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O.C. Man Charged in Hooker's Death

Teen victim was part of the Montessori family. Suspect is also accused of unrelated rapes.

December 09, 2005|Susana Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

A 20-year-old Garden Grove man was charged Thursday with murder in the 2004 slaying of a 15-year-old prostitute who was a descendant of the founder of the Montessori schools.

Jonathan Phong Khanh Tran, a car salesman at Nissan of Buena Park, was also charged Thursday with sexually assaulting two other young prostitutes.

He is accused of picking up Hanna Denise Montessori in his truck Jan. 19, 2004, near Harbor Boulevard and 5th Street in Santa Ana and dumping her body in a neighborhood, according to a news release from the Orange County district attorney's office. She was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead from head injuries.

A witness who heard a thump as a truck drove by found her bleeding profusely from the head, the release said.

Police say Tran picked up two other prostitutes in the same area -- an 18-year-old four days earlier and a 17-year-old the month before -- and drove them to Garden Grove and Anaheim, stole their money and raped them at gunpoint, the news release said.

Tran is also accused of picking up a 16-year-old prostitute last September and forcing her to perform oral sex after he flashed a badge and threatened to arrest her if she didn't comply, she said.

Police investigators came across the teens, who had not reported the alleged crimes, during their investigation of Hanna's killing, said Sgt. Lorenzo Carrillo, a spokesman for the Santa Ana Police Department. Tran became the main suspect early in the investigation because the way the crimes were committed had similarities to the homicide, he said.

Tran, who appeared in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana, already was in jail after being charged with raping the 17-year-old.

His attorney, Richard Wynn, said before the hearing, "There is no homicide in this case," but declined to elaborate.

Hanna, a runaway from Georgia, was identified nearly three months after her body was found.

She was the great-great-granddaughter of Maria Montessori, an Italian educator who founded the Montessori method of teaching, which stresses that children learn at their own pace.

Hanna's grandmother, Anne Montessori, said the family was relieved to hear that someone had been charged in the case.

"It's been devastating for the family," she said. "My son has not been the same since she was murdered. He still dreams about her."

Hanna's mother and father could not be reached Thursday.

Hanna's father, Phillip, said last year that she had started smoking and taking drugs after he and her mother separated when she was 11.

The girl was placed in a group home in Henry County, Ga., in August 2003 because of abuse in the home she shared with her mother, said a spokesman for the Division of Families and Children Services in Georgia in 2004.

She ran away a week later but was found in two days and placed in another group home. She ran away again a month later.

In December 2003, she was cited for loitering in Los Angeles.

She was dead a month later.

Jeff Chi, the sales manager at the car dealership where Tran worked for almost a year, said he was shocked at the nature of the crimes Tran was charged with.

"He seemed to be a good kid," he said. "He didn't seem like that kind of kid at all."

Tran called him about a month ago and said he was in jail, Chi said.

"I didn't know if he was gone for a long time or if he would be back in a month or two," he said.

Tran, who is being held at Orange County Jail on $1-million bail, could face 55 years to life in prison if convicted of all the charges, the release said. His arraignment is scheduled for Dec. 21.

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