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The Professor’s Mortal Sin

Psychologist Patricia Esparza of Santa Ana moved halfway around the world to escape the deadly secret in her past. It wasn’t far enough.

Norma Patricia Esparza, assistant professor of psychology and clinical psychologist at Webster University in Geneva, flew into Boston on Oct. 19, 2012, for a brief layover. She was on her way to St. Louis, where she would be attending a meeting of faculty from all of the school’s far-flung campuses.

At 4-foot-9, Esparza—who these days goes by Patricia—would be a diminutive presence in any room. But she brought with her an imposing resume of academic distinction, including an undergraduate degree from Pomona College in Claremont, and two postgraduate degrees from DePaul University in Chicago. As a researcher, she had co-authored several papers on the mental health of disadvantaged minority youth that had been published in such august reviews as the Journal of Adolescent Research and the Journal of Community Psychology.

The subject is close to Esparza’s heart. She’d grown up in Santa Ana, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, but had found a way out of the gritty Cedar Evergreen neighborhood, attending high school at the elite Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and then Pomona College. She’d married an eminent neuroscientist whom she met in Los Angeles, had a daughter with him, and moved to a home in a charming French village just across the border from Geneva—a world away from where she was raised.

Through her work, she believed, she could help lift others out of poverty, neglect, and hopelessness. Her latest project was a study of how work-related stress affects the staff of nongovernmental organizations.

But Esparza never made it to St. Louis. Shortly after her plane landed at 8:30 p.m. at Logan International Airport, she was approached by police, placed in handcuffs, and booked for the 1995 murder of 24-year-old Gonzalo Ramirez. He’d been beaten and hacked to death with a meat cleaver. 

 

The Professor’s predicament could be a modern-day take on “Les Miserables.” Like the haunted Jean Valjean of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, she has been caught up in a struggle between sin and redemption, between mercy and the implacable forces of justice.

According to Orange County prosecutors, Esparza went to a Santa Ana restaurant on April 15, 1995, with former boyfriend Gianni Van and others. There, she pointed Ramirez out to them as the man who had raped her in her Pomona College dorm room after a chance meeting in the same restaurant less than three weeks earlier. What followed will be the basis of at least one trial expected to unfold this year in Orange County Superior Court.

While she wasn’t arrested until 2012, Esparza was on police radar within two months of the murder. Investigators interviewed her in June 1995, but she denied knowing anything about the crime. 

Eighteen years later, Esparza, now 39, faces a sentence of life in prison without parole if she is convicted of murder and a special allegation of murder committed in the course of a kidnapping. She initially was freed on $300,000 bail and testified in May before a grand jury. But after she rejected a plea deal, prosecutors asked a judge in November to revoke her bail, and she was returned to jail. 

Investigators say the five people who went to the El Cortez restaurant to find Ramirez were Esparza and Van, Kody Tran, and Shannon Gries and his girlfriend, Julie Rojas. Tran’s wife, Diane, allegedly joined them later at an auto transmission shop in Costa Mesa where Ramirez was believed to have been taken. Van, 44,  Gries, 43, and Diane Tran, 45, are in custody in various Orange County jails, awaiting trial for murder. Kody Tran killed himself in an unrelated July 2012 standoff with police.  Rojas, who has a lengthy criminal record going back to 1991 that includes convictions for methamphetamine possession and prostitution, but who has not been charged with the murder of Ramirez, is expected to testify with immunity against the four defendants.

From her jail cell, Esparza has been protesting her innocence, blogging about the justice system’s unfair treatment of rape victims, and rallying friends to her cause through social media. According to her husband, Jorge Mancillas, there still are “clear signs” that the prosecution is willing to negotiate a plea bargain. But the earlier offer would have required her to admit guilt, and Mancillas says his wife will do whatever it takes “for this to be resolved ... and not in the most expedient way, but in a way that she can look back and say, ‘I did the right thing and I helped make this world a little bit better for our daughter.’ ”

It’s a daunting task because, ultimately, the only way Esparza can reclaim her once-glittering future is to somehow escape a past that resurfaced unexpectedly like the icy hand of Gonzalo Ramirez reaching from the grave.

 

last May 17, the professor, out on bail at the time, was escorted into the grand jury room at the Santa Ana courthouse a few miles from where she grew up. She had agreed to testify to the grand jury, Mancillas says, with “use immunity,” meaning that nothing she said could be used against her if she were to be prosecuted. No members of the press or public were present, only the grand jurors and the prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Mike Murray, whose office told Orange Coast Ramirez’s family did not want to comment for this article. A nervous Esparza recounted a story of innocence and intimidation, of a traumatized rape victim who was bullied by older friends into going along with a vengeful mission she thought might include a beating, but never imagined would end in death. 

