Thursday, November 17, 2005
True crime: Local connections to the 1980 UC Davis 'sweetheart murders'
By DAN BARNETT
Longtime Paradise resident and retired school teacher Anna Davis told me recently her nephew had just published a book reporting recent developments in the 1980 murders of UC Davis sweethearts John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves. Joel Davis grew up in Davis and is a now a Sacramento-based journalist and editor.
"Justice Waits: The UC Davis Sweetheart Murders" ($24.95 in hardcover from Callister Press) is gripping and gutsy reportage about the crimes and the subsequent missteps in the investigation and how Davis himself has become part of the story.
"A mostly forgotten mess," Davis writes. "That was the status of the Riggins-Gonsalves case when I started looking at it in the summer of 2000. Boxes upon boxes of case files gathered dust in Sonoma and Yolo courthouse basements known derisively as 'tombs' or 'dungeons'." Though David and Suellen Hunt, husband and wife, and crime partner Richard Thompson, had all been charged in the case in 1989, the lack of any DNA match led to charges against them being dropped in 1993. (Hunt, the half-brother of serial killer Gerald Gallego, had been arrested in Chico in 1981 for helping Thompson escape San Quentin.)
The parents of the murdered couple faced the prospect of never learning the identity of the killer or killers.
Davis never met Sabrina Gonsalves, and, though he had gone to junior high and high school with Riggins, did not know him well. But Davis was shocked, as were many in the area, when the two 18-year-olds, on a foggy December in 1980, were abducted and murdered. Their bodies, thrown into a ravine in a wooded area between Folsom Boulevard and Highway 50, were discovered after the Riggins family van was spotted nearby, empty of any passengers, on Dec. 22.
In 2000 Davis decided to write the story of the open case and interviewed family members and investigators. He planned to take a year, but the project stretched into five, and in the midst Davis was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
"The Davis of Dec. 20, 1980," he writes, "had a population of 36,640 and was more of an intellectual Mayberry than the hectic, more vibrant, even impersonal, university city of 65,000-plus it has become."
Riggins and Gonsalves were good kids. John's shock of red hair was well known in the community. Sabrina "was the girl you wanted to baby-sit your kids, the girl any boy would be proud to bring home to Mom. ... With her smooth Anglo-Portuguese features, trim athletic build, candy kiss brown eyes and flowing dark brown hair, Sabrina was a looker."
Riggins and Gonsalves that fateful night finished their ushering job for a children's 'Nutcracker' production and then left in Riggins' van to attend a surprise party for one of Gonsalves' sisters. They never arrived.
Gonsalves' body "suffered two deep, savage cuts that severed her jugular, and she died instantly. ... John had been beaten with five blows to the head, and his throat cut, but the knife avoided major arteries. It likely took hours to die in that soggy ravine."
But the case against Hunt and his associates could not be sustained. Astoundingly, a blanket found in Riggins' empty van -- likely a gift for the surprise party -- was never thoroughly examined until 1992 when several "obvious" semen stains were found but there was no match to members of the Hunt group. Pushed by Davis to re-examine the blanket with improved DNA testing, in 2002, "like a delayed sonic boom that took more than 21 years to strike, a DNA 'cold hit' was made on the blanket semen sample after the semen DNA was retyped and compared to DNA from a national database."
The match led to convicted child molester Richard Joseph Hirschfield. He and his brother, Joe, had grown up in Colusa County and lived in Arbuckle after the killings. Richard was arrested on Sept. 25, 2004, and, says Davis, justice waits again in the discovery process (updates are available at www.justicewaits.com).
The book is frankly critical of some of the investigators and Davis acknowledges that he has made more than a few people angry with his pursuit of the case. But Davis is convinced that Riggins and Gonsalves, all these years later, deserve the justice that has so far eluded them. The story he tells is harrowing, and the end is not yet in sight.
Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.