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Anatomy Of A Murder: Westerfield vs. Van Dams (A Mother's Story)
San Diego Online ^ | June 27, 2002 | Kevin Cox

Posted on 06/27/2002 6:47:45 AM PDT by FresnoDA

Anatomy of a Murder
The disappearance of Danielle van Dam was a shocking tragedy that ballooned into more than just a murder case. The parents’ lifestyle—and actions by police, media, lawyers and the district attorney—came into question. As the legal team for defendant David Westerfield begins the fight for his life, here’s a no-holds-barred look behind the scenes of San Diego’s biggest story of 2002.
By Kevin Cox

Amid the superstores and strip malls that pass for community in the suburbs of San Diego, some small-town traditions remain. Parents still come out to watch their kids play Little League baseball, just like their parents did.

There’s sunshine and sunflower seeds. Dirt and grass.

But in the Carmel Mountain Ranch Little League, grass is a touchy subject this season. Parents have admitted smoking it, and one of them says a coach supplied it.

Grass. Marijuana, that is.

The coach is Rich Brady (not the well-known San Diego clothier with the same name). Some wanted Brady to resign, but others involved with his team threatened to pull their children out of the league if he left, according to a league official. Brady declined comment on the subject. The dispute went all the way to Little League headquarters in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

The Carmel Mountain Ranch league was covering its bases, according to the league official. “The general consensus from everyone involved is unless the man is charged with something, and his performance on the field is affected by choices in his personal life, at this point there are no grounds to remove him,” the official says.

Rich Brady is still coaching, but “It’s one of those situations where we wish he would go away quietly,” says another coach.

And who is the parent who says Brady supplied marijuana?

Brenda van Dam.

The disappearance of her 7-year-old daughter, Danielle, set off a San Onofre–size chain reaction in San Diego on February 2. Three days later, Brenda and her husband, Damon, were on national television, pleading for Danielle’s return. They kept making pleas in daily news conferences before dozens of reporters and photographers outside their Sabre Springs home—with the man suspected of abducting their daughter just two doors away.

Police quickly focused on the neighbor, David Westerfield, as thousands of volunteers kept searching for Danielle. Twenty days after she disappeared, the cops arrested Westerfield, who pleaded not guilty to murdering her. It took five more days for searchers to find Danielle’s body, under a tree by a road in East County.

Westerfield’s murder trial—he faces the death penalty—was scheduled to start May 17. A judge imposed a gag order on most of the trial participants—including the van Dams, the police and the district attorney. San Diego Magazine offered each a chance to comment for this story. They either declined, citing the gag order, or did not respond.

The van Dams

Despite the reluctance of many in the media to explore the van Dams’ lifestyle choices, one thing is clear: The question of lifestyle—both the Van Dams’ and that of their neighbor, David Westerfield—is very likely to be a central issue in Westerfield’s murder trial. And it will be impossible for the media to ignore.

Looking back, Brenda van Dam called it a girls’ night out. That’s how she described an evening of drinking and dancing with her two girlfriends, on the same night her daughter disappeared. Brenda offered the following version of events that evening:

The three women met two men at a bar. Brady was one of them. They went back to the van Dam house about 2 a.m. Damon van Dam, who had remained home with Danielle and her two brothers, joined the group to eat leftover pizza. The pizza party broke up around 3 a.m., and the van Dams went to bed.

Later that morning, about 9 a.m., the van Dams discovered their daughter was missing.

In the days following Danielle’s disappearance, allegations about her parents’ lifestyle began to emerge. There was talk of spouse-swapping and drug use by the van Dams. It had the makings of a public relations nightmare.

“At that time, attention was starting to get diverted to allegations of family lifestyle,” says a spokeswoman for Fleishman Hillard, an international public relations and communications firm. A week after Danielle disappeared, four employees from the firm’s San Diego office started working with the van Dams as unpaid volunteers.

The spokeswoman says the van Dams needed help also because of the “news crush”—the sheer number of reporters now working the story—“and the fear other news [stories] would begin to override” the search for Danielle. “At that point, there was still a child missing,” she says. “That was the concern.”

