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Former soldier charged in 1982 rape, murder of California 5-year-old abducted on way to school

SEASIDE, Calif. — Genetic genealogy and 40-year-old DNA have led authorities to charge a former soldier with raping and murdering a 5-year-old California girl as she walked alone to school in 1982.

Robert John Lanoue, 70, of Reno, Nevada, was arrested Thursday in connection with the death of Anne Sang Thi Pham. He is charged with first-degree murder, with special circumstance allegations that he killed the Seaside girl during a kidnapping and while committing a lewd act on a child under 14.

Nevada state prison records show that Lanoue, a registered sex offender, was convicted in 1998 of lewdness with a minor, possession of child pornography and the use of a minor in producing pornography. He spent more than 20 years in prison before being paroled.

Details of those crimes were unavailable Friday.

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“The guy is a complete monster,” Seaside police Chief Nicholas Borges said in a statement to People magazine. “He’s every person’s nightmare. The world is a safer place with this guy off the streets.”

Lanoue is in the Washoe County Jail, awaiting extradition to California to face the charges.

Anne, one of 10 children born to a Vietnamese fisherman and his wife, left for class the morning of Jan. 21, 1982, after talking her mother into letting her walk alone to Highland Elementary School, which was three blocks from the family’s home.

“Normally she walked to school with her mom, but on this particular day it was raining, and she convinced her mom and older brother she wanted to walk to school herself,” Borges previously said.

In the time it took to walk fewer than 1,000 feet, the girl vanished.

Anne’s body was found two days later by a U.S. Army Criminal Investigations Division agent looking for a marijuana grow on Fort Ord, a nearby military post that was closed in 1994. The girl had been sexually assaulted and strangled.

>> Related story: California police reopen murder of 5-year-old girl who vanished on way to school in 1982

According to authorities, Lanoue was a 29-year-old soldier stationed at Fort Ord at the time of the murder. Borges said Lanoue lived around the corner from the Pham family.

“You could throw a rock from his house to hers, no problem,” the police chief told People. “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.”

Lanoue’s name never came up during the initial murder probe. The case, which was investigated by Seaside detectives, agents from the FBI and Army CID investigators, eventually went cold.

Meanwhile, Lanoue left Seaside and ended up in the Las Vegas area, where he was arrested and convicted of crimes against children 16 years later.

In 2020, Seaside authorities teamed with the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office Cold Case Task Force to begin looking anew at the case. District Attorney Jeannine Pacioni, who took office in 2019, established the task force and hired a retired Monterey assistant police chief to lead the team.

When asked what cold case was his department’s highest priority, Borges told the task force Anne’s case was at the top of his list, according to the Monterey County Weekly.

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Borges said he was appalled in 2009, when he found the child’s case file stuffed into a box with files from other cold cases.

“It disgusted me it was stored in the way that it was,” Borges told the newspaper. “I’ve had sleepless nights for years thinking about this girl.”

All available physical evidence in the murder was submitted for DNA testing using “a new type of DNA testing not previously available to earlier investigators,” according to prosecutors. The tests were funded through a U.S. Department of Justice grant awarded to the task force.

Pacioni told People that the technology, which involves DNA that does not come from a hair’s root, has not yet been used in a criminal conviction.

Borges told KION-TV in Salinas that the DNA results, through which a family tree was created, helped put Lanoue at the top of their suspect list.

“It’s a very strong case,” the chief said. “DNA has a large part, genealogy has a large part and circumstantial evidence, in this case, is extremely powerful.”

Seaside Mayor Ian Oglesby praised the collaboration of the different local, state and federal agencies that aided in solving the case and “bringing some level of closure to the Pham family.” The DNA technology and genetic genealogy work were done by Astrea Forensics, Dr. Ed Green of the University of California Santa Cruz and Parabon Nanolabs, according to authorities.

Borges said while Lanoue’s arrest marked the greatest day of his career, he wishes the child predator had been caught before he could “create havoc and horror wherever he went.” He told People that Anne’s parents, who came to the country as refugees in 1975, were never able to see what their daughter, who was compassionate, kind and loved learning, could have accomplished in her lifetime.

“She was a 5-year-old little girl in this country to start her life, to make her family proud, and to just live the American dream, and that in and of itself is just heartbreaking,” Borges said. “The United States of America was paradise for the family. 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.”

Earlier this year, Borges had a photo of Anne blown up and framed, then set it on a tripod in the police department lobby. He had a feeling, the chief said, that this year would be the year the case was solved.

On Thursday, following Lanoue’s arrest, Borges and some of his officers took the photo down to Highland Elementary School, where Anne was heading the day she was slain, the Monterey County Weekly reported.

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

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