Psychology professor sentenced to 6 years in killing of man she said raped her

Psychology professor Norma Patricia Esparza, pictured in 2013, was sentenced Friday to six years in prison in the 1995 killing of a man she said raped her.

Psychology professor Norma Patricia Esparza, pictured in 2013, was sentenced Friday to six years in prison in the 1995 killing of a man she said raped her.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

A psychology professor who pleaded guilty to participating in the decades-old killing of a man she said raped her was sentenced Friday to six years in prison.

Norma Patricia Esparza, 41, was one of five people accused of helping in the kidnapping and slaying of Gonzalo Ramirez, a 24-year-old insulation installer who was hacked to death and dumped by the side of an Irvine road in April 1995.

The motive, according to Orange County prosecutors, was revenge.

In 1995, Esparza was a 20-year-old student at Pomona College. In the spring that year, she told her ex-boyfriend, a Costa Mesa man named Gianni Van, that Ramirez had raped her in a dorm room, according to testimony at Van’s trial last year.


Van was convicted of murder in May 2015 for playing a leading role in the slaying. He is now serving a life sentence in state prison.

At Van’s trial, Esparza testified that Van took her to a Santa Ana nightclub where she had met Ramirez and made her point him out.

As Ramirez left the bar with a friend, Van and two other men – Shannon Ray Gries and Kody Tran – followed, according to prosecutors.

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After ramming Ramirez’s truck to make him pull over, the three men kidnapped him and threatened his friend, according to testimony at Van’s trial.

Prosecutors said the group took Ramirez to a Costa Mesa transmission shop that Tran owned and where Gries worked. Investigators later found traces of Ramirez’s blood at the building.

Esparza testified that she arrived at the shop later that night. Gries led her to Ramirez, who was bloodied but still alive, dangling from a chain tied to his arms, she said.

The next day, Irvine police found Ramirez’s body, blindfolded and wrapped in a blue cloth that law enforcement later tied to the Costa Mesa shop, according to prosecutors.

Authorities charged Van with the killing not long after, but they dropped the case after learning that he and Esparza had secretly married, meaning she could no longer be compelled to testify against him.

In 2004, Esparza divorced Van and moved to Europe, where she remarried and became a respected psychology professor at Webster University in Geneva.

In October 2012, authorities arrested her while she was on a trip to the United States.

The arrest sparked controversy among activists who thought law enforcement should have treated her as a sexual-assault victim, not a suspect.

Prosecutors said Esparza never reported the rape to police or a medical professional.

Esparza, however, said she was shamed into silence by a nurse when she went to a school clinic to get a pill to prevent a possible pregnancy from the attack.

“I don’t think I was thinking at that time,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. “I felt ashamed. I felt guilty. I didn’t want to come forward because I didn’t want my family to know.”

Esparza was originally charged with murder, but as part of an agreement with prosecutors, she was allowed to plead guilty in September 2014 to voluntary manslaughter in exchange for her cooperation in the case.

Gries, now 45, pleaded guilty in May to murder. He was sentenced Friday to 25 years to life in prison.

Kody Tran killed himself in a standoff with police before he could be charged in the case.

His wife, Diane Tran, now 47, pleaded guilty in January 2014 to voluntary manslaughter. She too was sentenced Friday and received four years in state prison.


Jeremiah Dobruck,

Twitter: @jeremiahdobruck