravine, next to that of her slain boyfriend, John Riggins. The blanket, once wrapped in festive “Happy Birthday” paper, was found bunched up on the floor of Riggins’ van, about a mile away from the bodies.
But its significance to the case wouldn’t be known for nearly 12 years, when a criminalist inspecting the patchwork quilt discovered several semen stains that had previously gone undetected. Tests turned up a DNA profile that exonerated four people being tried at the time for the UC Davis students’ murders.
Another look at the DNA profile 10 years later revealed an alleged match — that of a Washington state prison inmate by the name of Richard Joseph Hirschfield, now 63. He was arrested and charged with the so-called “sweethearts” murders in 2004 but has denied responsibility for the crimes.
His potential death-penalty trial marked its third day in Sacramento Superior Court on Thursday with testimony from some of the crime-scene investigators and technicians who originally worked the case.
With the jury’s full attention, Michael Kidwell, a now-retired identification technician for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, removed the blanket from its paper evidence storage bag — one of more than a dozen such packages whose contents were unveiled by witnesses throughout the day.
The blanket’s original packaging — plastic wrap and a label, apparently torn open at some point before or after the murders — also had been preserved.
Other physical evidence included liquor bottles and shotgun-shell casings recovered near the teens’ bodies, as well as van contents — such as keys, various papers, a tire iron, a white handkerchief and the bundle-up blanket — that were scrutinized for clues about the killer.
Kidwell testified that the blanket would have been sent to a crime lab and inspected for physiological fluids, along with the handkerchief found on one of the van’s seats. His inspection of the van revealed 65 latent fingerprints, about a third of which later were attributed to members of the Riggins and Gonsalves families.
During cross-examination, lead defense attorney Linda Parisi quizzed Kidwell on the evidence handling and storage procedures of that time, questioning the lack of property sheets documenting when the evidence would have been in his and others’ possession.
At one point, she asked if it was possible Kidwell sent both the blanket and the handkerchief to the crime lab in the same bag instead of individually, creating a situation in which they could have become cross-contaminated.
Kidwell — who suffers from a brain tumor and takes medication that has eradicated his memories of the decades-old crime — said while he can’t say for sure whether he combined them, his office’s protocol would have forbade it.
“The (technician) has to be reliable — don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t make things up. You absolutely have to have 100 percent credibility,” Kidwell said. One mistake, he added, and your reputation as a witness is ruined.
“It would be what I consider in the business an unforgivable sin,” he said.
Earlier Thursday, former sheriff’s crime-scene technician Sue Safholm revealed to the jury the scraps of duct tape that had been used to bind the teens’ wrists and ankles. Their abductor also had wrapped the tape around their heads.
Some of the tape was still lined with tufts of Riggins’ and Gonsalves’ hair, which had to be cut from their heads to fully remove it.
Technicians scoured the tape scraps for possible fingerprints but found none — including that of David Hunt, one of four suspects pursued by the Davis Police Department in the 1980s, Kidwell told Parisi.
In addition to their tainted-evidence theory, Hirschfield’s lawyers allege the Hunt group was somehow involved in the killings.
A print detected in 1985 turned out to be that of a psychic brought in by detectives to handle the tape, Kidwell’s onetime colleague John Allen testified.
Richard Lavagnino was working as a patrol sergeant for the Folsom Police Department when he was called to the station to interview a possible witness around midnight on Dec. 21, 1980.
The witness, Carl White, “explained to me that he and his girlfriend were parked out in a field … and he thought he witnessed a van that was missing out of Davis” the night before, Lavagnino said. “He was pretty nervous, to the point of being upset.”
Together, the men drove to the location — Folsom Boulevard near Aerojet Drive — and headed north down a muddy access road. Lavagnino said White reported having seen a van backing up in a nearby field.
Lavagnino remembered leaving his patrol car after it nearly became stuck in the mud. Armed with a flashlight, he walked through the fog toward an embankment and turned left — away, it turned out, from the ravine where Riggins’ and Gonsalves’ bodies already lay.
About a half-hour passed. Finding nothing, he turned around and left.
“I checked the area real good, but I couldn’t see anything because of the fog and the brush and the trees,” he said. “I couldn’t see anything at all.”
Testimony in the case resumes Monday.
— Reach Lauren Keene at email@example.com or (530) 747-8048. Follow her on Twitter @laurenkeene