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Bail revoked for professor accused of helping kill alleged rapist

The psychology professor from France is taken into custody after refusing to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the man's death 18 years ago.

November 21, 2013|By Paloma Esquivel
  • Norma Patricia Esparza, left, speaks during a news conference while her husband, Jorge Mancillas, holds their 4-year-old daughter, Arianna Mancillas, outside the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana on Wednesday.
Norma Patricia Esparza, left, speaks during a news conference while her… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

A professor of psychology was taken into custody Thursday after her bail was revoked in an 18-year-old case in which she is accused of helping set up the slaying of a man she said raped her when she was a college sophomore.

Norma Patricia Esparza, 39, was taken from an Orange County courtroom in handcuffs after being allowed to briefly hug her husband.

Prosecutors say Esparza, a Pomona College student at the time, and a group that included her ex-boyfriend went to a Santa Ana bar in April 1995 so she could point out her alleged rapist. Hours later, Gonzalo Ramirez, was found beaten and hacked to death with a meat cleaver.

Esparza was arrested last year while traveling from her home in Europe to an academic meeting in St. Louis.

Her case has drawn support from advocates for rape victims, including the group End Rape on Campus. A petition at change.org asking the district attorney to drop the charges has gathered more than 850 signatures.

Prosecutors say Esparza conspired to commit the killing, though she did not actually carry it out. Court records show she has changed some the details of her story since her arrest, including whether the group went once or twice to look for Ramirez at the bar.

She says her ex-boyfriend forced her to identify her rapist and keep the crime a secret for nearly two decades.

In an interview with The Times, Esparza said she was a victim who, even before the rape, suffered years of sexual abuse as a child. The dual traumas kept her from going to police after Ramirez was killed, she said.

"What I witnessed that horrible night put me into a complete state of submission," she said.

According to her testimony before an Orange County grand jury, police interviewed her twice in the months after the slaying. She explained that she had told her ex-boyfriend, Gianni Anthony Van, about the rape but told the officers she never pointed out Ramirez to him.

A few days after Ramirez was killed, Esparza married Van. She said it was a sham to which she agreed only because she feared Van and was told she would not have to testify against him if they were married. They divorced in 2004.

Esparza is charged with one felony count of special circumstances murder during the commission of a kidnapping. Van and two others, Shannon Gries and Diane Tran, were also charged. All have pleaded not guilty. A fourth suspect, Kody Tran, killed himself in a standoff with police last year.

Esparza, an assistant professor of psychology and counseling at Webster University, Geneva, had been free on $300,000 bail and allowed to travel to her home in France since late last year.

At a news conference Wednesday, she said prosecutors were pressuring her to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter even though she is innocent. She said she had been assured by prosecutors that she was not a target of the investigation.

Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Scott Simmons said Esparza struck an agreement that allowed her to remain free on bail in exchange for serving as a cooperating defendant.

The agreement, which Esparza signed in December, says "any negotiated resolution of your client's current charges will likely include a prison sentence." If a plea deal is not reached and the case proceeds to trial, "your client will return to custody in a no-bail status," it says.

Because she declined to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter Thursday, she now faces trial for special circumstances murder and a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Gerald Johnston said he found Esparza's low bail to be "highly unusual." He ruled that the circumstances of Esparza's agreement with the district attorney had changed and he was forced to revoke her bail.

Still, he indicated that he would have liked to have another option.

"I wish I could craft something else for Mrs. Esparza," he said.

Esparza's husband, Jorge Mancillas, said the decision was "an injustice."

"I guess in Orange County it doesn't count to be innocent," he said.

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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