The suspect behind the kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of a 5-year-old girl in Seaside, California, has been identified and arrested four decades later.
Robert John Lanoue, a 70-year-old resident of Reno, Nevada, was charged on Thursday for the crimes against Anne Sang Thi Pham in 1982. He is facing 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, Monterey County District Attorney Jeannine M. Pacioni said.
“This is a great example of excellent police work by the Seaside Police Department in re-opening the Pham case and working collaboratively with Monterey County DA Cold Case Task Force, and ultimately bringing some level of closure to the Pham family,” said Seaside Mayor Ian Oglesby said in a statement. “The hearts of our Seaside community go out to them.”
Lanoue, a former army sergeant stationed at Fort Ord at the time of the crime, is accused of kidnapping Pham while she was walking to her kindergarten class at Highland Elementary School just before 11 a.m. on Jan. 12, 1982. Her remains were found two days later on the Fort Ord Army base, about a mile away from her school.
Initial investigations reported that Pham was sexually assaulted and strangled, but authorities could not find any leads pointing to the person responsible for the crime. Lanoue, who was 29 and a neighbor of the family at the time, was never considered a suspect. “The guy is a complete monster,” Seaside Police Chief Nicholas Borges told People. “He’s every person’s nightmare. The world is a safer place with this guy off the streets.” In a previous statement to People, Borges said that Pham, the youngest of the 10 siblings, convinced her older brother and mother to let her walk to her school alone because it was raining.
A daily dose of Asian America's essential stories, in under 5 minutes.
Get our collection of Asian America's most essential stories to your inbox daily for free.
Unsure? Check out our Newsletter Archive.
“You could throw a rock from his house to hers, no problem,” Borges said. “He had to go and drive by her house every day when he left his home. Every single day in this man’s life, he had to drive by her home. And there’s no way you don’t see 10 children about a property every single day. He just saw prey when he drove by.”
Speaking to People, Borges said Pham’s family fled the Vietnam War on a boat to the United States.
“So never in their wildest dreams did they think coming here and being in this cute little town, even though it was rough back then, would result in losing their little angel,” Borges continued.
After the case went cold, Lanoue eventually left Seaside to move to Reno, where he spent 20 years behind bars for sexual assault offenses, Borges said. A registered sex offender, Lanoue’s records show that he was convicted in 1998 of producing and possessing child pornography as well as conspiring to commit lewd acts with a child under 14. He was reportedly in jail on a probation violation when he was charged on Thursday.
The Monterey County District Attorney’s Office created the cold case task force in 2010 and reopened Pham’s cold case in 2020, where they worked alongside the Seaside Police Department.
After submitting evidence for DNA testing that was “not previously available to earlier investigators,” the task force identified Lanoue as the prime suspect. “Back in 1982, we didn’t have any leads, police didn’t know where to look, and there were no suspects,” Pacioni told KION 46.
“In the particular case, we knew that there was evidence in the Seaside Police Department and that we could pull DNA from,” Pacioni added. “We started with a type of evidence that has never been used before in court, and it identified a sequence of DNA that we were able to connect to Mr. Lanoue.”
Astrea Forensics, one of the companies credited with helping find Lanoue, applauded the investigators for solving the case in a Facebook post. “Breaking news for what will be a ground-breaking case using genomic methods for forensic identification,” the company wrote.
“We admire the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office Cold Case Task Force and the Seaside Police Department who never gave up on Anne Pham and are still fighting for her justice. This case and many others like it are why we are excited to come to work every day.”
Lanoue remains in Nevada custody and is awaiting extradition to California.
Monterey County currently has 400 cold cases, Pacioni said.
Those who may have information about the case are urged to contact district attorney’s investigator Justin Bell at (831) 755-5070.
Feature Image via Seaside Police Department