A former hotel concierge was found guilty Thursday of participating in a two-decade-old kidnapping and murder, crimes committed in revenge after the defendant’s ex-girlfriend told him a man had raped her.
Gianni Anthony Van, 45, of Costa Mesa was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Gonzalo Ramirez, a 24-year-old insulation installer whose mutilated body was found along an Irvine road in April 1995.
Van had recently broken up with his girlfriend, Norma Patricia Esparza, when she met Ramirez at El Cortez, a Santa Ana club, in March of that year. She later told Van that Ramirez raped her in her dorm room at Pomona College.
Now 40 and – until her arrest – a professor of psychology in Switzerland, Esparza testified for the prosecution, saying an angry, agitated Van took her to El Cortez and insisted that she point out her rapist. She said they were accompanied by several of his friends.
Esparza said she expected there would be a confrontation, but did not know that Ramirez would be kidnapped and killed. She said she saw Van and his friends – a transmission shop owner named Kody Tran and his employee, Shannon “Jailbird” Gries – attack and kidnap Ramirez near the bar.
She said she later saw Ramirez bleeding, his hands chained above his head, in the loft of Tran’s Costa Mesa transmission shop.
“I was frightened of everyone,” she testified.
Police found Ramirez’s body beside a road in Irvine, blindfolded, his skull and body hacked more than 30 times with a weapon resembling a machete or a meat cleaver. He was entangled with blue cloth. Detectives matched it to a roll missing from the transmission shop, where they also found Ramirez’s blood.
Van was initially charged with the slaying, but the case was dropped because Esparza had married him during the investigation – out of fear, she would testify -- and could not be compelled to testify.
Esparza eventually divorced Van and remarried. She moved to France and worked as a professor of psychology at Webster University in Geneva. She was arrested in October 2012 when she attempted to fly into the United States, and was charged with murder, though she was never accused of committing the slaying herself.
In exchange for her testimony, prosecutors gave Esparza a deal that allowed her to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter. She is expected to receive a six-year term when she is sentenced in September.
During the trial, Van’s attorney, public defender Jeremy Dolnick, said his client was a “fun-spirited surfer boy” – generous, even-tempered and well-loved by his friends – who had been devastated when Esparza told him she’d been raped.
Van, who before his arrest worked as a shoe salesman at South Coast Plaza and as a concierge at the Hotel Casa del Mar in Santa Monica, blamed the crimes on Tran, who later killed himself in a standoff with police.
Van testified that he did not participate in the abduction or the slaying, though Tran forced him to accompany him when he dumped the body. “I thought I was next,” Van testified.
In his closing argument, prosecutor Mike Murray argued that Van had lied dozens of times to police about what he did and didn’t do that night. He said Van was using Tran as a scapegoat. “Isn’t it convenient that Kody Tran is dead?” he said.
Murray said Van had become enraged by what Esparza told him, and that the savagery of the killing indicated unbridled fury that pointed to Van's involvement.
“You don’t even have to decide whether he was the one who wielded the meat cleaver,” Murray told jurors. “But he was.”