Richard Joseph Hirschfield's defense team was able to elicit testimony in his murder trial today that suggested another criminal on a crime spree across the western United States arranged the slashing deaths of UC Davis "sweethearts" John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves.
But the witness who testified to the theory, former Sacramento sheriff's Lt. Ray Biondi, suggested he never saw much evidence to substantiate it and that a Davis police detective who vigorously pursued it had "lost his objectivity."
Defense lawyer Linda Parisi still succeeded in getting the outline of the theory of a third party's culpability in front of the jury in her cross-examination of Biondi. The theory was first put forward 25 years ago by Davis police and Yolo County prosecutors, but it was later abandoned as charges were dismissed at the outset of a trial for four people who initially had been arrested and charged in the Dec. 20, 1980, killings.
Biondi testified that the one-time defendant in the case, David Hunt, became "a person of interest" in the months after the slayings of Riggins and Gonsalves. The two 18-year-olds had been abducted in Davis and their bodies were found two days later in a ravine more than 30 miles away off of Folsom Boulevard near Hazel Avenue.
According to Biondi, Hunt was "vague" about his whereabouts in a March 1981 interview with the late Sacramento sheriff's homicide detective, Stan Reed. Biondi suggested Hunt was less than forthcoming with the investigator because he "had been on the run" in a robbery spree and that he also "had a parole hearing pending."
When an informant approached sheriff's detectives offering to obtain information on Hunt, Biondi said he agreed to a surreptitious taping of a friend of the suspect who had also been on the crime spree. The taping proved to be "unintelligible," Biondi testified, but the retired lieutenant said he continued to use the informant, Ray Gonzales, to look at other angles in the case. Biondi said when nothing came of those approaches, Sacramento sheriff's detectives lost interest in Gonzales.
Davis police detetive, Fred Turner, continued to pursue the theory that the so-called Hunt group was responsible for the killing of the 18-year-old UC Davis students, but Biondi told the jury that Sacramento investigators felt the officer from the other side of the Yolo Causeway had gone off on the wrong track.
"We thought he lost his objectivity," Biondi testified.
Hirschfield's defense team, in picking up on the theory used by Turner and the Yolo County DA's office, sought to get Biondi to testify that he had planned to use Gonzales to visit Hunt's half brother in a Nevada prison -- Gerald Gallegos, who was then incarcerated for a series of sex slayings for which he was later convicted.
Parisi and her co-counsel, Assistant Public Defender Ken Schaller, say that Hunt and his group killed Riggins and Gonsalves to try and exonerate Gallegos by showing that the same type of killings were still taking place even though he was in prison.
Judge MIchael W. Sweet, in ruling on a pre-trial motion, excluded any reference to the Gallegos case in the Hirschfield trial. When Parisi asked Biondi about sending Gonzales to a Nevada prison to visit Gallegos, Sweet sustained an objection by Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet that the information would violate the judge's pre-trial ruling.
Bladet called Biondi as a witness today mostly to help establish the chain of custody of the biological evidence in the case that the prosecution says identified Hirschfield as the suspect in the case. Most prominent among the laboratory evidence were four semen stains on a blanket in the van the victims had driven on the night of their death. The prosecution says the DNA tests on the stains matched Hirschfield's genetic material.
"We didn't know at the time we had any DNA evidence," Biondi testified.
The blanket wasn't examined until nearly 12 years after the killings. Hirschfield wasn't identified as a suspect until 2002 and he wasn't charged until 2004.