Although a suspect now is in custody, many unanswered questions remain concerning the 2010 murder of 19-year-old Vienna resident Vanessa Pham.
After two-and-a-half years, Fairfax County police announced Dec. 13 that they had identified a suspect in her case. Julio Miguel Blanco-Garcia, 27, a Guatemalan national living on the 6100 block of Willston Drive in Falls Church, has been arrested and charged with Pham’s murder.
According to immigration officials, Blanco-Garcia is in the U.S. illegally.
Pham was a 2009 graduate of James Madison High School. At Madison, she received a Distinguished Senior Award for outstanding achievement in fine arts. Prior to her death, she had just completed her freshman year at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She was home for the summer when her life was mysteriously taken.
On June 27, 2010, Pham was last seen alive outside of Fairfax Plaza Shopping Center minutes before her white Toyota Scion was found in a nearby ditch at the intersection of Arlington Boulevard and Williams Drive. Pham had been repeatedly stabbed and was determined to have been murdered, police said. Police later discovered a surveillance videotape showing that Pham had been at Fairfax Plaza Shopping Center only 10 minutes before her body was discovered.
Soon after her death, police released to the public a video of Pham’s car leaving the shopping center where she had patronized a nail salon. “The video ends at 3:24 p.m. with Pham taking a right turn into traffic,” police spokesman Don Gotthardt said at the time. “Her body was discovered at 3:34 p.m., a half mile away.”
Investigators said that just 25 minutes before Pham’s vehicle was discovered, she updated her Facebook page using her cell phone to inform friends that she had just been hired as a nanny. The message said, “Call me Fran Drescher, I'm a nanny!” That was at 3:09 p.m.
Two weeks later, police canvassed nearby neighborhoods with thousands of fliers in English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese, hoping to get a lead in the case, but to no avail.
Gotthardt said police later eliminated friends, boyfriends, acquaintances and others known to Pham as suspects, then formulated a theory that a stranger may have been waiting in Pham's car, emerging as she left the plaza.
“If you look at the video as she is waiting to turn right out of the parking lot, you can see that she hesitates and takes 40 seconds to turn, even though there is no traffic and she is clear to turn,” police spokesman Don Gotthardt said.
Lt. Mike Wall of Fairfax County police was involved in the initial investigation.
He said that when Pham’s body initially was discovered, police search and rescue teams scoured the area between where her car made that right turn and where her body was found, but no clues were discovered.
“We walked along the roadways from the shopping center to where she was found, about half a mile,” he said. “We found nothing.”
But last week, according to police, Fairfax County homicide detectives were able to link Blanco-Garcia to Pham’s murder through an “analysis of forensic evidence” from another case which led them to name Blanco-Garcia a suspect in Pham’s death. Police would not elaborate on the nature of that evidence or the previous arrest. Court records show Blanco-Garcia was arrested and charged with public intoxication two months prior to Pham’s death.
On Oct. 27, 2011, a similarly described suspect described by police as “possibly Hispanic, in his late 20’s or early 30’s, 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighing around 160 pounds” was reported to have entered a woman’s car as she exited the Unique Thrift store in the same Fairfax Plaza Shopping Center. Police said the woman screamed and ran away. As she fled, she realized that she left her purse in the car and went back to retrieve it. As she returned, the man remained standing at the driver’s side of her car but then walked away quickly. No arrest was ever made in that case.
On Dec. 13, United States Marshals located Blanco-Garcia at a house under construction in Vienna near the intersection of Glyndon Street S.E. and Locust Street S.E. shortly after noon.
Fairfax County acting Police Chief James A. Morris said at a press conference the same day that it did not appear that Pham and Blanco-Garcia knew each other.
Stephanie Stratos, a friend of Pham’s, lives near the location where Blanco-Garcia was arrested.
“I was really concerned when I heard that he was working on a construction site near my home,” said Stratos, 21. “I certainly do not know who he is, and I doubt Vanessa did either. She was a very sweet girl and her life was an open book. She did not seem the type to hide secrets from her friends.”
Stratos said that even though Pham’s death still seems mysterious and senseless, she is glad that a suspect has been named in the case and hopes more information will soon come out.
“I thought Vanessa’s death would never be solved,” she said. “I was so afraid she would become another unsolved murder statistic. I am so glad there is a chance the world may find out why she was murdered. She was the sweetest person, and I don’t want anyone to forget her.”
Blanco-Garcia’s attorney, David Bernhard, released a statement saying “Our heartfelt thoughts go out to Ms. Pham’s family and friends. We are well into investigating this matter and will not comment on the evidence except to say that no one should prejudge the facts based on leaks from unnamed sources, supposition or innuendo.”
A preliminary hearing for Blanco-Garcia is scheduled for 2 p.m. Feb. 13 in Fairfax County District Court.