A Costa Mesa man was sentenced Friday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the 1995 stabbing murder of a man who the defendant's girlfriend claimed had raped her.
Gianni Anthony Van, 45, was convicted in May of first-degree murder, and jurors found true a special circumstance allegation that the killing of 24-year-old Gonzalo Ramirez was done during a kidnapping.
The victim's brother had Senior Deputy District Attorney Mike Murray read a statement to Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett on how the April 16, 1995, killing affected the family.
"The death of my brother, to me personally and to my family, has drastically affected us because it is a loss that is irreparable,'' Benito Ramirez said. ``We always think of him, especially when we are together as a family and he is not seated at the table with us. It also affects me to see my mother cry all the time when she thinks of her son and how he is no longer with us (and) even more so when she sees her granddaughters who are alone in this world, fighting and struggling to succeed."
Benito Ramirez added, "It tortures us to think of every single hack or gas that was given to him. It tortures us to think of every stab and blow to his body. He was tied up, unable to defend himself. It tortures and breaks our hearts to know how he was dumped like an animal on the side of the road."
In his closing argument, Murray said the victim suffered "well over 30 sharp, heavy-blade" cuts -- "the kind of cuts that went through the bone, and almost severed his arm."
Ramirez sustained a fractured skull and bled to death, the prosecutor said, but multiple defensive wounds showed he "had time to fight for his life."
"Even blindfolded, he knew it was coming," Murray said. "Somebody was angry enough that they kept going."
The victim's body was found the following morning at the San Canyon Road exit of the San Diego (405) Freeway in Irvine. It appears the weapon was a meat cleaver, Murray said.
The prosecutor alleged Van had help from co-defendant Shannon Ray Gries, 44, and Kody Tran, who authorities believe committed "suicide by cop" in a standoff with SWAT officers in Irvine in July 2012.
Van testified that he was "terrified" of Tran, which kept him from going to authorities with what he knew about Ramirez's murder.
Co-defendants Norma Esparza, 40, and Diane Tran, 46, who was married to Kody Tran, accepted plea deals in the case in exchange for their testimony.
Gries is awaiting trial.
Esparza claimed Ramirez, who she had met the night before at the El Cortez club in Santa Ana, raped her in her dorm room at Pomona College in March 1995.
The next day, she went to get the "morning-after" birth control pill from a nurse at the college, but did not mention the alleged sexual assault, which would have triggered an investigation, Murray said.
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Esparza told Van a couple of weeks later — when they were reconciling in their on-again, off-again romantic relationship — that she had been raped, Murray said.
Van then told his friend Kody Tran about the alleged rape, the prosecutor said.
He said Van and Kody Tran devised a plan to stage a traffic crash involving the victim and then abduct him.
Van, Kody Tran, Esparza, Gries and Rojas went to the El Cortez to find Ramirez, Murray said. Esparza pointed out Ramirez, and the rest of the group followed him when he left the bar, the prosecutor said.
A van carrying some of the group deliberately collided with a vehicle carrying Ramirez and a woman, prompting him to get out of the car, at which point he was abducted and taken back to a transmission shop Kody Tran owned to be beaten to death, Murray said.
As police were investigating, Van and Esparza took a trip to Las Vegas to get married so they could invoke a privilege banning testimony against a spouse, Murray said.
The case went cold, but investigators got a break when DNA technology matched blood found at the transmission shop to the victim, Murray said.
Van and Esparza ended their "sham" marriage in 2006, he said.
Esparza, a university professor, got remarried and moved with her husband and young daughter to France on the Swiss border.