Murder of Danielle van Dam
Danielle Nicole van Dam (born September 22, 1994) was a seven-year-old girl from the Sabre Springs neighborhood of San Diego, California, who disappeared from her bedroom during the night of February 1–2, 2002. Her body was found by searchers February 27 in a remote area. Police suspected a neighbor, David Allan Westerfield. He was arrested, tried, and convicted of kidnapping and first-degree murder. He was sentenced to death and is currently incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison.
On the evening of Friday, February 1, 2002, Danielle van Dam's mother Brenda and two girlfriends went out to a bar. Danielle's father Damon stayed at home to look after Danielle and her two brothers. Damon put Danielle to bed around 10:30 p.m., and she fell asleep. Damon also slept until his wife returned home around 2:00 a.m. with four of her friends. Brenda noticed a light on the home’s security alarm system was flashing, and discovered that the side door to the garage was open. The six chatted for approximately a half hour, and then Brenda's friends went home. Damon and Brenda went to sleep thinking that their daughter was sleeping in her room. About an hour later, Damon awoke and noticed that an alarm light was flashing. He found the sliding glass door leading to the back yard open, so he closed it. The next morning, Danielle was missing. The couple frantically searched their home, but could not find her. They called the police at 9:39 a.m.
Danielle became the subject of one of the largest search efforts in state history, with hundreds of volunteers searching deserts, highways and remote areas for weeks. The Laura Recovery Center assisted in organizing the search, and a Danielle Recovery Center was set up in a real estate office in Poway to coordinate the searching. Finally on February 27 two of the searchers found her nude, partially decomposed body near a trail in Dehesa, California, an unincorporated town east of San Diego. The volunteers had chosen to search in that area, near Dehesa Road, because it was a possible route Westerfield could have taken to get to the desert. Because of the condition of the body, the coroner was unable to determine a cause of death and had to use dental records to confirm her identity.
Law enforcement officials interviewed the van Dams' neighbors that Saturday morning and discovered that Westerfield and another neighbor were not at home. Westerfield returned to his home at approximately 8 a.m. Monday morning. Westerfield (born February 25, 1952) was a 49-year-old self-employed engineer. He was a divorced father of two college students. He did not have a criminal record. He lived two houses away from the van Dams and owned a luxury motor home. About three days before Danielle's disappearance, Danielle and Brenda had sold Girl Scout cookies to Westerfield, who invited them into his home. Brenda asked to see his kitchen because she had noticed it was being remodeled when they had sold cookies to him the year before.
Westerfield fetched his motor home on Saturday morning, stocked it with supplies, and left home about 9:50 a.m. He drove first to Silver Strand State Beach; his presence there on Saturday morning was confirmed by two park rangers and other witnesses. Later he drove to the desert, where he got stuck in the sand on Sunday morning about a quarter mile off the road and needed help from a tow truck to get free.
Westerfield told police that he had driven around the desert and the beach in his motor home and stayed at a campground: this was confirmed by many witnesses, cell-phone records, gas receipts and credit card records. He said had intended going to the desert, but realized he had forgotten his wallet, so he drove to the beach instead. However, that afternoon he decided the weather was too cold, so he returned home to look for his wallet, after which he left for the desert.
On his way home on Monday morning, a sleepy-looking and bare-footed David Westerfield stopped at his regular dry cleaners and dropped off two comforters, two pillow covers, and a jacket that would later yield Danielle van Dam's blood. When law enforcement first interviewed Westerfield, he did not mention going to the dry cleaners.
From Monday morning on, Westerfield became the prime suspect. Law enforcement put him under 24-hour surveillance on February 4, noting that he had given his RV a cleaning when he returned from his trip, although it was normal for him to do so. His motorhome, SUV, and other property was impounded for testing on February 5.
Westerfield stated that he did not know where Danielle was, but said he had been at the same bar that Brenda had been to that Friday night. Brenda was confirmed this, but denied Westerfield's claim that they had danced together. However, two eyewitnesses testified to seeing them dance together and that Brenda was intoxicated. At the preliminary hearing in March, Brenda alternated between saying she didn’t dance with him, and didn’t remember doing so.
On February 22, police arrested Westerfield for Danielle's kidnapping after two small stains of her blood were found on his clothing and in his motor home. Danielle's severely decomposed body was found February 27. His attorneys suggested that the police were in a rush to solve the case and declined to consider other suspects.
