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Neighbor to Be Tried in Girl’s Death

TIMES STAFF WRITER

David Westerfield was ordered Thursday to stand trial for the kidnapping and murder of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam in a case that will depend heavily on DNA evidence.

The decision by Superior Court Judge H. Ronald Domnitz came after a three-day preliminary hearing in which prosecutors presented evidence that small traces of the child’s blood were found on Westerfield’s jacket and recreational vehicle and that her fingerprints were found in the same vehicle.

“The crimes in this complaint have been committed,” Domnitz said. “I have reasonable cause to believe Mr. Westerfield is guilty of them.”

Westerfield, 50, a self-employed design engineer who lives two doors away from the Van Dam family in the upscale Sabre Springs neighborhood, listened impassively as Domnitz made his ruling.

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Arraignment was set for March 28. Prosecutors may announce at that time whether they will seek the death penalty.

Westerfield also is accused of possession of child pornography, the charge stemming from material that police seized from his computer.

The judge’s decision was announced after a day of testimony in which Westerfield’s attorney, Steven Feldman, questioned the Van Dams about their lifestyle, saying that such information will show that numerous people had access to their house and that the Van Dams were not forthcoming to police about their lifestyle.

“The issue here is alibi and third-party access to the residence,” Feldman said.

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Sometimes tearful, sometimes indignant, Brenda van Dam testified Thursday that she was drinking, dancing, playing pool and smoking marijuana at a local bar the night before she discovered Danielle was missing.

Van Dam, 39, said that she also smoked marijuana in her garage before going to the bar and that she left open a side door to the garage so that the smoke would clear out.

Police have suggested in court documents that Westerfield could have used the open door to sneak into the house and kidnap Danielle while Brenda van Dam was at Dad’s bar in Poway and her husband, Damon, was at home with the couple’s three children.

Damon van Dam, 36, a software engineer, testified that he had smoked marijuana in the garage before Brenda went to the bar.

Major points of contention between prosecution and defense, which came out during the hearing, are the extent of the relationship between Westerfield and Brenda van Dam, and whether the Van Dams were under the influence of marijuana the night of Feb. 1 and therefore their memories cannot be trusted.

Brenda van Dam testified that she talked to Westerfield at the bar, introduced him to two female friends and then accepted his offer to buy them drinks.

But under questioning by Feldman, she denied dancing with Westerfield, being affectionate with him or inviting him to share her marijuana.

She said she returned home with two female friends and two male friends, not including Westerfield, about 2 a.m.

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The four friends left after a few minutes and, the Van Dams testified, they went to bed. Shortly after 9 the next morning, said Brenda van Dam, she discovered that her daughter was missing from her bedroom and within minutes placed a panicky call to police.

The child’s nude, badly decomposed body was found 25 days later on Feb. 27 by volunteer searchers. Westerfield, based on DNA evidence, had been arrested Feb. 22.

During the three-day hearing, Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeff Dusek portrayed Westerfield as having sexual fantasies about young girls and having been rebuffed by Brenda van Dam’s female friends. The prosecution alleges that Westerfield left the bar in Poway before Van Dam, went to her home, kidnapped and killed Danielle, and then dumped the girl’s body in a rural area 25 miles away.

Feldman contends that Danielle’s blood found on Westerfield’s jacket and recreational vehicle could have been left there several days earlier when she was playing “hide and seek” with young friends and could have been caused by a scratch from the Van Dam family dog.

Brenda van Dam testified that she barely knows Westerfield but that the same week Danielle disappeared, she and Danielle had gone to his home to ask him to buy Girl Scout cookies.

During that meeting, she said, Westerfield asked her for her phone number and said he liked to host barbecues and “adult parties.”

Feldman sought to question Brenda and Damon van Dam about whether they engage in a “swinging” lifestyle that includes extramarital sex.

The judge blocked Feldman from asking about the “swinging” lifestyle: “Counsel, I don’t see how this is relevant at all.”

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But Domnitz left open the possibility that during Westerfield’s trial, defense attorneys can quiz Danielle’s parents about their marriage, drug use and sexual habits.

At the hearing Feldman tried to ask whether the couple had discussed divorce and whether Damon van Dam had a sexual relationship with one of his wife’s friends.

But the judge ruled that the questions were irrelevant.

Brenda van Dam bristled when Feldman asked her whether her husband was acting as a “baby-sitter” for their children while she went to the bar with her friends.

“I would not consider Damon to be a baby-sitter,” she said. “I would consider him to be their father.”

Under Feldman’s questioning, she said she is taking medication for depression and anxiety. In reply to several questions--including an inquiry about how often she smokes marijuana--Van Dam said she could not remember.

“I’ve been through a lot and there’s a lot I don’t recall,” she said.

Asked about the Saturday morning she discovered Danielle missing, Van Dam said, “Before I knew it, it was total chaos. A lot of people on the street started searching for Danielle. Neighbors came out to help in any way they could. One of the neighbors made missing-child fliers.”


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