The man accused of taking Vanessa Pham’s life appeared to be anything but a killer as he approached her at a Falls Church shopping center. He carried his infant daughter and made a request: Could they have a ride to the hospital?
As the three drove in Pham’s white Scion, Julio Miguel Blanco Garcia became agitated when the college freshman drove the wrong way down a road, he later told authorities. The day laborer, who has a history of arrests and drug problems, said he had smoked PCP that day.
Blanco Garcia feared that Pham would call the police, he told investigators, so he grabbed a butcher knife from his backpack. With his 1-year-old daughter nearby, he plunged the knife into Pham. She cried. He stabbed her again and again — an autopsy showed a total of 13 times.
The car lurched out of control and landed on its side in a ditch off Arlington Boulevard, according to a police report. Blanco Garcia said he clambered out of the sunroof, snatched his daughter and ran. Pham was left to die.
Blanco Garcia said he used a baby wipe to clean the blood off his hands.
“Vanessa didn’t do anything wrong,” a detective wrote, paraphrasing what Blanco Garcia, then 27, told police after his arrest.
That account, pieced together from more than 1,600 pages of documents quietly filed by Fairfax County prosecutors in the run-up to Blanco Garcia’s Aug. 19 trial, provides answers in one of the area’s highest-profile and mysterious killings in recent years.
The police reports, autopsy findings and interrogation summaries, rarely made public before trial, reveal for the first time how Blanco Garcia encountered Pham, a motive in the 19-year-old’s slaying and how a break in the case involving champagne bottles led police to an arrest after 21 / 2 years.
The extraordinary window into the hunt for a killer has also touched off controversy. Blanco Garcia’s attorneys asked that the case be dismissed, saying in court papers that prosecutors have tainted their client’s ability to receive a fair trial by releasing nearly all of the evidence in the case before a jury is selected.
But at a hearing Thursday morning, Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Jane Marum Roush rejected defense attorney David Bernhard’s motion.
Prosecutors have declined to comment but said in filings that they disclosed the evidence because they wanted the court file to accurately reflect all the information provided to the defendant.
Blanco Garcia has not entered a plea.
Bernhard has declined to comment on the case but said in court papers that his client sought a ride to the hospital because he was suffering from “severe PCP intoxication.” Blanco Garcia was hallucinating, according to the court papers, and thought Pham was going to harm his daughter when she made the wrong turn.
The chance encounter in the parking lot of the Fairfax Plaza Shopping Center on June 27, 2010, bound together two lives in tragedy — one that was beginning to take off and another that was unraveling.
Pham’s day started on a high note. Aaron Apsley, her first serious boyfriend, texted “good morning” and told her that he planned to travel from Ohio to visit her in two days, phone records show.
Pham, who wanted to be a fashion designer, had finished her first year at Savannah College of Art and Design and was back at the Falls Church apartment she shared with her mother. The summer stretched out before her.
“I remember thinking she was really blossoming,” said Julene Latter, a friend of Pham’s.
Blanco Garcia began his day very differently. He told authorities that he traveled to the District with his daughter to buy $400 worth of PCP from a dealer before returning to the Falls Church apartment where he lived with his mother and brother.
The buy came after years of substance abuse and a handful of arrests, including one after he allegedly brandished a knife at security guards, court papers say. He later told authorities that he wanted to use the knife to kill himself.
On the afternoon of June 27, Pham got a call from a Great Falls family offering her a summer job as a nanny, according to a police report. Blanco Garcia told authorities that he dipped three cigarettes in liquid PCP, smoked them and headed to the Fairfax Plaza Shopping Center.
Pham was on her way there, too, arriving about 2:45 p.m. to have her eyebrows done, according to a police report. She texted Apsley to say they would talk that night.
As Pham left the JD Nail Salon, Blanco Garcia approached her in the parking lot, he told authorities. Surveillance video later released by police shows Pham’s white Scion slowly maneuvering through the lot and then leaving.
Pham cheerfully updated her Facebook page about the same time: “Call me Fran Drescher. I’m a nanny!” About 3:15 p.m., Apsley texted back to confirm that they would talk that night. Pham would be dead within minutes.
A driver spotted Pham’s car in the ravine less than a half-mile from the shopping center at 3:34 p.m. and alerted authorities. Police found a terrible scene when they arrived.
Pham was still belted into the driver’s seat, but she was slumped across the center console, according to a police report. She was covered in blood. One wheel of the car was still spinning.
The investigation by Fairfax County police got off to a promising start. The blade of the knife used to kill Pham was found under the driver’s seat and had a fingerprint on it, according to a police report. More prints were lifted from the car’s exterior.
Investigators were also able to pull DNA evidence from the knife. In addition, they had clues that the killing was not simply a robbery gone wrong: Pham’s purse was untouched. A baby bottle was tucked into a map holder.
Despite the evidence, detectives hit a brick wall. DNA and fingerprint evidence produced no matches in the following months, and a canvass of the shopping center and area where Pham’s car was found produced no leads.
Interviews with Pham’s friends and family turned up no reason to suspect that the young woman whom friends described as popular and outgoing had any enemies or was in trouble.
Detectives had no suspects.
Apsley, Pham’s boyfriend, still made the trip to Virginia, but it was for her funeral not a reunion. He said at a vigil that Pham taught him “how to love and be loved.” He didn’t want to comment for this article, his father said, because Pham’s death was too painful. Pham’s family did not respond to requests for comment.
In the weeks that followed, Pham’s story drew intense local media coverage and was featured on the “America’s Most Wanted” Web site, resulting in a flurry of tips that investigators explored in the months after her death.
Some told police to look at a homeless camp near the shopping center. Others saw a suspicious man hitting on women in the area. A medium offered her visions about the case. All turned out to be dead ends.
Records show detectives collected fingerprints and DNA from dozens of people — including Pham’s friends, local sex offenders and homeless people who frequented the area — to test against those collected at the murder scene. They found no matches.
As the investigation ground on, 21 / 2 years passed. Authorities seemed no closer to an arrest. Then on Dec. 10, 2012, they got a huge break. An official from a regional fingerprint database called a Fairfax County detective to say there was a match on the prints collected at the scene.
“[Blanco Garcia] was arrested in April for larceny of champagne. Imagine that!!” Fairfax County police detective Robert Bond wrote in an e-mail the same day.
Blanco Garcia had stolen three bottles of Moet & Chandon from a Giant Food store in McLean, court records show. Police took his fingerprints after his conviction.
Three days after the fingerprint match, Blanco Garcia was arrested at a job site in Vienna. He told authorities that he never told anyone about the killing. A search of his computer revealed that he appeared to track the progress of the investigation online.
His DNA matched that found at the scene, according to court records.
Latter said that Pham’s circle of friends have graduated from college and scattered around the country, but 10 of them came together to mark the three-year anniversary of her death by visiting her grave and a memorial bench in Vienna recently.
“We were typical teenagers really,” Latter said. “It was so unbelievable. Having a case and a trial coming makes it more believable.”