Westerfield pleaded not guilty, and went on trial on June 4, 2002. During the trial, Westerfield's lawyers, Steven Feldman and Robert Boyce, suggested that child pornography found on Westerfield's computer was downloaded by Westerfield's son, Neal, who was 18 at the time of the murder. Neal denied this. Part of Westerfield's defense focused on the lifestyle of Danielle van Dam's parents. The defense suggested that the couple were known to have an open marriage, were "swingers," and smoked marijuana in their garage regularly. Westerfield's defense claimed that this lifestyle might have brought the kidnapper to their home. The van Dams’ side garage door had been opened to let out the marijuana smoke, and had not been locked afterwards, so the prosecutor speculated that this is how the kidnapper entered the home while Damon slept. Westerfield's lawyers also charged that he was unfairly interrogated for more than nine hours by detectives who ignored his repeated requests to call a lawyer, take a shower, eat, and sleep.
The trial lasted two months and concluded on August 8. This was a circumstantial case. In closing arguments, Feldman held up a blank poster, to point out that no evidence of Westerfield was found in the van Dam residence. Nor was any evidence presented - tire impressions, vegetation on his motor home, soil on his shoes - that he had been at the body dump site, and the foreign hair found under Danielle’s body was not his. On August 21, the jury found him guilty of kidnapping and first degree murder. He also received an additional misdemeanor charge for possessing sexual images of subjects under the age of 18 on his computer. Outrage ensued after the trial when evidence of prior plea talks (see below) surfaced in the media. Many people were concerned that Westerfield's attorneys misled the jury by fabricating the "unknown kidnapper scenario" when they clearly knew their client was involved in the crime because he knew the location of the body.
The science of entomology was a major focus during the trial. Three entomologists were consulted by the defense, and all testified that flies first laid eggs on Danielle's body sometime in mid-February, long after Westerfield was under police surveillance. However, cross-examination by the prosecution demonstrated a lack of consensus among the entomologists on several fronts. Entomologist David Faulkner conceded that his time estimate was based mostly on the fly larvae (but the absence of beetle grubs further supported his conclusion about the post-mortem interval), and that his research could not determine the maximum amount of time Danielle's body was outside and subject to decomposition. Entomologist Neal Haskell used a weather chart prepared by forensic artist James Gripp, stating that the warm temperatures made it likely that insects immediately colonized Danielle's corpse. The third entomologist, Dr. Robert Hall, estimated that initial insect infestation occurred between February 12 and February 23, but acknowledged that the insect infestation of the corpse wasn't "typical" because so few maggots were found in the skull. The prosecution brought in a fourth entomologist, Dr. Madison Lee Goff, who testified that the infestation may have occurred between February 9 and February 14, but stressed that other factors may have delayed insect arrival. He explained that a covering such as a blanket might have initially kept flies at bay; however no covering was found, and Goff contended that the longest delay by such a shroud would be two and a half days.
Some of the computers and loose computer media in Westerfield's office contained pornography, although his attorneys argued that the police originally reported not finding child pornography. According to the prosecution computer expert, James Watkins, 100,000 images were found, including 8,000 to 10,000 nude images and 80 that could be considered child pornography. The materials included brief movie clips that featured an underage girl being raped by one man while another man restrained her. These clips, including the sound of the girl struggling, were played in the courtroom. In all, two sets of movie clips, six animated cartoons, and 13 still images taken from computers, zip disks, or CD-Roms in David Westerfield's home were shown, each featuring underage girls. However, under cross-examination, Watkins acknowledged that some of the photos could have been of adult females who looked younger than their ages.
There are conflicting media reports on this case: they conflict with each other or with court documents. For example, media reports of the rape movie clips disagreed whether they depicted just one victim or more than one, and gave widely varying estimates of her age, ranging from just "7" to "11 or 12" to "teens", whereas the prosecutor stated that she may have merely been "dressed to look like a young female", in other words she may have been 18 or older. The media reported that "There was so much bleach in the motor home that it severely affected the search dogs' ability to smell for a body scent", yet the first detective to enter that vehicle testified that there was no smell of cleaning products in it. One Court TV report stated that, according to police criminalist Melvyn Kong, none of the fibers found in Danielle's bedding "and home" matched the orange acrylic fiber found in her hair; but another Court TV report stated that he merely didn’t find any on her bedding. He testified that he only examined her bedding, and not all her bedding either. Criminalist Jennifer Shen testified to only one orange fiber with Danielle’s body, and it was tangled in her hair which was tangled in her necklace, but some media reports stated more than one, or that it was in her necklace.
