A Birthday Gift May Yield Clues About A Brutal
DAVIS, Calif., Jan. 27, 2007
John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves. (CBS)
(CBS) In 1980, a young couple was murdered as they were
heading to a birthday party. As correspondent Troy
Roberts reports, it would take many years, a
journalist's persistence and a clue found on a birthday
present that would bring the homicide investigation to
the next level.
More than 25 years have passed since Andrea Gonsalves
Rosenstein lost her beloved baby sister Sabrina in a
savage double murder. And not a day goes by that she
doesn’t think of her.
“We loved the beach; she loved to swim,” Andrea
remembers. “She especially loved the horses with me.
I’ve made a real effort in my life to connect her into
my life, her memory into my life, in any way that I
That connection is very much alive in Andrea’s
first-born, whom she named after her sister. Ever since
she was a small child, Sabrina Rosenstein—now 22—was
aware of her family’s loss.
“There was always a sense of something terrible that had
happened to my family that most people haven’t
experienced and can’t understand,” she explains.
In the summer of 1980, Sabrina Gonsalves was dating John
Riggins, and working for the recreation department in
the town of Davis, Calif. They were both 18, about to
start college and were in love.
John Riggins was a hometown hero, a popular high school
athlete, and the son of a prominent physician.
“I think he got a great enjoyment out of life at this
point in time. And he had all the world to look forward
to,” his father remembers.
But the two sweethearts would disappear into the thick
fog on the night of Dec. 20, 1980. Sabrina and John were
expected at Andrea’s birthday party that night, but they
never showed. By morning, with still no sign of the
couple, Andrea’s disappointment turned into fear.
“The fog would sock in Davis for days sometimes but that
night was really, really bad,” Andrea recalls. “And I
thought maybe the van went off the road. And they’re in
the field somewhere, hurt. And we have to find them.”
Police insisted they had to wait 24 hours before they
could begin searching. Besides, they said, Sabrina and
John had probably eloped.
“I was furious and said ‘No, this is completely out of
character, these are not typical 18-year-olds whatever a
typical 18-year-old is…that they would never do this,”
That morning, the Riggins family and friends organized
their own search but police finally found the van a day
later, abandoned some 20 miles from Davis. Someone had
rummaged through it—even tearing open the gifts that
were meant for Andrea. But there was no sign of Sabrina
Hours later, the search for the couple was over—their
bodies had been hidden in the brush.
“It looked like both victims had simply been thrown into
the ditch and discarded as used garbage,” remembers Ray
Biondi, now retired, who was a detective with the
Sacramento Sheriff’s Department.
Asked what he was thinking when he saw the bodies and
how they were wrapped in duct tape, Biondi says, “We
were looking at somebody who came prepared to commit
these murders and was not afraid to get up close and
personal and kill the victims. Had absolutely no regard
for other human lives.”
There were signs that Sabrina had been sexually
assaulted. “The only obvious motive that we could even
think of was probably a sexual assault on Sabrina
Gonsalves. And then again, also, there are people who
simply kill cause they like to kill,” Biondi says.
Biondi tagged the victims’ clothing to be tested for
bodily fluids, along with another item: a blanket found
in the van, that was a birthday present for Andrea.
Biondi believes the killer was lying in wait as Sabrina
and John left her apartment on their way to Andrea’s
birthday party. The pair, Biondi says, may have been
abducted right outside the complex, as there was almost
no one around and it was very foggy that night.
The murders of John and Sabrina generated hundreds of
calls to the police, who released a composite sketch,
hoping they would find the killer before he struck
With her sister’s killer still on the loose, police told
Andrea she had a special reason to be afraid. “They
said, ‘You live in the same apartment. And so, it's
possible that you were targeted instead of her.’ I
cannot express how horrifying it would be to me that it
would’ve been my fault, that I would've rather died than
have her die at any time,” Andrea says.
Sabrina’s mother Kim was also struggling to comprehend
the devastating loss. She decided that she needed to
visit the site where the bodies were found.
“It’s horrifying. Your whole job as a parent is to
protect your kids anyway. And when you can't protect ’em
you feel, you feel horrible,” she says.
