Who killed Vanessa Pham? It’s been two years since her death. I still ask myself that question every time I drive by the shopping center where she was last seen alive and when I pass the area where she was found stabbed to death in her overturned car.
It was heartbreaking since this talented, beautiful nineteen year old girl had her whole life ahead of her. She was going to be a sophomore at Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia, just hired as a nanny and staying with family at her home located in the Northern Virginia area. When I first heard about this tragic murder I was shocked not only because it was brutal but that it took place in the middle of the day in a busy area a few miles from my home. It’s a baffling mystery.
On Sunday, June 27, 2010 about 3:00 pm Vanessa drove her two–door Toyota to a shopping center and briefly stopped at a nail salon. Video surveillance shows her car leaving the parking lot about twenty five minutes after her salon visit. Ten minutes later and one half mile away, she is dead with multiple stab wounds to her chest.
What happened in the ten minutes leading to her death? Reports indicate that she was alone in the nail salon and didn’t seem in distress. Did she meet up with a friend outside? Or, did a stranger grab her and force her to get in the car with him? In the parking lot, near the stores, there are rows of 30 minute only parking spaces. That would be an opportune spot for an unknown person (car-jacker, mugger etc.) to wait for a victim. I don’t know if she parked in one of those spaces or not. People watching the surveillance video point out that it looks like she hesitates a few times before finally pulling out of the parking lot onto the street.
If she was alone in the car when exiting the parking lot did someone accost her while she was stopped at a traffic light? It’s not unheard of for a stranger to jump in a stopped car. Or, perhaps she was in a fender bender and became the victim of road rage? However, this is a busy area of strip malls, restaurants and a school. If someone did jump in her car or she rolled down the window to respond to someone and was stabbed, I have to believe that another motorist saw something.
As I drive down the same street where Vanessa drove I see two drive-through car washes and a gas station. Did she stop to get gas, a car wash or vacuum her car? If so, it’s possible that someone approached her there. Hopefully, police looked at surveillance video from the stores surrounding the route they believe she drove.
One motive that I considered but haven’t heard mentioned is gang initiation killing. When I lived in Los Angeles the initiation to become a member of a gang was to kill a woman. The young initiates dressed to blend in, hunted in twos and stalked victims in shopping area parking lots. This happened to one of my acquaintances. Two guys with knives approached her as she was getting into the driver’s side of her car in a mall lot. They told her to move to the passenger seat and she said she couldn’t because the stick shift was in the way so they let her out of the car to walk around to the other side. Thinking quickly, she threw her keys away, screamed and ran to safety. I’ve read there is a large gang presence in the D.C. metro area and there have been gang initiation killings of people unrelated to gangs. Perhaps police considered this possibility but discarded it.
After ruling out close friends and family, the Fairfax County police now believe it was a random act of an unknown killer. However, one outside retired police officer turned private detective has a feeling the killer was a woman and someone Vanessa knew. He believes that a man would be more apt to slit a victim’s throat or choke her rather than repeatedly stab. He also believes that the quick time frame suggests that someone was angry with her and hiding in her car.
There are many theories but still no answers. All we know for sure is that there is an unsolved murder, a killer on the loose and a grieving family. Although we often write about murders and include realistic details it’s important to remember it shatters lives and to treat the subject carefully and with compassion. I will continue to honor this young woman’s memory every time I drive in that area.
Has a real life murder touched you?
Link to surveillance video pieced together of her car entering and exiting the parking lot:: http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/police/news-releases/2010/070710vanessaphamvideoreleased.htm