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Norma Patricia Esparza was a talented college professor, mother and wife—but did a secret from her past reveal a much darker side to her?
Years before her successful career, when Esparza was a college student in California, a man she met at a club was found dead along the side of the road with a savage set of injuries.
“I’ve been to a lot of scenes in my career, but this one was a little more gruesome just because of the sheer amount of injury to the body,” Larry Montgomery, a detective at the time with the Irvine Police Department told “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered.” “He was definitely hacked to death.”
Police identified the man as Gonzalo Ramirez, 24, a young father of two little girls.
Investigators were baffled by the brutal murder until they found Esparza’s phone number scrawled on one of Ramirez’s phone bills and reached out to the Pomona College sophomore.
But Esparza had her own harrowing story to tell and it would take investigators more than two decades to unravel the truth.
An Act of Revenge?
Esparza told Dateline’s Andrea Canning that she met Ramirez at a club in March of 1995 and gave him her number, thinking “he was nice.”
The very next morning, she said Ramirez called her and asked her to breakfast along with her sister and a friend. After the meal, he offered her a ride back to campus and then asked to come up to her dorm room for a glass of water, but, according to Esparza, that was when the day took a terrifying turn.
“When we’re inside he tells me that a—that he wants to have sex. And I tell him no, I am not interested,” she said. “He starts to get aggressive and starts to—to try to kiss me and I push him away, we’re struggling and then ultimately he takes off my pants and forces himself on me.”
Esparza said she was left sobbing, “half-naked” and “curled up into a ball.”
“I felt so dirty and so ashamed and I was just blaming myself,” she said.
Esparza never called the police but said she went to the college health center the next day. She said she saw a nurse and reported what had happened, but the nurse never took any further action.
A medical report from the college confirmed that Esparza had gone to the health center and was examined by both a nurse and doctor, but the report never mentioned anything about a rape and only said that Esparza had unprotected sex and requested a morning after pill.
The alleged rape was hard for the college sophomore to put behind her and she said she found herself just “weeping and crying,” and struggling to complete her course work. For a while, she kept the alleged attack a secret until she said her ex-boyfriend, Gianni Van, stopped by her dorm room and she confided in him.
“I didn’t feel that I wanted to, but I guess I did want somebody to be there and understand,” she said.
Weeks later, Ramirez would be dead.
He and a friend had spent the night out at the same club before getting into their vehicle to drive home. The friend would later tell investigators that while they were driving, a white van pulled up behind them and bumped into the vehicle.
The friend urged Ramirez to just keep driving, but Ramirez felt they should exchange information and got out of the vehicle. Once he did, he was attacked by several men who got out of the van. The friend ran down the street to try to get help, but when he returned with police, Ramirez was gone.
His body was later found along a stretch of the 405 freeway, badly mangled with a blue towel-like material wrapped all around the body.
“When we pick up my brother, we couldn’t recognize his face,” Ramirez’s brother, Benito, told “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered” describing his brother as a “responsible” and “very good person.”
A Convenient Marriage
After discovering Esparza’s phone number scrawled on that phone bill, investigators reached out to the college student, who admitted to telling Van about the alleged rape.
Investigators quickly reached out to Van, but he adamantly denied knowing anything about the crime.
Yet, authorities discovered that he had a white van registered to him, similar to the one that had been used that night. After initially denying that he owned one, Van said there was a white van that was registered under his name but it was being used by a guy at Accurate Transmission shop.
After securing a search warrant for the property, investigators found the van and the same old-style blue towel dispensers found with towels similar to the one found on the body. Investigators also found a drop of blood in an office in the shop, but the DNA test at the time wasn’t as advanced as today’s standards. While it couldn’t rule Ramirez out, it also was unable to confirm that the blood had belonged to him.
Either way, investigators felt they had enough evidence and arrested Van for the murder in 1996. They were surprised to learn, however, that Esparza had secretly married him just one month after the slaying, ensuring that she wouldn’t have to testify against him in court.
Esparza later told Dateline that she was forced into the marriage.
“I feared for my life,” she said. “When I was told I had to marry him, that’s when I learned that Gonzalo Ramirez had been killed and I thought to myself, ‘Oh my goodness, if they are able to do that to him, what are they going to do to me if I don’t follow what they say.’”
Without Esparza’s testimony, prosecutors made the decision to drop the charges against Van until they could build a stronger case.
