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Parents Plead for Daughter's Return

Search: The hunt continues for a San Diego area 7-year-old, missing for two weeks. 'It gets harder each day,' her mother says.

February 15, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Two weeks after vanishing from her bedroom in an upscale neighborhood, 7-year-old Danielle van Dam is still missing and police say they are not close to an arrest.

On Thursday, between appearances on national television shows, Brenda and Damon van Dam met with reporters camped in front of their Sabre Springs home and made another emotional appeal for the return of their daughter.

"It gets harder each day," said Brenda van Dam, her voice breaking. "But I have to keep hope that she's alive and will come home. It's so hard for me to know that someone knows where my daughter is and it's not me. It's killing me."

Police have been investigating one of the Van Dams' neighbors, David Westerfield, 49, a self-employed engineer, whose home two doors away was searched Wednesday night for the third time. Westerfield has not been charged.

"We are focusing a lot of resources on this area [Westerfield]," Lt. Jim Collins said. "Obviously, we wouldn't do this if we thought it was a wild goose chase."

Police have taken a DNA sample from Westerfield. His recreational vehicle--which he drove to the Imperial Valley desert on the day Danielle disappeared--was impounded and examined by forensic experts.

Police said later that Westerfield had cleaned the vehicle before it was seized, and that they have searched the desert for clues without success. Damon van Dam said he plans to do his own search in the area today.

Westerfield, who lives alone, has retained one of the city's top criminal defense attorneys. Watched 24 hours a day by reporters and plainclothes police officers, Westerfield leaves his home only occasionally.

On Thursday, Wes Hill, a friend from Utah, arrived to show his support for Westerfield.

"I know he's innocent. He's a big puppy dog," Hill said. "He wouldn't hurt anyone. He's especially upset because it involves a child."

Meanwhile, the search for Danielle continued in numerous ways, including a Web site and a toll-free phone line, and with the help of a bloodhound on loan from the Riverside County Sheriff's Department. Hundreds of neighbors have been combing the brushy hillsides.

The Van Dams have posted a $25,000 reward for information leading to the girl's return. A bail bondsman has offered $50,000 and a retired telephone company owner $100,000.

And there has been widespread media attention. When the case was featured on television's "America's Most Wanted" last weekend, police received tips about numerous "sightings" of the girl, but none bore fruit. Psychics called to offer their assistance.

Within days of the girl's disappearance, police had interviewed sex offenders who live in the neighborhood, searched dozens of neighbors' homes and arranged for the Van Dams to take a lie-detector test. After the tests, police said the parents are not suspects.

Four public relations specialists from the San Diego office of Fleishman-Hillard Inc. offered free advice to the Van Dams on how to handle the media horde and still keep the story alive, in hopes that might help bring Danielle home.

"We're here to help muster the troops," said Lynn Rubenson of Fleishman-Hillard. "Danielle got a lot of coverage the first week, but then comes the Olympics, campaign finance reform, Daniel Pearl, and Danielle no longer is the top story. We're here to keep Danielle at the forefront."

John Walsh, host of "America's Most Wanted," and Marc Klaas, whose daughter, Polly, was abducted and murdered in 1993, have offered solace to the Van Dams and advice and encouragement on maintaining the search effort.

With the media attention have come questions about the Van Dams' lifestyle. They were asked by CNN talk show host Larry King whether they are "swingers" who may have brought strangers into their home.

The Van Dams' response, repeated for local reporters, has been calm and unvarying: The focus of the case should remain on finding Danielle and not on rumors about their private lives, they said. On the night her daughter disappeared, Brenda van Dam said she was at a local bar with friends and Damon was home with Danielle and the couple's two sons.

Damon van Dam said he put Danielle to bed around 10:30 p.m. About 2 a.m., according to Brenda van Dam, she returned home with four friends. Her husband joined them for pizza, she said.

About 9 a.m. Feb. 2, the Van Dams have said, they discovered Danielle missing and called police. They told investigators they found a sliding glass door in the family room and a side door to the garage were open. "Our home had been breached," said Damon van Dam.

Police said they interviewed the friends who accompanied Brenda van Dam home that night and concluded that they were not involved in Danielle's disappearance.

Westerfield was at the same bar that night but was not among those who accompanied Brenda van Dam home, police said.

The Van Dams have said that they barely know Westerfield and that he had never been invited to their home. They said Danielle sold Girl Scout cookies to Westerfield in the days before her disappearance.

Damon van Dam is a software engineer employed by a firm under contract to Qualcomm. Brenda is a stay-at-home mother involved in Girl Scouts and youth sports.

*

Times correspondent Paul Levikow contributed to this report.

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