The ‘Freak Accident’ Murder
Police files tell back story of Montessori killing investigation
A tall, lanky, intellectually gifted immigrant with impeccable manners and a face that oozed warmth, 21-year-old Jonathan Tran wasn’t too unlike many others his age in 2005. He worked at an auto dealership, where he was considered the most naive salesman on the lot because, recalled a co-worker, he “believed everybody was good and honest.” Tran took classes for a marketing degree at Cypress College. He occasionally partied with stimulants: booze, marijuana, LSD and Ecstasy. But his real passions included cars, nighttime fishing trips to Newport Beach, a desire for a successful career, his girlfriend and especially Linh Tran, his mother who brought him from Vietnam when he was an infant. Their relationship hadn’t always been smooth—mostly because of a strict stepfather, but in recent years, he doted on her, bought her gifts and often told her how much he loved her. Odd, then, that Tran’s other hidden passion involved brutalizing a series of women, leaving one dead.
It’s old news that 15-year-old Georgia runaway turned Southern California prostitute Hanna Montessori died from a skull fracture during her illicit 2004 rendezvous with Tran. He also raped and robbed at gunpoint four other teenage hookers he’d picked up on a seedy section of Harbor Boulevard. Late last month, an Orange County judge sentenced Tran to prison for a term of 63 years to life, the maximum punishment available.
But based on a series of interviews and exclusive access to law-enforcement files, the Weekly now knows Tran’s version of the Montessori killing, about his struggle to quell violent sexual dreams and how overzealous police nearly botched the case.
For 14 months, Santa Ana police hunted down Montessori’s killer. Leads came sporadically, mostly from prostitutes after they’d been arrested and wanted to curry favors for their own cases. Those tips plus good detective work piecing together tiny clues eventually led to Tran as the prime suspect. On March 22, 2005, investigators Jaime Rodriguez and Mel Sarabia showed up at his job at Buena Park Nissan for a good-cop/bad-cop routine straight out of a 1950s TV show. Remarkably, the investigators failed to give Tran a Miranda warning and ignored the 31 times he invoked his constitutional rights not to speak and to have a lawyer present, transcripts show.
Though improperly obtained and, thus, excluded from the jury during a 2007 trial, the interview was not only a confession of sorts, but also an informational gold mine. Rodriguez and Sarabia enticed Tran into admitting that he had wild sexual fantasies—sometimes triggered merely by the sight of a female wearing a skirt. The mental images drove him to use Santa Ana prostitutes nearly two dozen times within a year. He also volunteered that he felt intense remorse because he loved and wanted to marry his longtime girlfriend.
“I really just have been trying to straighten it out, and I mean, I do see that I had a problem,” he said. “I really do feel guilty, though, and I am trying to fix it. . . . I go to church a lot, and I don’t know what to tell you guys . . . It disgusts me, too.”
The investigators told Tran they sympathized with him, and he relaxed, apparently believing their questions focused solely on prostitution, not a death.
“You guys don’t know how bad this past year has been,” he said. “It’s just been horrible.”
He told the cops his worries had caused him to visit a lawyer, who cautioned him not to talk to the police without legal representation present. The advice loomed in Tran’s mind throughout the interrogation. Between the seventh and eighth times he asked to call his lawyer, the cops displayed a photograph of Montessori. The girl was related to the Italian founder of the famed Montessori schools, yet she wore a “P” necklace, an ominous sign that she worked for “Pepper,” a violent, 28-year-old pimp with ties to the Los Angeles-based Crips criminal street gang.
One cop asked, “You ever pick her up?” A startled Tran immediately said yes and asked, “Did she die?” The cops wouldn’t say. Was Tran genuinely in the dark about what had been in the news for months? He stared at them and said, “I’m gonna throw up.”
Rodriguez then baited Tran, asserting falsely that he knew Montessori had been pushed from his moving Nissan pickup truck after sex.
“I didn’t push her,” he said, noting honestly there had been no time for sex. “She jumped out. Like, I was grabbing my wallet, and she saw the knife [in the glove box]. She just freaked out. She said, ‘What are you doing?’ and I closed it back up, and she opened the door, and I was, like, ‘Hold on,’ and then, uh, I didn’t touch her at all. Then she jumped out. She looked like she was really screwed up, like she was really high. I’m not trying to blame anyone for this, but, like, I mean . . . ’cause I’m ashamed of it, and it’s a horrible thing, you know?”
The incident was, he said, “a freak accident.”
Autopsy records reviewed by the Weekly show that Montessori was indeed high on marijuana at the time she fell to her death on a Santa Ana cul-de-sac known as a favorite spot for prostitutes to take their customers. It had been dark, but a nearby resident heard a loud thump and saw a man race off in a pickup truck. “I was really, really scared,” Tran recalled for the cops.
Rodriguez said, “It’s tearing you up. I can see it.”
“Like, I went to church,” replied Tran, who had attended an East Coast prep school. “You know how it feels when God doesn’t love you anymore?”
Confessing secrets seemed to restore Tran’s charm. He floated the idea that perhaps he’d committed a misdemeanor based on his use of hookers. He also wondered aloud if they planned to arrest him. “Nice to meet you guys, by the way,” he told the investigators 40 minutes into the interrogation. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” said Rodriguez.
“Like, I mean, is she still alive? I guess she’s still alive. It’s really bothering me.”
“She died because of me?”
“Why are you covering your face and sobbing?”
“I’m sorry,” said Tran. “Just give me a minute.”
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• 'I Want the White Girl' (March 8, 2007)
• 'Nicest Killer I've Ever Met' (March 22, 2007)