Professor accused in death of her alleged rapist pleads guilty

Norma Esparza closes her eyes during a press conference in 2013.
Norma Esparza closes her eyes during a press conference in 2013.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

A professor of psychology who was arrested nearly two years ago in the cold case slaying of a man she said had raped her pleaded guilty Friday to a reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter.

The Orange County case had drawn wide attention and gained support from advocates for rape victims who said she was being unfairly targeted.

Norma Patricia Esparza, who grew up in Santa Ana and went on to become a professor in Europe, was charged along with three others in the death of 24-year-old Gonzalo Ramirez while she was a college student in Claremont almost 20 years ago.

Esparza was accused of conspiring to commit the slaying, though she did not actually carry it out.


She is expected to be sentenced to six years in state prison and will testify against her co-defendants, the Orange County district attorney’s office said in a news release.

According to prosecutors, Esparza and a group that included her ex-boyfriend went to a Santa Ana bar in the spring of 1995 so she could point out Ramirez, who she said raped her in her dorm room.

The following morning, Irvine police found Ramirez’s body on the side of a road. He had been beaten and hacked to death with a meat cleaver.

Born in Mexico, Esparza came to Santa Ana as a child and her life was forever changed when she obtained a scholarship to attend the elite Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

She was a student at Pomona College when the slaying occurred and was working at Webster University, Geneva, when she was arrested.

Esparza told a grand jury that she never meant for Ramirez to be killed and that her ex-boyfriend, Gianni Anthony Van, forced her to point him out after she told him about the rape.

In an interview with The Times, she said she was naive about Van’s intentions.

“Many people say you’re so intelligent, you have a PhD how did you not see that coming?” Esparza told The Times late last year. “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.”


Esparza’s attorney, Jack Earley, said his client, who is married and has a young daughter, was unwilling to risk a life sentence if convicted of murder.

Though Esparza did not intend for Ramirez to be killed, he said, she was not forthcoming about the slaying when police confronted her about it almost two decades ago.

“She was frightened,” he said. “And she realizes that…there’s a chance people will hold her accountable for that. It’s very hard for someone to put themselves in her situation. At trial they’d be looking at a 40-year-old instead of what she was at the time, which was a 20-year-old girl.”

Co-defendants Van, 45, and Shannon Ray Gries, 43, are charged with felony murder in the commission of a kidnapping. They are expected to go on trial next year.


A third suspect, Diane Tran, 45, of Costa Mesa, pleaded guilty this year to voluntary manslaughter and is expected to be sentenced to four years in prison, prosecutors said.

Tran’s husband, Kody Tran, who was also a suspect in the case, shot himself during a standoff with police.

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