The killer neighbour?
A dad-of-two was accused of the kidnap and murder of a 7-year-old
Sabre Springs is a small suburban community like many others in America. Friendly, affluent… ‘People feel it’s safe to raise your children,’ said resident Jerry Miller back in 2002. ‘We’ve never had anything like this happen before…’
The incident she was referring to occurred just a few weeks earlier, on the evening of 1 February.
Mum-of-three Brenda Van Dam had gone out to a local bar with some friends, while her husband Damon stayed at home with their two sons and 7-year-old daughter Danielle.
Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Girl Scout Danielle was well liked in the community, especially when she went knocking on doors to sell cookies for her scout troop.
After hugging his sons, aged 9 and 5, goodnight, Damon went to tuck in Danielle before taking himself off to bed, too.
He never suspected this would be the last time he’d see his daughter alive…
The next morning, Brenda went into Danielle’s room to wake her up.
‘Rise and shine!’ she called, but opened the door to find Danielle’s bed empty.
Searching their home from top to bottom, Brenda and Damon were horrified to realise that their little girl was nowhere to be found.
Terrified and shaken, the Van Dams reported Danielle missing.
Days passed and there was no sign of her.
Before long, the media had descended upon Sabre Springs. The Van Dams were broadcast across countless news channels, pleading for their daughter’s safe return, and Brenda even made an emotional appearance on the Today show, begging Danielle to come home.
Neighbours rallied around the family, praying and holding vigils for the missing Girl Scout.
They formed volunteer search parties to comb the surrounding areas for any trace of Danielle.
Hundreds arrived at a hotel conference room dubbed the Danielle Van Dam Recovery Centre, to offer help, either by going out in search groups or by manning the phones for any information.
The griefstricken parents also offered a reward of $25,000 (around £19,000) out of their own pockets for any information leading to their beloved girl’s discovery. But, as the searches failed to find any trace of the girl, it looked less like a case of a missing runaway, and more like a kidnapping. Attention soon fell upon 49-yearold engineer and father-of-two David Westerfield, who lived two doors down from the Van Dams. A bachelor who kept mostly to himself, Westerfield’s regular camping trips to the desert earned him the nickname
danielle’s mother found her bed empty
Desert Dave among the Sabre Springs community.
Having taken his motor home out to the desert on the morning of Danielle’s disappearance, he became a person of interest to Detective Mo Parga and her police investigators.
It was also discovered that Westerfield had, in fact, been at the same bar as Brenda Van Dam on 1 February, but he’d left quietly, well before she’d gone home.
Detective Parga and her partner Johnny Keene asked Westerfield if they could examine his house, putting him at ease by saying they were doing the same at all other homes in the surrounding area.
Police also learned that, on the morning of Danielle’s disappearance, Westerfield had called a tow-truck company to help him when his vehicle got stuck in the sand on his way back from the desert. And he’d seemed to be in a hurry… ‘It was weird. He just wanted to get going, to get the heck out of there,’ said Marc Shepherd, who came to Westerfield’s aid. Detective Parga asked Westerfield to take a polygraph test, which the engineer failed. When he returned to his house, he found police officers waiting for him in his front garden with search warrants. Investigators found traces of Danielle’s blood and hair in Westerfield’s house, car and even on his jacket. On 22 February, David Westerfield was arrested, and was later charged with the kidnapping and murder of Danielle Van Dam. Five days later, a volunteer search team was combing the area around Desha Road, some miles from the Van Dam home. As searchers approached a thicket of oak trees, they gasped in horror. Before them lay the dirty, naked body of a young girl. Her hair was blonde, and she wore the same plastic necklace that was seen on Danielle in the missing posters. Dental records confirmed that this was indeed the body of Danielle Van Dam. It was already in advanced stages of decomposition, so a cause of death couldn’t be established. The little girl had been assaulted, and was missing some teeth as a result of trauma to the face. Maintaining his innocence, David Westerfield pleaded not guilty to the charges, and his trial began in summer 2002.
Westerfield’s defence lawyers tried to portray Damon and Brenda as bad parents.
They also claimed that the media had turned the case into the summer’s entertainment, and urged the judge not to be influenced by the ‘lynch mob mentality’ that had taken hold in Sabre Springs.
On the other side, the prosecution pushed for the death penalty.
In presenting their evidence, the team argued that Westerfield had gained entry to the Van Dam house, then taken Danielle from her room, murdered her in cold blood and dumped her body.
The trial lasted for around two months, and a jury of six men and six women heard evidence and arguments from both sides.
But who would they believe?
Westerfield failed a polygraph test daniel le: Taken from her room
The jury found David Westerfield guilty of kidnapping and murdering Danielle, and Judge William Mudd upheld the recommendation of the death penalty.
In California, the death penalty automatically goes to appeal – but, regardless of the outcome, Westerfield will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars.
He showed no remorse, and refused to comment when sentenced, even remaining silent when urged to apologise to the Van Dams.
Unbearable listening Damon and a friend comfort Brenda during Westerfield’s trial Westerfield: ‘desert dave’