She said she met Ramirez at the El Cortez on March 25, 1995, while home from college. The restaurant featured live music on weekends, and she had gone for a Saturday night out with her older sister and a girlfriend from school. Esparza said she danced with Ramirez once or twice and exchanged phone numbers. The next day, Ramirez met the three for breakfast. Later, Ramirez offered to drive the two coeds back to the Pomona school.

After dropping off Esparza’s friend and walking around the campus, Ramirez told Esparza he was thirsty. She said they went to her room for a glass of water, and there, she told the grand jury, “he said he wanted to have sex.” She said she told him no, but he persisted. She struggled with him as he was pulling off her pants, she said,  but he overpowered her, pinning her down and raping her.

“I kind of just blanked out,” she had told police in 1995, “and I was like, ‘It’s going to be better for you if you just go on with it, if you pretend that you wanted it.’ ” The next morning, Esparza said, she got a morning-after pill from a nurse at the school clinic. She told the nurse she had been date-raped but didn’t report it because “I figured nothing was going to get done.”

On April 12, she told the grand jury that Gianni Van, whom she’d previously dated for about seven months, came to visit her at Pomona. He lived in Costa Mesa and was working at a retail store. They’d broken up a couple of months earlier, but according to Esparza, he wanted to get back together. After she told him about the rape, she said he became angry. “He wanted to know the identity of the person.”

Three days later, Van picked her up from her family’s home and drove her to the transmission shop owned by Diane Tran and run by her husband, Kody, in an industrial area of Costa Mesa. Van had been best man at the Trans’ wedding the previous August. At the shop with Kody Tran were Gries, who worked there as a mechanic, and Rojas. 

According to Esparza’s testimony, Van told her that “we were going to go to El Cortez to be able to identify ... my attacker.” She insisted she didn’t want to go, but nevertheless accompanied him in his gray Mazda from the auto shop to the restaurant. Kody Tran, Gries, and Rojas traveled in Tran’s white Astrovan. After they arrived at the El Cortez, they all sat down at a table in the front, near the entrance.

 

Esparza’s arrest would be far less confounding if she were a more stereotypical product of the streets of Santa Ana, if, for example, she’d been a tough-looking chola who ran with a rough crowd—rather than the dutiful, studious teen who’d stood on the street waiting for the bookmobile, and who’d dated the same boy through most of her high school years. In a junior high school photo, her eyes gaze directly at the camera, a scarlet flower in her hair matches the color of the jacket she wears over a black blouse.

Not that things were ever easy for Esparza in Santa Ana, which a 2004 study of urban hardship ranked as the most difficult city in the nation in which to live, and where 21 percent of the majority Hispanic population lived below the poverty line. Her mother worked two janitorial jobs to support Esparza and two other children; according to a psychiatric evaluation of Esparza, her father sexually abused her for seven years starting at age 5. “Her only escape [from the abuse] was reading books,” Mancillas says. “That’s why she excelled in school. ... She knew more than any of the other kids because she was spending her time reading.”

To enroll at Phillips Exeter—whose notable alumni include writers Gore Vidal and George Plimpton, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg—Esparza took advantage of a financial aid program for outstanding students from low-income families. Susan Peterson, a friend from Exeter who also received financial aid, says Esparza experienced culture shock but was determined “not to waste the opportunity ... She worked really hard. This was her shot.” During her junior year abroad in Barcelona, Spain, she “soaked up the culture and language like a sponge.”

Exeter students joke that if you don’t go on to an Ivy League college, you’ve failed. But Esparza chose to move back west to Pomona College, one of the prestigious Claremont Colleges which is known for training students for an academic career. “It was close to home and she wanted to spend time with her younger brother,” explains Citlila Sosa, an undergraduate friend. “He was in high school and she was worried about him.” With Santa Ana just a short drive down the 57 Freeway, she could visit her family regularly on weekends.

After graduating in 1997 with a major in psychology and a minor in women’s studies, Esparza spent time in New York before moving to Los Angeles. It was in L.A. in 2000, while working on an election campaign for former Rep. Hilda Solis, that she met Mancillas. “I just—” he says, shaking his head at the memory, “I was really impressed by her intelligence. But the thing that attracted me the most was how sincere she was. She just wore her heart on her sleeve.”

They’d dated for about a year when Mancillas asked her in August 2001 to marry him. The setting hardly could have been more memorable: the Windows on the World restaurant atop the north tower of the World Trade Center—one month before it was destroyed. A family photo captures a beaming Esparza at the restaurant, wearing an elegant blue dress and clasping hands across the table with Mancillas. 

“At first, she was very happy, but later that night she broke down and told me she couldn’t marry me because she was already married,” Mancillas recalls. She told him it wasn’t a real marriage, that it was something she’d been forced into. But she wouldn’t tell him whom she had married. And she didn’t tell him it had anything to do with Gonzalo Ramirez and that terrible spring night at the El Cortez. Says Mancillas: “She was completely devastated.”

