After nearly two years, a Montessori murder arrest

A pattern of alleged attacks on young prostitutes led California authorities to file murder charges last week in the death of Hanna Montessori. The case of the Georgia runaway, who was the great-great-granddaughter of the founder of the Montessori teaching method, exposed holes in the way Georgia's child welfare agency handles runaways. It was the subject of a two-part story, "Losing Hanna," published in CL this summer.

On Dec. 8, nearly two years after Montessori's death, Orange County, Calif., authorities charged 20-year-old car salesman Jonathan Tran with the teenager's murder, as well as with the sexual assault of three other teenage prostitutes.

Tran allegedly picked up Montessori and the other women, whose names have been withheld, on the same stretch of Harbor Boulevard in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Ana — a half-mile from where Montessori's body was found.

"We have four girls, all prostitutes, all picked up at the same location, and the information is that Mr. Tran was the one that picked them up," says Orange County Deputy District Attorney Susan Kang Schroeder. "And one of them is dead."

In August 2003, the Georgia Department of Family and Children Services removed Montessori from her mother's Stockbridge home. Montessori twice ran away from state-contracted group homes, causing family members to claim DFACS did less to protect the 15-year-old than her own kin could have.

Montessori was arrested for prostitution in Los Angeles in December 2003. But police let her go because they couldn't identify her: Georgia had failed to list her as a runaway in a national missing children's database.

About three weeks later, her near-lifeless body was dumped on a quiet Santa Ana street. A neighbor told CL he witnessed her being pushed from the cab of a dark-colored truck, which turned around in the cul-de-sac and took off. She died from severe head injuries that night at a local hospital.

Her body lay unidentified in a California morgue for three months before her family — who'd been pushing for her information to be added to the missing children's database — learned she'd been killed.

Schroeder says Tran was the unnamed suspect arrested in March 2005 in connection to Montessori's death. At the time, the district attorney's office ruled there wasn't enough information to prosecute. Tran was let go.

Over the past several months, authorities gathered evidence of allegedly similar attacks taking place in December 2003, January 2004 (just four days before Montessori was killed) and September 2005, according to Schroeder. In the most recent incident, police allege Tran posed as a police officer and told the woman he wouldn't arrest her if she performed oral sex on him.

"Obviously, these are the type of women and type of victims that would not necessarily want to come to the police," Schroeder says. "And oftentimes, these victims are preyed upon just for that reason."

Tran's attorney, Richard Wynn, says the prosecution's allegations "may not be supported with evidence."

"Our client's and his family's prayers are with [Montessori] and her family. We lost one young person's life, and we don't want to lose another," Wynn says. "Everyone is deserving of a fair trial. We don't want the loss of two young lives over something that is not there."

Wynn says he's sifting through 400-plus pages of documents and will soon review audiotapes of the interviews with the other three alleged victims to clear Tran of his charges.

Montessori's grandmother, Maxine Coffland, says that while the family is relieved to hear of the arrest, questions about Montessori's death remain.

Coffland says her daughter, Montessori's mother, is considering suing DFACS. The family also wants to improve the state's system for tracking runaways by pushing for legislation mandating that information be given to all the applicable missing children's databases. Coffland describes the system as an "Amber Alert" for runaways. She wants it to be called "Hanna's Hope."

"To me, [the arrest] is still not really closure. It will never really, really be closed," Coffland says. She claims that had DFACS handled Montessori's case differently, "she probably would have been found earlier, and alive."

On the web: To read more about Montessori's case, visit atlanta.creativeloafing.com/hanna/ and atlanta.creativeloafing.com/hanna2/.

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