In 2003, after Westerfield's conviction, James Selby wrote to the police confessing to the van Dam murder. Selby was wanted for kidnapping a 9-year-old Oklahoma girl from her bedroom in the middle of the night and raping her in 1999, for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl in Sparks, Nevada in April 2001, and for raping four women in San Diego between July and September 2001. He was connected by DNA to the rapes and assaults of 14 girls and women in San Diego (California), Colorado Springs (Colorado), Tucson (Arizona), Sparks (Nevada), and Norman (Oklahoma), between September 1999 and May 2002. However, police did not believe that he murdered Danielle. Prosecutor Jeff Dusek also read Selby's confession, and deemed it not credible. Selby, a decorated Gulf War veteran, was a divorced father of three, worked as a handyman and machinist, and often traveled between San Diego and Tucson. It is believed that he was in the Tucson area when Danielle was kidnapped in February 2002. Selby is believed to be responsible for a series of rapes in Arizona from October 2001 to May 2002. He had a prior rape conviction in Colorado. In addition, Selby claimed responsibility for the slaying of JonBenét Ramsey. According to Deputy County Attorney Bradley Roach, "It was an aspect of his personality to confess to something to see what other people would say." Selby committed suicide in his Arizona jail cell on November 22, 2004, hours before he was scheduled to be sentenced to life in prison for the Arizona rapes.
In January 2003 California judge William Mudd sentenced David Westerfield to be executed. He was transported to San Quentin State Prison. He is currently enrolled in the Handicraft program at San Quentin State Prison. The van Dams sued Westerfield, but the case was settled out of court. The van Dams were awarded $416,000 from several insurance companies who insured Westerfield's home, SUV, and motor home. The settlement also prevented Westerfield from ever profiting from his crime.
When the trial was over, the media, quoting unnamed police sources, reported that Westerfield's lawyers were just minutes away from negotiating a plea bargain when a private citizen's group, started by the Laura Recovery Center and concerned local citizens, found Danielle's body. According to these reports, under the deal, Westerfield would have taken police to the site where she was located in exchange for life without parole. Both the prosecution and the defense declined to comment on these reports.
During the penalty phase of the trial, Westerfield's 19-year-old niece testified that, when she was 7-years-old, her uncle entered his daughter's bedroom, where the niece was spending the night with her parents while attending a party, to check on the kids, and woke up finding him rubbing her teeth, and said she bit his finger as hard as she could. She went downstairs to tell her mother. Westerfield was questioned about the incident at the time by his sister-in-law, where he explained that he was trying to comfort her. The incident was then forgotten.
In the months following the end of the trial audio tapes of Westerfield being interviewed were released to the media. In one police interview he tells investigators that he doesn't feel emotionally stable. He is told that he failed a polygraph test. Westerfield tells him that he wants a retest and that he was not involved in Danielle's disappearance.
In the interrogation video tape made at the time of his first interview (02-05-2002), near the end of the interview Westerfield, who is given a momentary pause in the interview while one of the two officers leaves the room, puts his head down on the table. At 18:51:40 (timecode on the video tape) the remaining officer asks him, "Want to be left alone?" to which Westerfield replies, "No, it's okay." He then lifts his head and looks directly at the officer, pats the table beside him with his left hand and says, "If you wanted to leave your gun here for a few minutes, I'd appreciate it" in a seemingly sincere request to commit suicide if only given the opportunity. When the officer decries the choice as "silly", Westerfield makes a brief comment and then lays his head back down on the table.
An animal forensic show from US TV network Animal Planet, is based on the belief that hairs consistent with Danielle’s dog, a Weimaraner, which were found in Westerfield’s laundry, and in his RV, and on his comforter at the dry-cleaners, first got onto her pajamas when she cuddled with the dog, and then were carried on the pajamas to his house and RV in accordance with Locard's exchange principle. The show states that the evidence presented by the dog had a monumental impact, and the dog was critical in identifying the person who abducted and killed Danielle. However, no fibers consistent with her pajamas or bedding were reported in his environment.
The local elementary school that Danielle attended set up a portion of the park/open public area to be dedicated to her.
The years after the murder have led to higher states of awareness in San Diego's neighborhoods as well as the institution of funds and benefits made in her honor. Her family still lives in Southern California. They have formed a Danielle Legacy Foundation which works to "promot(e) volunteerism that will initiate positive changes that will put our children's safety first."
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