The Fleishman Hillard employees worked with the van Dams for eight days, but the spokeswoman says the pair didn’t need any coaching. “In the media, there was a lot of second-guessing, a lot of speculation that the van Dams were heavily media trained. Frankly, that’s not true. They knew what they wanted to say; they knew where they wanted the attention to stay focused. We just helped them along.”

The spokeswoman has nothing but praise for the van Dams—as people and as parents. “I don’t know that I could have been that strong. I think their strength came from the belief they were doing the right thing in trying to find their daughter. I don’t think many people would have been as brave as the van Dams,” she says. “They were so selfless ... putting themselves through public scrutiny. They proved themselves to be ... good parents [who] do everything they can for their children. That’s exactly what they did.”

The public saw another side of the van Dams during David Westerfield’s preliminary hearing in March. That’s when Brenda described a previous girls’ night out—on January 25, a week before Danielle disappeared. On that night, Brenda testified, she saw Westerfield at Dad’s, a restaurant and bar in Poway, and he bought her alcohol. But she said she couldn’t remember how many drinks she had.

A week later, on February 1, Brenda testified, she, her husband and her two girlfriends smoked marijuana in the van Dam garage. Then the three women went back to Dad’s for their second girls’ night out in eight days. Westerfield was back at the bar, too. Brenda testified she and her two girlfriends smoked marijuana again that night in the parking lot at Dad’s—marijuana supplied by Rich Brady, the Little League coach.

Brenda acknowledged she told police her two girlfriends were dancing in a sexually provocative manner, rubbing their bodies together. One of the girlfriends, identified as Barbara Easton, tried to grab Brenda’s breasts, according to the statement Brenda gave investigators.

Westerfield’s attorney, Steven Feldman, pressed Brenda about her relationship with Easton. “Would you characterize Barbara Easton as an intimate friend of yours?” Feldman asked.

“What do you mean by ‘intimate’?” Brenda said.

“Very close ... sexually very close,” Feldman said.

The prosecution objected, and the judge ruled Brenda did not have to answer the question.

When Brenda and her friends came back to the van Dam house on February 1, Easton went upstairs to see Damon van Dam. Under questioning from Westerfield’s attorney, Damon admitted he initially withheld information from police about what he did with Easton. When he did provide details, he acknowledged telling investigators that Easton got in bed with him. Later during the same hearing, he testified he and Easton kissed and he rubbed her back while he lay in bed—but she was on top of the covers.

The Media

Every few years, San Diego hits a lottery no one wants to win. Something really bad happens, and it makes national news. Heaven’s Gate. Santana High. Danielle van Dam.

She was reported missing at the start of the February ratings period, when TV stations measure audiences to determine advertising rates. There were no other big national stories in early February. There was no news from Afghanistan. The Olympics hadn’t started. Enron had already been imploding for a while.

“It’s a pretty sensational story,” says Mike Stutz, news director for KGTV (Channel 10). “It certainly generated tons of interest. We saw it in the numbers [ratings]. There were different approaches in terms of how the van Dams’ personal life was reported. We stayed away from getting into that, not knowing if it had anything to do with the actual crime itself.”

At an April 27 Society of Professional Journalists seminar, held on the campus of Point Loma Nazarene University to examine the van Dam coverage, Stutz and KNSD (Channel 7/39) news director Jim Sanders defended their decisions to not air information about the family’s lifestyle. Sanders says he confirmed lifestyle reports from two credible sources, but chose not to air the information “unless the police department told us it was relevant to the case.”

Stutz says ratings had nothing to do with way the story was covered. “[But] it’s nice to have ’em come along,” he says. “I didn’t approach it [as] ‘Okay, we gotta get a big number here, let’s have more Westerfield.’”

But there was a missing girl—wearing a choker and a 7-year-old’s smile.

The national networks had their angle. Grieving parents make great television, news professionals say. And those news pros believe the networks go easy on the lifestyle aspect. Shaking her head and looking down, Diane Sawyer seemed barely able to ask the question about the “rumors” when she interviewed the van Dams via satellite on Good Morning America.

The networks, according to insiders, don’t want to ruin their chances for any future access to the van Dams—such as that big sit-down interview—once the trial’s over. So they “make nice” with them, in the words of one producer who made a special trip to San Diego for that very reason.

The tabloids were in town as well, and they had their angle. Danielle was the new JonBenet Ramsey. The two had a lot in common. They were cute little girls, both from relatively affluent neighborhoods, and TV stations across the country played home video of them incessantly.