As the weeks turned into months, police worked the
hundreds of leads they received. “There were a lot of
calls, a lot of leads,” Biondi remembers. “We thought we
would end up with some viable information because of the
amount of calls we were receiving on the case.”
Biondi was hopeful the crime scene would yield some
clues as well. “Inside the van there were literally
hundreds of unidentified latent fingerprints. We were
hoping that they might come up with somebody very
interesting. But as it was, we did not,” he explains.
One by one, each lead eventually went nowhere and police
were at a loss.
Six years passed, and it seemed like the case might
never be solved. But finally, a tip led police to take
another look at a similar double murder that had
happened around the same time.
“John and Sabrina were killed a month after we had
another college couple killed here in Sacramento
County,” Biondi tells Roberts.
There were many parallels between the two cases: both
involved attractive college couples who were abducted
from a public place, killed execution-style, and then
dumped around the Sacramento area.
Police did make an arrest in the other case – the
suspected killer was Gerald Gallego. But as it turns
out, on the night John and Sabrina were killed, Gallego
had the perfect alibi: he was already in jail.
Still, police were sure that there was a connection
between the murders, and they ultimately arrived at an
unusual theory: they believed John and Sabrina’s murder
was a copycat crime, staged to clear Gerald Gallego and
to suggest that the real killer was still on the loose.
Police believed the man who carried out the killings was
David Hunt, Gallego’s brother. Hunt had a long list of
felony convictions, including a kidnapping. “David Hunt
would not be beyond committing a copycat murder to take
the heat off of his brother,” Biondi says.
Police thought Hunt had received help from his wife
Suellen, and also from his frequent partner in crime,
Richard Thompson. The three became known in the press as
the “Hunt Group.” And so, in November 1989, nearly nine
years after Sabrina and John were murdered, the Hunt
Group was arrested.
There was no physical evidence in the case, so
detectives leaned on another one of David Hunt’s
partners in crime, a man named Doug Lainer.
Investigators hoped that he would turn against the
“They wanted me to testify that somebody in that group
told me about these killings. That's what they wanted,”
Lainer openly admits that back then, he was a drug
addict and a thief who would steal just about
anything—including sheets from motels, which he would
But he insisted that, despite his checkered past, he
wasn’t a killer.
Each time detectives visited him, Lainer told them same
thing. “I didn't know about these killings. I didn't
know about any of that crap. But they thought I did. So,
they could put all kinds of pressure on me and squeeze
me till I coughed it up. Well, the fact of the matter
is, I had nothing to tell,” he explains.
That’s because, Lainer says, they were all innocent.
After months of denials, Lainer was finally arrested and
charged with the murders of John and Sabrina. He and the
rest of the Hunt Group were facing the death penalty.
But on the eve of trial, a stunning piece of evidence
was uncovered. The blanket in the van, Sabrina’s gift
for Andrea, yielded a clue.
“It was determined that there was in fact a stain on the
blanket,” Biondi says.
The stain was semen that had somehow been overlooked all
this time. It was ordered tested for DNA—testing that
could make or break this case.
The DNA test of the blanket failed to match any of the
suspects. Embarrassed prosecutors had no choice but to
drop the charges against all four.
The news was devastating to Sabrina and John’s parents.
“It’s like a scab on your heart, that it breaks open and
you bleed from time to time and it never stops,”
Sabrina’s mother Kim explains.
Detective Ray Biondi was not surprised when the case
collapsed. He had always been troubled by the lack of
physical evidence. “It simply appeared to be a case of
trying to smash the square peg in the wrong hole. ‘Make
it fit; make it fit,’” he says.
Biondi had another reason to feel frustrated: there were
actually four stains on that blanket, all semen. Those
stains had only been discovered and tested for DNA some
12 years after he had sent the blanket to the county
“It’s one of those tear your hair out moments,” Biondi
says. “And I’m not sure about this, but the blanket was
never turned over and the semen stain was actually on
the other side.”
At that time, with no DNA databank in existence yet,
there was no way to trace the DNA to any other suspects.
So once the charges were dropped, the trail went cold.
“I even thought of suicide. I really did. I mean I
really didn’t think I could go on. But you do,”
Sabrina’s mother Kim remembers.
