Unit 1012 Cover Photo

Unit 1012 Cover Photo

Thursday, December 22, 2016


“They were young people who would have contributed a great deal to the lives of many. They had ambitions to go into the medical field, and they had such caring feelings about them.”
- Kate Riggins, mother of John Riggins

Sabrina Gonsalves (left) and John Riggins (right)

            We, the comrades of Unit 1012, will always remember the Californian Couple, John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves on December 22 every year. We will not forget them on their birthdays too.

"So long as we live, they too shall live and love for they are a part of us as we remember them."
- Gates of Prayer

John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves

Family's relief after sexual predator is finally convicted of killing teen couple 32 years after their bodies were found in California ravine
  • Sweethearts Sabrina Gonsalves and John Riggins, both 18, were killed in 1980; she had been sexually assaulted and he had tried to save her
  • For decades, investigators struggled to solve the case
  • But DNA technology meant that semen found in their van could eventually be checked with DNA from prisoners - and a match was found
  • In 2012, nearly 32 years after the deaths, convicted rapist Richard Hirschfield was sentenced to death for their grisly murders
Published: 06:20 +10:00, 1 October 2013 | Updated: 07:24 +10:00, 1 October 2013
The families of a young teenage couple who were brutally killed and dumped in a ravine in 1980 have spoken out about their relief that the killer has finally been convicted after 32 years.

The murder of Sabrina Gonsalves and John Riggins, both 18, in Davis, California remained unsolved for decades until a DNA breakthrough helped track down their killer, Richard Hirschfield.

Hirschfield, now 64, was convicted last year of sexually assaulting Sabrina before slitting her and John's throats and discarding their bodies in a ravine days before Christmas. He is now on death row.

A year since his conviction, the families of the victims have spoken to 48 Hours about the pain they endured for decades - and their relief that the deaths have finally been solved.

The killings became known as the 'sweetheart murders"
After the young couple was found dead, the killings became known locally as the "sweetheart murders."
‘I’m not free, because I miss her,' Sabrina's sister, Andrea Rosenstein, said. 'But, he's out of our life. We never have to think about him again. I can just miss her - I can just think about that and we're really ready to do that.'

It is finally some closure for the families, who initially thought the killers had been found in the mid-80s before the case was dismissed and the accused were found innocent.

The couple met just months before their deaths; Sabrina, who hoped to become a physical therapist, and John, a budding sportsman with dreams of becoming a doctor, met while working for the town's recreation department that summer.

'He was really her first boyfriend. And she fell in love with him,' her sister remembered. 'John was so much fun... He was funny and lighthearted and he loved sports... They were perfect together.'

Sadness: John's parents, Richard and Kate Riggins, said they felt guilt they could not be there to protect him
On the night of December 20, 1980, Sabrina, who was attending the University of California at Davis, was traveling with John in his van to her sister's birthday party - but they failed to turn up.

The families were worried, but initially thought the teenagers could have been in a car wreck because of the thick fog that night.

Thirty-six hours later, the van was found about 30 miles east of Davis in Sacramento County - and just a few hours later, the bodies were found less than a mile away in a ravine.

'It was sickening,' former Detective Carol Daly said. 'The horrificness of what we were seeing and what they must have gone through.

'They had duct tape around their eyes and around their mouth... Looking at them, we knew their throats had been cut. And they were dumped. Just like trash.'

Sabrina had been sexually assaulted and John had a head injury that suggested he had tried to protect her.

Missed: Sabrina (right with her sister and mother) was abducted with John as they drove to her sister's party
Young love: The couple had met the previous summer and seemed perfect together, family members said
In the following weeks and months, police received hundreds of tips but the investigation went nowhere - until six years later, when they thought they finally had a breakthrough.

Another murder had been committed by Gerald Gallego that had similarities with the Sweetheart Murders - but Gallego had been in jail when they were killed. Police believed that his friends had carried out the murder so it looked like a copy cat to try to clear him.

In 1989, his half brother, David Hunt, was arrested with his wife and two friends. They claimed they were innocent and on the eve of their trial, after three years in prison, DNA evidence was found on a blanket in the van that was covered with the killer's semen stains.

With the development of DNA testing, the stains could now be scrutinized - and it emerged they did not belong to any of the Hunt group. It meant the trail was cold once again.

By 2002, the state crime lab was routinely comparing DNA in cold cases to that stored on a database of criminals. The DNA from the blanket was found to match a suspect already in a Washington prison.

It belonged to a man called Richard Hirschfield, who had been accused of sexually assaulting women and children. He was convicted of rape in California in 1975.

Authorities said he had friends who lived opposite to Sabrina and they believed Hirschfield had abducted her and her boyfriend simply because she was pretty.

Investigators questioned his brother, Joseph, who lived nearby and told him about the DNA evidence, causing him to shake, they said.

The next day, Joseph Hirschfield was found dead in his car after committing suicide with carbon monoxide. He left a note reading: 'I have been living with this horror for 20 years. Richard did commit those murders, but I was there. I didn't kill anyone, but my DNA is still there.'

His DNA was never found in the van and authorities do not know what role he played in the killings.

A decade later, after investigators trawled through 200,000 pages of discovery, the case was finally brought to trial in September 2012.

After hearing the evidence - and Hirschfield's lawyers' claims that his DNA was on the blanket simply because he had slept in the van because he was a drifter - the jury found him guilty of the murders.

The families spoke at a second hearing to determine if Hirschfield should get the death penalty.

'Visualizing the way he died, you know, wrapped up in tape, throat cut, thrown in a ditch, trying to breathe... knowing he's dying and... excuse me,' Dr. Richard Riggins told the court as he became emotional. 'I wasn't there. And there was nothing I could do. So I'd failed in my biggest duty to him.'

The jury took just two hours to decide to give Hirschfield the death penalty.

Sabrina Gonsalves (left) and John Riggins (right)
Speaking in January 2012, Judge Michael Sweet referred to the families and their pain.

'You have endured so much,' he said. 'The tortured history of this case must have taken away any hope you had that the person responsible for these acts would be discovered and held to answer.

'My sincere and deep-felt apologies for the tragedies you have suffered.'

John's father, speaking of his relief, added: 'We will never know the gifts that John and Sabrina would have given society, but we do know Hirschfield’s contribution, humiliation, pain and death.'

Read more:

An impassioned plea to uphold the death penalty from the mother of one victim, Kate Riggins. Don't let the loss of her son be in vain.

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