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Girl's Murder Shatters Neighborhood's Tranquillity

Sabre Springs: Since the day 7-year-old Danielle van Dam disappeared, the planned community has been the object of curiosity and ridicule.

August 19, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Barbara Baker was visiting friends out of state and told them she lives in the same neighborhood as the family of the murdered 7-year-old Danielle van Dam and her accused killer, David Westerfield.

"One friend said: 'Not that terrible place!' " said Baker, a freelance writer. "I said, 'It's really not terrible. There were just bad decisions by people on both sides of this tragedy.' Sabre Springs is a wonderful place."

Until Feb. 2, the day Danielle disappeared, few would have disagreed with Baker's assessment of Sabre Springs, a planned community of about 9,000 people on the city's northern edge along Interstate 15.

Part of the horror has been the incongruity of its location.

"Until Danielle disappeared, Sabre Springs' idea of crime was when a couple of teenagers toilet-papered a house as a joke," said real estate agent Sam Rasoul.

Its tranquillity shattered, Sabre Springs has become an object of curiosity and even ridicule.

One radio talk-show host calls the community Sabre Swings, a dig at the sexually permissive lifestyle of Danielle's parents and the fact that Brenda van Dam was dancing, drinking, shooting pool and smoking marijuana in nearby Poway on the night Danielle was abducted.

Two other talk-show hosts play the theme music from the television series "Twin Peaks" when they discuss the case against Westerfield, the respectable-looking neighbor who, according to prosecutors, was seething with sexual fantasies about young girls.

And one Sabre Springs resident complained that a story done by a weekly newspaper made the neighborhood sound as if it was populated by Stepford wives, a reference to the zombie-like characters in the movie.

Even after months of massive media coverage and with the jury set to resume deliberations today, it remains shocking to many that a young girl could be kidnapped from her bed in the middle of the night in a community thought to be a haven.

"Who would ever believe it could happen in Sabre Springs?" asked Martin Kruming, editor of San Diego Lawyer Magazine.

"It's sad whenever something like this happens anywhere, but it's doubly sad when it happens in a place so focused on protecting children," said San Diego Councilman Brian Maienschein, who represents Sabre Springs.

Sabre Springs' squeaky-clean image made revelations about the Van Dams' lifestyle even more tantalizing to the media.

"We never suggested they were responsible" for the murder, said talk-show host Rick Roberts. "We just said they aren't Ward and June Cleaver putting Beaver to bed and being surprised in the morning that Wally is gone."

Built by one of the region's premier development firms, Sabre Springs offered the idyllic, child-centric version of Southern California suburbia that was part of Steven Spielberg's vision in "E.T."

Spacious homes with tile roofs, wide and curving streets perfect for kids riding bikes, mini-parks with playground equipment, and brushy canyons for hide-and-seek.

The parents leave each morning for high-paying jobs in the city's glamour industries, and the gardeners arrive in their trucks. In the evening, a parade of sport-utility vehicles and minivans returns.

Life is centered on youth sports and the neighborhood elementary school, part of the high-achieving Poway school district.

Fifteen years ago, the area was a grazing spot for cattle. Then came Sabre Springs and other communities to provide upscale housing; anyone who bought more than a decade ago in Sabre Springs is called a "pioneer."

The community's most celebrated resident is professional soccer star Brian Quinn, now coach of the San Diego Spirit. Second place may go to high-school pitching star Cole Hamels, just drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies.

"Sports was what Sabre Springs was known for before this tragedy," said Rick Smith, chairman of the Sabre Springs Planning Group, which advises city government.

The cliche about suburbia is that people are emotionally isolated and unconcerned about their neighbors. That was not the case when Danielle disappeared and for the 25 agonizing days before her body was found in a rural area far away.

One of the first things that made police suspicious of Westerfield was that while other neighbors came running to help, he packed his recreational vehicle and left.

Hundreds of volunteers from Sabre Springs and elsewhere mounted a massive search.

"Danielle really woke everybody up into realizing that they're a neighborhood that should hang together," said Pat Kumpan, who covered Sabre Springs for the weekly Corridor News that covers communities along I-15.

But there are limits to compassion. When Maienschein suggested that residents consider renaming a park for Danielle or erecting a memorial, response was swift.

"People didn't want their kids walking by and being reminded every day of the tragedy," Smith said. "That seems reasonable to me."

Media mockery aside, Sabre Springs has not lost its allure. Helped by low interest rates, the real estate market is hot. Among homes for sale is Westerfield's, deeded to his attorneys.

A four-bedroom, 1,800-square-foot home runs between $450,000 and $480,000, said Rasoul. A two-story 3,500-square-foot Mediterranean-style home around the block from the Van Dams is listed at $675,000 to $725,000.

If there were any initial support for Westerfield, it seems to have declined. "Prior to the trial, I think people were definitely split," said Susan Wintersteen, a friend of the Van Dams. "But not since the evidence has been coming out."

The trial is a constant topic of discussion at the Sabre Springs retail center, the parks, and even school events.

"There's something in the air," Baker said. "People want resolution. Sabre Springs has been through a lot."

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