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Van Dams' Sex Life Aired

Trial: Slain girl's father admits to lying at first about being in bed with a friend of his wife the night Danielle vanished.

June 06, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — At the murder trial Wednesday of the man accused of killing 7-year-old Danielle van Dam, the girl's father testified that he initially lied to police when he denied smoking marijuana and being in bed with one of his wife's friends the night Danielle disappeared.

Under questioning by the prosecutor and two attorneys for defendant David Westerfield, Damon van Dam said he did not think the marijuana use was relevant to his daughter's disappearance and that he did not "want to get in trouble."

Lead defense attorney Steven Feldman accused Van Dam and his wife, Brenda, of agreeing "to withhold anything from police about your sexual behaviors."

Feldman, in his opening statement to the jury Tuesday, had suggested that the Van Dams engaged in a sexually permissive lifestyle and that one of their alleged sex partners--not Westerfield--might have kidnapped and murdered their daughter.

By withholding information about those partners, Feldman said, the couple may have hindered police and kept them from identifying suspects.

On Wednesday, Feldman asked Van Dam if he had ever had sex with one of his wife's friends "in the presence of your wife."

"Yes," said Van Dam, 36, a software engineer employed at a company under contract to telecommunications giant Qualcomm.

Feldman also sought to question Damon Van Dam about allegedly "risque" Halloween parties held at the family home. But after an objection from Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeff Dusek, Superior Court Judge William Mudd ruled that Van Dam did not have to answer.

The murder victim's father remained calm as the defense attorney probed for information about his marijuana use and sexual habits. He lost his composure only once, starting to cry when asked to describe Danielle's room.

Questions about the Van Dams' lifestyle have added an incendiary element to the case, which has drawn extensive national and local media coverage since Brenda van Dam discovered her daughter missing on the morning of Feb. 2.

Westerfield, 50, is accused of murder, kidnapping and misdemeanor possession of child pornography. Prosecutors allege that Danielle's hair and blood were found in Westerfield's recreational vehicle. Her body was discovered in a rural area 26 days after her disappearance.

Several San Diego television stations are providing gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial. Each station has one or more lawyers and jury consultants providing commentary before, during and after the court sessions.

Judge Mudd warned jurors to avoid media coverage. "Every lawyer who ever practiced law in this county is now providing analysis of this case," he said. "They're not going to decide this case. You are."

At the first break after Damon Van Dam's admissions about lying about marijuana and sex, analysts were opining on the significance.

Jan Ronis, a defense attorney, told the ABC affiliate that the sympathy of jurors for a father of a murdered girl was being undercut by Van Dam's testimony about drugs and sex. "I think a lot of that goodwill has been eviscerated by the cross-examination," he said.

Toni Blake, a jury consultant, told the CBS affiliate that Feldman's strategy is to paint the Van Dams as unreliable witnesses, who may have hindered the police investigation.

"There was some eye rolling on the part of jurors that shows they are not sure of his [Damon van Dam's] credibility," she said.

But Dan Williams, a former prosecutor, told the NBC affiliate that the Feldman strategy may not work. "I don't understand how, other than trashing the witness, the sex stuff works," he said.

Van Dam testified he had sex with two of his wife's friends in the months before Danielle's disappearance. On Feb. 1, those friends accompanied Brenda van Dam to a restaurant-bar for a night of dancing and drinking, according to testimony by several witnesses at the preliminary hearing.

In the early hours of Feb. 2, Brenda van Dam, her two friends and two other people returned to the Van Dam home. Damon van Dam testified that one of his wife's friends came upstairs to his bedroom, got in bed with him and engaged in some "snuggling."

Under questioning by Dusek, Damon van Dam said that while he initially lied to police, he quickly decided to admit facts about his use of marijuana and the couple's sex life.

"I realized the magnitude of the situation," Van Dam said. "I opened up my private life to try to get my daughter back and to try to get justice for her."

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