Body found in ditch identified; N.Va. woman had been stabbed

Vanessa Pham was a graduate of James Madison High.
Vanessa Pham was a graduate of James Madison High. (Provided By The Pham Family - Provided By The Pham Family)
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By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Vanessa Pham was on her way to realizing her dream of being a fashion designer. Then someone left her to die in her car in a ditch just a few yards from a busy Fairfax County highway.

Fairfax police on Monday identified Pham, a 19-year-old Northern Virginia native, as the woman whose body was found in a white Scion hatchback shortly after 3:30 p.m. Sunday. She had been stabbed multiple times, sources familiar with the investigation said.

Someone driving on Route 50 near Gallows Road in the Falls Church area spotted the Scion and notified police.

The Scion was apparently going the wrong way on a one-way service road parallel to the eastbound lanes of the highway near Williams Drive, hopped a curb and landed in a shallow ravine. Firefighters and police officers quickly realized that more than a traffic accident had occurred.

Officer Bud Walker, a Fairfax police spokesman, described Pham's cause of death only as "trauma to the upper body" and declined to say where in the car her body was found. But, he added, "we have no reason to believe she wasn't driving the vehicle."

Pham, an only child, lived with her mother, grandmother and other relatives in an apartment just off Annandale Road in the Falls Church area of Fairfax. She went to visit friends in Vienna about 2:30 p.m. Sunday, said her mother, Julie Pham. But her friends weren't home, and her family and police aren't sure what happened in the next hour.

Vanessa Pham was born within a mile of where she died, at Inova Fairfax Hospital, and she graduated last year from James Madison High School in Vienna. She had a talent for drawing and painting, her mother said, and focused intently on designing women's clothes.

As a senior at Madison, she won a Distinguished Senior Award for "outstanding achievement in fine arts." And in the spring of her senior year, she was accepted into the fine arts program at the Savannah College of Art and Design, a school of 9,000 students in Savannah, Ga.

"She's very talented," her mother said.

"She wanted to be a fashion designer. She wanted to go everywhere -- Paris, New York. She wanted to work in New York or California."

Vanessa Pham had completed her freshman year at the college and had been home for about a month, trying to get a summer job as a nanny or babysitter, her mother said. She previously worked as a hostess at a restaurant in Tysons Corner.

She was "very outgoing, very popular," her mother said. "She gets along with everybody. She's funny. She's alive."

Julie Pham said her daughter was not a late-night party girl and typically hung out or slept over with the same clique of friends she had known since her days at Marshall Road Elementary School.

"I don't know why somebody would kill her," her mother said. "We want to know why."

Police spent more than eight hours Sunday examining the car for clues to Pham's death, finally towing it away after midnight. On Monday morning, crime scene detectives were back in the ravine, scouring the area for evidence and taking more photographs.

A police dog trained in tracking human scents traversed the area, trying to find the trail of someone who might have fled the car after killing Pham. But by Monday evening, police had no suspects in the eighth homicide of the year in Fairfax.

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