Who can forget the images of JonBenet performing in that cowboy outfit? And who can forget those images of Danielle playing to the camera, being a happy 7-year-old?

The tabloids played up the van Dams’ lifestyle, too. But the local media, with the exception of radio talk show host Rick Roberts, didn’t talk very much about that. Instead, they were making some bizarre comments about the case.

On the air, KUSI (Channel 51) reporter Paul Bloom said he was “not allowed to think about” certain aspects of the investigation. San Diego Magazine asked Bloom what he meant. “As a journalist,” he says, “I’m not allowed to speculate, or think that way at all.” Bloom adds he was happy with the way he covered the story. “Every day of the week there was a new rumor ... new speculation. There was no confirmation that it had anything to do with Danielle’s disappearance.”

Instead of questioning the van Dams’ lifestyle, the local media went with one of its favorite angles—fear. “[It’s] Polly Klaas redux,” KUSI’s John Soderman told viewers, referring to the Northern California girl abducted at home and murdered by a stranger in 1993.

The media didn’t know if that was the case. David Westerfield was no stranger to the van Dams. Brenda and her daughter even went to Westerfield’s house a few days before she disappeared—to sell Girl Scout cookies. Westerfield bought one box of Thin Mints from Danielle and her mother, according to her testimony in court. During that visit, Brenda testified that she asked to go inside Westerfield’s house to look at his remodeled kitchen, while Danielle went in the backyard to look at the pool.

Danielle van Dam wasn’t another Polly Klaas.

In an interview with San Diego Magazine, Soderman defends his Polly Klaas analogy. “Basically, if Westerfield did it, you still have somebody in your neighborhood who scooped up your child,” he says.

“I think [readers and viewers] were frightened needlessly,” says Dean Nelson, founder and director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University. “I’m not ready to demonize [the media], but I wish they were more skeptical.”

The media have a tough job, Nelson says, because they can’t be too skeptical, either. “Let’s say something else happened, and a warning could have served the public well ... Police say ‘Lock your doors,’ and the media say, ‘Oh, that’s bogus, they’re just buying time.’”

But the police were clearly buying time following Danielle’s disappearance, according to Nelson. “The police knew this was not a stranger,” he says. “I don’t fault the police department, because they knew that was going to be a temporary fear, because they knew who they wanted: ‘Now we can all breathe easier. Okay, it was somebody down the street, so I guess it wasn’t a stranger after all.’”

The Police

At 2:30 in the morning on February 5, homicide investigators from the San Diego Police Department are standing outside David Westerfield’s house, preparing to go inside and search it. Sergeant Bill Holmes is one of the cops.

“Sergeant Holmes, what are you doing here?” a reporter asks.

“We’re here to relieve robbery,” he says. Robbery detectives had also been assigned to Danielle’s case.

“At 2:30 in the morning? That’s some pretty high-priced talent.”

Holmes smiles. “That’s the way they want it,” he says.

Over the next several hours, Holmes and his crew search Westerfield’s house. It’s easy to track their progress. They take dozens of pictures before dawn, and the flash from the camera lights up the windows in each room.

“Sergeant Holmes, you weren’t here to relieve robbery,” the reporter says to him when he comes outside.

Holmes smiles again. “Well, we were. Kinda. Sorta.”

Police arranged to have search warrants in the case sealed by the court, so the media couldn’t find out what investigators took from Westerfield’s home. It was an extraordinary effort to keep the information confidential. And it was a spectacular failure.

Sources close to the investigation started talking about the van Dams’ lifestyle almost immediately. Then came reports of blood in Westerfield’s motor home, and child pornography on his computer.

The cops were furious, according to those same sources. The police department threatened to fire anyone who talked about the case. “They were after the leaks,” a source says.

Police acknowledge being angry over the leaks. “Yeah, we were pissed off,” says Steve Creighton, an assistant chief. But he says the leaks did not result in any large-scale internal investigation. “It’s not even a blip on the radar screen.”

Two police detectives, Michael Ott and Mark Keyser, made big news for the department when they arrested Westerfield. Then they made news again, in a rather embarrassing way. Ott and Keyser attempted to visit Westerfield in jail—without his attorney present. The police department reportedly reprimanded them.

