As white doves and pink and purple balloons floated into the air, 7-year-old Danielle van Dam was remembered Saturday as “the little girl who inspired an army of kindness.”
At a memorial service near one of her favorite beaches, family friends and the family minister marveled at how Danielle’s disappearance and death riveted much of the public and brought an outpouring of support for her parents and brothers.
“For a while the world stopped and prayed and hoped for her safe return,” said family friend Veronica Valencia. “Now we mourn.... Although she is no longer with us, she will always remain San Diego’s little angel.”
The tearful service came just two days after a judge ordered neighbor David Westerfield to stand trial for the kidnapping and murder of a sprightly, gaptoothed child remembered as “daddy’s little girl and mommy’s best friend.”
“Why is there such an interest in this one little girl?” asked the Rev. Joseph Acton, pastor of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church.
“For some mysterious reason we all feel like Danielle was our own child,” Acton said. “I feel Danielle has inspired us to fight against the darkness that creeps into our neighborhoods and homes.”
More than 1,000 people attended the memorial at a park in the La Jolla Shores neighborhood. Others listened to radio or watched a live broadcast on local television.
Within hours of Brenda and Damon van Dam’s realization on Feb.2 that Danielle was missing from her bedroom at the family’s home in the upscale Sabre Springs neighborhood, the story of her disappearance and the hunt for her killer dominated local news.
With the help of neighbors and a local public relations firm--working for free--the van Dams encouraged local and national media coverage in hopes that it would lead to Danielle being found.
Hundreds of volunteers, including off-duty Marines from Camp Pendleton, scoured the desert and rural areas. More than 900 tips were received by police.
“Danielle became more than just one little girl, she became a movement,” said attorney Bill Nimmo, who has served as a legal commentator on the case for the CBS affiliate.
When Danielle’s body was found in a wooded area on Feb. 27, the local NBC station devoted four hours of continuous coverage.
Six local TV stations provided gavel-to-gavel coverage of Westerfield’s three-day preliminary hearing, unprecedented for a San Diego criminal case.
Richard Longoria, news director at KUSI-TV, an independent station, which did two one-hour specials on the case last week, along with broadcasting the preliminary hearing, said he felt the timing of Danielle’s disappearance contributed to the public’s horrified reaction.
He noted that the second of the specials was the most-watched program in San Diego during that hour.
“First you have Sept. 11, where the world seems to have gone mad, and then in San Diego, you have something happen that suggests that our little chunk of the world has gone mad too,” Longoria said. “It struck a deep chord with a lot of people.”
Reacting to Danielle’s abduction, the county Board of Supervisors endorsed moves designed to protect children by putting information about missing children on the Internet more quickly and making information about child molesters more readily available.
A private service for Danielle was held last week, but her parents also wanted a public service to show gratitude to the volunteers who searched for her, to the public in general and to San Diego police.
Brenda and Damon van Dam, each wearing a button with Danielle’s picture, embraced their sons, Dylan, 5, and Derrick, 9, as all four wept during much of the hourlong service.
A parent read aloud a letter to Danielle written by one of her second-grade classmates, Sara Call, 7: “I know you’re happy in heaven now. Please say hello to my grandmother.”
While the dominant mood was sorrow, there was also anger.
“I am deeply saddened by the sin, evil and wickedness that is present on this Earth,” said Danielle’s aunt, Tina van Dam, as she broke down in sobs.