Defense wins bid to let snitch testify to alternate theory in Davis sweetheart killings

afurillo@sacbee.comDecember 6, 2011 

A Sacramento judge strongly suggested Monday he will allow an old police snitch to testify in the Davis "sweethearts" murder trial that a since-deceased ex-convict admitted he and his ex-cellmate did the killings.

If Superior Court Judge Michael W. Sweet ultimately allows the informant's testimony, it will represent a major victory for defense attorneys. They claim a crew linked to late serial sex killer Gerald Gallego is responsible for the Dec. 20, 1980, slashing deaths of UC Davis students Sabrina Gonsalves and John Riggins.

Sweet said from the bench in a pretrial hearing that he "probably" will admit the testimony of informant Raymond Phillip Gonzales in the trial of the accused defendant, Richard Joseph Hirschfield, 62.

But the judge said he doesn't expect he'll let the defense present much more evidence of "third-party culpability" in the killings.

As for Gonzales, Sweet said "I don't think that witness is very credible." He also told the defense lawyers he is a long way from allowing them to lay out their theory of the case to the yet-to-be-selected jury. It holds that Gonsalves and Riggins, both 18, were slain as part of a "copycat" effort to exonerate Gallego.

Killed by cancer in 2002 while living on Nevada's death row, Gallego was in jail on suspicion of carrying out similar sex murders at the time the UC Davis students had their throats slit near Lake Natoma.

Gonzales, now 63, figured prominently in the failed prosecution of four defendants that Yolo County prosecutors were forced to dismiss the day a jury was about to be sworn in 1993.

A long-time informant for the Sacramento police burglary detail, Gonzales approached sheriff's homicide detectives a year or so after the Riggins-Gonsalves killings to tell them he thought he knew who did it, according to court transcripts.

Gonzales used to run with Gallego and the convicted sex slayer's half-brother, David Hunt. Gonzales testified he had a "gut feeling" Hunt was behind the killing, to help throw investigators off Gallego's trail. The Sacramento detectives were suspicious of his story, but in 1987, Davis police, who had since taken over the case, put a wire on Gonzales. Then they sent him down to a Los Angeles Skid Row hotel to talk to Hunt's former San Quentin cellmate, Richard Thompson.

According to Gonzales, Thompson admitted killing Gonsalves and identified Hunt as Riggins' murderer. None of the incriminating statements allegedly made by Thompson, who has since died, were captured on the tape.

Former Yolo County District Attorney David C. Henderson still filed murder charges against Hunt, Thompson and and two others. The case was later dropped when none of the four defendants' DNA matched a semen stain found on a blanket in a van that Riggins and Gonsalves had been driving.

It wasn't until 2002 that a DNA hit came back on Hirschfield, then doing time on a sex crime in a Washington state prison, according to Sacramento authorities. They charged him in 2004. His trial is now scheduled for Jan. 30.

Defense attorneys Linda Parisi and Assistant Public Defender Ken Schaller filed a motion to pursue "third-party culpability" in the upcoming Hirschfield trial. Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet opposed it, saying such a "salacious display" would confuse the jury.

At Monday's hearing, Parisi told Judge Sweet the defense team has recontacted Ray Gonzales and that he "is ready and willing to testify." Sweet said if the defense produces a declaration to that effect, "it probably comes in." He said it would be up to the jury to assess Gonzales' credibility.

Outside court, Parisi said Gonzales' testimony is significantly similar to what he had testified to before."

"We believe he's credible," she said.

Sweet said the defense team would have to produce similar styles of evidence for each piece of the Gallego copycat theory it wants to introduce at trial. He said he might allow the testimony of a couple of witnesses who said they saw somebody who looked like Hunt near the crime scene, but that's about it, besides Gonzales.

"I can see some third-party culpability evidence, but not as much as you do," Sweet told the defense lawyers.

The judge scheduled a Jan,. 5 hearing on how much "Hunt Group" evidence he'll permit the defense to put on at trial.

One item the defense wants to pursue is evidence that Hunt and Thompson engaged in a "blood ritual" shortly before the murders. The defense wants to call Thompson's wife to testify she saw the two cut their wrists and mingle their blood in Carson City two days before Riggins and Gonsalves were slain on the other side of the mountains, near Lake Natoma.

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