Westerfield’s legal team started hammering Ott and Keyser, saying they had repeatedly violated Westerfield’s rights during the investigation. The lawyers released a memo from the district attorney’s office saying the two detectives made false statements during another murder investigation two years ago. Westerfield’s lawyers used that memo in a legal maneuver

to review the personnel files of Ott, Keyser and 10 other police officers involved in the case for any reports of misconduct during their careers. Judge William Mudd ruled the defense could have information from the file of one unidentified officer.

“I think it’s safe to say Ott and Keyser are the Mark Fuhrmans of the Westerfield trial,” says a court insider, referring to the rogue cop vilified by the defense in the O.J. Simpson case.

The pressure of such a high-profile investigation was getting to the cops. “The detectives are sick of it,” a source says. Others say there were even references to the case as “The Isle of the van Damned.”

Creighton says he had not heard the detectives were sick of the case. “But they’re tired,” he says. “It’s a long and involved case, with a lot of long hours.”

The San Diego Police Department continued to handle the case with the utmost of care. Chief David Bejarano himself went to the van Dams’ home to meet with the family when Danielle’s body was identified. Then he talked to reporters. But at a follow-up news conference downtown, it wasn’t the police chief running the show.

It was District Attorney Paul Pfingst, who is running for reelection.

The District Attorney

The timing was interesting. Just four days before the primary election, Pfingst appeared on live television, talking about one of the biggest developments in the case yet. He thanked the volunteers who worked so hard to find Danielle. He expressed the emotions felt by law enforcement and everyone else in San Diego over the murder of a 7-year-old girl.

Politicians live for moments such as this, especially politicians who have not been getting good media coverage. Pfingst’s opponents had been relentlessly criticizing him, pointing out ethical lapses and declining morale in his office. But all that was getting pushed aside by news about Danielle—delivered by the district attorney himself.

“He was doing it for one reason only—that is, for the election,” says Deputy District Attorney Dave Stutz, a longtime critic of Pfingst. “He was grandstanding and campaigning. He took advantage of free press during a campaign. Once again, it shows he makes his decisions based on politics.”

Citing the gag order imposed on everyone involved with David Westerfield’s trial, a spokeswoman in the district attorney’s office says Pfingst won’t comment—not even to deny Stutz’ accusations. But Pfingst’s former spokeswoman, Gayle Falkenthal, comes to his defense.

“I can’t believe anyone in their right mind would think that Paul Pfingst wished this case into being, just for an election,” says Falkenthal, now the vice president of marketing and communications for the San Diego Convention Center Corporation. Because charges had already been filed against Westerfield, she says, the district attorney’s office was in charge of the case —not the police. So it was appropriate for Pfingst to take over the news conference, according to Falkenthal.

“In my opinion, if the district attorney had really wanted to grandstand, he could have handled [Westerfield’s] arraignment himself, he could have been at the courthouse every day, he could have been at the parents’ home,” she says. “He didn’t do any of that. There were lots of opportunities. He didn’t do any of them.”

Pfingst is in a runoff in November with the runner-up in the primary, Superior Court Judge Bonnie Dumanis. Westerfield’s trial may be a factor in the election.

It’s heavy stuff. Careers could be on the line. Reputations may be damaged. Lives have been changed forever. Those are the big themes, playing out before a national audience.

But the case also shows up in small ways, in everyday conversation in Sabre Springs, where Danielle lived. A neighbor tells a story about planning a party. He calls to invite his friends who live in other parts of the city. “What kind of party?” they ask. “A wife-swapping party?”

His neighborhood now has a new nickname: Sabre Swings.

Undeserved or not, such has been the fallout. But is the van Dams’ lifestyle relevant in the Westerfield trial? That’s a question that was finally left for a judge to decide. 


TOPICS: Crime/Corruption; News/Current Events; US: California
KEYWORDS: vandam; westerfield
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To: FresnoDA
Fres, I just noticed you posted this. :)

Oh well ...

161 posted on 06/27/2002 3:42:09 PM PDT by BunnySlippers
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To: sbnsd
Congratulations on the perfect post - it is so good it needs to be posted again.

