Patricia Esparza: Victim on Trial


*** Trigger Warning for Violence, Including Sexual Violence***

39-year-old Patricia Esparza embodies the fabled American Dream. She spent the first five years of her life in El Taray, a small farming community in Southern Mexico with no running water and unpaved streets. Her mother migrated to the United States where she worked long hours in factories and as a janitor. Esparza’s exceptional academic abilities and hard work landed her a merit scholarship to the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Pomona College and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from DePaul University. Esparza was hired as a professor at Webster University Geneva and works as a consultant for the World Health Organization.

Yesterday I watched as Esparza was hauled away in handcuffs, charged with a murder she did not commit.

The Rape: “Colleges and universities have a responsibility to their students.”

Rewind two decades, back to when Esparza was a 20-year-old Pomona Collegesophomore. On March 25, 1995, she met Gonzalo Ramirez, 24, at a bar while visiting her sister in Santa Ana. The following morning, Ramirez met up with Esparza, Esparza’s sister, and a friend for breakfast. Ramirez then offered to drive Esparza and her friend back to her dorm room. They dropped off the friend first, then Ramirez asked to come into Esparza’s dorm room for water where he raped her. Esparza went into a state of shock during the ordeal.

Esparza, a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of her father from the age of five until twelve, could not turn to her family and felt too humiliated and afraid to go to the police. She sought help at the Pomona student health center where the nurse blamed Esparza for her rapist’s criminal behavior and offered her little help and no resources. As Esparza shared in our recent interview,

I remember the nurse’s reaction like it was yesterday. She gave me the morning-after pill to ensure that I did not get pregnant and she walked away. It sent a strong signal of shame. If only that college nurse would have helped me that day, the horrible series of events that took place would have been prevented. Colleges and universities have a responsibility to their students, especially when they are most vulnerable.

Beyond not helping Esparza in her time of dire need, this nurse violated the federal Clery Act and the Campus Sexual Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights by not reporting Esparza’s rape or offering her support services.

The Murder: “These people were dangerous, and I needed to stay quiet.”

On April 15, 1995, two weeks after the rape, Esparza’s ex-boyfriend Gianni Van visited her, hoping to rekindle their previous relationship. (Esparza and Van dated for only six months, during which time they saw each other about twice a month.) Esparza needed a shoulder to cry on, so she accepted Van’s visit.  She was obviously distraught and Van stayed for hours trying to coax the story out of her. She finally broke down and told him about the rape. Then Van exploded. He verbally attacked Esparza for not stopping the rape. He also told her that he wanted her back, even though she had been “dishonored.”

Van quickly hatched a revenge plan that involved four friends – Kody Tran, Shannon Gries, Diane Tran and Julie Ann Rojas. A week after Esparza confided in Van, he bullied her into going to the club where she first met Ramirez to identify him. Esparza testified that Van was “insisting, yelling, telling me that I had to point out the rapist, point out the attacker. And at some point Gonzalo Ramirez walked by, and I cringed and I told Gianni that that was the person.” Esparza told a grand jury that she believed that “the worst that would happen is that [Van] would rough [Ramirez] up.”

When Ramirez left the bar, Van’s friends rear-ended Ramirez’s truck and kidnapped him. They took Ramirez to a transmission shop owned by Tran and beat him bloody. During the beating, Esparza was taken against her will to another bar by Rojas at the direction of Gries, then called back to the transmission shop by Gries about an hour later.

At the shop, Gries ordered Esparza to come upstairs to see the bloodied Ramirez. Esparza noted that the attackers were armed. Gries then threatened to do the same thing to Esparza and Rojas if they “fucked him over.” Esparza recounts her terror that night:

I retreated downstairs to a corner and stayed quiet. I was trapped. I was out-numbered by four older and bigger people. I was four feet 9 inches, 98 pounds, and I was miles away from my home late at night in a non-residential area. I had no car and didn’t even know how to drive. I feared for my life and felt that the only thing I could do was to submit. All I knew is that these people were dangerous, and I needed to stay quiet. 

While [Van] and [Gries] took my rapist away, the other man, Kody Tran, explicitly threatened me and added he would also hurt my mother if I said anything about what I had witnessed. “This was done for you. You better not turn against us, or we will get you,” he said. I believed him too. He had shown me what they were capable of doing.

Van drove Esparza to her mother’s house that night and told her they had let Ramirez go. The next day, Irvine police found Ramirez’s body on the side of the road, hacked to death with a meat cleaver. Esparza was not aware that Ramirez was dead until weeks later when police questioned her.

Esparza feared for her life from Kody Tran and Van, and was pressured into marrying Van to prevent her testimony against him. This was a sham Vegas marriage that officially ended in 2004. Esparza and Van never lived together. Van told Esparza that the marriage orders came from Tran, the leader of the group who had cornered and threatened Esparza that night.  “Tran was scary. He was violent (he died recently in a shoot-out with the police). I did not want his fury turned against me.”

The Arrest: “I cannot accept because it would essentially be a lie.”

