Trial opening in 1995 killing tied to psychology professor

AP News
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Posted: Apr 15, 2015 5:51 PM

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — A prosecutor on Wednesday urged jurors to convict an Orange County man of kidnapping and killing another man 20 years ago and leaving his bloodied body on the side of a road after his then-girlfriend said he had raped her.

During opening statements, Senior Deputy District Attorney Mike Murray showed graphic photos of Gonzalo Ramirez's blindfolded, mangled body lying on the side of the road in a pool of blood.

He asked them to hold now-45-year-old Gianni Van responsible for the killing after ex-girlfriend Norma Patricia Esparza had pointed out Ramirez at a bar as the man who had raped her weeks before at Pomona College.

"Gonzalo Ramirez was targeted, and he was targeted by somebody who was going to make sure he suffered," Murray said. "Whether Norma Esparza was sexually assaulted or not, for our purposes today, doesn't matter. What matters is she told the defendant that."

The statements come in the first trial in the killing that drew international attention after Esparza, who later become a psychology professor and moved to France, was arrested in 2012. Advocates for sexual-assault victims who have supported Esparza have said the case sends a chilling message to rape survivors.

Van is charged with murder during the commission of a kidnapping. If convicted, he could get life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Van's lawyer, Jeremy Dolnick, said his client knew nothing of the plans to kidnap or kill Ramirez but was shown his severely beaten body strung up by chains at his friend's auto transmission shop and warned he would face the same fate if he ever snitched.

"He didn't ask anyone to kill anyone. He never had homicidal thoughts of revenge," Dolnick told jurors, adding that Van had confided in his friend about Esparza's rape and the friend and friend's employee took matters into their own hands.

Esparza, 40, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in an agreement with prosecutors last year. She is expected to receive a six-year sentence in exchange for testifying at the trials of Van and another defendant. A fourth defendant also pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors.

Prosecutors contend that in April 1995 Esparza pointed Ramirez out to Van, who, along with two others, followed Ramirez in a van, rear-ended him, and attacked and kidnapped him. Ramirez was stabbed and killed, and his body was dumped in Irvine.

After the killing, Van and Esparza — who had been questioned by police — entered into a sham marriage to avoid prosecution, Murray said. While Van was arrested in 1996, he was released because Esparza could not be forced to testify against her husband, he said.

Esparza later divorced Van and was arrested when she traveled to the United States in 2012.

Esparza's husband, Jorge Mancillas, had said at a 2013 news conference that his wife had confided in Van about the rape and he took matters into his own hands.

Esparza was taken to a transmission shop and shown a bloodied Ramirez and threatened while a man waved a gun, Mancillas said. Van told her they later released Ramirez, but Esparza learned when she was interviewed by police weeks later that he had been killed, he said.

Prosecutors have not said how her upcoming testimony might diverge from that account. She's not expected to take the stand on the first day of the trial.