Norma Patricia Esparza came to Santa Ana as a small child with her family from Mexico. She later received a scholarship to attend the elite Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and then Pomona College. She went on to work with the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, before joining the faculty of a university there as a psychology professor. Esparza was living in a French town near Geneva with her husband, renowned medical researcher Jorge Mancillas, and their 4-year-old daughter in 2012 when she came back to the U.S. to attend a conference. She probably wishes now she'd stayed home, because Wednesday the 39-year-old added a title that probably won't be included in her curriculum vitae: murder defendant.
Her case has been an international sensation since her arrest at the airport in Boston for a cold-case murder in Orange County. While free on bail, Esparza had been cooperating with local prosecutors, claiming she had been raped by Gonzalo Ramirez before the 25-year-old was plucked off a street in Santa Ana, brutally beaten, stabbed and hacked with a meat cleaver. His lifeless body was dumped in Irvine on April 16, 1995.
Esparza rejected an Orange County District Attorney's office plea-bargain offer that would have had her admitting to a manslaughter charge and accepting a three-year jail sentence. Her bail was then revoked, and she was charged with murder. Asked last year by a City News Service reporter why she did not take the deal, Esparza replied, “My level of responsibility is not that. I just don't feel that's what I'm responsible for.”
She pleaded not guilty to murder, but a judge Wednesday ruled there is enough evidence for her to stand trial. A conviction could send her to prison for life.
Esparza claims to have been sexually abused by a relative starting when she was 5 and continuing until she was 12. She says she has been fearful of–and easily influenced by–men ever since.
She was home in Santa Ana from Pomona College for a weekend in March 1995 when she went with her sister to the El Cortez nightclub, where she met and befriended Ramirez. He invited her to breakfast with his sister the next morning and then offered to drive her back to Pomona College in Claremont.
Esparza claims that while they were alone in her dorm room, Ramirez raped her. She says she later went to a school nurse who gave her a pill to prevent pregnancy. But the rape, which Esparza says still haunts her to this day, was not reported to authorities. She recently explained she felt ashamed and didn't want her family to know. But a few weeks after the alleged attack, she told her then-boyfriend, Gianni Van, who blew up and complained she should have done more to stop Ramirez.
She claims Van forced her and a friend to go back to El Cortez on two occasions to look for Ramirez. The morning before his abduction, Esparza pointed him out to Van and his friends Shannon Ray Gries and Kody Tran, according to prosecutors.
Hours later, just before 1 a.m., Ramirez and a male friend left El Cortez and drove north on Lyon Street when a 1980s-model Chevrolet van rear-ended their car at a stop light at Chestnut Avenue, according to police and prosecutors. Ramirez and a man in the van got out of their respective vehicles, with the stranger punching Ramirez and knocking him down. A second man got out of the van to warn he had a weapon. The friend of Ramirez ran off to get help from a security guard, but when they returned to the scene, everyone–Ramirez included–were gone.
Prosecutors claim Van, Gries and Kody Tran abducted Ramirez and took him to an auto body shop owned by Diane Tran, Kody's wife, where the victim was tortured. Esparza later claimed members of the group took her there but that she did not witness the murder.
“He looked up. He was moving. He had blood on his torso,” she said of Ramirez to the Pasadena Star News. “He said, 'I don't know you little girl.' I just screamed and ran down the stairs. I thought, 'Why did they bring me here? Oh my goodness am I going to be killed? Why did they force me to see this guy?' And, at the point I realized this was meant to be a punishment for me.”
Ramirez's body was found by Irvine Police later that morning at the side of Sand Canyon Road.
Esparza would go on to graduate from Pomona College and earn her doctorate. She was arrested in 1996 in connection with Ramirez's death, but prosecutors declined to press charges when she married Van in Las Vegas and could not be compelled to testify against him. She called the marriage another example of men controlling her; she divorced Van in 2006. And when she was still cooperating with prosecutors, she had agreed to testify against Van, the Trans and Gries, according to the DA's office.
Her tune has changed, according to what Esparza told the Star News: “I've been victimized a number of times in my life and now I'm being victimized as a way for a prosecutor to build a career.”
“She's a very sophisticated defendant,” Susan Kang Schroeder, the DA's chief of staff, told the same newspaper. “She has a Ph.D in psychology and she knows how to play on people's emotions, including the use of her 4-year-old daughter as a prop at the press conference. This is a woman who is trying to act like the victim in this case when the real victim was brutally murdered and the case went unsolved for 20 years.”
Playing the victim card (rightly or wrongly) has worked; Esparza has many supporters. So does Diane Tran, who is now 45 and pleaded guilty in January to voluntary manslaughter with a sentencing enhancement for use of a gun. It is expected she will get four years in prison at her scheduled June 20 sentencing in Santa Ana.
Without the plea deal, Tran was looking at special circumstances murder and kidnapping and a possible life sentence without the possibility of parole. On her decision to take the deal, her attorney Michael Molfetta (whose name you may recognize from representing a defendant accused of murdering Kim Pham) told City News Service earlier this year: “She has supporters, people who believe in her, and a job waiting for her–all of those things factor into, 'Let's get off the ride.'”
Kody Tran, Diane's late husband, killed himself during a SWAT standoff in Irvine last July. Van, 44, and Gries, 43, remain behind bars without bail and have a pre-trial hearing scheduled in May.
OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the alternative newsweekly’s first calendar editor.