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Volunteers Fan Out on Rural Paths to Look for Missing Girl

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Haunted by a mother’s plea, Tracie Ichikawa of Long Beach woke up at 4 a.m. Saturday and drove to San Diego to help look for the gapped-tooth, blond 7-year-old girl who was last seen three weeks ago.

“I heard the mother asking for help on TV last night,” she said. “I had to come. If it was my daughter, I’d want everybody to help.”

Ichikawa, mother of a 10-year-old daughter, felt compelled to volunteer in the search for Danielle van Dam, who disappeared from her family’s Sabre Springs home sometime after her father put her to bed on Feb. 1.

On Friday, San Diego police arrested David Westerfield, a neighbor of the Van Dams, on suspicion of kidnapping. The 49-year-old self-employed engineer was questioned and put under surveillance two days after Danielle disappeared.

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He was arrested after DNA tests confirmed that the blood found on Westerfield’s clothing and in his motor home was that of the 7-year-old.

Along the meandering route that Westerfield told police he drove his motor home early Feb. 2, hundreds of volunteers spread out Saturday, searching for any sign of the missing girl.

The search is divided among three command centers, in Poway, near where the Van Dam family lives, Julian, and the desert around Borrego Springs, nearly 100 miles from the Van Dam home.

In Poway, retired San Diego Police Officer Diane Halfman directs the Danielle Search Center. She said more than 200 volunteers registered by 9:30 a.m., and estimated another 100 “walk-ins” arrived during the day.

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In a borrowed real estate office, the center is staffed by locals who organize volunteers into search parties and send them to remote command posts.

“The response has been incredible,” Halfman said Saturday, as the center buzzed with activity. “We’ve had people from everywhere from Northern California to Arizona to Chicago.”

A line of volunteers wearing fluorescent green vests adorned with pictures of a smiling Danielle was given a crash course in search techniques.

Stick mostly to normal paths of traffic, they were told. Document what you see, look for anything out of the ordinary. Don’t touch anything. Armed with their newfound knowledge, volunteers like Ichikawa headed to their assignments.

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Ichikawa reported to a command center in a rock-strewn, dusty turnout off Interstate 8, where private investigator Bill Garcia divided volunteers into groups with specific tasks.

Next to an RV with U.S. Forest Service maps, Garcia gave another briefing.

“Keep an eye out for freshly cut brush,” he told the recruits, who ranged from teenagers to seniors. “We’re looking for fresh mounds of dirt, smelling for strange odors. You need to be physically and mentally prepared for whatever you find.”

Garcia, a former forest service employee, said he has given logistical support in more than a dozen searches for missing children.

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He assigned people tasks suited to their abilities, people like Linda Farmer, an administrative assistant from Poway who compiled a registry of the names and locations of the more than 60 volunteers at the site.

Archeologist Steven Pfingst, a Native American who monitors construction on protected lands, led a search on the site of a former Indian village high in the hills of the Cleveland National Forest.

“There’s room up here to bring a motor home,” he said, after stooping to examine some deer bones found by another volunteer. “It’s close enough to Highway 8 for someone to bring something, but the thing that isn’t supposed to be here will jump out.”

Back at the Poway search center, Halfman said the volunteer effort is getting “a high level” of cooperation from law enforcement.

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