Murder suspects plead not guilty

Three suspects who authorities say are connected to the 1995 slaying of a 24-year-old man pleaded not guilty this week.

Gianni Anthony Van, 43, and Diane Tran, 44, both of Costa Mesa, pleaded not guilty Friday in Orange County Superior Court. The two — as well as Santa Ana resident Shannon Ray Gries, 42, who pleaded not guilty Wednesday — are each charged with one felony count of murder and one felony count of conspiracy to commit a crime, with two sentencing enhancements for kidnapping and lying in wait.

Gries was arrested Monday. Previously, he was reported as a fugitive with a last known address in Colorado.

Another codefendant, Norma Patricia Esparza, 38, is charged with one felony count of murder and one sentencing enhancement for kidnapping. She pleaded not guilty Dec. 10.

At some point after the murder, Esparza moved to France with her husband, prosecutors said, but was arrested in Boston in October and extradited to Orange County.

Another suspect, Kody Tran, Tran's husband, committed suicide in July during a standoff, police have said.

Prosecutors contend that Gries and Van attacked Gonzalo Ramirez sometime after he left a bar in Santa Ana on April 16, 1995.

Police previously said that a white 1980s-era van hit Ramirez's vehicle from behind in the early morning. One man got out of the van and hit Ramirez, police said, while another got out and motioned that he had a weapon. Ramirez's passenger ran for help, but when he returned with a security guard, Ramirez had vanished.

Gries, Van and Kody Tran took Ramirez's body to Accurate Transmission, an auto shop in Costa Mesa that Kody Tran owned, where Diane Tran met them, prosecutors said.

Esparza had met Ramirez at few weeks before the slaying. She had breakfast with him, her sister and a friend the next day, according to the D.A.'s office. In the weeks following that breakfast, she allegedly told Van, her ex-boyfriend, about Ramirez.

Earlier in the investigation, Esparza told police that Ramirez assaulted her in her college dorm at Pomona College in the weeks before his death.

An autopsy of Ramirez's body determined that he had suffered blows to his head and torso. Police found his body off the San Diego (405) Freeway near Sand Canyon Road.

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