Photo via Pixabay
Photo via Pixabay

Two women and a man were sentenced Friday for their part in a 1995 revenge killing in Orange County.

Shannon Ray Gries, 45, of Santa Ana received the stiffest punishment — 25 years to life — for his part in the April 1995 kidnapping and slaughter of 24-year-old Gonzalo Ramirez. Gries made a rare plea deal on May 23, accepting a first-degree murder conviction so he could avoid being found guilty at trial and facing a life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Gries will get a shot at parole in his mid-to-late 60s.

Co-defendant Norma Patricia Esparza, 41, pleaded guilty in September 2014 to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to six years in prison. She was given credit for 1,309 days in custody, so she will get released in about two years, her attorney, Jack Earley, said.

Co-defendant Diane Tran, 47, of Costa Mesa, pleaded guilty in January 2014 to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced today to four years behind bars, or the time she has already served since her arrest. Tran had already been out of custody as of today.

Gries was driving a van that slammed into a vehicle the victim was in on April 16, 1995, so Ramirez could be abducted, Senior Deputy District Attorney Mike Murray said.

Ramirez’s body was found the next morning at the Sand Canyon Road exit of the San Diego (405) Freeway in Irvine. Ramirez suffered a fractured skull and bled to death, and the weapon was likely a meat cleaver, Murray said.

The revenge plot’s seeds were sown by Esparza, who claimed Ramirez raped her in her dorm room at Pomona College in March 1995, Murray said. She told her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Gianni Anthony Van, 46, who then told another friend, Kody Tran, Murray said.

Van was sentenced last July to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Kody Tran, who was married to Diane Tran and who authorities believe committed “suicide by cop” in a standoff with SWAT officers in Irvine in July 2012, was also involved in the murder, Murray said.

Investigators suspect the killing blows were dealt to Ramirez in Irvine – – where his body was dumped — following his abduction in Santa Ana, Murray said.

One of Ramirez’s brothers wrote a letter, which Murray read aloud in court, about how the murder of his sibling affected their family.

After the murder, “My mother’s deep sorrow caused her to cry and cry to the point of losing consciousness,” the brother wrote.

“My mother suffered many emotional impacts because of my brother’s death,” he continued. “The way my brother was killed is agonizing to think of… It torments us to think of each stab, each hack and blow that he received while being tied without being able to defend himself… Our hearts are filled with pain how he was thrown and left like an animal.”

Esparza was cooperating with investigators, but then changed her mind when it was made clear that she would have to begin serving time behind bars when she pleaded guilty. Her case prompted supporters to protest, arguing Esparza was a victim coerced into remaining silent by the killers.

Earley told reporters that Esparza again agreed to begin cooperating and plead guilty because she did not want to risk going to trial and losing her chance to mother her 7-year-old daughter.

Earley told Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett that his client wanted it understood that “all actions have consequences and she’s willing to accept the consequences of not coming forward sooner.”

Tran’s attorney, Robert Weinberg, expressed a similar sentiment on behalf of his client.

“My client also recognizes the consequences of inaction,” Weinberg said, adding that Tran’s life is in “tatters,” but that pales in comparison to what happened to the victim.

Gries, who apologized to the victim’s relatives when he pleaded guilty, again expressed remorse to them for his part in the killing.

“I truly want to tell you how sorry I am,” he said. “God knows I would never willingly be a part of any murder.”

Gries also said he didn’t do the right thing and waited to tell authorities what happened in the case, which was cold until Esparza, who was living in France at the time, was arrested while traveling to Boston in October 2012.

“I don’t know if you will ever forgive me,” he said of Ramirez’s family. “If not, know that I pray that someday you can.”

Gries said he had a choice when his arrest warrant “popped up.” He could flee or turn himself in and ultimately pleaded guilty because, “I owed you,” he said to the victim’s family.

Gries said he has found religion in jail and invited the victim’s family to visit with him.

“If you want to yell at me or whatever I am at your mercy till the day I die,” Gries said.

Gries’ wife, Adrienne Gries, who met him in the sixth grade, but reconnected with him as an adult was dating the defendant when he was arrested. The two married while he was in custody.

Adrienne Gries said her husband has evangelized while in jail, inspiring others to join him in prayers and Bible study.

Murray told reporters after the hearing that he was disgusted that the defendants did not accept more responsibility for their participation in the killing.

“I’m happy for Mr. Gries that he has found God,” Murray said. “But I was very disappointed that at this point in the proceedings to hear him say he was sorry it happened.”

Murray emphasized that Gries was actively involved in the abduction and killing of Ramirez.

“He was the person who punched Gonzalo Ramirez in the head and dragged him into the van,” Murray said.

“Nobody was saying, ‘I’m a murderer. Sorry I did this,’ ” Murray said. “They murdered Gonzalo Ramirez and not any of them took responsibility for that.”

—City News Service

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