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Elderly Man Arrested In 1982 Murder Of California Girl Who Vanished On Walk To Kindergarten

Robert John Lanoue, now 70 years old, has been arrested for kidnapping, molesting and murdering 5-year-old Annie Pham, who had been his neighbor in 1982.

By Jill Sederstrom
A police handout of Anne Pham

Authorities have arrested a suspected killer 40 years after a little girl disappeared while walking to school and later turned up dead.

Monterey County District Attorney Jeannine M. Pacioni announced the arrest Thursday of Reno, Nevada resident Robert John Lanoue, now 70,  for the 1982 death of five-year-old Anne Pham.

Lanoue is now facing charges of first-degree murder, with special circumstance allegations that he killed the young girl during a kidnapping and committed a lewd act on a child under the age of 14.

Pham disappeared on January 21, 1982 while on the way to Highland Elementary School in Seaside, California. Her remains were discovered two days later at the former Fort Ord Army base.

Seaside Police Chief Nicholas Borges told Monterrey County Weekly that Pham had been raped, sodomized and smothered to death.

"The guy is a complete monster," Borges told People. "He's every person's nightmare. The world is a safer place with this guy off the streets."

At the time of the child's horrifying murder, Lanoue — who was 29 —  lived not far from the Pham home and was stationed at Fort Ord.

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.”

Borges believes that’s likely how he spotted Pham and her older nine siblings at the family’s home, and alleged the man viewed them as “prey.”

On the day she disappeared, Pham — who was usually accompanied during her walk to school — had convinced her mom and brother to let her walk the few blocks alone. Unfortunately, that gave the man who ultimately killed her the opportunity to abduct the little girl.

Despite his physical proximity to the Pham home, Borges said Lanoue was never considered a suspect in the original investigation.

“This guy was never on the radar," Borges said. "Never. This guy was totally hidden in plain view, just right there."

For decades, the case remained cold until investigators with the Seaside Police Department and Monterey County District Attorney’s Cold Case Task Force decided to reopen it. They submitted evidence for a form of DNA testing that had not been previously available and were able to identify Lanoue as their suspect.

He was arrested on Tuesday in Nevada, where he’s currently being held pending his extradition back to California.

For Borges, who first stumbled on the case in 2009 as an investigator and had “sleepless nights for years” thinking about Pham, it was a welcome development.

“This is the greatest day of my professional career,” he told Monterrey County Weekly.

He’s just sorry that investigators weren’t able to identify Lanoue as the suspected killer earlier.

According to Borges, Lanoue served more than 20 years in prison for other sexual assault offenses and was in jail on a probation violation when he was arrested this week. Lanoue's record on Nevada's sex offender registry indicates that he was convicted in 1998 of producing and possessing child pornography and conspiracy to commit "lewd acts" with a child under the age of 14. He received a life sentence with the possibility of parole in the case.

"I wish that he would've been caught earlier, because this guy went on with his life, to just create havoc and horror wherever he went," he said. "She was a five-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.”

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