The Hanna Montessori Murder

By Dottie Laster

Whenever I see a Montessori school, my memories go back to my first days as leader of the Orange County California Human Trafficking Task Force. I was just three years into combating human trafficking and still learning the scope of its reach when I moved to Santa Anna, CA and led the Department of Justice funded task force.  One of our task force members was a homicide detective with Santa Anna Police Department. He took me to the site where 15 year old, Hanna Denise Montessori was murdered on January 19, 2004. It was a small street in a nice residential part of town, just off Harbor Blvd, which leads to Disneyland. When looking around, nothing would make you think that a child should have been murdered there. 

According to news stories, Hanna was the great granddaughter of Maria Montessori, the founder of the Montessori school system. Montessori opened her first school in 1907. The Montessori method emphasizes individual thinking.  Maria believed that children learn more from surroundings, peers and themselves than their teachers. 

Hanna’s father and mother divorced and soon after Hanna showed signs of rebellion. She went missing multiple times and was placed in a group home.  She was soon missing from the group home in Georgia. Hanna was murdered in Southern California on January 19, 2004. Hanna had been an unidentified body without a name for about 3-4 months. A flier and her photo were finally the keys that led to her being identified. With her identity, the detectives now had one of the first steps in solving her murder.

I landed in Orange County in 2006 during the series of trials. In December of 2005, Jonathan Phong Khanh Tran was arrested for her murder. I was tasked with training law enforcement on the issue of human trafficking by the Department of Justice. I dove into learning everything I could from Hanna’s case. I wanted to change our society, our media and law enforcement‘s understanding of her and others like her to be better understood and helped in meaningful ways that kept others from the same fate as Hanna. 

I read the news stories and titles like OC Man Charged in Hookers Death, and news stories that used the words runaway, working as a prostitute, in the most respected newspapers. It was hurtful to read.  They showed a complete lack of understanding of the tactics used by the sellers of commercial sex. The tactics that keep a supply for the never ending demand.

In fact we know that a 15 year old did not get herself from Georgia to Santa Ana, California. We know that she had a necklace that was a “brand” known to be used to identify her being owned by a pimp that operated in the area. Some news stories say he was a gang member. Prostitution is known to be a large source of income for gangs. Jonathan Tran aged 21 was charged with her murder, however the pimp who put her in harms way was never charged. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) states that a minor cannot consent to commercial sex. This means that anyone under 18 in commercial sex is a victim of sex trafficking.  All parties involved are responsible the same. So according to the TVPA, the pimp, who branded her with the necklace, is as responsible for her death as Tran. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act calls for up to the death penalty if someone dies (not just murdered but dies) due to the trafficking.  

Now in 2019, we still have some problems with understanding the red flags for trafficking and how to disrupt the traffickers grooming the victims and the environment around them so they can operate in plain sight. Since Hanna’s death the internet has exploded with the 2007 launch of the smart phone. Now predators have direct access to every child that has an internet connection. The apps have dissolving features and when parents take the devices away they do not understand that all their child has to do is have a place to log in- the device is irrelevant. No trace at all may be left when a sex trafficker targets a teen.

Here are a few red flags for sex trafficking that applied to Hanna and many other cases like hers-

  1. A systemic cutting of social ties/ getting in repeated trouble
  2. Going missing repeatedly
  3. False reports of abuse/sexual assault
  4. Movement across distances that are unexplained or extraordinary for their age
  5. Branding with jewelry, tattoos, or other identifiers
  6. Prostitution, stripping of pornography of a minor
  7. Becoming an unidentified body

There are many other indicators that you can see at, scroll down to the downloadable documents.

We can make commercial sex unacceptable in our society. We need to hold the buyers accountable to the extent that the law allows, not just misdemeanors, but all the way to capitol offences when they have provided the money that leads to the death of our child and adult victims.

Tran received a sentence of 63 years to life, for Hanna’s death. He was also charged with other crimes in addition to Hanna’s murder. The pimp was never charged nor were the recruiter or any other person that facilitated her exploitation. I believe we can change that and make sure that every adult involved shares the same fate as Tran. There is no statute of limitations.

Copyright 2019 by Dottie Laster. All Rights Reserved.

Dottie Laster is an expert on human trafficking in the United States. She has served victims for 16 years and developed Department of Justice funded human trafficking task forces in Houston and San Antonio, Texas and Orange County, California. She triggered the U.S.’s largest victim rescue in 2005 with 120 victims being rescued from commercial sex. She consults on human trafficking cases, serves as an expert witness in courts and national media. She is a co -founder of Paratus Investigations and Protection which specializes in human trafficking investigation and training.  They have classes registering now, see to learn more. Dottie may be reached through her web site at or at

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