Trial starts for man accused of killing girlfriend's alleged rapist

Trial begins for man accused of killing girlfriend's alleged rapist in 1995

A 45-year-old Costa Mesa man went on trial this week in connection with a brutal 1995 killing that authorities say was motivated by his rage after his former girlfriend told him she had been raped.

Gianni Anthony Van faces life in prison if convicted on one count of first-degree felony murder in commission of a kidnapping.

One night in March 1995, Van's former girlfriend, Norma Patricia Esparza, then a 20-year-old student at Pomona College, met 24-year-old Gonzalo Ramirez at a Santa Ana club called the El Cortez and gave him her phone number. 

The next day Ramirez met her for breakfast and drove her back to her dorm room in Pomona, where she later told Van he had raped her, though she did not initially report it to police.

"The defendant was out of his mind with anger. He felt that he had been violated," prosecutor Mike Murray told jurors during his opening statement in Orange County Superior Court Wednesday.

On the morning of April 16, 1995, prosecutors say, Van and a group of friends followed Ramirez in a van and rear-ended his truck in Santa Ana, then kidnapped him.

Ramirez was later found dead beside a road in Irvine, blindfolded, his body hacked.

"The defendant butchered him," Murray told jurors.

He described the victim's wounds as "beyond horrific" and called the killing "the act of an incredibly angry man."

One of Van's co-defendants, Diane Tran, 46, of Costa Mesa, pleaded guilty last year to one count of voluntary manslaughter and could face four years in prison when a judge sentences her in June.

Another co-defendant, Shannon Gries, 44, of Santa Ana, is expected to face trial in July on one count of special-circumstances murder during a kidnapping and faces life in prison if convicted.

Detectives found Ramirez's blood in a Costa Mesa transmission shop owned by Tran and her husband, who had been Van's close friend. 

Van was charged with murder soon after the killing, but the prosecutor said authorities were forced to drop the case when it emerged that Van had secretly married Esparza in Las Vegas, thereby preventing her from testifying against him under the spousal privilege rule. The prosecutor called it a "sham marriage" designed to thwart justice.

In 2004, however, Esparza filed for divorce from Van and the privilege evaporated.

Esparza, who remarried, moved to France and made a career as a professor of psychology, was arrested in October 2012 when she attempted to reenter the United States.

Esparza, now 40, is expected to testify in the case against Van. She pleaded guilty in September to one count of voluntary manslaughter and is expected to receive a six-year prison term when she is sentenced in September.

Twitter: @LATChrisGoffard

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