Paving A Path To Success
In the years that followed, Esparza moved on with her life. She graduated from college, became a political activist and fell in love with distinguished scholar Jorge Mancillas who she met while working on a California political campaign.
“He’s been my strength ever since I met him,” Esparza said of her love.
Esparza got her PhD in psychology and planned to help children who, like herself, came from homes where they had been sexually abused.
In 2001, Mancillas proposed to Esparza and she gladly accepted, but the nuptials couldn’t happen as long as she was still married.
“That night she broke down and started crying and told me that she couldn’t marry me because she was already married, that it was a forced marriage, not a real marriage but she couldn’t tell me the circumstances because she felt it would put me at a risk,” he told Canning.
Macillas was determined to marry Esparza—regardless of whatever hidden secret was in her past—and enlisted the help of a lawyer, who after three years of negotiations with Van, was able to secure a divorce.
The couple got married, moved to France and Esparza began working as a psychology professor at a university. Eventually, she also gave birth to a daughter.
A Fresh Look At The Case
But her past would come back to haunt her after investigators took a new look at the case.
Dean Fulcher, a detective at the time with the Santa Ana Police, asked crime lab investigators to re-test the blood sample recovered from the auto repair shop and discovered the numbers were “astronomical that it had to be [Ramirez's].”
Fulcher was also constantly keeping tabs on Van and Esparza and discovered the former couple were no longer married—eliminating the protection Esparza once had that prevented her from testifying.
Detectives wrote Esparza an email asking for her “assistance” in the murder case but she didn’t agree to an interview and since she was living in Europe, she was out of the jurisdiction of the California-based investigators.
Police knew they’d need to find other witnesses and re-interviewed Nancy Luna, Esparza’s friend who had been with her the night she met Ramirez.
Luna told police that Esparza brought Van to the club and pointed out Ramirez the night of his death. The stunning realization caused authorities to shift their focus to Esparza herself.
“It certainly made me realize that Patricia was involved,” Prosecutor Mike Murray told Canning. “Even after knowing that Gonzalo Ramirez had been brutally murdered, she was willing to sit down at the age of 19 or 20 with hardened homicide investigators from the Santa Ana Police Department and look them in the eye and lie to them, repeatedly.”
Investigators knew they need to talk to Esparza and patiently waited until she returned to the United States for a visit before taking her into custody.
She initially refused to answer any questions but when investigators charged her with murder, she agreed to reveal what she knew.
Esparza ultimately admitted to taking Van to the club and pointing him out to her ex-boyfriend, but insisted she never knew Ramirez would be killed.
Esparza told Canning after they kidnapped Ramirez, she was taken to a bar to wait before they brought her to the repair shop to see a bloodied—but still living—Ramirez.
“At that point, I just knew that they were doing all this to punish me,” she said. “They were mad at him for what he did but they also were punishing me.”
She also continued to deny her own involvement in the case, saying she “never wanted” Ramirez to be hurt.
“What I can tell you, is that I was dragged, pressured, bullied, intimidated into that night when they actually took Gonzalo Ramirez, kidnapped him, beat him up and ultimately killed him,” she said. “I never saw him dead, but I was terrorized by the violence that I witnessed.”
Prosecutors re-arrested Van and two others who had been at the transmission shop that night.
They offered Esparza a deal in exchange for testifying against Van and the other co-defendants, but it would require her to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and serve three years in prison. She resisted, opting instead to take her case to the court of public opinion.
“It is unfortunate that he is willing to destroy a family, that he is willing to strip me away from my daughter, knowing that I am innocent,” she told reporters during a press conference of the prosecutor.
Her case struck a chord with many who showed up to support Esparza, but her refusal to accept a plea agreement opened the door for another defendant, Diane Tran, to agree to a deal with prosecutors and share her side of the story.
Tran claimed, and was willing to testify, that Esparza hadn’t been forced into anything and was part of planning the murder.
“When you started peeling back the layers, you find that there was an individual, who I think was a very manipulative person, who was kind of pulling the strings and all the time claiming to be the victim while she’s using other people to exact revenge on the individual she feels raped her,” Fulcher said.
The new turn in the case was enough for Esparza to agree to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter in 2016, earning her a sentence of six years behind bars. She agreed to testify against Van, who received a life sentence for the slaying, according to The Orange County Register.
To learn more about the shocking twists and turns in the decades long case, tune in to “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered,” airing Thursdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
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