What the families didn’t know was that there was someone
else who had been changed by John and Sabrina’s murders:
journalist Joel Davis.
Joel, now 44, attended high school with John Riggins. In
2000, he decided to write a book about the
still-unsolved case. Joel had no way of predicting back
then that he himself would become a part of the story.
“When I was reading those court transcripts, you know,
there were times the hair on the back of my neck was
standing up because this was a fascinating case,” he
As he kept digging, Joel realized it was not too late to
take a fresh look at the blanket. DNA technology had
become more sophisticated, and samples could now be
compared to those of convicted criminals stored in a new
So in 2002, he contacted the prosecutor in charge of
Sacramento’s new cold case unit – and didn’t let up.
By that time Joel was doing his job in the face of an
overwhelming personal challenge: at the age of 38, he
was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.
“I was able to get an operation that not everybody’s
able to get. A deep brain stimulation surgery that
allows me to move my hand and type and it actually
allowed me to finish this book,” Joel tells Roberts.
“I’ve had my ability to walk taken away, I’ve had my
ability to sign a check taken away but I can still
The Parkinson’s may have slowed him down a bit, but
Joel’s persistence paid off: investigators re-opened the
Remarkably, within months, there was a hit from the DNA
“And they said it was one-in-240 trillion,” Joel
It was a one-in-240-trillion match. Finally, after more
than two decades, there was a new suspect, tied to the
murders through physical evidence. And as detectives
would soon discover, this man had a very dark past.
Richard Hirschfield, a man authorities in Davis had
never even heard of, was charged in the double murder. A
convicted sex offender, his DNA was stored in the FBI
database. And authorities say it matched the DNA found
on that blanket, that birthday gift meant for Andrea.
For John Riggins’ mother, finally facing her son’s
accused killer as he was arraigned, was bittersweet and
“He was looking at whomever was sitting there in court….
And it was frightening,” she remembers.
Asked who this Richard Hirschfield is, Joel Davis says,
“They always said it took a pretty smart person to pull
this off. He has been described by the authorities as
Hirschfield was also dangerous. He was convicted of a
violent sex crime some 30 years ago – five years before
John and Sabrina’s murders.
Marge and Michelle, two sisters who do not want their
last names used, were 22 and 16 years old when
Hirschfield attacked them at Marge’s apartment in
Mountain View, Calif. in 1975. It started as a robbery
Hirschfield tied them up and threatened to kill them.
When Marge told him she had no money, he went from
robber to rapist.
“It was like he was frustrated. He was mad. ‘All right
then, who wants to be raped?’ And then my sister offered
herself instead of me,” Michelle remembers.
“Anybody in my position would have done the same thing,”
Marge says. “She was my little sister, a sophomore in
high school. There was no choice.”
Hirschfield forced Michelle into a closet, while he
raped her older sister.
Hirschfield was caught four days later, lurking outside
another apartment complex in the area.
He served only five years in prison for that home
invasion and rape and was paroled in July 1980. John and
Sabrina were killed later that year.
After being paroled, Hirschfield lived with his younger
brother Joe in the town of Arbuckle, some 40 miles from
Davis. Authorities believe they were both still living
in the area at the time of John and Sabrina’s murders.
Almost twenty years later, in 1999, Joe, an auto
mechanic, married Lana.
“And he was just a really kind, gentle person – and
happy. All the time happy,” she remembers.
But Lana never met his brother Richard. “Joe didn’t talk
a whole lot about his family,” she explains. “He did
tell me that the reason he was estranged from his
family, that there was some sort of a disagreement.”
She and Joe were enjoying their new life together in
Beavercreek, Oregon. But everything changed in Nov.
2002, when detectives came knocking at their door. They
wanted to talk to Joe about his brother.
“I noticed that his face was quite red. And I asked him
if the detectives had come talk to him. And he said, yes
they had. And I asked him if that had upset him. And he
said, yes it was disturbing,” Lana remembers.
Detectives had told Joe his brother’s DNA was connected
to an unsolved double murder. Lana was completely
unprepared for what would happen just one day later: she
discovered her husband’s body in his car; he had
committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.
Police seized as evidence a suicide note left by Joe, a
note that would finally help unravel the mystery of the
murders. In it, Joe expressed his love for his wife but
said he had been living with “this horror” for 20 years.
