Man found guilty of murder in 1995 kidnapping and stabbing in California

Man found guilty of murder in 1995 kidnapping and stabbing in California
Gianni Van

LOS ANGELES - A Southern California man was convicted of murder on Thursday in a 1995 kidnapping and stabbing that gained international attention when his accomplice, who had become a professor in Europe, was arrested three years ago.

The case stems from the killing in Orange County of 24-year-old Gonzalo Ramirez, who was hacked to death with a meat cleaver.

Norma Esparza, who at the time was a college student in the area and went on to become a professor at Webster University in Switzerland, has said Ramirez raped her a few weeks before his death.

Prosecutors said she told Gianni Van, with whom she had been in a relationship, about Ramirez and that she pointed him out to Van at a bar before Van and his friends kidnapped Ramirez and murdered him.

A Santa Ana jury on Thursday found Van, now 45, guilty of special circumstances murder during a kidnapping in the death of Ramirez, the Orange County District Attorney's Office said in a statement.

Van faces a sentence of life in prison when he returns to court on July 10.

Police arrested Van soon after the 1995 killing, but prosecutors dropped the case after learning Van and Esparza had married and she would invoke spousal privileges not to testify against him, according to the Orange County Register.

In 2012, Esparza, who was no longer married to Van and was living in France with her husband and young daughter, was arrested when she visited Boston.

She pleaded guilty last year to voluntary manslaughter and agreed to testify against others in the killing, including Van. She is expected to be sentenced to six years in prison in September.

Prosecutor Mike Murray questioned in closing arguments in Van's trial why Esparza did not immediately tell authorities about the sexual assault she said she suffered from Ramirez.

"Not only did he (Van) butcher him, but then he threw his reputation and his good name out the window by alleging him to be a rapist," Murray told jurors, according to the Register.

Van's friend, Shannon Ray Gries, 44, who prosecutors say took part in the killing, will go on trial for murder in July.

Co-defendant Diane Tran, 46, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and faces a maximum sentence of four years in prison when she is sentenced in June.

Another man who prosecutors say was involved in the murder died in a 2012 shootout with police.

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