Va. student's fatal stabbing leaves Fairfax police with no suspect or motive

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 1, 2010; B01

The fatal stabbing of a 19-year-old Fairfax County woman is turning into a homicide squad's worst scenario: a slaying by a stranger.

The tearful anecdotes told by dozens of friends of Vanessa Pham at a candlelight vigil for her Tuesday night confirmed a vision of a vibrant, funny, talented college student who had no enemies or angry ex-boyfriends. But that leaves Fairfax police with no suspects and no motive in the death of the Northern Virginia native, who was found dead Sunday inside her car near Route 50 shortly after it veered off a service road into a ravine.

Investigators have scoured the area near the intersections with Gallows Road and Williams Drive and hope that trace evidence from Pham's 2008 Scion tC hatchback -- a fingerprint, a drop of blood, a speck of skin or hair with DNA -- can lead them to a suspect.

But such testing can take time. And sources familiar with the investigation said the typical avenues of a homicide probe -- retracing the victim's steps, finding those who had conflicts with her -- have not produced any leads.

On Wednesday, police released a flier with a photo of Pham's car, asking anyone who saw the Scion on Sunday afternoon to contact them. Pham's mother said she was last seen in Vienna about 2:30 p.m. Investigators theorize that Pham might have been on either Route 50 or Route 29, between Nutley Street and Gallows Road, before she ended up in the wooded area near some mostly empty medical office buildings at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, when a driver spotted the Scion on its side.

The area where Pham's car was found is close to three of Fairfax County's busiest mental-health facilities: the inpatient Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute, the outpatient Woodburn Center for Community Mental Health and Inova Fairfax Hospital. Homeless people set up camp in the area, police said. Detectives are considering the possibility that someone Pham didn't know simply climbed into her car at a stoplight.

But it's only one possibility.

Mentally ill people are not, by and large, violent toward strangers. But police say they think, Gregory D. Murphy, a paranoid schizophrenic, walked up to 8-year-old Kevin Shifflett, who was playing on a sidewalk in Alexandria, and stabbed him to death in 2000. Murphy repeatedly has been found too mentally ill to stand trial.

"We don't know that this is not a stranger attack," Officer Bud Walker, a police spokesman, said. "Because of that, we do feel there is a public safety issue, and feel the need to warn the public to be on guard."

Pham's death stunned the wide circle of friends she had accumulated from her grade-school years at Marshall Road Elementary School, through Thoreau Middle School, to her four years at James Madison High School in Vienna, and her freshman year at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. Early on, she showed a talent for art and fashion that runs through her family, said her cousin Tracy To, who works in the New York fashion industry.

Ally McKay, who had known Pham since kindergarten, said, "Even when she was little, she was drawing dresses." At the vigil outside Madison High, McKay said she and Pham studied each morning in a specialized fashion-design program at Fairfax High School before returning to Madison for the rest of their classes. McKay said that drawings she and Pham worked on "probably helped me get into college."

Min Kim said she was waiting for cheerleading tryouts to start in eighth grade when a girl sidled up to her.

"So, you're Asian," Pham said to her.

"Uh, yeah," Kim replied.

"Nice. I'm Vanessa."

Kim said the exchange "signifies how bubbly she was and how friendly she was." They became friends, hanging out at each other's homes, gabbing about school and boys, listening to music from Coldplay and her abiding passion, the Jonas Brothers.

They didn't go out a lot -- sleepovers were the frequent social function -- and boys were not a big part of the picture. Pham did not have a boyfriend in high school, Kim said.

"She was the type of person you stayed home with, watching movies, doing nothing," Kim said. "We didn't have to go out. She was definitely the life of the party, without a party."

In Savannah, Pham did connect recently with a fellow student named Aaron Apsley, from Jackson, Ohio. They talked daily on the phone, he said, "and by the end of each call, my cheeks were sore from smiling." He had arranged to fly in to see her and arrived as planned Tuesday. Just in time for her vigil.

Pham was the only child of Julie Pham, a single mother "who gave her everything. She worked night and day," her cousin To said. The family is struggling to pay for a funeral, and friends collected donations at the vigil.

Donations to the Pham funeral fund may be sent to Navy Federal Credit Union, Vanessa Pham Memorial Fund, P.O. Box 3100, Merrifield, Va. 22119-3100.

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