SANTA ANA – Santa Ana police detectives have announced three arrests in a the revenge killing of then 24-year-old Gonzalo Ramirez on April 16, 1995.
The story begins on March 25, 1995. According to a Santa Ana press release, Norma Esparza, in a June 8th interview, reported that she had met Ramirez at the El Cortez Bar that night, and had gone out to breakfast with him the following day. He offered to give her a ride back to Pomona College, and when they arrived, he told her he was thirsty, so she invited him up to her room for a drink. Once there, she reports that Ramirez assaulted her. After waiting several weeks, Esparza told her ex-boyfriend Gianni Van, about the assault. She said he was angry about the incident, but according to Esparza, she told him not to do anything about it.
On April 16th, at about 1 AM, Gonzalo Ramirez and a male friend were leaving the same El Cortez Bar, then located on Grand Avenue north of Edinger, driving northbound on Lyon Street. When they stopped at the intersection of Lyon and Chestnut, the car was rear-ended by a white Chevy van. After Ramirez pulled over, a man, described as blond and 6 feet tall, came from the van and punched him, knocking him onto the street. Ramirez’s friend got out and saw a second man come from the van, whom he described as being Hispanic, about 5’3″ with black hair in a long ponytail. This man pointed to his waistband, implying that he was armed. He also saw a female who remained in the van. The unidentified friend reported that he was frightened and ran from the scene, and located a security guard at First Street. Both returned to the scene and found Ramirez’s pickup still running, and one of his shoes and some blood on the street, but Ramirez was gone, along with the white van and everyone else.
At 8:17 that morning, the Irvine Police responded to a call, and discovered the body of Gonzalo Ramirez at Sand Canyon Road near the 405 Freeway, lying lifeless on the dirt shoulder. An autopsy later revealed he had suffered numerous blows to the head and torso with what may have been a meat cleaver. The exact cause of death was determined to be the head wounds.
Ramirez’s phone records led detectives to the June 8th interview with Norma Esparza. Following her story, ex-boyfriend Gianni Van was questioned on June 13th, and he said that while he was upset about the assault on his friend, he denied any involvement in the attack on Ramirez. However, detectives took note of his long black ponytail, and that Van said he sometimes drove a van that was actually owned by Kody Tran, who owned Accurate Transmission in Costa Mesa.
Following that lead, investigators spoke with Tran at his business, who verified that he had a white Chevy van, and that Van had access to his shop and the van, and may have used it on April 16. Orange County Crime Scene Technicians conducted an examination of the van and shop with the consent of Tran, and collected apparent blood samples from the wall of the office.
But it wasn’t until March of 2010 that the O.C. Sheriff’s Crime Lab was able to link Ramirez with the DNA collected at Tran’s office. That discovery led to the arrest of Norma Esparza, who, according to media reports was by then a college professor living in France. On a flight from her home to the U.S. that stopped in Massachusetts, she was arrested pursuant to a warrant issued by Orange County Sheriffs, and extradited to California.
With the case now reactivated, detectives identified an unnamed woman who claimed to be at the scene of the crime. She identified Shannon Ray Gries as a man who worked and lived at Tran’s transmission shop. According to the press release, she says that she was with Gries, Kody Tran, his wife Diane Tran, Gianni Van, and Van’s girlfriend (Esparza) when the met at the shop and planned to go to El Cortez so Esparza could identify the man who had assaulted her. She reported that they all went to the location in two vehicles, she and Gries in a compact car following the van with the rest of the group.
She reported that Esparza identified Ramirez as he left the El Cortez, and they followed, reiterating other witness’s story of the rear-end collision and assault on Ramirez. Esparza then joined her in the small car, and Gries told her to take Esparza away. Gries later called and told her to bring Esparza to Tran’s shop. Gries told her to come upstairs and see what they had done to this guy, threatening her with the same thing if she ever “(expletive) him over”. That witness claimed that she herself did not go up to view the body, but that Esparza did, and confirmed that it was Gonzalo Ramirez.
In another strange twist to the story, the Claremont-LaVerne Patch, quoting Santa Ana Police Corporal Anthony Bertagna, reported that Esparza had been arrested in 1996 as a suspect in the crime, but by then she was married to “ex-boyfriend” Gianni Van, so the two could not be compelled to testify against each other as spouses. They reportedly divorced in 2006, and Esparza, by then a professor for the Missouri’s Webster University, had remarried and moved to France to teach, which is her current residence.
One of the other principles, Kody Tran, has since died, and under unusual circumstances. He was involved in a domestic violence incident while undergoing divorce proceedings, which began in 2008. According to a report published by the Orange County Register, in July 2012, Tran broke a window at his home, which he had been barred from due to a restraining order. He barricaded himself there, and during a standoff with Irvine Police, shot himself and died of his wounds.
In addition to the arrest of Norma Esparza, the Orange County District Attorney has now filed charges of murder and conspiracy against Gianna Van, Diane Tran, and Shannon Gries. All have been arrested and are being held, except Gries, who remains a fugitive, and who’s last known address was in Colorado.
Claremont-Laverne Patch: Former Pomona Student Implicated in Revenge Murder
Orange County Register: Four charged in 1995 slaying
Orange County Register: Man who shot himself in standoff with Irvine Police ID’d