SACRAMENTO — A former Davis police detective found himself in the hot seat Monday as the prosecutor in the UC Davis “sweethearts” trial grilled him on his handling of the double-murder investigation a quarter-century ago.
Fred Turner was called as the first defense witness after the prosecution rested its monthlong case, testifying about his use of an undercover informant named Ray Gonzales as he pursued four suspects in the Dec. 20, 1980, kidnap-slayings of John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves.
It was Turner’s first use of an informant and one of just a handful of homicide cases — most of them cold — he had handled since being promoted to detective in 1984, Turner testified in Sacramento Superior Court, where Richard Joseph Hirschfield is on trial for the UCD students’ murders.
Hirschfield’s attorneys contend it was the original suspects — David Hunt, his wife Suellen, Richard Thompson and Doug Lainer — who were really behind the crime. Hirschfield, 63, could face the death penalty if convicted.
Jurors already had heard details of Turner and Gonzales’ work on the case from retired Sacramento County sheriff’s Lt. Ray Biondi, whose agency took control of the investigation when the victims’ bodies were found in a Folsom-area ravine two days after their disappearance from Davis. Biondi testified last month about introducing Gonzales to Turner in 1987 as the two detectives took a fresh look at the dormant crime.
“He was a trusted informant,” Turner said Monday under questioning by defense attorney Linda Parisi. He added that Gonzales “elicited remarkable information” about the Riggins-Gonsalves murders during a covert July 1987 meeting with Thompson in a downtown Los Angeles bar.
Thompson was “very open … even conspiratorial” in his comments to Gonzales, Turner recalled.
But a mini-cassette recorder planted on Gonzales failed to pick up the alleged confession, so Turner said he instructed Gonzales to record his own statement recalling the conversation. Yolo County prosecutors used the information to file charges against the Hunt group in 1989.
Under a blistering cross-examination, Turner told Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet he didn’t perform any investigation into Gonzales’ background before working with him on the case, gauging his reliability on colleagues’ recommendations and the fact that Gonzales showed up at a designated meeting place on time. Only later, he said, did he learn David Hunt had once been married to Gonzales’ sister.
Turner also admitted that he failed to document all of his conversations with Gonzales as was police protocol, never probed Gonzales’ knowledge about the murders before sending him to talk to Thompson, and never listened to the garbled tape recording, which his reports say Gonzales temporarily “misplaced.”
The retired detective acknowledged bringing Gonzales along on a multi-state road trip during his investigation, using him as a Spanish interpreter when the necessity arose. He said he considered Gonzales an “operative” whose role was to collect information for police, despite his lack of law-enforcement training.
“He has the gift of gab, and that’s what my intention for him was,” Turner testified.
Yolo County dismissed charges against the Hunt group on the eve of their 1993 trial after DNA testing available at the time eliminated the three male defendants and Riggins as contributors of semen stains on a blanket that had been collected from Riggins’ van. An alleged match led investigators to Hirschfield in 2002.
Turner has said he still believes the Hunt group was somehow involved in the killings. His theory — that Hunt orchestrated the slayings as a “copycat” crime to draw police attention away from his half-brother Gerald Gallego, then suspected of a similar double homicide — was previously ruled inadmissible at Hirschfield’s trial.
However, Judge Michael Sweet did allow Parisi to question Turner about the Hunt group’s visit to Carson City, Nev. — just over two hours from Davis — on the weekend of the murders. Also barred in the pretrial ruling was Turner’s premise that David and Suellen Hunt were married there on Dec. 20, 1980, to create an alibi for the crime.
Bladet also quizzed Turner about his initial failure to respond to a subpoena to appear as a prosecution witness in the Hirschfield trial, a lapse that at one point prompted Sweet to issue, and later withdraw, a warrant for Turner’s arrest.
But Turner said he was never reluctant to testify as part of either the DA’s or the defense’s case.
“It was a big part of my life for eight years,” said Turner, who had also taken the original missing-persons report after Riggins’ and Gonsalves’ families realized the couple had vanished.
Jurors went home early Monday so the attorneys could argue how much, if any, of Gonzales’ recorded conversation with Thompson, who died in 1998, would be admitted today as Gonzales takes the witness stand.
— Reach Lauren Keene at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter @laurenkeene