Annie Pham RIP

The Monterey County District Attorney’s Office announced murder charges on Thursday afternoon, July 7, in a 40-year cold case for the murder of Anne Pham. Pham was a 5-year-old Seaside resident who was kidnapped while walking to her kindergarten class at Highland Elementary School on Jan. 21, 1982, and was found dead two days later along South Boundary Road. 

Seaside Acting Police Chief Nick Borges says it’s long been the biggest and most complex cold case the department has had on file—arguably its biggest ever—and says, “This is the greatest day of my professional career.”

There are gruesome details about the case that were not included in the DA Office’s announcement: After Pham was kidnapped, she was raped and sodomized, then smothered to death. Borges says she lived a few blocks from the school, and that the suspect, Reno resident Robert John Lanoue, 70, at the time lived just a block from Pham. Lanoue was 29 years old and stationed at Fort Ord at the time. He later became a registered sex offender in Nevada, and spent “an extensive period of time” in jail. 

While he can’t speak about specific details of the evidence because the case is pending, Borges says, “It’s a very strong case. There’s no doubt in my mind the right man is in custody. The world is a safer place with that man behind bars.” 

Borges praises District Attorney Jeannine Pacioni who, after taking office in 2019, established a Cold Case Task Force, and hired former Monterey PD assistant chief Bill Clark, who went around the county asking various police departments what the top cold cases were that they had on file. For Borges, that was an easy question: Anne Pham. 

He first stumbled upon the case in 2009, when he was an investigator, while going through a box of folders with cold cases. When he read her story, he was floored. “It disgusted me it was stored in the way that it was,” he says. Ever since, he adds, “I’ve had sleepless nights for years thinking about this girl."

Collaboration with other entities was also key to the case, Borges says. That included the DA’s Office, the FBI and the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division—Pham was found on what was federal property at the time—as well as Nevada State Police and various non-law enforcement-related forensic labs. 

Advances in DNA technology helped facilitate the breakthrough in this case. “There are things that haven’t been used [yet] science-wise related to the criminal justice system that will come out,” Borges says. According to the DA's Office, "A new type of DNA testing not previously available to earlier investigators identified Lanoue as the suspect."

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Investigators obtained a warrant for Laroue’s arrest on July 6, and he’s currently in custody in Nevada awaiting extradition.

While innocent until proven guilty, Lanoue is charged with one count of first-degree murder, with special circumstance allegations that he murdered Pham while committing kidnapping and a lewd act on a child under the age of 14.

Borges says there’s a picture of every cold case victim in the city on the walls of the Seaside PD conference room—more than 20—so that officers are constantly reminded that while it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind, there is always more work to be done, and more justice to be served. 

"They get excited about it, they want to go dig," Borges says.

Earlier this year, Borges got a picture of Pham blown up, framed and put on a tripod that he put at the entrance of the department’s lobby because he says he had a feeling this case was finally going to get solved. 

Today, he took it up to Highland Elementary. 

“She didn't make it to school then, but she made it to school today.”

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