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Professor taken into custody in 1995 slaying of her alleged rapist

November 21, 2013|By Paloma Esquivel | This post has been corrected, as indicated below.

This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.

A European professor was taken into custody Thursday in an 18-year-old cold case in which she is accused of helping set up the murder of a man she claimed raped her while she was a college sophomore.

Patricia Esparza, 39, was handcuffed and taken into custody immediately following a brief hearing in Orange County Superior Court.

Prosecutor Scott Simmons said he offered Esparza a plea deal that would require her to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and be sentenced to three years in prison. She declined the deal. She had previously pleaded not guilty.

Simmons said the case would now go to trial.

"This is an incredible injustice," Esparza's husband, Jorge Mancillas, said after the hearing. "I guess in Orange County it doesn't count to be innocent."

Esparza is facing trial with three others in the slaying of Gonzalo Ramirez, who was beaten and hacked with a meat cleaver and then dumped alongside a road in Irvine in 1995. Authorities contend that Esparza did not participate in the actual kiling, but had pointed the man out to a group of acquaintances and identified him as her assailant.

Esparza says she was forced by an aggressive ex-boyfriend to identify her rapist and then conceal his crime for nearly two decades.

Esparza, 39, is charged with one felony count of special circumstances murder during the commission of a kidnapping.

Esparza had been free on $300,000 bond until her bail was revoked Thursday.

Her ex-boyfriend, Gianni Anthony Van, and two others, Shannon Gries and Diane Tran, were also charged. All three have pleaded not guilty. A fourth suspect, Kody Tran, died in a shootout with police last year.

On Wednesday, Esparza stood with her husband outside the courthouse in Santa Ana to tell her side of the story. Her 4-year-old daughter clung to her waist as she spoke. She said she was a victim, not only of rape, but of sexual abuse since she was a child.

Until her arrest, Esparza's story had seemed a slice of the American dream. An immigrant who came to Santa Ana from Mexico as a small child, her life forever changed when she obtained a scholarship to attend the elite Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and then Pomona College.

When she was home in Santa Ana for the weekend in March 1995, she decided to go to the El Cortez nightclub, where she met Ramirez, according to court records.

They hit it off and the next morning he asked her to breakfast along with her sister and a friend from school. After breakfast he offered to drive Esparza and her friend back to her college in Claremont. When they were in her dorm room, Ramirez raped her, Esparza said in court records and interviews.

She said she went to a school nurse who gave her a pill to prevent pregnancy. But she didn't report the rape to authorities and the nurse didn't advise her to, she said in an interview with The Times.

“I don't think I was thinking at that time,” she said. “I felt ashamed. I felt guilty. I didn't want to come forward because I didn't want my family to know.”

A few weeks later she said she told Van, her former boyfriend, about the rape. He was enraged, she said. Esparza told investigators in December 2012 that she, Van and at least one friend went on two occasions to look for Ramirez at El Cortez, according to court records.

Even after Ramirez was killed, she began dating Van again and later married him, court records show. She says she did so because she feared for her life and was told that if she married him she couldn't be forced to testify against him.

She went on to graduate from Pomona College and to earn her doctorate. Nine years later she divorced Van.

She now lives with her husband and daughter in a small town in France on the Swiss border near Geneva. She is an assistant professor of psychology and counseling at Webster University in Geneva and her husband is a neurobiologist who works on global health issues.

She worries that the life she has built there will soon be taken from her.

“It's very peaceful. It's very quiet,” she said. “It's a very good place to be if you want to raise a daughter that doesn't have to go out at night and fear for what kind of harm can come to her.”

[For the record, 12:54 p.m. PST Nov. 21: An earlier version of this post incorrectly suggested that Esparza entered a not guilty plea Thursday. She had previously pleaded not guilty.]

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paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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