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Girl’s Body Too Decomposed to Determine Cause of Her Death

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Danielle van Dam’s body was too decomposed to allow investigators to determine how she died, the county’s medical examiner testified Monday in a preliminary hearing for the neighbor accused of kidnapping and killing the 7-year-old.

Dr. Brian Blackbourne said he initially identified the body by a pair of Mickey Mouse earrings that her parents said were Danielle’s. The body was found lying beneath a tree along a rural road Feb. 27.

Blackbourne said the body’s deterioration was “consistent” with the theory that she was killed soon after being kidnapped from her bedroom on Feb. 1.

Asked by Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeff Dusek if there was any evidence to suggest Danielle had been strangled, Blackbourne said that he found none but that he could not rule out the possibility that she was suffocated.

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In response to another question by Dusek, Blackbourne said the body had deteriorated too much for him to determine if she had been sexually assaulted.

After hearing additional evidence presented by prosecutors and rebuttal by the defense attorneys, Superior Court Judge H. Ronald Domnitz will determine if the evidence is sufficient to order David Westerfield to stand trial.

Prosecutors have filed murder, kidnapping and child pornography charges against Westerfield, 50, a self-employed engineer who lived two doors from Damon and Brenda van Dam and their three children in the upscale Sabre Springs neighborhood.

Westerfield trembled slightly as prosecution witnesses began to describe how he became the chief suspect within days of Danielle’s disappearance. The Van Dams did not attend the all-day session.

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In a news conference after Westerfield was arrested Feb. 22, police asserted that Danielle’s blood was found in his recreational vehicle and on a piece of his clothing.

Christina Hoeffs, a neighbor, testified that the night Danielle disappeared, Westerfield closed the blinds in his home and left a backyard light on. Both things were unusual, she said.

Hoeffs, a dispatcher for the California Highway Patrol, said she noticed the blinds and light when she got up at 2 a.m. to feed her baby.

She said it was the first time during the several years she has lived directly behind Westerfield that she had noticed his lights on at night and his blinds all drawn.

Westerfield’s attorney, Steven Feldman, one of the city’s top criminal defense attorneys, sharply questioned the thoroughness of the police investigation.

From the lead investigator, Lt. Jim Collins, he drew a concession that Collins had not been aware for weeks that bloodstains had been found by evidence technicians inside the Van Dam home. Feldman also asserted that even as police were searching the home for clues, Damon van Dam vacuumed part of the house.

“Mr. Van Dam vacuumed up trace evidence that your department might have been interested in, right?” Feldman asked.

Collins agreed.

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No further evidence has yet been presented about the bloodstains.

Det. Johnny Keene said he became suspicious of Westerfield when he interviewed him Feb. 4.

Westerfield was sweating profusely and was “overly cooperative” when police searched his house, Keene said.

“Typically when we search people’s houses, they don’t point out areas they think we should look at,” said Keene, a 16-year veteran.

Keene added that while searching Westerfield’s recreational vehicle, detectives smelled a strong odor of bleach, a cleaning agent.

Keene said he saw “numerous small scratches” on Westerfield’s hands and forearms. Looking at a picture taken of Westerfield’s arms, Keene counted 13 scratches.

During their initial conversations, Westerfield told Keene, according to the detective, that he had scratched his hands trying to move his RV out of desert sand where it had gotten stuck.

When the hearing resumes, prosecutors say they will present evidence from DNA experts, including Deputy Dist. Atty. Woody Clarke, who testified about DNA in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson.

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