Norma Patricia Esparza plead guilty for her role in a 19-year-old murder on Friday at the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana. Wikimedia Commons
Norma Patricia Esparza plead guilty for her role in a 19-year-old murder on Friday in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana. Photo courtesy of  Wikimedia Commons
Norma Patricia Esparza plead guilty for her role in a 19-year-old murder on Friday in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana. Photo courtesy of  Wikimedia Commons

A 40-year-old woman pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter on Friday in Superior Court in Santa Ana for her role in the 1995 revenge kidnap-murder of a man she claims raped her 19 years ago. Norma Patricia Esparza, whose plea deal calls for a six-year sentence, is expected to testify against two co-defendants in the April 1995 killing of 25-year-old Gonzalo Ramirez, who was abducted after leaving a bar. Esparza will have to serve at least 85 percent of her sentence, according to defense attorney Jack Earley. “She has a young daughter and she wants a guarantee she’ll be out sometime to raise her child,” Earley said after his client pleaded guilty. “If she was not a mother and had no children, she would have proceeded to trial. She thought it was time and the right thing to do to accept some responsibility. It was a hard decision, but the right thing to do given the risks.” Another woman, Diane Tran, 45, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter on Jan. 24 in exchange for a four-year sentence. She is also expected to testify against co-defendants Gianni Van, 45, and Shannon Ray Gries, 43. Esparza was initially offered four years behind bars, but rejected the plea deal. She and her supporters insisted on her innocence and appealed to prosecutors to drop the case, arguing she was the true victim and did not know about the revenge plot. Investigators, however, maintain that Esparza met up with Ramirez at a Santa Ana bar and pointed him out to one of the co-defendants, leading to his abduction and killing. Esparza was living in France on the Geneva border with her husband and their then-4-year-old daughter until her bail was revoked after she rejected the initial plea deal. She was taken into custody in November and was ordered to stand trial in February following a preliminary hearing. A break in the murder case came in March 2010, when Orange County sheriff’s investigators got a DNA match linking one of the four defendants to the victim. Orange County District Attorney Investigator Larry Montgomery testified at Esparza’s preliminary hearing that he was working for Irvine police in 1995 and was called to where Ramirez’s body was dumped at Sand Canyon Avenue and the San Diego (405) Freeway. Ramirez sustained about three dozen slash and gouge wounds, including one so deep it broke his wrist bone and nearly severed the hand, Montgomery testified. Retired Santa Ana police detective Ferrell Buckels testified that Esparza met Ramirez for the first time in March 1995 at the El Cortez Bar in Santa Ana, where they danced. The following morning, the two had breakfast together with one of Esparza’s friends, Buckels said. He said Esparza told investigators that Ramirez then drove her to her dorm in Pomona College, and the two walked around the campus. The defendant told detectives that when Ramirez said he was thirsty, she invited him back to her room, where they talked some more. According to Esparza’s account to investigators, Ramirez asked to have sex with her and she turned him down, but he forced himself on her, Buckels testified. He said Esparza claimed she told a school nurse about the attack the next day, and also told another friend and her ex-boyfriend, co-defendant Gianni Van. Buckels said Esparza told investigators that Van was “upset” when he heard about the alleged rape. The detective testified that investigators could not confirm Esparza’s claim. According to Buckels, Esparza told detectives that Ramirez called her after the alleged rape to see if she had found his ID in her dorm, and she told him no. Orange County district attorney’s Investigator Michael Kendrick said he interviewed Tran, who told authorities that Esparza was aware of the plot to abduct Ramirez and kill him. At the time of the killing, Tran was married to Kody Tran, who was also a suspect, but authorities believe he committed “suicide by cop” during a SWAT standoff in Irvine in July 2012. The Trans owned an auto transmission repair shop in Costa Mesa, where investigators suspect Ramirez was killed. According to Diane Tran’s statement to authorities, Esparza, the Trans, Shannon Ray Gries, Van and another woman drove in a Ford Astro van, which was used for the auto repair business, to the El Cortez Bar so Esparza could point out Ramirez. The carpet and seats were removed from the back of the vehicle, Tran told investigators. She said that as her husband and Van discussed the plot to abduct Ramirez and kill him, Esparza appeared to nod in agreement, according to Kendrick. Diane Tran told investigators the group, minus her, went into the El Cortez, where Esparza grabbed Van’s arm and pointed out Ramirez, according to Kendrick’s testimony. Diane Tran also told investigators that as Ramirez drove away from the bar, Kody Tran staged a collision between the van and Ramirez’s car to abduct the victim, Kendrick testified. Later, Esparza, Tran and another woman went to the auto repair shop and saw the victim sitting on the floor with his legs crossed and arms tied behind his back, according to Diane Tran’s account. Ramirez was blindfolded and beaten, Kendrick testified. He said that according to Diane Tran, the victim said in Spanish, “Why are you doing this, little one?” Tran claimed Esparza translated for her. Esparza allegedly said, “That’s the guy who raped me,” Kendrick testified. He said Diane Tran also claimed that Esparza and Van discussed getting married so the two could not be compelled to testify against each other. The two got married in Las Vegas, but divorced in 2006. Everyone involved in the van ride to the El Cortez bar was told to “keep quiet” about Ramirez and that if investigators started asking questions, Van would “take the fall,” according to Tran’s statement to detectives, Kendrick testified. Gries and Van were indicted for murder, with a special circumstance allegation of murder during a kidnapping, by a grand jury last year. They have a Jan. 9 trial date. — City News Service

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