Esparza stayed quiet about this crime because she feared for her safety and her family’s safety. In 2010, when Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas re-opened this cold case with new DNA evidence linking Ramirez to blood found at the transmission shop, Esparza cooperated fully with the investigation. Authorities told Esparza on multiple occasions that they “were not interested” in her and that she “was not a target.” Because of Esparza’s testimony, they were able to file murder charges against Van, Gries, and Diane Tran. (Kody Tran committed suicide in 2012 and Rojas was granted immunity in the case.)


Top: Patricia Esparza, Gianni Van
Bottom: Diane Tran, Kody Tran, Shannon Gries

But everything changed in October, 2012, when police arrested Esparza at the Boston airport on her way to an academic conference. She was charged with special circumstances murder during the commission of a kidnapping that could carry the death penalty in California.

Despite a murder charge, Esparza’s bail was set at $300,000, and for eleven months, she was free and able to travel between the states and her home in France. It is simply unheard of for people charged with murder to be out on bail and allowed to keep their passport, a clear indication that the Orange County DA did not actually think Esparza committed this heinous crime. Yesterday, Esparza was taken into custody after rejecting a plea bargain for voluntary manslaughter with a sentence of three years in prison. “I cannot accept because it would essentially be a lie.”

According to Susan Kang Schroeder from the DA’s office, because Esparza rejected the plea deal, “She’s no longer cooperating with police and we believe that she’s a flight risk.” This statement does not ring true given that Esparza had nearly a year to flee to a country without an extradition treaty, and she willingly travelled to the Orange County courtroom yesterday knowing that the odds were not in her favor. Esparza made three trips to California to assist authorities during this time.

The Today Show Coverage of Case

Local CBS News Coverage of Case

If Esparza was truly a murder accomplice, why would the perpetrators have her taken to another location during the violence, then force her to view a bloodied Ramirez in order to threaten her into silence? If she was an accomplice, why did Kody Tran feel the need to threaten violence against Esparza’s mother? If she was an accomplice, why didn’t she know Ramirez had been murdered until weeks after his death? And if she were an accomplice, why did Kody Tran force her into a sham marriage with Van in order to maintain her silence? Setting aside Esparza’s claims that she was a victim in this case, the actions of others leave little doubt that Esparza did not willingly participate in this crime.

Esparza told me that, while Ramirez hurt her terribly, he did not deserve to die. “A life is never to be taken by another human being, under any circumstances.” Esparza’s compassion for Ramirez does not fit with a murderous revenge motive.

The Questions: “All I knew is that I wanted to survive.”

 Some question why Esparza did not report her rape to the police, a query that efficiently serves the dual purpose of challenging her victim status and her credibility. Esparza’s actions, however, are the norm. Most rape survivors say that reporting to the police is “the last thing they want to do right after being attacked,” which is why only one-thirdend up filing a police report. Esparza not reporting her rape to law enforcement is in no way an indicator that the rape did not happen. Rape has a false reporting rate of only 2%, and Esparza’s behavior at the time (“shutting down”) is consistent with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and disassociation as a coping mechanism after years of childhood sexual abuse. It is incredibly difficult for most rape survivors to come forward given the societal stigma and victim-blaming associated with this crime.

As a side note, challenges to Esparza’s rape claim are primarily coming from those who are arguing for her guilt in the murder, but this is inherently contradictory because the revenge motive evaporates without the rape.

Others question why Esparza did not come forward to report the crime once she relocated to Europe. She was asked this question at a recent press conference where she clarified that Van and his friends also directed threats at her family who still reside in Orange County. She lived in fear of Van, Kody Tran, and Gries (a.k.a., “Jailbird”) for years: “All I knew is that I wanted to survive.” Esparza was unwilling to jeopardize her family’s safety, an especially prudent choice considering the brutality of Ramirez’s murder and Tran’s violent record (up until he committed suicide in 2012 as a SWAT team surrounded his estranged wife’s home that he had broken into).

The Betrayal:  “Shield her from the pain of this experience.”

Esparza’s story is a classic story of institutional betrayal. She was betrayed by her father and the repeated sexual abuse shattered her sense of safety. She was betrayed by college officials who failed to properly and legally respond to her rape (which is still a problem today, hence the new national campus sexual assault movement). Now she is being betrayed by a legal institution that is sending a chilling message to survivors that they will not be believed.

The inconceivably traumatic events in Esparza’s life quieted in the last decade. She completed her Ph.D., married neurobiologist Jorge Mancillas, landed a job in Geneva and bought a home in a neighboring French town. In 2009, her daughter Arianna was born. Esparza was “filled with hope, thinking of how different her life would be to mine…. After years of hard work, I was now poised to pass on to my daughter everything I had achieved.” As they placed Esparza in handcuffs yesterday, she implored her husband to “take care of our daughter Arianna and to shield her from the pain of this experience.”

Patricia with Jorge

In her professional biography, Dr. Esparza writes that she lives by the Chinese proverb, “Keep a green bough in your heart, and the singing bird will come.” As she sustains her green bough in the face of grave injustice, we must all be her chorus of singing birds.

Crossposted from Dr. Caroline Heldman’s Blog.


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