Neighbour 'killed missing girl, 7'
BY DARRELL GILES in Los Angeles
A NEIGHBOUR has been charged with the murder of seven-year-old San Diego schoolgirl Danielle Van Dam even though her body has not been found.
David Westerfield, who turned 50 yesterday, also faced counts of kidnapping and possession of child pornography.
District Attorney Paul Pfingst filed a special circumstances attachment to the murder charge which means Westerfield faces execution if convicted. Danielle has been missing since February 1. Investigators believe Mr Westerfield abducted her from the bedroom of her parents' home and later killed her.
They revealed on Friday that DNA testing had uncovered traces of Danielle's blood on some of his clothing and in a campervan he took to the desert on February 2.
His fingerprints were also found in Danielle's bedroom.
"I must conclude that Danielle Van Dam is no longer living and was killed by her abductor," Mr Pfingst said outside court. The case has attracted national headlines in the US because Danielle's parents are "swingers" who belong to a partner-swapping club.
Reports said Brenda Van Dam was out with friends at a local pub on the night Danielle was taken.Her husband, Damon, was entertaining a friend at home.
The Van Dams have refused to talk about their sexual preferences, criticising the media for switching the focus away from the search for their child.
Westerfield has strenuously denied any involvement in Danielle's disappearance. But he has confirmed he was dancing and drinking with Mrs Van Dam at the pub on the night of February 1 and left before she did.
An extensive search that stretched from Mexico to the desert east of San Diego found no trace of Danielle.
Investigators became suspicious when he was the only neighbour of the Van Dams not present on February 2 for a wide search for Danielle.
It emerged he had gone camping and returned two days later.
The absence of a body creates a legal challenge, but the district attorney's office has successfully prosecuted four such cases, the most recent in August.
To try someone for murder without a body, prosecutors must establish a "reasonable probability" that the victim has died, said Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law in San Diego.
"It's nowhere near as hard as proving something beyond a reasonable doubt, but it's a lot more than just showing blood stains," Brooks said.
Westerfield, a divorced father of two grown children, has a 1996 conviction for drunken driving but no violent criminal history, police said.
San Diego Police Chief David Bejarano talks to NEWSWEEK about the latest developments in the Danielle van Dam case
Feb. 28 The Danielle van Dam case has reached a sad climax. Police tonight confirmed that a body found by volunteers in a trash-strewn area about 25 feet off a well-traveled road east of San Diego was indeed that of the 7-year-old kidnapped from her suburban bedroom three weeks ago.
WE HAVE CONFIRMED that in fact it is the body of Danielle van Dam, San Diego District Attorney Paul Pfingst said at a press conference on Thursday. The missing girl was identified by her dental records. Due to the decomposed state of the partially-burned body, police said they had not yet determined the cause of her death.
On Tuesdaya day before the body was foundDavid Westerfield, one of the childs neighbors, pleaded not guilty to murder with special circumstances, kidnapping and possession of child pornography. The murder charge means he could face the death penalty if he is convicted, but prosecutors say theyll decide later whether to ask for Westerfields execution.
San Diego Police Chief David Bejarano spoke to NEWSWEEKs Jamie Reno about the investigation shortly before the body was identified. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Where does the investigation currently stand?
David Bejarano: We are continuing to look at all the evidence in this case and are working with the medical examiner to identify the body. When the searchers first notified the Sheriffs Department that they had discovered a body [on Wednesday], the [department] then immediately contacted us, and we had out people at the scene within a few minutes. Our homicide investigators were there until past midnight last night, at which time we released the body to the medical examiners office.
With a body discovered and a suspect in custody, what role do police have at this point in the investigation?
This investigation is far from over, from our standpoint. Were still following up on approximately 500 tips we have received. Each tip has to be looked at. And we have more than 100 pieces of evidence we have to study. Theres still a lot of police work to be done.
Regarding the evidence, how much blood was found in David Westerfields recreational vehicle and on his clothing?
Small traces of blood were found. But thats about all I can say about the evidence at this time.
In the warrant to search Westerfields home, you were looking for very specific things, including child pornography. What led you to believe that Westerfield was in possession of such materials? Did you receive a tip from the van Dams or from someone else that he may have had child porn in his home?
We cant tell you why we were looking for pornography.
Is it common for police to list pornography on a search warrant in a child abduction case?
Yes, I think it is fair to say that in these kinds of child abduction cases, child pornography is commonly involved.
Have you yet recovered any evidence from the dry cleaners that Westerfield may have used for his bedding and clothing the weekend Danielle disappeared?
Again, we cant comment on the evidence at this time, Im sorry.
Why did Westerfield apparently go to the beach before heading to the desert on the weekend of Danielles disappearance?
We do believe he went to the Strand State Beach in Coronado first, then headed east to the desert area near Glamis, but we are not currently discussing any possible motives for his actions.
Would you say the location of the body on that road in Dehesa seems to be consistent with Westerfields actions and whereabouts that weekend?
That road isnt a direct route to the desert, but it certainly is an indirect route, a back way.
Do investigators have any idea yet why Westerfield would have committed such a crime? Can you comment at all on the rumors that Westerfield may have been turned down from what was said to be the van Dams swinger circle, or that he had been shunned by Brenda van Dam in the bar that night?
Were not discussing motive or rumors.
Is it true that investigators brought this case to the San Diego District Attorney twice and were told to go back and get more evidence?
We cant comment.
Can you tell me whether Westerfield had his recreational vehicle steam-cleaned and his clothes laundered after he returned from the desert?
We cant comment.
How about other aspects of the investigation, including all the materials removed from Westerfields house?
We cant comment.
How helpful were Westerfields cell phone records in this investigation?
In any investigation of this magnitude, cell phones are checked. Its a very common and effective tool these days to see who he was calling and from where he was calling.
Can you describe how this investigation was mapped out by police from the beginning?
I cant describe too many details because the investigation isnt over, but I will say that in my 23 years in law enforcement, I have rarely seen anything like this investigation. Its not unprecedented for police to have a 24-hour surveillance of a suspect. But it is very rare for police to have a 24-hour surveillance on a suspect for three straight weeks. Typically, in a long-term investigation, there are breaks along the way. There are days on and days off, as far as surveillance. This is one of the longest and largest continuing investigations I have been a part of, and it isnt over yet.
NEVER know? Why not, they've got their man, don't they?
Fresno, I thought I had read/heard, over and over again, husband VD was home with just the kids, ASLEEP, while mother VD was out?!!!! This is news to me.
1. The parents acted inattentively, inappropriately and negligently towards their children on the night of her disappearance.
I have been married for 30 years and have five daughters. My wife has never left me or the children to go drink and dance at a "roadhouse" ever. Every child was always personally tucked in bed and checked on every night. To do any less would have been to have acted negligently on their behalf.
2. The 'affect' of the parents has been highly unusual under the circumstances.
The father has never appeared distraught or even mildly anguished over his daughter's disappearance and murder. At times he seems to smirk with a callous smugness. The mother alternates between pseudo grief and a genuine love for notariety. They strike me as a most unusal couple and as a most unusual set of parents.
3. There seems to be significant differences in the stories told by the mother and the defendant.
Although I have little doubt of his guilt, the behaviour and suggestive background of the parents would appear to have negatively impacted the safety and security of their children. I believe there is a real concern here that a promiscuous lifestyle may have placed all their children at risk. 4. The defense may reveal a great deal more information about the parents at trial.