SANTA ANA – A psychology professor involved in the killing of a man she says raped her was sentenced Friday to six years in prison – ending a case that drew outrage from activists who believed the respected academic should have been treated as a sexual-assault victim rather than a murder suspect.
Norma Patricia Esparza,41, was the last of four people sentenced in connection to the slaying of Gonzalo Ramirez, who on April 16, 1995 was kidnapped off of the streets of Santa Ana, tied up, tortured and hacked to death with a meat cleaver at an automotive business. His mutilated body was dumped on the side of a dead-end road in Irvine.
Gianni Van, Esparza’s ex-boyfriend, is spending a life sentence without the possibility of parole for masterminding the abduction and murder. Esparza – as well as co-defendants Diane Tran and Shannon Gries – denied knowing that Ramirez was going to be killed, but have all admitted they should have come forward to contact authorities after his death.
A group of Esparza supporters wearing white T-shirts saying “Set Patricia free” attended her sentencing.
Her attorney, Jack Earley, told Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregg L. Prickett that Esparza supporters, students and fellow professors had written to the court on her behalf, but that she chose not to make a statement during her sentencing.
“She realizes that all actions have consequences,” Earley told the judge. “She is willing to accept the consequences for not coming forward sooner.”
As part of a deal requiring her to plead guilty to a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter, Esparza was sentenced to six years in prison and given credit for three and a half years behind bars.
Tran and Gries were also sentenced Friday as part of their own plea deals. Tran was sentenced to four years, while Gries was ordered to serve 25 years to life.
Deputy District Attorney Mike Murray, who prosecuted the case, said there was no evidence that Esparza was actually raped by Ramirez. Her supporters contended that a campus nurse and doctor who treated Esparza for the alleged sexual encounter dissuaded her from going to police.
The daughter of immigrants, Esparza grew up in Santa Ana before going away to boarding school on the East Coast at age 15. At college in Pomona, she had an on-and-off relationship with Van.
She met Ramirez at a Santa Ana bar while she and Van were on a break. The two hit it off and he drove her back to her college dorm, where Esparza said he raped her.
Esparza said Van became enraged when she told him she had been raped, and forced her and a group of friends – including Gries, Tran and Tran’s husband, Kody – weeks later to go back to the bar where she met Ramirez to identify him. Esparza testified that she only believed that Van wanted to confront Ramirez in public.
Esparza pointed Ramirez out, she testified. Her group staged a car accident near the club to abduct Ramirez, then took him to a Costa Mesa transmission shop that Kody Tran owned, where Ramirez was chained up, beaten and killed.
Esparza testified she was at the shop, but didn’t see the victim get killed.
A phone bill at Ramirez’s apartment led police to Esparza. Additional investigation pointed the detectives to Tran’s transmission shop and to Van.
Police arrested Van soon after the killing, but were forced to drop the case after learning that Esparza had married him and planned to invoke spousal privilege to avoid testifying against him.
Esparza later testified that she didn’t know that Ramirez had been killed until detectives told her. She said she agreed to secretly marry Van and not to go to authorities out of fear of what he, Tran and Gries would do to her if she refused.
Esparza divorced Van in 2004, remarried and moved to France, where she became a respected professor.
She was arrested in 2011 after arriving in Boston. Van, Diane Tran and Gries were arrested a short time later. Kody Tran, also charged, killed himself during an unrelated police standoff while awaiting trial.
During Friday’s sentencing, Murray read a statement written by a brother of Ramirez, outlining the impact that his killing has had on their family.
“The way my brother was killed is agonizing to think of,” the brother wrote. “It pains us to think of each hack and blow…. How he was thrown and left like an animal.”
Gries offered his own apology to the Ramirez family, saying that had he known Ramirez was going to be killed he would have “stopped it or died trying.”
“I have lived with that choice for my entire life,” Gries said. “I haven’t stopped thinking about it for 20 years.”
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