Police arrest Webster Geneva professor, Norma Patricia Esparza, in suspicion of murder


Southern California prosecutors have charged Webster University Geneva professor Norma Patricia Esparza, 38, with one felony count of murder with special circumstance. The charge is in connection with a 17-year-old murder case in Santa Ana, Calif., according to an Orange County District Attorney press release. Her pretrial hearing is on Feb. 22.

If convicted, Esparza faces a sentence of life in state prison without the possibility of parole. California Legal Analyst’s Office, on its website states that courts generally interpret murder with special circumstance “… to mean that, in order to qualify as a special circumstance, a murder must have occurred immediately upon a confrontation between the murderer and the victim.”

Robert Spencer, director of the Webster campus in Geneva, confirmed in an email that Esparza was employed at Webster-Geneva for the 2012-2013 school year. Spencer would not comment on pending legal investigations. The Webster online directory lists Esparza as a full-time research faculty member in Geneva.

Esparza is one of three being charged in connection with the murder of Gonzalo Ramirez, 24. Irvine Police found Ramirez’s body on the side of the road on the morning of April 16, 1995.

Police arrested Esparza when she stepped off a plane in Boston in October. She was on a layover in Boston and on her way to a Webster University-related meeting in St. Louis. The police was unable to arrest Esparza until she stepped off the plane.

Prosecutors in Orange County allege Esparza met Ramirez, the victim, at a bar on March 25, 1995 while Esparza was visiting her sister in Santa Ana, Calif. The next morning, Esparza went to breakfast with Ramirez, her sister and a friend.  After, Ramirez gave Esparza a ride to her dorm room at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. According to the press release, Esparza claims Ramirez then assaulted her and left.

Prosecutors further allege that two weeks later Esparza told her ex-boyfriend, Gianni Anthony Van, about the assault.
“Late on the night of April 15, 1995, Esparza, Van, (co-defendant Shannon) Gries, and another friend are accused of meeting at Accurate Transmission in Costa Mesa, owned by Kody Tran. Esparza, Van, and Gries are accused of going to El Cortez (bar) that night. Once at the bar, Esparza is accused of pointing out Ramirez,” stated the press release.

According to police, Gries remains at large.

Then a van with Gries, Tran and Vans inside hit Ramirez’s car. The press release states the three are accused of kidnapping Ramirez when he got out of his car. It continues to state they threatened Ramirez’s friend who was in the car with him.

Gries, Tran and Van took Ramirez back to Tran’s transmission shop where they met Diane Tran, Kody Tran’s wife, according to the press release. After killing Ramirez, they contacted Esparza to come to Kody Tran’s shop, according to a witness who worked there. Multiple California news sources, including The Orange County Register and LA news station, KTTV, reported this witness coming forward with information in 2012, leading to the recent arrests.

The case went cold in 1996 when Esparza married Van — making it so they could not testify against each other, according to the California news sources. In 1999, the California police reopened the case and began following the suspects.

In 2006, police lost track of Esparza when she divorced Van and moved to France.  She began teaching at Webster’s Geneva campus in 2009, according to the Webster Geneva campus website.

California news sources reported that in 2010, new technology made a break in the case when DNA recognition matched Ramirez’s blood with blood found in Kody Tran’s shop.

The witness from Kody Tran’s shop came forward last year. Combined, this was enough new evidence to arrest Vans and Diane Tran. Kody Tran committed suicide earlier that year during a standoff with a SWAT team. Gries is currently listed as a fugitive.

Esparza was held on a $300,000 bail and ordered to return for her pretrial hearing. The prosecutor for the case is Senior Deputy District Attorney Mike Murray of the Homicide Unit.

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