Norma Patricia Esparza
A psychology professor has been locked up on suspicion of facilitating the gruesome murder 18 years ago of a man who allegedly raped her as a student – prompting campaigners across Europe and the US to rally to her defence. She strongly denies the charges.
Norma Patricia Esparza, 39, was taken into custody in Orange County, California, last week and charged with a count of special circumstances murder. Prosecutors say Esparza, who is an assistant professor of psychology and counselling at Webster University in Geneva, set in motion the kidnapping, beating and killing of Gonzalo Ramirez, who was murdered with a meat cleaver in 1995.
Police arrested her at Boston airport last year when she returned to the US for an academic conference, apparently unaware that detectives had revived the investigation into a cold case.
Esparza, who is married and has a four-year-old daughter, was led away in handcuffs from a court hearing on Thursday, her bail revoked, after rejecting a plea deal to reduce the charge from murder to voluntary manslaughter. "The principle of what they're asking me is to plead guilty to something that they know I am not responsible for," she said. She has been charged along with three other people who are alleged to have actually carried out the killing.
Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the district attorney, said Esparza would be treated the same as anyone else. "I know she wants to try this case in the media. We look forward to trying this case in court."
The jailing triggered an outcry from advocacy groups, who say Esparza is a victim not just of her alleged rapist but also of the ex-boyfriend who allegedly killed him in revenge and of her father, who allegedly molested her as a girl.
Members of End Rape on Campus, a group which lobbies universities to investigate sexual assault reports, attended the court hearing in solidarity. "This is a tragic situation," said Caroline Heldman, a co-founder of the organisation. "Dr Esparza has been failed by every institution in her life. The fact the DA is terrorising a victim in this case is unconscionable. They're sending a chilling message to rape survivors."
A petition at change.org urging Orange County's district attorney to drop the charge has received more than 2,600 signatures. Under the name Project Hope Geneva, it says that Esparza is no threat to society and that the prosecution is unjust. "In continuing to pursue her you are sending a troubling message to other rape victims who already have a sense that they will not receive justice within the legal system," the petition says.
Signatories in Switzerland and the US have praised the academic as an intelligent, wise and dedicated mother and wife who has already suffered enough. Others, however, have used social media and newspaper comment pages to brand Esparza as a "witch" who was facing overdue justice.
She was born in Mexico and as a child moved with her family to Santa Ana, just south of Los Angeles. A scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy, a private school in New Hampshire, was followed by another to Pomona College, a liberal arts institution in Los Angeles county.
One weekend in March 1995, Esparza, then 20 and in her second year at college, allegedly met Ramirez, 24, at the El Cortez nightclub in Santa Ana. The next day, over breakfast, he offered to drive her and a friend back to Pomona.
Once they got to her college dorm room, Esparza later said, he raped her. She went to a college nurse who gave her a contraceptive pill, but Esparza did not notify the police.
"I don't think I was thinking at that time," she told the Los Angeles Times shortly before being taken into custody. "I felt guilty. I didn't want to come forward because I didn't want my family to know." Esparza said childhood abuse compounded her guilt and shame.
She told an ex-boyfriend, Gianni Anthony Van, about the assault and he became enraged. Twice they went looking for Ramirez at the nightclub, she told investigators last year. She thought the worst that could happen was that Van would "rough up" Ramirez.
On 15 April, a few weeks after the alleged rape, she identified Ramirez in a bar. Leaving Esparza behind, Van and three friends, Shannon Gries, Kody Tran and Diane Tran, allegedly tailed their quarry, crashed his truck and abducted him when he got out.
He was beaten, hacked with a meat cleaver and hung from the ceiling of a transmission shop owned by Kody Tran. Esparza saw the body before it was dumped on the side of Sand Canyon Road in Santa Ana.
A few days later she married Van. It was a sham marriage, she said, because she feared him and other members of the group, which believed that the marriage would prevent her from testifying against her husband. Police questioned Esparza soon afterwards, but filed no charges and the case lay dormant. She graduated, divorced Van in 2004, and took a post at a Swiss campus close to the Alps accredited to Webster University in St Louis, Missouri.
The professor lived across the border in a small French town with her second husband, Jorge Mancillas, a neurobiologist and health policy consultant, and their daughter.
After her arrest last year she was freed on $300,000 bail. After rejecting the plea deal offered by prosecutors, they then argued that she was a flight risk.
Her co-defendants – Van, 44, Gries, 42, and Diane Tran, 45 – deny the charges and are also being held without bail. Kody Tran died in a shootout with police last year. The trial is expected to start in January.