Joe then named the killer. “He said Richard did kill
those people,” Lana says. “He said, ‘I didn’t kill
anyone’ and that it would just be a matter of time until
they found his DNA there also and would be coming after
Detectives always thought that John and Sabrina’s killer
must have had help leaving the scene.
“John Riggins’ van was abandoned. So somebody had to be
around to pick him up. There’s very little likelihood
that this person would have caught a ride along the dark
highway,” says Det. Biondi.
At last, police felt they were heading in the right
direction in solving Sabrina and John’s murder.
With the arrest of 58-year-old Richard Hirschfield,
Sabrina and John’s families believe the prosecution
finally has a strong case.
Hirschfield pled not guilty. And his attorney, Linda
Parisi, insists the case is anything but a slam-dunk –
despite the DNA on the blanket, and the suicide note
from his own brother, saying “Richard did kill those
Parisi maintains that Joe Hirschfield’s suicide note is
not admissible. Whatever role he may have played in the
crime remains a mystery: Joe’s DNA was not found at the
scene. As for the DNA hit on Richard, Parisi says, “I
don’t know if we can rely on that.”
“One in 240 trillion,” Roberts remarks.
“We don’t even know what that number means,” she
replies. “Ultimately, we must have confidence in the
testing, that there was no contamination either at the
lab, or beforehand, in order to trust a result.”
But if indeed it is her client’s DNA found on that
blanket inside the abandoned van, Parisi claims someone
could have planted it there.
“Certainly there have been cases where DNA has been
planted,” she says.
Parisi claims there’s another possibility: that
Hirschfield might have been wandering in the area and
found the van.
"He had a misfortune of stumbling upon this van on the
night that Sabrina Gonsalves and John Riggins were
murdered, and somehow just left his bodily fluids on the
blanket?" Roberts asks.
"That is not beyond the realm of possibility,” she
But retired detective Ray Biondi doesn’t buy it, saying
“I find that to be totally preposterous.”
There’s someone else who doesn’t buy Hirschfield’s
innocence – his ex-wife Lynn, who was briefly married to
him 10 years ago. She is speaking out for the first time
and has a stunning accusation: that Hirschfield molested
To protect her son’s privacy, Lynn has asked 48 Hours to
not reveal her or her son’s identity. She says when he
was a child, she could not understand why her son
suddenly became withdrawn.
“When he was seven years old, he was the happiest child
you could imagine. And his eyes sparkled and he laughed
all the time. And then one day that was gone,” she tells
Then, to Lynn’s shock, Hirschfield was arrested for
molesting two little girls in their neighborhood.
“And I just started piecing all these little things
together. And one day I just asked him, ‘Were you
molested by Richard?’ And he said ‘Yes,’” she recalls.
Lynn never pressed charges to spare her son the ordeal
of a trial. Hirschfield denies he ever abused his
stepson. His conviction for the molestation of the two
little girls has since been overturned on technical
This time, Hirschfield faces the death penalty, a
punishment Sabrina’s father George, says he deserves.
“Even in fact the death penalty for him would be a break
compared to what he gave the kids, when he took those
kids’ lives they didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to
their parents. And they were suffering,” George says.
But with some 100,000 pages of discovery, this case may
not go to trial for another year or two.
“Well I think the frustrating part about all of this is
whether we’ll be alive. I’m 71 years old. And that is a
concern,” says John Riggins’ mother.
Proceedings were further delayed when Hirschfield was
beaten by other inmates and suffered a broken hip. The
title of Joel Davis’ book, “Justice Waits,” seems more
apt than ever.
While Andrea waits for justice for her beloved sister,
she has filled the void in her life by adopting three
more children, always with Sabrina in mind.
“I wanted to do this. And I wanted this to be in her
memory,” Andrea tells Roberts. “I was gonna have the
kids she didn’t get to have.”
And as she thinks of that tragic, foggy night, she
derives comfort from another one of Sabrina’s birthday
gifts: a book on horses, also found in the van.
The inscription reads: “Dearest Andrea. This is just a
small token of our appreciation for all the late night
help and all the moral support and guidance you gave us
in our first quarter of college life.”