Sabrina Gonsalves and John Riggins Murders: How Did They Die? Who Killed Them?


Among the various cases covered in ’48 Hours,’ the murders of Sabrina Gonsalves and John Riggins have piqued the interest of many people due to the circumstances in which it all came about. Season 27, episode 1 of the CBS series, which is aptly titled ’48 Hours: The Sweetheart Murders,’ delves deep into the details of the story that is well-known as Sweetheart Murders due to the relationship between the two victims and the long wait before the perpetrator was found. Naturally, the world is eager to know what they can about it all.

How Did Sabrina Gonsalves and John Riggins Die?

18-year-old Sabrina Gonsalves and John Riggins were both students at the University of California in Davis, California, in 1980. The former hoped to become a physical therapist, while the latter was an aspiring doctor. The two had begun a relationship a few months before the end of the year and, on December 20, 1980, were traveling to Sabrina’s sister’s house in order to attend a birthday party. However, the two never made it to their destination.

Naturally, Sabrina and John’s family grew concerned that the two might have been involved in a car accident due to the foggy weather. About 36 hours later, the van that the two had been traveling in was discovered 30 miles east of Davis, in California’s Sacramento County. After a few hours of search, the bodies of the two college students were found in a ravine about a mile away from the location where the van was discovered.

Upon the discovery of Sabrina and John’s bodies, it was easy to see that this was a cause of double murder. Not only was there clear evidence of Sabrina being sexually assaulted, but there were also signs that John had sustained injuries while trying to protect his girlfriend. The two were then killed brutally before the responsible criminal(s) decided to throw the bodies in the ravine. The police tried their level best to find who might have done this all. From analyzing the pattern of the crime to utilizing the DNA technology that came about years later, many efforts were put into finding out who assaulted and killed Sabrina and John.

Who Killed Sabrina Gonsalves and John Riggins?

Initially, the investigators had suspected that the murders might have been committed by Gerald Gallego, who had apparently killed someone else in a similar fashion. However, the fact that Gallego had been in prison during the murder of the two college students led the investigators to instead turn towards his half-brother David Hunt, along with Hunt’s wife and two friends. The four of them were arrested in 1989 but were declared innocent three years later, the evening before they were set to appear in court.

The reason behind the acquittal of Hunt and the other three people was the advancement in DNA technologies. In the van that Sabrina and John had used, the killer’s semen was present on the blanket that was meant to be a gift for Sabrina’s sister. The DNA analysis of the same using the then-newly developed technology indicated no match with those who had been accused until that point, leading the charges to be dropped and the investigation to go cold once again.

However, things changed in 2002 when it was discovered that the semen sample matched with Richard Hirschfield. At the time, he was already in prison in Washington as a suspect and had actually been convicted of rape in California in 1975. Apparently, some of Hirschfield’s friends used to live in the house opposite Sabrina’s, which might have been how the couple became known to him. In order to get to the bottom of it all, authorities interviewed Joseph Hirschfield, who was apparently shaken when he got to know about the DNA match.

The very next day of his interview, Joseph Hirschfield was found dead in his car due to carbon monoxide poisoning. He did leave a note behind stating, “I have been living with this horror for 20 years. Richard did commit those murders, but I was there. I didn’t kill anyone, but my DNA is still there.” After much work done by investigators in light of the new evidence, Richard Hirschfield had to stand trial in September 2012 for his alleged crimes against Sabrina and John.

Following the start of his trial, Hirschfield was found guilty of the murders of Sabrina and John in November 2012. This was followed by a jury vote in December 2012, that suggested that the convicted murderer should be given the death penalty. In January 2013, Hirschfield was indeed sentenced to die. This came about 32 years after the two college students had been killed. As of writing, Hirschfield remains a resident of the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center in San Quentin, California.

“I’m not free because I miss her,” Andrea Rosenstein, Sabrina’s sister, stated when asked about the death penalty given to her sister’s murderer. “But, he’s out of our life. We never have to think about him again. I can just miss her – I can just think about that, and we’re really ready to do that.” Given the many, many years that it took to find justice, Sabrina and John’s family could not help but feel a sense of closure after the sentence against the convicted killer of the victims.

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