Davis murder mystery has new focus

Jenna Hughes

Many “cold cases” are never solved. Sure, there seems to be plenty of them being solved on TV, but in reality most cases simply become a file folder covered in dust.

The 1980 UC Davis sweetheart murders is a case that had, until recently, remained “cold” for over 20 years.

In “Justice Waits,” a book written by Joel Davis and published this year, lays out the details of the murders and the events that came after in a fashion similar to a C.S.I. episode.

On a foggy night in December 1980, two UC Davis students were abducted, taken in their own van to Rancho Cordova, Sacramento, and left in a ditch. The young man, John Riggins, was severely injured but still alive. His girlfriend, Sabrina Gonsalves, was killed and left in the ditch.

Both students were bound hand-and-foot with duct tape. Gonsalves’ underwear was inside-out and the duct tape around her legs had been cut apart. Her head had also been fully wrapped in duct tape.

There was hardly any evidence at the time. There were the contents of the van itself, numerous sightings of the possible killer and a few suspicious circumstances. There seemed to be no solid leads pointing to who could have committed this crime.

Many things were overlooked in the investigation. Everything, from the questioning of supposed witnesses to the storage of evidence, seemed to have been done half-heartedly. The case had gone cold.

Then, in 1987 a break came in the case. Before the UC Davis students’ abduction, there had been a similar murder of a Sacramento couple by a man named Gerald Gallego. While this may seem like an obvious connection, many thought the UC Davis crime was a case of a copycat murderer because Gallego was already in jail.

However, since the time of the murders, a small-time criminal turned informant had been pushing the name of David Hunt, Gallego’s half brother. With the case going nowhere, a second look at Hunt was in order.

Through numerous theories and stretching to put together circumstantial evidence into a case, Yolo County District Attorney David Henderson managed to pull enough together to put Hunt, Hunt’s wife and two friends on trial.

In a court case that lasted for four years ?” from 1989 to 1993 ?” the Hunt party was believed to be the killers who had ended Riggins and Gonsalves’ lives at age 18. The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department was against the trial because it had no hard evidence.

The trial stalled. However, as new DNA technology was developed, a blanket found in the van was tested for signs of bodily fluid that might suggest that Gonsalves had been sexually assaulted.

The DNA was found and the charges against the Hunt party were dropped when no matches were found.

Once again, the case had gone cold.

Enter reporter Joel Davis. Davis ?” who was a high school senior in Davis when the murders happened ?” had felt just as shocked as everyone else in the town when the news came to pass. His feelings of shock and his journalistic curiosity would not let him leave the case alone. He had begun calling acquaintances from high school to begin a new project. Davis had attended junior high and high school with Riggins, and was determined to go through the case with a new eye.

He managed to be introduced to the parents of both Gonsalves and Riggins. Davis began the arduous task of sifting through a case so cold that it belonged in the freezer.

It began as a one-year book-writing project and turned into a five-year saga of blood, sweat, tears and toil. As David described, it was like herding feral cats.

Over the course of 2000 to 2005, Davis sifted through 150,000 pages of legal documents and pestered numerous people to obtain all of the information about the case. During those years,

Davis was no longer just reporting the story ?” he became a part of it.

“Depending on how you look at it,” he said, “it was me who broke the case.”

Indeed, it seems that Davis, a reporter who saw himself has a conduit for the events of that fateful December night in 1980, was now neck-deep in the story he was supposed to stay apart from.

After being stonewalled for at least a year in trying to find out information about the DNA samples used to clear the Hunt party, Davis continued to press. Eventually he brought the case to the attention of Anne Marie Schubert, a Sacramento County prosecutor. Davis had contacted Schubert after hearing about her work in another case involving a state grant for counties to use DNA from unsolved homicides involving sexual assault. That case had similar characteristics to the 1980 UC Davis murders: the victim was a female Sacramento State student who had been bound and stabbed in the throat in a similar manner to how Gonsalves was killed. Schubert took a look at the Riggins-Gonsalves case and, after speaking with Riggins’ mother, dove in.

Schubert oversaw the DNA cold-hit match program for her unit. She went after the DNA with zeal, and eventually turned up a cold-hit. The DNA found on the blanket from the van was matched to Richard Joseph Hirschfield, who had recently been arrested for child molestation and whose DNA profile was now part of a national database of sexual offenders.

The name had come out of nowhere, but suddenly the case was boiling hot. With a DNA match, Hirschfield could be brought to trial for the murders of Riggins and Gonsalves.

This is the current status of the ongoing case. The next hearing scheduled for Jan. 10, 2006. Even though he was arraigned on Sept. 27, 2004, Hirschfield did not enter a plea until Oct. 2005. He pled “not guilty” to the charges of murder.

The delay of the plea was a result of the vast amount of paperwork for the case. All 150,000 pages of legal documentation that was housed between locations in Yolo and Sacramento Counties had to be photocopied for use in the trial.

As Davis wrote in his book, “Justice waits-for Kinko’s.”

After 25 years, the case of two murdered UC Davis students is finally moving forward again. How this trial will turn out, no one knows. However, one thing is for certain: “Justice Waits” has given a voice to those who have none and its author could have been the one that got the case moving again.

For more information on the book, the Hirschfield trial, and Joel Davis visit www.justicewaits.com.

Jenna Hughes can be reached at [email protected]