A psychology professor accused of orchestrating the murder of her alleged rapist in California almost two decades ago told NBC News that her ex-boyfriend -- who she blames for the killing -- destroyed her life.
Norma Patricia Esparza, 39, said she was forced to join the revenge mission by her enraged ex-boyfriend after she told him she had been raped in her college dorm room.
Speaking from her California jail cell, Esparza said she had been “dragged, pressured, bullied, intimidated” by ex-boyfriend Gianni Van, who is also accused of murdering alleged rapist Gonzalo Ramirez.
Esparza, Van, and two others are accused of tracking down Ramirez and beating him to death outside an auto repair shop in 1995. All four have pleaded not guilty.
“It just hurts me so much that I had been raped, and here he [Van] is, instead of consoling me, he destroyed the rest of my life, ” she said. "You know, the abuse was difficult, the rape was difficult, but dragging me through that night, it haunts me."
Esparza is a Mexican immigrant who grew up in the U.S., was working as a professor in Geneva, Switzerland, when she was arrested last year at Boston Airport while returning to the U.S. for a conference.
She had been cooperating with prosecutors but was taken into custody last week after a judge revoked her bail.
Esparza rejected a plea deal which would have seen her receive a three-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter. She declined, and now faces life in jail for murder.
She said Van intimidated her into keeping quiet, and even forced her to marry him so she could not testify against him.
"What I can tell you is that I was dragged, pressured, bullied, intimidated into that night when they actually took Gonzalo Ramirez,” she said. “I never saw him dead. I didn't know that he had been dead. But I was terrorized by the violence that I witnessed."
Esparza’s jailing has caused outcry among advocacy groups, with one online petition proclaiming: “We are astonished that Norma Patricia, a rape victim, is now being treated as a criminal,” and garnering 4,500 signatures.
But Susan Kang Schroeder, of the Orange County District Attorney's Office, said Esparza’s story is a ploy.
“Mrs. Esparza is desperate to garner sympathy for her and make herself as the victim in this case. She's not a victim on this case: she's a defendant on this case,” Schroeder told NBC News.
Van hasn't commented on the case, but his attorney says there are "definitely a lot of inaccuracies" in Esparza's claims.
The preliminary hearing is due to begin next month.