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Man Convicted Of Murdering And Mutilating His Ex-Girlfriend's Alleged Rapist In 1995

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A man was found guilty Thursday in the brutal murder of his ex-girlfriend's alleged rapist in Orange County decades ago.Gianni Anthony Van, 45, has been convicted of the 1995 murder of 24-year-old Gonzalo Ramirez, the L.A. Times reports. Ramirez's body was found on the side of a road in Irvine by passersby. Investigators later determined he had been hacked to death by a meat cleaver.

Back in March of 1995, a then 25-year-old Van was told by his recent ex-girlfriend, Norma Patricia Esparza, that she had been raped by a man she met at El Cortez, a club in Santa Ana. Esparza would later tell investigators that she gave Ramirez her number that night because she thought he was nice, and met up with him for breakfast with him the following day. He asked if he could have a glass of water, so she invited him to her dorm room at Pomona College. There, she said he forced himself on her. She would eventually confide in Van, who responded by taking Esparza, along with a few of his friends, back to El Cortez. He demanded she identify her rapist if she saw him. So she did.

Among Van's friends were Kody Tran, who owned a transmission shop; Tran's wife, Diane Tran; Shannon Gries, an employee at the shop; and his girlfriend, Julie Rojas. After leaving the club, she said she witnessed the others follow Ramirez and abduct him. She said that Rojas drove her home after the kidnapping, according to Slate.

Later, she said Van told them to come to Tran's shop. When she and Rojas arrived, they saw a bloodied Ramirez chained up at the shop. Esparza said she was too afraid of Tran to tell anyone after she left the shop.

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Ramirez's body was found later. Police said that he had been blindfolded and stabbed over 30 times in the head and body with a meat cleaver. They were eventually able to trace Ramirez to Esparza using a slip of paper they found with her phone number and the name 'Paty' on it—Esparza's middle name is Patricia. Ramirez's roommate, Eloe Silva, told investigators that Ramirez had told him about having sex with 'Paty' and that he had described roughly pulling her pants off. When investigators questioned Esparza, she admitted telling Van about Ramirez assaulting her. Upon finding out that Ramirez was dead, she declined to tell investigators the full story.

Esparza said she was talked into marrying Van in Vegas shortly after the killing so she would not have to testify against him under the rule of spousal privilege. Though Van, Gries and Tran were suspected of the killing, the charges against them were eventually dropped due to insufficient evidence.

Esparza and Van eventually split up once more. Van ended up working at the front desk of the Hotel Casa del Mar in Santa Monica. Esparza, now 40, moved to France, then got a job at the Webster University of Geneva teaching psychology. She remarried and has a daughter. Tran and his wife began divorce proceedings in 2009, and Tran eventually killed himself in 2012 during a standoff with police after breaking into her home and barricading himself inside.

In October 2012, Esparza tried to fly to the U.S., where she was arrested and charged with murder. She learned that investigators had reopened the case, and this time, statements from Diane Tran and Julie Rojas revealed more about that night.

Supporters argued Esparza should have been treated as a rape victim, not a murder suspect. But prosecutors went after her: Esparza was given a deal where she would testify about what happened back in 1995 and plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter. She will likely be sentenced to six years in September.

Van was represented by attorney Jeremy Dolnick, a public defender who said that Van was just a "fun-spirited surfer boy" who had been crushed when Esparza told her about what Ramirez allegedly did to her. Van also said that he had no part in kidnapping or killing Ramirez, and that it was Tran who took things too far. He did admit to helping Tran dump the body, but testified that he was afraid of what Tran might do if he refused. Prosecutor Mike Murray said that Van was trying to use Tran as a convenient out for the killing, and that the brutality of the killing points to his involvement.

“You don’t even have to decide whether he was the one who wielded the meat cleaver,” Murray told jurors, according to the Times. “But he was.”