Local News

‘Sweethearts’ murder case timeline

By From page A6 | December 07, 2012

Here are some significant dates in the UC Davis “sweethearts” murder case:

Dec. 20, 1980: John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves, both 18-year-old UC Davis freshmen, vanish from Davis after ushering a performance of the “Davis Children’s Nutcracker,” and as they prepare to attend a surprise party for Gonsalves’ sister Andrea.

Dec. 22, 1980: Authorities discover Riggins’ van abandoned off Highway 50 and Hazel Avenue. The inside is trashed; gifts intended for Andrea — including a blue-and-red bundle-up blanket — have been unwrapped. The couple’s bodies — throats slashed, heads wrapped in duct tape — are found several hours later in a wooded ravine near Folsom Boulevard and Aerojet Road.

Nov. 14, 1989: Davis police arrest the so-called “Hunt group” — David Hunt, Suellen Hunt and Richard Thompson (Doug Lainer is charged six months later) — in connection with the Riggins-Gonsalves murders. Their theory: that David Hunt orchestrated the killings as a “copycat” crime to cast suspicion away from his half-brother, serial killer Gerald Gallego, who in December 1980 had been jailed for a similar crime.

June 1992: California Department of Justice criminalist Faye Springer, conducting a routine review of evidence in the case, discovers four semen stains on the blanket from Riggins’ van, which investigators previously believed held little evidentiary value.

January 1993: On the eve of trial, Yolo County prosecutors are forced to dismiss charges against the Hunt group after testing shows DNA extracted from semen stains matches neither Riggins nor any of the three male defendants. The case goes cold once again.

Summer 2002: Former Davis Enterprise staff writer Joel Davis’ work on a book about the “sweethearts” case generates interest among Sacramento County authorities, who run the previously unidentified DNA profile through a national database. They get a hit: Richard Joseph Hirschfield, until then an unheard-of suspect serving time for child molestation in Washington state.

Nov. 20, 2002: Joseph Hirschfield, Richard’s younger brother, commits suicide a day after being questioned about his brother’s whereabouts around the time of the Riggins-Gonsalves murders. He leaves behind a note that says, in part: “I have been living with this horror for 20 years. I was there. My DNA is there.”

September 2004: Hirschfield is extradited to California, where he’s charged with two counts of first-degree murder with four special circumstances alleging multiple murders and murder in the commission of kidnapping, rape and oral copulation. Prosecutors eventually decide to seek the death penalty.

Sept. 4, 2012: Hirschfield’s trial begins, more than eight years after his arrest.

Nov. 5: Jury deliberates just over three hours before convicting Hirschfield of both counts of murder and all but one special circumstance, sending the trial into a penalty phase.

Nov. 26: Penalty phase begins.

Dec. 6: Jury recommends that Hirschfield be sentenced to death.

Lauren Keene

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