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Joe and Lana Hirschfield at their wedding.
  Lana Hirschfield


Joker Joe

…And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! —  no, no? They heard! — they suspected! — they knew! — they were making a mockery of my horror! — this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony!

— Edgar Allan Poe (“The Telltale Heart”)

          By all accounts, Joseph Hirschfield had made a good life for himself. At the age of 47, he had a pretty new wife, two cars, and clear title on 2 1/2 rain-kissed acres in Beavercreek, Ore., a heavenly burg tucked away on the outskirts of Portland.  Sheep and dogs roamed the postcard-perfect property on South Schuebel Lane, a gravel road that emitted soothing pops and crunches under moving tires and feet. Sure, Joe lived in a triple-wide, but it was a nice, ranch-style model adjacent to a cavernous 3,000-square-foot barn/shop where Joe liked to tinker.

A well-paid mechanic for a local Cadillac dealership who taught scuba diving on the side, Joe had a knack for computers and had even gone back to school to learn more about them, perhaps to become an IT administrator. He was known in various chatrooms and e-mail addresses as “Joker Joe” — even ran his own Web site at one time. A gourmet cook, ladies man, flirt and a prankster, Joe was generous, handsome, athletic, well-liked by the few people he let know him well and he often repaired things gratis for friends and people in need. He was also handy with a knife, and occasionally used one to butcher sheep on his small spread, a skill he picked up as a youth on the family farm in Colusa County, north of Sacramento, Calif. Joe could slice an animal’s throat with a swift, clean cut.

The only thing unusual about Joe is that he tended to keep to himself, living in an insular world with his wife, Lana, a medical transcriber, and their two rottweilers. He was a remote man in a remote community.  “They acted strange,” a neighbor said. “They were loners. Joe never talked to me — and I lived across the street from him for 11 years.”

Other than a smattering of traffic violations and small-claims cases, Joker Joe was a model citizen in his 20 years in the greater Portland area, most of them in Beavercreek. He was not known to law enforcement in a region where even the smallest skirmish with the authorities is remembered. Remarried after divorcing his second wife in the mid-1990s, he seemingly had a bright future when detectives from Sacramento County knocked on his door Nov. 19, 2002. Joe, his wife told them, was at work. She then phoned her husband. “There are two detectives from Sacramento who want to talk to you about your brother,” she said to the man she often described as “the most perfect, loving, wonderful husband.”

In 1980, the detectives had recently learned, Joe lived in Rancho Cordova, just a few miles from the ravine where John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves were found dead on Dec. 22, 1980, in the brutal UC Davis sweetheart murders. There was nothing connecting him to the grisly slayings. But Joker Joe visibly shook in his mechanic’s jumper at Kuni Cadillac in Beaverton as detectives told him about new leads in the case and the names Riggins and Gonsalves and that there was ongoing DNA testing. Even though it was mid-November, sweat poured out of him. Joe was clammy. Joe knew something. Something that ate away at his conscience and had nibbled on his soul for most of his adult life. Now the joke was on the joker. Joe was so rattled he left work early. “My brother…,” Joe muttered to a co-worker as he set down his tools, “is in big trouble for something that happened years ago...”

           Joe was a part of a multistate detective blitz in which Hirschfield family members were confronted, including a mother in failing health who nearly went into shock when she heard her oldest was a murder suspect. The following morning, after the  Sacramento detectives left Beavercreek, Joker Joe said goodbye to his wife, left his triple-wide, and headed, as he always did on workdays, to fetch his car. But instead of driving his 1994 Subaru to work, he guided it into the barn and closed the door behind him. There, he methodically attached a hose from the car’s exhaust pipe to its interior. Joe climbed inside and rolled up the windows. He started the engine. And in the same barn he may have had flashbacks every time he slit the throat of an animal, he took long, deep breaths. He died quietly, and alone. His wife found him when she went into the barn to feed the sheep. Beside him lay a brief two-page note addressed to her that made reference to the murders.

     It said, “It’s only a matter of time before they find my DNA, too.”