SACRAMENTO — Unusual sightings and a distinctive license plate helped authorities track the potential movements of a van connected to the 1980 kidnap-slayings of a UC Davis couple.
John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves were last seen between 8:30 and 9 p.m. on Dec. 20, leaving the Veterans’ Memorial Center after ushering a “Davis Children’s Nutcracker” performance.
At about 9:30 that night, 17-year-old Michael Gonzalez, a seasonal worker at the Nimbus Fish Hatchery in Rancho Cordova, began locking up the Hazel Avenue facility for the night.
As he performed meter-reading duties toward the back of the hatchery, “I saw a vehicle come down the Hazel Avenue entrance,” Gonzalez testified Monday in Sacramento Superior Court, nearly 32 years later. He said it would happen occasionally when drivers mistook the hatchery for a freeway onramp.
Instead of turning around like those other cars, however, this one continued onward — ignoring private-property signs and heading north toward the hatchery buildings.
“It was a light-colored van. It stopped, and the headlights were fixed on me,” Gonzalez said. As he walked toward the vehicle, the driver reversed gears and backed up.
“It made a wide turn and took off,” said Gonzalez, adding that he never saw who was inside the van. He didn’t think much about it until three days later, when a TV news broadcast about the “sweetheart” killings prompted people who might have seen Riggins’ van to contact police.
Gonzalez’s testimony launched day four of the jury trial for Richard Joseph Hirschfield, the man charged in 2004 of murdering Riggins and Gonsalves. Now 63, he was identified as a suspect in 2002 through a cold-hit DNA match.
He has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which carry multiple special-circumstance allegations that qualify him for the death penalty if he is convicted.
Dec. 20, 1980, was an unusually foggy night — so much so that Graydon and Robbye Lamb abandoned their plans to drive to a friend’s Christmas party in Elk Grove.
As they traveled east on Fair Oaks Boulevard toward their Carmichael home, the couple spotted a van with a personalized license plate: “3S MUM.”
“I like to read license plates that have little sayings on them, and I remember that one distinctly,” Graydon Lamb testified Monday. He recalled discussing it with his wife, because “we were trying to figure out what that meant.”
Lamb also recalled that the van sped ahead of his vehicle and pulled into the lane ahead of him, and was followed by a dark-colored sedan. He last saw the vehicles heading east on Manzanita Avenue.
Theresa Bertolasi testified she saw the van parked on Folsom Boulevard west of Hazel Avenue sometime between 11 and 11:30 p.m. that night as she headed home from a Cheap Trick concert at Sacramento’s Memorial Auditorium.
She also recalled seeing a possible hitchhiker — a man with “scraggly hair” wearing an Army fatigue jacket and “no coat in December — in the same general area, but conceded the sighting could have occurred the night before, as she returned home from the movies.
The van remained at that Folsom Boulevard location on Sunday, as then-Aerojet security officer William Myrick drove to work on the morning of Dec. 21. It was still there when he went home that afternoon, and still as he went to work on the morning of the 22nd.
Later that morning, police found the bodies of Riggins and Gonsalves in a ravine about a mile east of the van.
Testimony continues this afternoon in Judge Michael Sweet’s courtroom.
— Reach Lauren Keene at firstname.lastname@example.org or 53o-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @LaurenKeene.