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Trial Aggravates Parents’ Suffering

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The trial of David Westerfield in the kidnapping and murder of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam went to the jury Thursday amid another sign of the torment suffered by her parents.

Brenda van Dam fled the courtroom in tears after suddenly seeing an enlarged picture of her daughter’s nude, mummified body, which had been taken during the autopsy. The picture was shown to the jury by Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeff Dusek during his closing argument.

On Wednesday, Damon van Dam sought out the mother of defense attorney Steven Feldman during a recess and asked her sarcastically if she was proud of her son.

Several weeks ago Damon van Dam was temporarily banned from the courtroom after making threatening gestures toward Westerfield.

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“Brenda and Damon are living in a pressure cooker that is unimaginable,” said Susan Wintersteen, a neighbor who has accompanied them to court.

“They go home every night and cry and try to find the strength to come back to court to represent Danielle.”

It is one of the oddities of this high-profile homicide case that the parents of the murder victim have been widely vilified and ridiculed.

Soon after Danielle’s disappearance on Feb. 2, the local media began to report on a tantalizing angle to the story: adulterous sex in upscale suburbs.

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One radio talk-show host has turned his show for six months into an open forum for callers to offer theories about the couple’s parental skills, permissive sex lives, drug use and possible culpability in the murder of their daughter.

The current edition of San Diego Magazine--known for stories about local politics and the La Jolla social scene--has a story using the Van Dam case to discuss swapping of partners by married couples. “Van Dam and Beyond: San Diego’s Surprising Swinger Scene,” reads the tease on the cover.

A victim advocate, Marc Klaas, who has befriended the Van Dams, said he had never seen anything to match the treatment of Danielle’s parents by the media and the defense attorney.

“These people have been so vilified, so demonized, it’s horrible,” said Klaas, who was pushed into activism when his daughter, Polly, was abducted and murdered in 1993.

“The centerpiece of the defense case has been to vilify the grieving parents.”

Klaas and other friends of the Van Dams have particular contempt for talk-show host Rick Roberts and his “Court of Public Opinion” on KFMB-AM (760). Roberts was the first person in the local media to report on the couple’s sex lives.

He provides a daily commentary on the trial and invites callers.

“It infuriates me that these people call in and pass judgment on this poor family when they can’t fathom the pain of losing a child like this,” said Roger Tso, a neighbor of the Van Dams and principal of a local elementary school.

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Roberts makes no apologies. He believes that the Van Dams’ lifestyle left them vulnerable to disreputable people who gained access to their home--a theme that Feldman has stressed.

The talk-show host notes that prosecutors argue that Westerfield was able to enter the home through a door left open to air out marijuana smoke.

“Everything you do in your life has a cost and in this case, the cost was unimaginable,” he said.

Except during testimony by entomologists about the flies and other bugs found on Danielle’s body, one or both of her parents have attended each day of the trial. A gag order imposed on all witnesses by Superior Court Judge William Mudd keeps them from talking to reporters, many of whom they know from the monthlong search for Danielle’s body, during which they made daily pleas to the kidnapper.

“It’s been very hard for them not to be able to tell their own stories to counteract all the rumors,” Wintersteen said. At one point, a friend issued a news release on their behalf, denying that the family had purchased a new home and a new car.

Damon van Dam, 36, a software engineer who works for a firm under contract to telecommunications giant Qualcomm, has tried to get back to work but found it difficult. Brenda, 39, has put her job as a free-lance bookseller on hold.

Tso, whose daughter was Danielle’s best friend said that whenever he has seen Brenda and Damon van Dam recently “they seem very angry but they’re also in a state of disbelief.”

The van Dams went with their sons--Dylan, 5, and Derrick, 10--to a cabin in Big Bear in hopes of finding some relief. During the later stages of the trial, Brenda’s parents have come to San Diego, and a loyal coterie of neighbors has rallied.

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As the couple left the courthouse one day, photographers jostled for position and Damon van Dam showed his annoyance.

“I would love not to be harassed,” he snapped.

“It’s all right, we’ll make it,” said his wife as she grasped his arm.


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