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New London business owner Roderick Cornish has become a reluctant witness in a cold case murder in Orange County, Calif., that he says he knows nothing about.
At the request of California authorities, New London Superior Court Judge Hillary B. Strackbein on Wednesday ordered Cornish to travel to Santa Ana, Calf., on Aug. 19, to testify before a grand jury in the murder trial of Norma Patricia Esparza. Prosecutors allege Esparza may have confided details of the case to Cornish during telephone and online conversations.
Esparza is accused of helping plan the April 1995 murder of Gonzalo Ramirez, a man she said raped her in her dorm room at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., three weeks before he was killed. Her boyfriend at the time, Gianni Van, whom Esparza would later marry and then divorce, is accused of slaying Ramirez with a meat cleaver and is awaiting trial along with Esparza and two others.
Esparza went on to become a psychology professor who lived and worked near the border of France and Switzerland, married and had a son. She was traveling to the United States for a conference in October 2011 when she was detained at Boston’s Logan Airport in connection with the murder.
Cornish, owner of Hot Rod Cafe on Bank Street, had gone to Logan Airport to pick up Esparza and, California authorities allege in court documents, had more than a dozen phone conversations with her while she was being held in county jail in Massachusetts while awaiting extradition to California. The calls were recorded, and Orange County prosecutor Michael Murray alleges in an affidavit that “Esparza and Cornish seem to talk in code at times.”
“During at least one phone call, Roderick tells Esparza he loves her,” says the court document. “Esparza tells Cornish in another phone call to delete all of their email correspondence and Cornish agrees to do so.”
The affidavit indicates investigators permitted Cornish to take possession of Esparza’s luggage when she was booked in prison and that during one phone conversation, they discuss a gift she brought for Cornish that he would find in her luggage.
“... It also appears that Esparza may have confided in Cornish about the murder of Gonzalo Ramirez and that she and Cornish are attempting to delete any electronic trail regarding these communications,” the affidavit says.
The computers could be examined forensically and deleted messages recovered, the affidavit says, but Cornish could legally refuse to speak to investigators and could simply destroy his computer.
“The People seek to compel Cornish to testify in front of a Grand Jury, immunizing him if necessary, so that he can be questioned regarding what Esparza told him about the murder of Gonzalo Ramirez,” the affidavit says. “This will avoid the likelihood that Cornish can refuse to provide a statement and destroy evidence before it can be obtained via search warrant.”
It is unclear how Cornish and Esparza met. A New London native, Cornish, who is 49, lived out of state for a number of years. He eventually returned to New London and in 2005 opened Hot Rod.
Before granting the interstate subpoena Wednesday, Strackbein noted the State of California would pay for Cornish’s airfare and hotel during the three days he is expected to be needed. She also gave Cornish an opportunity to describe any hardships that would prevent him from traveling to the West Coast.
Speaking on Cornish’s behalf, attorney Anthony R. Basilica said Cornish runs a seven-days-a-week business and has a 3-month-old baby.
“Also, he has nothing to offer in this case,” Basilica said.
The judge said Basilica could check into having Cornish testify via video conferencing from the courthouse but granted California’s request based on “the fact that there’s a pending murder case and the court believes he’s a material witness.”
Reached by phone later at the restaurant, Cornish politely declined to comment.
Basilica, also reached by phone, said, “California is just trying to squeeze anybody who has any possible knowledge or connection with anybody.”