Last week, the murder prosecution of Patricia Esparza took another step toward trial with a preliminary hearing that actually demonstrated how troubled and strange this case is. Not to mention how off it sounds when the police try to cast doubt on allegations of rape.
Here’s the gist of this story, which I’ve written about at length: At the end of March 1995, Esparza said she was raped, as a 20-year-old student at Pomona College, by a 25-year-old man named Gonzalo Ramirez, whom she’d met the night before at a dance club. A few weeks later, Esparza told her ex-boyfriend, Gianni Van, about the rape, both Esparza and Van say. Van and some friends of his friends allegedly took Esparza back to the club where she’d first met Ramirez, got her to point him out, and allegedly kidnapped and killed him. At the time, the cops charged Van but then (inexplicably, in my view) let the case drop, even though they had plenty of evidence, including DNA showing that Ramirez’s blood had been found in an auto shop owned by a friend of Van’s and his wife.
When the police interviewed Esparza six weeks after the murder, she told them she’d been raped and that she’d talked to Van about it. But she didn’t describe being taken back to the club to identify Ramirez, and she also didn’t say that she’d seen Ramirez before he was killed, chained to a ceiling, bloody and beaten. It was a terrible mistake not to tell the police the whole truth at the time. Esparza, though, says she was paralyzed by fear of Van and his friends, fed by a history of being victimized as a child, when she says she was sexually abused by her father. (Her mother and siblings confirm this.) “I felt I needed to submit to survive,” Esparza told me. “I’d been broken by the years of abuse by my father. I couldn’t assimilate so many traumatic experiences. I felt utterly trapped.”
The Orange County District Attorney’s office is unmoved. Esparza now stands charged with the murder of Ramirez, and it’s clear that the DA’s office sees her not in terms of her past vulnerability, but her professional ascension. Esparza went on to graduate from college and become a psychology professor in Switzerland and a consultant to the World Health Organization. “She has a Ph.D.,” lead prosecutor Michael Murray stressed when I talked to him this week. “She’s a very sophisticated defendant,” Murray’s chief of staff told the Pasadena Star-News. “She knows how to play on people’s emotions.” Last November, after Esparza did tell the police her whole story and testified against Van and his alleged accomplices before a grand jury, Murray asked her to plead guilty to manslaughter in exchange for three years in prison. Esparza, who has a 4-year-old daughter and a husband in Europe, has refused to take that deal, so she’s still locked up. But a trial would be a huge roll of the dice, since she is facing a life sentence.
To me, this is an egregious example of the power prosecutors have to overcharge in order to pressure defendants to plead guilty. Murray, however, says “she is charged with the crime she committed, which is murder.”
Until last week, there was no evidence in the extensive record, which I’ve read, showing that Esparza intended Ramirez’s murder or helped plan it. But that changed at the hearing, when one witness altered her own story to implicate Esparza. The witness, Diane Tran, was the wife of Kody Tran; together they owned the auto shop where blood matching Ramirez’s DNA profile was found. Kody Tran died in 2012, committing suicide in a standoff with police. Months later, based in part on Esparza’s cooperation with the police, Diane Tran was charged with Ramirez’s murder, along with Van and a third man, Shannon Gries, who was a friend of theirs. When she was arrested in 2012, Diane Tran admitted to being at the auto shop the night Ramirez was killed and to knowing beforehand that Van, her husband, and Gries were planning the kidnapping. Diane Tran has taken a deal—she pleaded guilty to manslaughter in exchange for a four-year sentence. (Van and Gries pled not guilty.) And in court last week, she tried to help the prosecution by testifying to a new set of facts that are at odds with her own previous account as well as the accounts of the other suspects and witnesses.
On the night of the murder, Tran now says that she and her husband went to the club in a white van with Esparza, Van, Gries, and his girlfriend Julie Rojas, another key witness for the prosecution who has been granted immunity. Rojas and the others, however, say that Van and Esparza rode separately in a car. Tran previously denied being in the van or at the club at all—she said she was at her parents’ house for that part of the night. But Tran now places Esparza in the van with her and says that during the ride, they all discussed plans to kill Ramirez.
In these key details, Tran’s new statements contradict Rojas’ account of the night of the murder as well as Esparza’s (and also Van’s, in his interviews with the police in 1995). Tran is also contradicting herself, in a statement she gave when she was arrested in 2012. The value of her changed story is clear: For the first time, prosecutors have a witness who says Esparza was present for the planning of Ramirez’s murder.
But the DA has also presumably weakened his case against Van and Gries—the people accused of carrying out the kidnapping and murder—by introducing these discrepancies between Rojas and Tran’s accounts, and in Tran’s own statements. I asked Murray whether it gave him any pause that Tran has changed her story. “I don’t think the question is whether I have pause or not,” he said. “I present the evidence as it comes in.” When I pressed him on the contradictions between Tran’s 2012 statement and her latest testimony, he said, “The only evidence presented in this case was presented last week at the preliminary hearing. That’s all I’m willing to discuss. Everything else is just a bunch of stuff floating around.”
I asked Murray about another development that disturbed me at the hearing last week: Two police officers tried to shred Esparza’s credibility by saying she’d somehow consented to being raped. One said that after Ramirez overpowered her, Esparza “consented to Gonzalo raping her.” Another testified that because Patricia was too weak to fend Gonzalo off, she “allowed Gonzalo to rape her.”
It should be obvious, especially to anyone in law enforcement: There is no such thing as consenting to being raped. It’s a contradiction in terms. For police and prosecutors to create any other impression is to blur the definition of rape in a way that disserves victims everywhere.
Murray, however, said, “I’ve heard a million people say she was raped. Really? There’s been no finding of that and I know of no evidence of that except the accused murderer’s statement of it.”
At the time, Van also confirmed Esparza’s account of the rape to the police. So did a friend of Esparza who said Esparza told her about it the following fall. Esparza also went to see a college nurse the next day to request the morning-after pill. The medical records from that visit mention unprotected sex rather than rape, but Pomona spokeswoman Cynthia Peters told me “it’s entirely plausible” that Esparza is telling the truth when she says she reported a “date rape” to the nurse.
Murray, though, dismissed any evidence coming directly from Esparza. I mentioned a different type of evidence: a statement that Ramirez’s roommate made to the police back in 1995. The roommate said that Ramirez came home one day toward the end of March, the time at which Esparza says the rape occurred, and said he’d been in the dorm room of a girl with her name. The roommate was lying on his bed, and Ramirez grabbed the cuffs of his pants and yanked them off. “That’s the way I took the pants off the girl I had sex with,” the roommate remembered him saying.
At the time, based on the roommate’s account, the police who interviewed Esparza introduced the topic by saying, “While in your dorm, we have information that he took sexual advances of you to the point of even possibly being raped by him.” But Murray dismissed this, too. “A roommate describing a dead guy’s statement that he pulled a girl’s pants off isn’t rape,” he said. “It’s just, ‘That’s how I pulled her pants off.’ No, it doesn’t suggest a sexual assault. It suggests he pulled her pants off and had sex with her, period. That’s not corroboration.”
What all of this really comes down to is whether you believe Esparza. To me, her account of the rape, supported by people she told at the time, seems credible. I also asked Murray why he thinks Ramirez was murdered if Esparza hadn’t been raped—why would any of the suspects have gone after him? “You’re confusing apples and oranges,” he said. “You’ll have to wait for the trial.” The next hearing in the case is scheduled for later this month.