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Davis Enterprise, The (CA)

Turner grilled at Hirschfield case hearing
   Joel Davis

Special to The Enterprise

Published: February 11, 2007
SACRAMENTO — The unusual investigative techniques and lack of homicide experience of the lead detective in Yolo County's futile prosecution of the suspects first charged with the 1980 murders of two UC Davis sweethearts were under scrutiny Friday as the preliminary hearing for Richard Hirschfield continued.

Hirschfield, 58, is charged with the death penalty for the murder of John Riggins and the rape and murder of Sabrina Gonsalves. His preliminary hearing to determine if there is enough evidence for a trial will not conclude until at least its next scheduled court date of Feb. 23.

Although he was the lone witness called by Hirschfield's defense team, former Davis Police Det. Fred Turner, now retired, often seemed of more benefit to the prosecution on cross-examination, a grilling that raised eyebrows in the spectator section of Sacramento Superior Court.

After outlining for the defense his theories as to why he thought the Hunt group killed Gonsalves and Riggins as a copycat slaying to free Hunt's half-brother, jailed sex slayer Gerald Gallego, Turner was peppered with questions by Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet.

In a skeptical tone of a teacher admonishing a student for not doing his homework, Bladet induced Turner to admit that the sweetheart murders were only the second murder case he had been assigned as a Davis detective. Turner also conceded that the murders marked his first dealings with a kidnap and/or sexually- motivated homicides. It also was his first experience in deploying an undercover informant.

The latter seemed particularly peculiar as Turner testified about his relationship with informant Ray Gonzales, on whom he relied heavily to elicit what the defense contends is damning information regarding the Hunt group's culpability.

Gonzales' testimony that he got a full confession from Hunt crime partner Richard Thompson was key in getting the Hunt group bound over for trial in 1992. Those charges were soon dropped when overlooked semen on a comforter found in the victims' van yielded DNA that matched neither Riggins nor the Hunt group. A DNA match with Hirschfield was made in 2002.

Turner testified he allowed Gonzales to do everything from going undercover to induce a confession from Yolo suspect Thompson to serving as a Spanish interpreter for potential witnesses. He said he let Gonzales handle and inspect evidence in the case when the two traveled together.

Only later did Turner learn that Gonzales had a criminal record, was David Hunt's onetime brother-in-law, was also used as an informant in the Gallego murders and perhaps was motivated by reward money or revenge over how Hunt treated his sister.

Prosecutor Bladet asked Turner that if learning of the informant's background after the fact wasn't "of some concern."

"It gave us pause," Turner conceded. "But (Gonzales) had already gotten in so far that we let him keep going, and I wasn't concerned about it."

Current investigators believe Hirschfield — who has a 1975 conviction of a rape and robbery that occurred at a Bay Area apartment complex — abducted the Davis couple at Sabrina Gonsalves' North Davis condominium. The condo was isolated, fog-shrouded and mostly deserted during the Dec. 20, 1980, nighttime abduction.

Wearing a dark suit and tie, Turner, who kept his composure despite stinging inquiries by the prosecution, testified he still believes the couple were abducted at the shopping center at Covell Boulevard and Anderson Road.

"I never believed (the condominium) was the (abduction) site. I still don't," he said, reasoning the shopping center was a more linear path to the couple's destination, a West Davis surprise birthday party for Sabrina's oldest sister, after they finished as ushers at a "Nutcracker" performance at the Veterans' Memorial Center Theatre.

Perhaps most perplexingly, Turner testified that former Sacramento County homicide supervisor Lt. Ray Biondi, on the recent broadcast of the show "CBS 48 Hours Mystery," "gave up" information that the sweethearts were bound with duct tape. (The information has been widely reported by various media for years.)

Turner testified that he only began pursuing the Hunt theory after Biondi — who eventually dismissed it because of lack of evidence and reliable witness sightings — shared it with Davis police. Biondi also referred Turner to informant Gonzales, whom Biondi characterized as reliable, Turner said.

Turner's methods weren't the only things under scrutiny. Sabrina's autopsy did not indicate the now-held motive of sexual assault.

"I deeply question how good the autopsies were," Turner countered while the prosecution pressed him on his conclusions on how the sweethearts were killed.

Turner also said he requested an expert examination of the semen-stained comforter during his probe of the Hunt group.

"I had taken the blanket and sent it to (California Department of Justice) and requested a trace evidence search performed on it, and it eventually came back saying it was clear," he testified.

The bearded, unkempt Hirschfield, under heavy guard both inside the courtroom and out, appears to be taking an active role in the case, taking notes and whispering often to his attorneys.

— Joel Davis is a Sacramento writer. Reach him at

Copyright, 2007, The Davis Enterprise. All Rights Reserved.

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