The 32-year wait ended and the search for justice began in earnest Tuesday for the family and friends of John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves.
More than three decades after the bodies of the UC Davis sweethearts were found wrapped in duct tape, their throats slashed, in a ditch off Folsom Boulevard, the man accused in their deaths appeared in Sacramento Superior Court on Tuesday to face a jury that must decide whether he did it, and if guilty, whether he should live or die.
Outside the courtroom, John Riggins' father struggled to describe what it was like to finally see the day the case made it to trial.
"An awful lot of emotions going," Richard Riggins said. "Some of them are pretty confusing. I'm not even sure I can tell you what they are right now. They were pretty dark."
Riggins sat in the second row of Department 20, in his blue suit and bow tie, along with his wife, Kate, and an overflow crowd of supporters who have monitored the decades of court proceedings. Seated at the defense table less than 10 feet away was Richard Hirschfield, a convicted sex criminal with a record that precedes by seven years the deaths of Gonsalves and Riggins, who were 18-year-old freshmen when they were killed.
Hirschfield, 63, is accused of capital murder in the Dec. 20, 1980, slayings. He is charged with two counts of murder in the course of kidnapping, rape and oral copulation. The sex-related special circumstance allegations, plus those of kidnapping and multiple murders, mean Hirschfield could be sentenced to death if found guilty.
It's a case that took investigators 22 years to break, and only then with a cold DNA hit that prosecutors say matched Hirschfield's genetic material with a semen stain lifted from a blanket in John Riggins' van. The focus didn't turn to Hirschfield until four other defendants had been arrested and charged in Yolo County seven years after the killings, then exonerated in early 1993 by the same DNA sample that nine years later zeroed in on Hirschfield.
On Tuesday, Riggins told reporters outside Judge Michael W. Sweet's courtroom that at one point during the sputtering investigation he had all but given up on the case ever being solved.
"I pushed it as far back in my memory as I could," said Riggins, 77. "I didn't want anything to do with it. So, I paid as little attention as I could. I just didn't want to think about it."
The retired physician had high praise Tuesday for the Sacramento prosecutors who finally brought the case, and for Joel Davis, a former reporter for the Davis Enterprise whose investigation and ensuing book, "Justice Waits: The UC Davis Sweetheart Murders," helped propel the case forward.
"There just isn't any meaningful way you can thank all these people who are responsible for this day," Riggins said.
In their opening statements, Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet and defense attorney Linda Parisi sparred over what they believe will be highlights in a trial expected to last four months. Bladet contends the case is a simple matter of DNA and a sexual predator with a past that presaged murder. Central to Parisi's defense will be the old Yolo County prosecution that she says targeted the right people.
The attorneys agreed the couple were abducted on a foggy night five days before Christmas, sometime after they helped put on a production of "The Davis Children's Nutcracker." They agreed the couple's night was supposed to continue at a birthday party for Sabrina's sister, but that they didn't show up and that their bodies were found two days later in the ditch off Folsom Boulevard, some 30 miles from where the couple were last seen at the Veterans Memorial Theater.
In her presentation, Bladet suggested the presence of Hirschfield's DNA on the blanket in Riggins' van all but wraps up the case. She said Hirschfield, who's from Colusa County, was familiar with Davis and had been staying on and off with a friend who had moved to the college town.
Hirschfield's brother, Joseph, had been in the Air Force and stationed at Mather Air Force Base. He knew the area where the bodies were found, Bladet told the jury. After Sacramento County sheriff's detectives questioned the brother in 2002, he committed suicide, leaving a note for his wife that said, "I was there" when Riggins and Gonsalves were slain.
The prosecutor cited the defendant's rape conviction in Santa Clara County as evidence he is a sexually violent predator.
"All of those factors are going to lead you straight to the conclusion that this mystery is for all and forevermore, solved," Bladet told the jury.
Parisi, for her part, asked the jury to check its emotion after viewing grisly photos of the victims' bodies. She asked the panel to take a deeper look at the Yolo County case that Bladet dismisses as the mistake of a Davis police detective, Fred Turner, who "lost his objectivity."
An informant who worked with Turner and with Sacramento County sheriff's detectives claimed that one of the four people previously charged in Yolo County admitted the killings to him, Parisi told the five women and seven men on the jury.
A tape recorder strapped to informant Ray Gonzales during a barroom conversation with a onetime cellmate of David Hunt's the key defendant in the failed Yolo County prosecution failed to pick up the admissions. That cellmate, Richard Thompson, is now dead, but Parisi has put Gonzales on her witness list.
The Yolo County theory of the case was that Hunt orchestrated the killings to provide an alibi for his half-brother, Gerald Gallego, who had just been arrested for a serial sex-killing spree for which he was later convicted.
Claiming that Hirschfield is "wrongfully accused," Parisi said criminalists at the Sacramento County crime lab failed in their initial efforts to detect any fluids on the blanket that the DA now says contained Hirschfield's genetic material. She questioned the "integrity" of other scientific evidence in the case.
"I would submit that the evidence tells you that the mystery is ongoing," Parisi said.
Testimony began Tuesday with Sabrina Gonsalves' older sister, Andrea Rosenstein, piecing together the events that led to the couple's disappearance.
Rosenstein said she found it unusual that Sabrina did not show up at her surprise birthday party. She said she went home to the apartment they shared and left a light on for her sister in the bathroom and turned on a fan. Rosenstein said she shuddered when she woke in the morning and both the light and fan were still on and her sister wasn't home.
"And then I knew something really bad had happened," Rosenstein testified.