Volunteer searchers in a remote inland area stumbled across the body of a young girl Wednesday, and investigators said the remains are almost certainly those of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam, who disappeared from her home Feb. 2.
The body was discovered under a small stand of trees, about 30 feet off a winding two-lane road. The area, about 25 miles northeast of San Diego and east of El Cajon, is in a rural area known an Dehesa.
San Diego Police cautioned that positive identification of the body could take several days. But San Diego Dist. Atty. Paul Pfingst said, “We believe that Danielle van Dam’s body has been found.”
“We hopefully will know what happened to this young girl,” he said at a Wednesday night news conference.
The body of the girl, found lying on her back, is about 4 feet tall and has blond hair, like Danielle, authorities said. The body bore a plastic necklace--just like the one Danielle is shown wearing on the missing-person posters plastered throughout the region, Pfingst said. An earring matching one Danielle was wearing the night she disappeared is also visible on one ear.
“We don’t have any other young children reported missing in the county,” said San Diego Police Lt. Jim Collins. “It’s a high probability that it’s her.”
No murder weapon was near the body, Pfingst said, and investigators believe the girl was killed elsewhere, then dropped at the site. A cause of death had not been determined; an autopsy will be conducted this week.
Police were also investigating whether the body was burned, but San Diego Police Chief David Bejarano said that had not been determined.
Collins said authorities had no plans to bring Danielle’s parents, Brenda and Damon van Dam, to the site.
The family was inside their home in the Sabre Springs section of San Diego Wednesday evening with several police detectives and other supporters. They had no immediate comment on the discovery. Several neighbors dropped by with food as they got home from work, and a priest, Father Joseph Acton of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, arrived to help the Van Dams cope with the news.
“They are devastated by this,” Acton said as he left the house. “I still believe God loves Danielle. My job is to get that message across. This is an awful, horrible thing. It’s going to hurt for a long time.”
A spokeswoman for the San Diego Sheriff’s Office, which patrols the area where the body was found, said jurisdiction at the site had been handed over to the San Diego police.
Authorities brought in searchlights and a long-ladder firetruck equipped with bright lights to illuminate the area. The volunteers who found the body were offered counseling. They were asked to stay on the scene so authorities could record their footprints to differentiate them from other prints near the body, officials said.
Investigators say David Alan Westerfield, the man who is charged with Danielle’s kidnapping and murder and is being held without bond in the San Diego County jail, traveled to inland areas of southeast California in the days after Danielle disappeared.
He was in his motor home, which he then had steam-cleaned before it could be inspected, they said. Police later discovered traces of blood on his clothes and inside the motor home, and announced that DNA tests confirmed the blood was Danielle’s. If the body is burned, Collins said, that would not necessarily preclude the possibility of additional DNA tests.
Hundreds of volunteers searched San Diego and Imperial counties and portions of Mexico since Danielle disappeared. There was no particular evidence that drew them to the site near El Cajon, Collins said, and police were stunned--and thankful--that the body was discovered in such a vast, remote area.
Also Wednesday, a judge released seven search warrants showing that police have scoured Westerfield’s home since Danielle disappeared, looking for children’s pajamas and Mickey Mouse earrings.
Police were also looking for “binding materials,” according to one of the search warrants, issued Feb. 14 at the request of the San Diego Police Department. Those materials, the document says, could include “leather or rope necklaces or collars.”
Danielle was not in her bed when her parents went to wake her on the morning of Feb. 2 and had not been seen since. Police immediately focused on Westerfield, 50, as a suspect, and he has since been charged with murder, kidnapping and possession of child pornography. Westerfield pleaded not guilty to the charges Tuesday.
Westerfield’s attorney, Steven Feldman, did not return phone calls Wednesday. Neither Liz Purcell, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County district attorney’s office, nor Dave Cohen, a spokesman for the San Diego Police Department, would discuss the documents Wednesday.
“We’re not going to discuss what is in those search warrants,” Cohen said.
Investigators have searched Westerfield’s two-story red-roofed house, two doors from Danielle’s home, at least three times, the first on Feb. 5.
According to the documents, investigators wanted to make records of all of Westerfield’s shoes, look at undeveloped film, search drain traps for hair and blood and seize “diaries or letters relating to juvenile abduction.”
Much of the searching in Westerfield’s home appeared to focus on suspicions that he possessed child pornography, the documents suggest. One of the warrants gave investigators permission to search Westerfield’s computer for images “depicting nudity and/or sexual activities involving juveniles, juveniles with juveniles, and juveniles or adults.”
Three other warrants allowed investigators to listen to Westerfield’s phone calls in the days after Danielle’s disappearance, a time during which investigators believe Westerfield drove his 35-foot motor home into the desert.
Investigators were also given permission--with the consent of Danielle’s parents--to trace all phone calls that came into the Van Dams’ home after Feb. 12. The Van Dams gave their permission, one search warrant says, to assist in the investigation.
Finally, a warrant issued Feb. 7 gave investigators the right to search a cleaning business in Poway.
The documents were released by San Diego County Superior Court Judge Cynthia Bashant, acting on a request by Copley Press, the publisher of the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Under California law, search warrants are considered public documents after they are executed unless there is sufficient reason to keep them sealed.
Times staff writer Ken Ellingwood and special correspondent Paul Levikow contributed to this report.