Man sentenced to life in prison in decades-old O.C. murder case

A Costa Mesa resident was sentenced Friday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the kidnapping and killing two decades ago of a man he believed had raped his former girlfriend.

Gianni Anthony Van, 45, was convicted of first-degree murder in the cold case in May.

For almost 20 years, Orange County law enforcement had been trying to definitively tie Van to the killing of 24-year-old Gonzalo Ramirez, whose body was found bloodied and blindfolded in the mud along an Irvine road in 1995.

Earlier this year, prosecutors presented testimony that Van helped kidnap Ramirez and hack him to death with a meat cleaver as he hung from chains in a Costa Mesa auto shop.

"The defendant butchered him," prosecutor Mike Murray told jurors as the trial began in April.

Van was enraged at Ramirez after Van's ex-girlfriend, Norma Patricia Esparza, told him that Ramirez had sexually assaulted her in her Pomona College dormitory after they met at a Santa Ana nightclub, prosecutors said.

Esparza, who was 20 at the time, later returned to the club with Van and a group of friends and pointed out Ramirez so they could later attack him, prosecutors said during trial.

Prosecutors charged Van shortly after the killing, but dropped the case when they discovered that Van and Esparza had secretly married in Las Vegas, thwarting the prosecutors’ case because they could no longer compel Esparza to testify against her now-spouse, even though they believed the marriage was a sham entered into for exactly that result.

But in 2004, Esparza divorced Van. She remarried and moved to France, where she worked as a psychology professor.

In 2012, authorities arrested Esparza at a Boston airport. She pleaded guilty to one count of voluntary manslaughter in September and testified against Van at his trial.

She's expected to receive a six-year prison sentence at a hearing later this year.

Prosecutors say three other people also participated in the scheme.

Shannon Gries, 44, of Santa Ana is scheduled for trial next week on one count of special-circumstances murder during a kidnapping. He could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.

Diane Tran, 46, of Costa Mesa pleaded guilty to one count of voluntary manslaughter last year and could receive a maximum of four years in prison at her sentencing, scheduled for next year.

Tran's husband, Kody, who Van's lawyers tried to cast as the ringleader, shot himself to death during a standoff with police in 2012 before any charges were filed.

jeremiah.dobruck@latimes.com

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