Westerfield Sentenced to Death

Times Staff Writer

A judge Friday sentenced David Westerfield to death for the kidnapping and murder of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam, a crime that drew national attention as the first in a horrific string of child abductions across the country last year.

Superior Court Judge William Mudd rejected an angry plea by defense attorney Steven Feldman to spare the life of Westerfield, 50, a design engineer with no history of violence, because of inflammatory media coverage and improper conduct by police.

"America has changed -- it's where capital murder trials have become summer entertainment," Feldman said. "Don't acquiesce to the mob mentality of this community."

Mudd criticized the media but said the trial was not adversely affected by coverage or the alleged attempt by San Diego detectives to talk to Westerfield without his attorneys present soon after his arrest.

Brenda van Dam, Danielle's mother, tearfully told Mudd that "our precious Danielle was taken by a monster thinking only about his own self-gratification, not the sweet, little child he was harming and about how his crime would affect her family, the community and the world."

Looking at Westerfield -- her former neighbor -- she said, "It disgusts me that your sick fantasies and pitiful needs made you think that you needed Danielle more than her family."

Prosecutors, who called Westerfield a "cold-hearted child killer," said he harbored sexual fantasies about young girls. During the trial, evidence showed that Westerfield kept child pornography on his home computer.

Westerfield, slumped in his chair, declined an offer by Mudd to speak before sentencing. He also declined to speak to Probation Department officials for a background report that judges use to help determine the sentences they impose. His only prior conviction was for drunk driving.

The jury that convicted Westerfield on Aug. 21 later sentenced him to death. Under California law, the trial judge decides whether to accept the jury's sentence or reduce it to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Westerfield was convicted of taking Danielle from her bedroom the night of Feb. 2 and dumping her nude body in a rural area 45 miles from the upscale Sabre Springs neighborhood where Westerfield and the Van Dams lived three doors apart.

Twice divorced, with grown children, Westerfield lived alone. As an engineer, he assisted in the development of medical rehabilitation devices and undersea exploration equipment, and was known by co-workers as a "regular guy" who was generous, bright and amiable.

Still, a former live-in girlfriend testified that he drank heavily and could become "physical" when intoxicated.

In court, Feldman argued that Westerfield was not the "worst of the worst," and did not deserve the death penalty. But Mudd noted Westerfield's apparent lack of remorse for the crime.

The case took on a lurid dimension when Feldman, during the televised trial, sought to portray Brenda and husband Damon van Dam as partially responsible for their daughter's death because of their "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" lifestyle.

On the night Danielle was kidnapped, Brenda was at a neighborhood bar in nearby Poway with two female friends enjoying an evening smoking marijuana, playing pool and dancing.

Westerfield was at the same bar, drinking and attempting to strike up a relationship with one of Van Dam's friends. Testimony indicated that the Van Dams had occasionally engaged in spouse swapping.

Feldman argued that the Van Dams' lifestyle left them vulnerable to people who could have become familiar with their home and returned to kidnap their daughter.

Danielle was at home with her father and two brothers when Westerfield entered the house and kidnapped her from her bed.

Because her body was severely decomposed, the county medical examiner was unable to determine how or when she was killed or if she had been sexually molested.

Westerfield was linked to the murder by fibers, blood and fingerprints found in his home, in his recreational vehicle and on the corpse. The "smoking gun" was said to be the discovery of Danielle's blood on Westerfield's jacket and her hair in his bedroom.

"Civilized society cannot contemplate the enormous cruelty shown by the evidence in this case," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeff Dusek, the intense, tight-jawed former minor league baseball player who was the lead prosecutor.

In his last attempt to save Westerfield from death row, Feldman alleged that Dist. Atty. Paul Pfingst decided to seek the death penalty for Westerfield for political reasons. Pfingst was locked in a tight reelection battle with Superior Court Judge Bonnie Dumanis, a race that ended with Dumanis narrowly beating Pfingst.

Judge Mudd, who displayed a volatile temperament throughout the two-month trial, dismissed all of Feldman's objections. "The court finds that the weight of the evidence ... supports the jury's verdict of death," he said.

Mudd added that the death penalty is appropriate because of the "extremely cruel and vicious nature of the crime."

Westerfield becomes the 617th inmate on California's death row. On Thursday, the Van Dams filed a wrongful death suit against Westerfield to prevent him from profiting from selling his story.

Westerfield's home has already been deeded to his attorneys and sold. The Van Dams -- Brenda, a part-time book saleswoman, and Damon, a software engineer -- continue to live in the suburb along the upscale Interstate 15 corridor.

The case generated what Mudd called a "tidal wave" of media coverage, and became the first trial televised from start to finish by local television.

In the months after Danielle's disappearance, the nation was also shocked by several other high-profile crimes against children, including the kidnapping and killing of Samantha Runnion in Orange County.

Even the White House was caught up in the drama of the 25-day search for Danielle and then the trial.

President Bush mentioned Danielle and Samantha last summer in announcing a White House conference on how to protect children "against a wave of horrible violence from twisted criminals in our own communities."

Mudd also sentenced Westerfield to pay $100,000 in fines and restitution, although it is unclear whether Westerfield has any financial resources remaining.

Talking to reporters after the hourlong court hearing, the Van Dams said Danielle's murder shows that children are not entirely safe even in so-called crime-free suburbs.

"How was I to know there was a ticking time bomb two doors away?" Brenda van Dam said.

She added that she was disappointed that Westerfield did not apologize to her family.

"I only hope that when he gets to San Quentin [Prison] that the inmates there have the same hate and anger I have," she said. "I hope he suffers 10 times the pain and fear we suffered."

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