SAN DIEGO — Prosecutors here have concluded that 7-year-old Danielle van Dam, who vanished from her canopy bed more than three weeks ago, is dead, and they will charge a neighbor with her murder today even though no body has been found.
San Diego County Dist. Atty. Paul Pfingst said at a news conference Monday that the new charge against David Westerfield will come with a "special circumstance" that could allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty. Westerfield, a self-employed design engineer who lives two doors away from the Van Dams, is already under arrest on suspicion of kidnapping.
Pfingst said the enormous publicity in the case and the length of time since Danielle disappeared lead him to believe she is dead.
"There has been an extraordinary search," Pfingst said. "She is extremely well-known to all San Diegans. No one has seen her. That, in conjunction with the evidence, provides only one reasonable conclusion and that is that Danielle van Dam is no longer living."
At the headquarters of a search-and-recovery operation, volunteers continued to scour the vast desert east of San Diego, where police believe Westerfield drove his motor home on the morning Danielle disappeared.
"The police have their investigation and that's different from our search," said Paula Call, a family spokeswoman. "We are continuing to look for her. You have to hold out hope."
But neighbors and other supporters--though many of them have long feared that Danielle is dead--grew dejected Monday in the wake of Pfingst's announcement. Monday afternoon, two women abruptly pulled into Westerfield's driveway and stuck a hand-painted sign in one of his planters that said, "We want Danielle today. Please confess."
"I was sure she was dead, but it was disheartening to hear them say that they have no evidence that she is alive," said Marc Worley, 38, a neighbor.
Westerfield, who turned 50 on Monday, is being held in a San Diego County jail without bail. Officials say he is the only suspect in the case.
He will be arraigned this morning in a downtown courtroom. Pfingst said he may face additional charges of burglary and possession of child pornography.
Westerfield's attorney, Steven Feldman, could not be reached for comment Monday.
The Van Dams' white, five-bedroom home was empty most of the day Monday until the couple pulled up at about 5:30 p.m. Brenda and Damon van Dam declined to speak to reporters at length. But, asked how they were feeling, Brenda said: "Terrible."
Outside, the sun had begun to fade a large pile of notes and gifts left by neighbors, who have been captivated and terrified by Danielle's disappearance. A table contained several stuffed animals left for her by friends and soccer teammates, including a purple teddy bear with a note pinned to its ear: "We hope you can hold this teddy bear really soon. All of us miss you and want you to come home safe."
San Diego Police Department spokesman Dave Cohen said late Monday that there was no evidence that Danielle's remains have been found.
A Crestline man who volunteered to search for Danielle over the weekend said in an interview that he discovered some bones near Alpine, off Interstate 8 northeast of San Diego.
The man, Ken Cress, was carrying a global positioning device and said he alerted authorities to the location. Cress said he did not believe it likely that the bones were human, but he would not discuss his discovery in detail because he did not want to jeopardize the investigation, he said.
Pfingst said he summoned Danielle's parents to his office over the weekend to discuss the pending murder charge. The district attorney, the father of two elementary school-age daughters, said the conversation was emotional.
"It was difficult to bring out the word 'murder,'" he said. "They cried. It was difficult for them."
Danielle's parents discovered that she was not in bed when they went to wake her the morning of Feb. 2. They told investigators that a sliding glass door in the family room and a side door to the garage were open.
Danielle had been home with her two brothers and father the night before while her mother was at a local bar with friends. Danielle's mother ran into Westerfield at the bar and talked to him briefly, authorities say. Westerfield has he said he danced with Brenda van Dam there. The Van Dams have said they barely know Westerfield.
Police immediately began focusing on Westerfield, apparently the only one of the Van Dams' neighbors to leave the posh Sabre Springs community, about 20 miles northeast of downtown San Diego, the morning Danielle vanished. Authorities believe Westerfield drove his motor home to the Imperial Valley desert that day, then had it steam-cleaned before police could examine it.
Authorities say they have since found traces of Danielle's blood in the motor home and on an article of his clothing. DNA tests confirmed that the blood belonged to Danielle. Pfingst said Monday that the results of additional DNA tests conducted by the FBI are expected to arrive in his office soon.
Pfingst said his office would forge ahead with the prosecution whether or not investigators discover Danielle's body. His office cited four cases, some dating to 1983, in which San Diego County murder suspects were convicted--and two sent to death row--despite the fact that investigators were unable to locate the victim's body.