Costa Mesa man convicted of 1995 murder of ex-girlfriend’s alleged rapist

A Costa Mesa man was convicted Thursday in the decades-old kidnapping and slaying of a man he believed raped his former girlfriend.

An Orange County jury decided that Gianni Anthony Van, 45, was guilty of first-degree murder for hacking 24-year-old Gonzalo Ramirez to death in April 1995 and dumping his body along a muddy road in Irvine.

Van is expected to be sentenced to life in prison without parole at a hearing July 10, according to the Orange County district attorney’s office.

During the trial, which began April 15, prosecutors alleged that an enraged Van helped plot brutal revenge on Ramirez after Van’s former girlfriend Norma Patricia Esparza — then a 20-year-old student at Pomona College — told him that Ramirez had sexually assaulted her.

Esparza told Van that she met Ramirez at El Cortez, a club in Santa Ana, one night in March 1995. The two reportedly socialized and then met the next morning for breakfast, after which Ramirez offered to drive her to school, Van’s lawyer and prosecutors said during opening statements.

Esparza told Van that Ramirez forced himself on her in a dorm room. Jurors at Van’s trial were not asked to weigh in on the rape accusation’s validity.

According to prosecutors, Van, Esparza and a group of friends went to El Cortez on April 16, and Esparza pointed out Ramirez so the group could kidnap him after he left.

Ramirez was later found dead in Irvine, blindfolded and his body hacked.

Authorities charged Van with murder not long after the killing, but the case stalled when they learned that Van and Esparza had secretly married in Las Vegas. Prosecutors called the marriage a sham designed to thwart the justice system, since spouses cannot be forced to testify against each other.

Esparza, however, divorced Van in 2004 and moved to France, where she became a psychology professor. Authorities arrested her in 2012 when she took a trip to the United States.

Esparza, now 40, testified against Van. She pleaded guilty in September to one count of voluntary manslaughter and is expected to receive a six-year prison sentence.

The associates accused of participating in the kidnapping and killing are working their way through Superior Court.

Shannon Gries, 44, of Santa Ana will face a charge of special-circumstances murder during a kidnapping at a trial expected to begin in July. He could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.

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.

Tran’s husband, Kody, whom Van’s lawyer painted as the ringleader, shot himself to death during a standoff with police in 2012.