In the winter of 1980, two UC Davis freshmen, John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves, were abducted and murdered. The case became known as the “sweetheart murders.” It took more than 30 years to solve the mystery of their disappearance and finally close the case.

The Missing Van and Recovered Dead Bodies

On 20th December 1980, two students from the University of California at Davis, Sabrina Gonsalves, and John Riggins, went missing. A day and a half after the search began, when the dense overnight fog began to lift, police spotted the missing couple’s van parked off a rural roadway some 30 miles from Davis, Calif.

There was no sign of the couple inside the van so police searched the surrounding area. They soon discovered their bodies hidden in the brush in a nearby ravine.

Their throats were slashed and their mouths and eyes were covered with duct tape. There were signs that Sabrina had been sexually assaulted. John had been struck on the head with something sharp, suggesting he had fought to protect her. Police didn’t realize it at the time, but inside the van was a critical piece of evidence: a red and blue quilt. It was a birthday present for Sabrina’s sister which had been not only unwrapped but also soiled with semen belonging to the probable murderer.

Sabrina Gonsalves and John Riggins met when they were 18, the summer before they went to college. They both worked for the recreation department in the town of Davis, Calif. After the young couple was found dead, the killing became known locally as the “sweetheart murders.”

The Investigation and Arrest

Police made and released a composite sketch of the suspect in the brutal double murder. Nearly nine years after the murders, authorities developed a theory that it was a copycat killing masterminded by David Hunt, half-brother of a convicted double murderer. Doug Lainer was one of three suspected accomplices.

David Hunt, and Doug Lainer, were saved at the last minute, not by new evidence, but by old evidence re-examined in the light of new science. It was the quilt found in the van at the scene of the crime that saved them. Four sections stained with semen were cut away and tested for DNA, a science that didn’t exist at the time of the murders. None of the DNA matched Hunt or Lainer. So they were released from prison, but not until they had served three years waiting for the trial that would never come to pass.

More than 12 years had passed since the brutal murders. Now it appears that the investigation had gone nowhere in all that time.

The Saviour DNA Hit in The Sweetheart Murders

In 2002, there was a DNA match to a man named, Richard Hirschfield, a convicted sex offender who looks remarkably like the original police sketch of the suspect. It would take nearly a decade of legal delays before Richard Hirschfield’s murder trial began. He tried to clean up for his appearance in front of a jury. But nothing could obscure the impact of the evidence against him, starting with that DNA match. Scientists called it a “one-in-240-trillion match.”

Among the most incriminating evidence was testimony from a woman, Marge, who didn’t want her last name revealed identified Richard Hirschfield as the man who had raped her at gunpoint in 1975. Then there was this surprising evidence: a suicide note found in Hirschfield’s brother’s car beside his dead body.

Joseph Hirschfield had committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning right after he learned about the DNA match from police. He wrote the most incriminating words possible: “Richard did commit those murders, but I was there. I didn’t kill anyone but my DNA is still there.”

The Conviction

Joseph’s DNA was never found in the Riggins’ van. And no one knows exactly what role he played in the murders. But even with strong evidence — Richard’s DNA and Joseph’s suicide note — the case was moving at a snail’s pace. The case had over 200,000 pages of discovery. Hirschfield’s defense team would file more than 200 motions and be granted many delays.

When his capital murder trial finally begins, the now 63-year-old Richard Hirschfield enters court in a wheelchair, barely resembling the menacing figure he once was. On 5th November 2012. The jury of seven men and five women deliberates less than three hours and declared him guilty of the double murder of Sabrina and Riggins.

Finally, Richard Hirschfield was convicted and sentenced to death but later Judge Michael Sweet upheld the death sentence. It was 25th January 2013, 32 years after the murders and Richard Hirschfield is currently on death row in San Quentin prison. He is appealing his conviction. David Hunt never lived to see his name cleared; he died during the trial.

Sabrina Gonsalves and John Riggins would have been in their 60s today. Instead, they will always be remembered as two young people whose lives were extinguished just when they were on the threshold of achieving their dreams.

Categories: Case Studies


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