"Here's what Dusek said in his opening statement:


I haven't seen any *SHOWING* of any of this. I know opening statements aren't facts, but it's an introductory outline of what he's going to be doing. I don't think he showed any of these. He showed stuff AFTER the abduction, but what he claimed he was going to show didn't happen.

My order of questions for his statements are:

How did DW sneak in?

How did he get upstairs?

How did he get her out of the house?

How did that happen?

How did they kill/murder her?

How did he dump her body?

I don't think I really saw any answers to any what he claimed to do.


162 posted on 06/27/2002 3:45:16 PM PDT by mommya
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Comment #163 Removed by Moderator

To: All
I asked for my replies to be removed.. see ya
164 posted on 06/27/2002 3:51:16 PM PDT by Freedom2specul8
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To: cyncooper
Thank you. I was using my notes from the court testimony.
165 posted on 06/27/2002 3:53:50 PM PDT by shezza
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Comment #166 Removed by Moderator

To: spectre
Mistrial? I think we are headed in that direction. The only thing I enjoy about CTV is Dominick Dunne's new crime program on Wednesday nights. It's the BEST!

Mistrial? I've been at the office all day ... is it about the sequestration issue?

I wish my cable company would carry CourtTV. I miss it!

167 posted on 06/27/2002 3:57:45 PM PDT by BunnySlippers
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To: spectre
Everyone knows who's done what Spec... trust me....
168 posted on 06/27/2002 3:58:53 PM PDT by Freedom2specul8
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To: spectre
You would be surprised at how many of us have "stayed away" because of episodes like this.

I know that I quit posting to these threads some time ago because of the outright sillyness that they seem to spawn. I thought that adults could handle debate and opposing views without having to resort to "flame wars".

169 posted on 06/27/2002 3:59:41 PM PDT by CAPPSMADNESS
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To: FresnoDA
Ms. Westerfield first discovered her son had been arrested as a suspect in the van Dam kidnapping from television news reports, though she claims she had a premonition something was happening with her son the night Danielle went missing.

Hmmm ...

170 posted on 06/27/2002 4:03:34 PM PDT by BunnySlippers
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To: mommya; sbnsd
Adding to your questions:

How did he get her into his house?

When did he take her out of his house and how?

Was she alive when he took her out of his house?

If she was alive in the MH on his journeys, why did he go to so many populated areas?

Where was she when he went back to the neighborhood on 2/2 in the MH?

171 posted on 06/27/2002 4:06:49 PM PDT by Rheo
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To: shezza
You and Rheo have been great note takers. The motion wasn't in testimony so you wouldn't have heard it. I was reading the article and saw the reference then, so that's all I know about it.

Thanks for the notes so we can all follow along.

172 posted on 06/27/2002 4:14:37 PM PDT by cyncooper
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To: Rheo
....then why was DW prosecuted to begin with as they had the report also??

Because they had already stuck their collective heads in the noose. The DA had jumped onto a high profile case to benefit his re-election. The LE's got a tip (Brenda) and it looked like it could pan out. They thought some of his behavior/activity was suspicious, and that there was some possible evidence. SO, they jumped in totally. They were under pressure to find someone and quick, so they did. Then they were under pressure to make sure it stuck, no matter what. They couldn't back out, even if they wanted to.

173 posted on 06/27/2002 4:23:57 PM PDT by UCANSEE2
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To: FresnoDA
I'm sorry, I cannot bare to wade through the many uploading pages of this thread, but I have 1 single question to ask of all the "former federal prosecutors turned 'commentators' currently plying thir schtick on our local news/court outlets: why is it OK to demand that the police check out all of the people who have had any access at all to the Smart household (i.e.,handymen, real estate folks, milkmen, you name it), but it's NOT OK to tell the VanDam jury about all the strangers of shockingly questionable credentials that this nutty couple trolled for at sleazy bars in the middle of the night & invited into their home for group sex? What's the difference? (Warning: if I ever see that repulsive freak Nancy Grace again, I'm not responsible for the damage I do to this thread.)
174 posted on 06/27/2002 4:29:27 PM PDT by leilani
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To: spectre
Interesting the Prosecution has not given it's theory how DW is supposed to have entered the house, kidnapped Danielle and disposed of the body?

They will tie it all together in closing statements. Dominic Dunne (I'll try to catch his show on Wed. nights) said the closing in the Skakel trial was brilliant.