 

Esparza told the grand jury she couldn’t recall how long they were at the El Cortez, but at some point Ramirez walked past their table. “I cringed and I told Gianni that that was the person.” 

After Ramirez and a friend left the restaurant, Van and the rest of the group followed in their two vehicles. At a stop light about a mile away, Kody Tran, who was driving the Astrovan, rear-ended Ramirez’s pickup. When Ramirez got out to inspect the damage, Tran and Gries grappled with him and Van jumped out of the Mazda and punched him in the stomach. Ramirez's friend fled. Esparza said she watched the fight from inside the Mazda “shocked and in disbelief.”

Before Ramirez was bundled into the van, Esparza said, Rojas left the vehicle, got into the Mazda with Esparza and the two women set off for The Huddle, a Costa Mesa bar less than a mile east of the Trans’ shop. “I didn’t know what was happening to Gonzalo, what the others were doing,” Esparza said. Then, after maybe half an hour at the bar, Rojas drove them back to the shop, where Gries was holding a gun. Esparza said she climbed a flight of interior stairs to a loft above the shop’s office and found Van and Kody Tran—and a gruesome sight.

“I see Gonzalo Ramirez covered in blood,” she testified. “His arms are chained, tied, and there are chains tied to the ceiling.” 

Esparza said Ramirez looked up at her. “I don’t know you, little one,” she recalled him saying in Spanish. Van asked her if it was him and she told the grand jury she “could have said, ‘Yes.’ ”

Esparza ran downstairs and took refuge in an area of the shop that was used as a bedroom. Diane Tran and Rojas were in the room with her. She said she was cowering on the bed, her face buried in her hands, when she heard a male voice outside ask, “Should we kill him?” She said she heard Diane Tran say, “Yes.”

“I remember a general ‘yes’ consensus,” she testified. “I didn’t hear anybody say no.”

By the time she emerged from the bedroom, only Kody Tran remained, “spraying something on the walls of the upper loft.” Prosecutors say he was applying chemicals to the blood stains. Van eventually returned and drove Esparza home.

As they sat in the car outside her mother’s house in the pre-dawn hours of April 16, 1995, she told the grand jury, she asked Van what had happened to Ramirez. “He said, ‘We let him go.’ ” 

According to the grand jury testimony of Rojas, Gries told her Ramirez was alive when he was taken from the transmission shop. Later that morning, police received a call that a body had been dumped off the Sand Canyon Road exit of the 405 Freeway. According to police, Ramirez had been slashed a couple of dozen times on the head and was partially wrapped in blue towels, the type found at gas stations. Rojas said that Gries told her he and Van were going to drop him off, but that Van “took a knife [sic] and stabbed him a bunch of times.”

Police tracked Esparza down through Ramirez’s phonebook and interviewed her five weeks later. Ramirez had raped her, she said, and she had told Van about it. But she said Van gave her no indication he might retaliate. The police warned her then: “We don’t want you getting into something that later on you might not be able to get out of.” But she would not budge. According to a transcript of the interview, one of the officers told her: “I just get a feeling about you that you know more than you want to tell us, and you may be protecting somebody.” 

Five days later, Esparza and Van drove to Las Vegas for a quickie wedding. “Gianni told me ... that we had to get married in order for me not to be able to ... testify against him,” she told the grand jury.

On May 30, 1996, police interviewed Esparza again—again to no avail. She never went to the El Cortez after the rape, she insisted. Years passed—years that Esparza used to build her remarkable life and career. Van was arrested in the spring of 1996, but a DA’s spokeswoman said he was released without being charged. 

 

The case lay dormant until 2010, when Santa Ana police began a cold-case investigation of the murder. While the department has not released details of what led to the arrests of Esparza, Van, Gries, and Diane Tran, court records show that DNA testing had matched Ramirez’s blood to a sample taken from a wall of the transmission shop. The autopsy indicated he was killed with a meat cleaver. Van, Gries, and Tran were indicted by a grand jury in May. Esparza was charged separately.

While sipping a coffee at a Burbank restaurant during a recent visit from Europe, Mancillas passionately defended the wife who’d kept from him her darkest secret. A native of Mexico, he has a weathered, lined face and speaks in bursts of words, one thought sometimes overlapping with another. “I am convinced ... that there’s nothing that implicates Patricia,” he says. But he also seems overwhelmed, even bewildered, that the woman he has so admired is in such dire straits. “It’s incongruous in so many ways for her to be dragged into this situation.” 

Mancillas believes that if Murray, the deputy district attorney who is prosecuting the case, looks at who his wife was 18 years ago, at what she has overcome, he would drop the charges and give her immunity to testify as a prosecution witness in the pending joint trial of Van, Gries, and Tran. That would protect her from future prosecution for any crimes related to her testimony. “She really does want those guys to be put away,” Mancillas says.

