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Man pleads guilty in decades-old O.C. murder case

On the verge of a jury trial for his role in a gruesome kidnapping and murder that went unsolved for years, a former car mechanic from Santa Ana pleaded guilty Monday to murder and is expected to receive a lengthy prison term.

Shannon Ray Gries, 45, who went by the nickname “Jailbird,” was implicated in the slaying of 24-year-old Gonzalo Ramirez, an insulation installer whose blindfolded body was dumped beside a road in Irvine in April 1995. His body had been hacked dozens of times with a machete-like weapon, and was entangled in a distinctive blue cloth.

Detectives matched the cloth to a roll missing from the auto shop where Gries worked, Accurate Transmission in Costa Mesa, and where forensics experts found traces of the victim’s blood.

The motive for the murder, detectives learned, was revenge. Norma Patricia Esparza, then a 20-year-old Pomona College student who would go on to become a professor of psychology in Switzerland, had told her ex-boyfriend, Gianni Van, that Ramirez had raped her in her dorm room.

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Testifying at Van’s trial last year, Esparza said an angry Van took her to a Santa Ana nightclub and made her identify her rapist. Soon afterward, she said, Van and his friends – Gries and his transmission-shop boss, Kody Tran -- followed Ramirez from the bar, rammed his truck on a nearby road and abducted him.

Later, Esparza said, Gries’ girlfriend drove her to the transmission shop, where Gries, holding a handgun, ordered Esparza to walk up a flight of stairs to see what was in the loft.

There, Esparza said, she saw a bloodied Ramirez, his arms tied with chains attached to the ceiling, his feet dangling above the floor. He was still alive.

“He lifted his head up and said, ‘I don’t know you, little one,’” Esparza testified. “He said it in Spanish.” Esparza said she was paralyzed, “just trying not to be noticed,” and “was being carried away by other people’s actions.”

Irvine police found Ramirez’s body beside Sand Canyon Road hours later, badly mutilated. It was never clear exactly who delivered the fatal wounds. Esparza was never accused of physically participating in the slaying itself.

Soon after the killing, Esparza entered into what authorities described as a “sham marriage” with Van designed to undermine the case and prevent her from testifying against him, which initially thwarted prosecutors from pursuing a case against him. She said she married Van out of fear.

She later divorce and remarried, became a psychology professor at Webster University in Geneva, and was charged with murder after she tried to reenter the United States in 2012. She was a key witness at Van’s trial, which resulted in his conviction for first-degree murder and a sentence of life without parole.

In exchange for her cooperation, prosecutors allowed Esparza to plead guilty to a felony count of voluntary manslaughter, which is expected to bring her a prison term of six years. She is in jail awaiting her July 15 sentencing.

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Esparza was expected to be a key witness at Gries’ trial in Santa Ana this week, a scenario obviated by his decision to plead guilty to one count of felony murder for a murder during the commission of a kidnapping.

Kody Tran was implicated in the murder but killed himself in a standoff with police before he could be brought to trial. Tran’s widow, Diane, pleaded guilty in 2014 to a count of voluntary manslaughter and is expected to receive a four-year prison term.

The Orange County district attorney’s office said Gries is expected to receive 25 years to life in prison when he is sentenced.

Times staff writer Brittny Mejia contributed to this report.

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