Thursday, September 6, 2012

Murder trial hears about sweethearts' 1980 disappearance - Sacramento Bee

Cecelia Kate Riggins said she got the call early on a Sunday morning, from the older sister of her son John's girlfriend, to see if he ever came home the night before.

"The call awakened us," Riggins told a Sacramento Superior Court jury Wednesday. "I ran down to (John's) room. It was empty."

Neither John Riggins nor his girlfriend, Sabrina Gonsalves, made it home. Riggins said her son's absence made her anxious and left her husband fearing tragedy.

It turned out the 18-year-old UC Davis sweethearts had been abducted after helping put on a performance of the Davis Children's Nutcracker at the Veterans Memorial Theatre. Their bodies were found two days after their Dec. 20, 1980, disappearance. Their throats were slashed and Gonsalves had been sexually assaulted.

Thirty-two years later, Richard Joseph Hirschfield, 63, is on trial for murder in the killings. He has pleaded not guilty. His lawyers claim four people previously charged with the murders in Yolo County, but later cleared, carried out the killings. He faces the death penalty if convicted.

On the second day of testimony in Hirschfield's trial, it was Cecelia Riggins, known to her friends and family as Kate, who garnered major attention from the jury when she recounted the last time she saw her son alive and the panic of the day that followed.

Riggins testified for about 15 minutes under questioning from Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet. Defense attorneys Linda Parisi and Ken Schaller did not cross-examine her.

Asked by Bladet if she recalled her last encounter with her son, Riggins replied, "I remember it very well."

It was in the middle of the afternoon on the day of his disappearance. John Riggins, who lived with his parents, came home after finishing the last final exam of the first quarter of his freshman year.

"We had been very ill," Riggins said of herself and her husband, Dr. Richard Riggins. "We were recovering. We were planning to go to dinner, but John had to go to Sabrina's sister's birthday party."

When the two turned up missing, Kate Riggins said she put out the call to John's friends to search the fields surrounding Davis for signs of the 1977 Chevy van he and Gonsalves used the night before. A tule fog had blanketed Davis. She thought they might have crashed.

The next day, police officers and sheriff's deputies from three different law enforcement agencies confirmed an even worse outcome.

Folsom Police Detective Robert Repar got a call from a witness who saw a van that matched the description of the vehicle that had now become the subject of media interest. Repar headed to the possible sighting, a field off Folsom Boulevard, about 30 miles east of where Riggins and Gonsalves had last been seen leaving the theater in Davis about 8:45 p.m. two nights earlier.

Poking around in the field, the since-retired Repar spotted a boot.

"As I looked close, I discovered there was still a leg in the boot," Repar testified.

The detective had found the body of Sabrina Gonsalves in a 6- to 7-foot-deep ravine. She was lying facedown, with her skirt pulled up.

A few feet away, Repar found the remains of John Riggins, lying on his back.

Repar's discovery took place around 10 a.m., about two hours and 15 minutes after Sacramento sheriff's deputies had been dispatched to investigate what turned out to be the Riggins van. It was parked in a dirt area, just off Folsom Boulevard, about a mile west from where the detective found the bodies.

Although the dispatch time on the sighting of the van was recorded at 7:46 a.m. on Dec. 22, retired sheriff's patrol commander Lt. Terrell W. Dyer said he spotted the van around 2 a.m. Dec. 21 when he went out on an unrelated call.

Dyer noted in his mind the odd location of the vehicle, on a grassy, gravel swath in an empty field.

"It shouldn't have been there," he said.

Former Sacramento Sheriff's Deputy Ray Dick was first to check out the van. He peeked inside and saw "boxes and what looked like torn Christmas wrapping lying around inside the van."

Investigators later found a blanket inside the van. It contained a semen stain that prosecutors say clicked back, 22 years later, to the genetic profile of Richard Hirschfield.

Dick learned later about the discovery of the bodies. He knew the ravine as a place you would not happen upon "by chance." It had gained a reputation for "a lot of drug activity," he testified, a dumping ground for stolen cars.

Carol Daly, the retired Sacramento undersheriff, was a homicide detective at the time of the killings. She narrated a video taken when investigators descended on the body recovery area. The video depicted a cold, gray day, and its showing to the jury was met by pin-drop silence in the courtroom.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Call The Bee's Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.

• Read more articles by Andy Furillo

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