The prosecution presented the evidence at trial, but nothing really stood out as the actual testimony was given. Then at closing the prosecutor wove the evidence together to tell the story. That is what I am anticipating here. They may or may not pull it off here as the team did in the other case.

(Of course, I think there are several items of evidence in this case that already stand out, but the gist is the pulling together that I'm getting at)

175 posted on 06/27/2002 4:32:42 PM PDT by cyncooper
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To: leilani
Oops. "I cannot bare?" Yeah, well that too. Actually, I cannot bear much of anything about cable FFP commentators who are inconsistent about their "legal" opinions.
176 posted on 06/27/2002 4:33:37 PM PDT by leilani
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To: leilani
why is it OK to demand that the police check out all of the people who have had any access at all to the Smart household (i.e.,handymen, real estate folks, milkmen, you name it), but it's NOT OK to tell the VanDam jury about all the strangers of shockingly questionable credentials that this nutty couple trolled for at sleazy bars in the middle of the night & invited into their home for group sex? What's the difference

Because if someone is ever arrested in the Smart case and that person goes to a trial by jury, the evidence against the defendent will be presented and not the whole investigation of who they looked at and disgarded as suspects.

177 posted on 06/27/2002 4:37:50 PM PDT by cyncooper
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To: All
Earlier there was a post about Danielle taking a bath.

Something that would fit the evidence more closely would be this:

Damon and boys playing video games, Danielle writing.

Bedtime, all kids to bath,bed.

Damon goes up and Danielle has taken her clothes off, and put on her PJ's and is in bed,didn't take a bath. (you guess why)

Damon makes her get out of bed, take off her PJ's and march to the bathroom. She gets in tub and takes a bath.

NOW, there are 2 versions from this point on. One involves Damon reading something in Danielle's diary that makes him mad. The other is that he goes into the bathroom while Danielle is taking a bath, because he does this often, which is why Danielle didn't want to take a bath.

Regardless, Danielle is knocked down while in the tub, falls and maybe her teeth are knocked out. She hits her head hard enough to cause a fatal concussion, or Damon simply drowns her.

He wraps her up in a red sweater that is laying in the bathroom (Brenda's) and possibly an orange towel.

He takes her out to the van, and finds a place to dump her body.

This explains why she was naked, why the fibers. I know, another FAR OUT explanation. Since the VD's seem to be hiding something, and especially Damon has never acted like parents that lost their child (except when convenient) I find reason to try and come up with different scenarios that FIT the PUZZLE that this case has been.

Out of all the CRAZY FAR OUT scenarios that I have come up with, most of them make MORE SENSE than the current one proposed by the POLICE against DW.

And for those that keep asking "what about the blood on his jacket" , I already had a scenario for how that could have occurred. I believe I posted on yesterday's thread.

Funny again, how the police do not do any testing on anything that doesn't support DW as the perp. We heard about the BLUE PAINT, and it would appear there are several places this could have come from that would provide a lead, but as far as we know, the police DON'T WANT THAT LEAD. Why can I say this? Well, if the blue paint didn't mean anything, then I believe they would have said, "We checked that out, but it didn't lead anywhere." By the paint being evidence on the body, and not a word about by the Prosecution, it must mean they didn't attempt to do any analysis of it at all.

WHY should they. They have already convicted DW in their minds.

178 posted on 06/27/2002 4:45:31 PM PDT by UCANSEE2
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To: Pagey; discostu; Gurn
Pagey, yes, I do play a little teensy bit (though not bass, if you must know), or else why would I have even posted? Music posts are the only thing that keep me coming back to FR, for heaven sake!Tho I don't play B, I truly do believe that bass players (good ones) are the foundation of any decent band. I AM NOT denigrating Entwistle or minimizing him in any way. I am responding to all the folks posting who were essentially memorializing JE by citing the achievements of Pete T. That's all. Which is really, when you think about it, an INSULT to the dead. Like I said, keep it in perspective.
179 posted on 06/27/2002 4:48:55 PM PDT by leilani
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Something that would fit the evidence more closely would be this:

Not one bit of your proposed scenario fits the evidence.

180 posted on 06/27/2002 4:50:12 PM PDT by cyncooper
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