The killer neigh­bour?

A dad-of-two was ac­cused of the kid­nap and mur­der of a 7-year-old

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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.

site Po­lice scour the where a child’s body had been found

Un­bear­able lis­ten­ing Da­mon and a friend com­fort Brenda dur­ing Wester­field’s trial Wester­field: ‘desert dave’

The com­mu­nity ral­lied round

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