“[She] wants the threat of Gianni and Shannon removed from her life. She is still fearful of them,” he adds, and is in protective custody in jail “out of concern that associates of the [other defendants] may harm her in retaliation.”

Mancillas says their daughter, Arianna, “has been through hell” since her mother’s arrest. “She has stopped getting up at night and looking for Patricia. Now, she just sobs under the covers and when I try to comfort her, she just says, ‘Mummy.’ ” 

 

nearly 19 years after the murder, some things have changed. The El Cortez no longer stands at South Grand and West Warner avenues in Santa Ana, having been razed to make way for a McDonald’s. The Trans’ shop is occupied by another auto mechanic, though the loft remains above the office. On July 5, 2012—three days after Diane Tran had obtained a restraining order against her 44-year-old husband, alleging that he’d threatened to slit her throat with a knife—Kody Tran shot himself to death inside their Irvine home during a standoff with police. 

Esparza divorced Van, with whom she never lived, in April 2004 after an attorney interceded with him on her behalf. She married Mancillas eight months later and they lived in Chicago for about three years while she studied at DePaul. In 2009, Esparza received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from DePaul and was hired in Geneva by Webster University, which has its home campus in St. Louis and other locations in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Her daughter was born that September in France and the family settled a few months later in Ornex, a village where the cost of living is considerably less than across the border in Switzerland. And she kept her secret from her husband—right up until she called him from Boston after her arrest.

“I couldn’t believe the gravity of what she had been living with,” Mancillas says. “How could she keep it inside—not want to share it with me? I saw it as a tremendous weight she had been carrying.” 

Whether Esparza ever will be able to free herself from that burden is open to debate. She has said in a blog posting that she has “done everything to help build the district attorney’s case, because justice should be done.” She has “cooperated fully and without restraint.” But because her bail was revoked, she sits in jail, communicating with supporters through updates at setpatriciafree.com.

Esparza may have fallen into a trap, a Hobson’s choice between expediency and idealism. Her quickest route to freedom might have been to take the plea bargain that Mancillas says prosecutor Murray previously offered, under which she would plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and serve three years in prison. She turned it down, Mancillas says, because she couldn’t “morally admit” to something she didn’t do and give up “everything she wanted to build,” including her career and her daughter’s eligibility for French citizenship.

He says his wife can only cope with her past if she knows that “what she did, the choices she made, helped somebody. Maybe there’ll be a rape victim somewhere that will go to the police, maybe some prosecutors will treat cases like hers better, try to support women who are vulnerable.” 

That idealism is consistent with her work on behalf of the disadvantaged and helpless—work to which Esparza has devoted herself since high school, when she volunteered for A Better Chance, a program that provides educational opportunities to young people of color. “She has a real passion for advocacy and social justice,” says Kathryn Grant, a professor of clinical child psychology at DePaul who worked with Esparza on several research projects. Mancillas says he urged his wife to follow a career in neuroscience, but she would not waver from the less lucrative, less stable field of community psychology.

“She just wanted to follow her heart,” he says. “She was impatient to do something for others facing the same circumstances she faced.”

Esparza’s forum for expressing these ideals could be a public courtroom where she would testify against Van, Gries, and Tran, her words potentially broadcast to what could be a nationwide audience. But she has indicated she will not testify without an act of mercy from the deputy district attorney, one that would allow her to avoid a felony conviction and prison time. 

“If she has relevant testimony and she’s willing to testify, she will be called as a witness,” says DA’s spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder, adding that Esparza initially was granted bail because she was a cooperating witness. That ended with her rejection of the plea deal.

“If I were prosecuting Esparza, she would be the last witness I would want to testify because of [her own] culpability,” says Robert Weinberg, the Irvine attorney representing Diane Tran.

During her grand jury appearance, Murray got testy with Esparza after she initially balked at admitting she lied to police, asking if she was a “smart lady,” had a Ph.D. in psychology, and spoke multiple languages. He also made a point of telling the grand jury that she “lied to the police extensively,” and that while it was “pretty clear” that she told Van she was raped, “whether she was sexually assaulted or wasn’t ... I don’t know.”

Mancillas is still hoping the DA will have a change of heart about his wife, and says that could be a possibility before a preliminary hearing scheduled for late February. “Why should he take this risk of muddling the case against the others by lumping her with them?” he asks with a sigh. If she testifies for the prosecution, he continues, “she becomes the living, human face of this case against the others. Patricia can ask the jury to put them away not only because of what they did to Gonzalo Ramirez, but also what they did to her.”

Mancillas frowns as he considers what he and his family have been through since Esparza’s arrest in Boston, the sleepless nights and the anguish of 4-year-old Arianna. If the DA makes the right decision, he says—if he gives Esparza a chance to rid herself of the shadow of the past—“to me, it will have been worth it.” 



This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue.

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