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Mourners Gather Where Girl's Body Was Found

March 03, 2002|SETH HETTENA | ASSOCIATED PRESS

EL CAJON, Calif. — Laura Davis said she felt drawn to the quiet patch of shade under an oak tree where searchers last week found the body of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam.

"The memory of her soul compelled me to come down here and say a last goodbye," 26-year-old Davis said Friday, cradling her 7-month-old daughter and wiping away tears. "To actually see the place where her innocent sweetness was lying under a tree."

Davis added white flowers to a growing memorial of messages, bouquets, a pink teddy bear and stuffed blue bunny that marks the place where authorities believe a neighbor dumped Danielle's body.

Dental records confirmed Thursday that remains found by a rural roadside 25 miles east of San Diego were those of the girl, who vanished from her bedroom Feb. 2.

The cause of death could not immediately be determined--and may never be--because of the body's state of decomposition, said Police Chief David Bejarano. Further tests were under way.

Danielle's parents, Brenda and Damon van Dam, said the unflagging efforts of more than 2,500 volunteers who searched a vast area stretching from the ocean to the desert left them with "an overwhelming sense of gratitude and closure."

"With love for an innocent child and for one another, the community has brought her back to us, and for that gift we offer our most sincere and heartfelt thanks," the van Dams said in a statement. "Even though the final outcome is horrible, we could not have imagined the rest of our lives without this closure."

A memorial service is expected later this month.

Neighbor David Westerfield, 50, was charged Tuesday with murder, kidnapping and possession of child pornography. He has pleaded innocent and is being held without bond.

Authorities said they found traces of Danielle's blood in Westerfield's motor home and on an article of his clothing.

The self-employed engineer spent the weekend of Danielle's disappearance traveling in his motor home, stopping in the desert east of the city, authorities said.

A hunch led volunteers to the area--the remote road was one Westerfield might have taken the weekend Danielle disappeared, said Bill Garcia, a private detective.

Nearby residents said they were unsettled by the discovery of Danielle's body so close to home.

"It kind of sickens us," said Charles O'Neill, 28, who lives about a mile away. "We've been driving by every day . . . and knowing she's that close is something we never would have imagined."

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