The 39-year-old, who insists she's innocent, faces life in prison for the brutal murder

By K.c. Blumm
November 23, 2013 05:30 PM

Is she a victim or a cold-blooded killer?

That’s the question being asked about psychology professor Norma Patricia Esparza, who was taken into custody in Orange County, Calif., last week for the 1995 murder of Gonzalo Ramirez.

Prosecutors say that eight years ago, Esparza, then a student at Pomona College, went to a bar with a group that included her boyfriend and pointed out a man who she said had raped her.

That man’s body was later found dumped on a nearby road.

The Orange County District Attorney’s Office is calling it a revenge killing, but the 39-year-old insists she’s innocent.

“They’re asking me to plead guilty,” she said in a press conference on Wednesday. “It’s essentially something that I cannot accept because it would essentially be a lie.”

Her case has attracted international attention and support from rape victims rights groups.

Esparza, who has been living in France with her husband and 4-year-old daughter and teaching at a Swiss university, was arrested for the cold-case crime last year when she came to the United States for an academic meeting, the Los Angeles Times reports.

She was charged with one felony count of special circumstances murder, which carries a lifetime sentence without the possibility of parole. Her ex-boyfriend, Gianni Anthony Van and two others, Shannon Gries and Diane Tran, have also been charged. They have all pleaded not guilty.

Esparza claims she met Ramirez at a Santa Ana nightclub in March 1995 and the next morning he asked her to breakfast along with her sister and a school friend. After he drove her and her friend back to school, she says Ramirez raped her in her dorm room. Esparza, who was 20 at the time, didn’t report the rape to authorities.

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

When she later told Van about the rape, he was “enraged.” Van took her back to the nightclub to look for Ramirez. “[Van was] insisting, yelling, telling me that I had to point out the rapist,” she testified.

Van, Gries, and Kody Tran (who died in a shootout with police last year), planned to beat Ramirez up and took him to a transmission shop owned by Tran while Esparza and Gries’s then-girlfriend, Julie Ann Rojas, went to a bar and waited for an hour, according to Esparaza.

Esparza said that she later saw Ramirez tied and hanging from the ceiling in the shop.

Esparza married Van later that year, but she says she did it because she feared for her life and was told that if she married him she couldn’t be forced to testify against him.

But after learning of their divorce in 2004, Santa Ana police pursued an arrest warrant, the San Luis Obispo Tribune reports.

She was arrested at Boston airport in October 2012 and held in jail for two months before being released on $300,000 bail. She was taken back into custody on Thursday after refusing a plea deal from that would have required her to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and be sentenced to three years in prison.

“We believe she’s one of the co-conspirators who committed this murder,” Susan Kang Schroder of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office told KTLA.

But rape victims right groups believe Esparza is being punished for a crime she did not commit. “We are astonished that Norma Patricia, a rape victim, is now being treated as a criminal,” reads a petition on, which is seeking to have the charges against her dismissed. “In continuing to pursue her you are sending a troubling message to other rape victims who already have a sense that they will not receive justice within the legal system.”