Still waiting

Joel Davis has spent the last half-decade immersed in the details of the 1980 kidnap-murder of two UC Davis students. One of them, John Riggins, was a boy Davis knew; they’d grown up in the same town, gone to the same schools and participated in the same youth programs. As Davis is quick to note, the redheaded, likeable Riggins was “one year, several grade points, and a lot of athletic ability” ahead of him.

On December 20, 1980, Riggins and his equally likeable girlfriend, Sabrina Gonsalves, were abducted from Davis in Riggins’ van. A couple of days later, their bodies were found in a ditch off Aerojet Road in Sacramento County. These incredibly good kids—so good, in fact, that their lack of any “past” to speak of actually hindered the investigations—had the incredibly bad luck to be abducted from one jurisdiction and murdered in another. As if the offense of their deaths wasn’t brutal enough, the next 25 years left their grieving families and an entire community waiting for justice.

In his recently released book, Justice Waits: The UC Davis Sweetheart Murders, Davis details all the delays that have forced justice to wait—from the false starts, miscommunication and outright rivalry between the two investigating agencies to the obsession with one particular theory of the case on the part of one of the lead investigators; the mishandled evidence (including a blanket found at the scene that wasn’t tested for DNA for better than a decade-and-a-half); and the final DNA match with a man, Richard Hirschfield, already in prison in Washington state on a child-molestation conviction.

And justice continues to wait, as Davis details. He held up publication of the book on two separate occasions as more evidence, some of which he brought to the attention of law enforcement himself, was added to the convoluted story of the case. Among other things, Davis notes, “justice waits for Kinko’s,” since there are more than 150,000 pages of discovery in the case, all of which will need to be copied multiple times if Sacramento County is to successfully prosecute Hirschfield for the murders.

Justice Waits is not an easy read, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s the story of a heinous crime committed against a couple of really nice kids who’d now be moving into what everyone who knew them quite reasonably expected would be happy and productive middle age if they hadn’t crossed paths with the wrong person on an exceptionally foggy December night in a peaceful college town. Second, it’s frustrating to see the inside story of how incorrect assumptions, a series of mistakes in handling evidence, and an unwavering commitment to a single theory of the case could so easily derail justice for so long. The book’s also emotionally difficult; not only did Davis take the time to learn this case inside and out, but also his insider point of view—as an acquaintance of one of the victims and as a young man in the city of Davis at the time—makes his storytelling take on an immediacy that’s missing from most books in the true-crime genre.

While in the midst of investigating and writing this book, Davis faced his own crisis: He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. During the same week that Sacramento County announced a DNA match in the case and moved to extradite Hirschfield from Washington, Davis was undergoing brain surgery—while conscious—in an effort to forestall some of the symptoms of the disease [see “Heart of the (gray) matter” by Joel Davis; SN&R Cover; August 19, 2004].

The latest turn of events is that Hirschfield, who has a history of manipulating the legal system, recently has managed to get his Washington molestation conviction overturned on a technicality. And still, for John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves, justice waits.