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Professor accused of helping kill her alleged rapist 18 years ago

Crime, Law and JusticeHomicideCrimeJustice System

In the spring of 1995, a man's body was found dumped alongside a road in Irvine. He had been beaten and hacked with a meat cleaver. His killing went unsolved for years.

Now prosecutors say that Norma Patricia Esparza, who at the time was a sophomore at Pomona College, went to a Santa Ana bar with a group and pointed out a man she said had raped her in her college dormitory -- setting in motion events that left him dead.

Esparza, now a respected professor of psychology in Geneva, says she was forced by an aggressive ex-boyfriend to identify her rapist and then conceal his crime for nearly two decades.

IN DEPTH: Cold-case inquiry leads to professor

Prosecutors say Esparza conspired to commit the killing, though she did not actually carry it out. She is charged with one felony count of special circumstances murder during the commission of a kidnapping. She says prosecutors are pressuring her to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter. No trial date has been set, but a hearing is scheduled for Thursday. She is free on $300,000 bail.

Esparza's ex-boyfriend, Gianni Anthony Van, and two others, Shannon Gries and Diane Tran, were also charged. All three have pleaded not guilty. A fourth suspect, Kody Tran, died in a shootout with police last year.

On Wednesday, Esparza stood with her husband outside a courthouse in Santa Ana to tell her side of the story. Her 4-year-old daughter clung to her waist as she spoke. She said she was a victim, not only of rape but of sexual abuse, since she was a child.

"We're not polished, we're not professional. We're just a family trying to tell our story," said her husband, Jorge R. Mancillas, a neurobiologist who works on global health issues in Geneva.

Prosecutors responded that the evidence in the trial would show that Esparza played a role in the slaying.

"I know she wants to try this case in the media," said Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the district attorney. "We look forward to trying this case in court."

In March 1995, when she was home in Santa Ana from college for the weekend, Esparza decided to go to the El Cortez nightclub, where she met a man named Gonzalo Ramirez, according to court records. They hit it off and the next morning he asked her to breakfast along with her sister and a friend from school. After breakfast Ramirez offered to drive Esparza and her friend back to her college in Claremont.

When Ramirez and Esparza were in her dorm room, he raped her, she said in court records and interviews. She went to a school nurse who gave her a pill to prevent pregnancy. But she didn't report the rape to authorities and the nurse didn't advise her to, she said in an interview with The Times.

"I don't think I was thinking at that time," she said. "I felt ashamed. I felt guilty. I didn't want to come forward because I didn't want my family to know."

She testified that later Van was "insisting, yelling, telling me that I had to point out the rapist, point out the attacker. And at some point Gonzalo Ramirez walked by, and I cringed and I told Gianni that that was the person."

She thought "the worst that would happen is that he would rough him up," she told the grand jury.

"Many people say you're so intelligent you have a PhD how did you not see that coming?" Esparza said in the Times interview. "The fact is there's different types of intelligence. You can be intelligent and not be street-wise … not foreseeing the bad intentions in other people."

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Twitter: @palomaesquivel

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com 

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