SAN DIEGO, CA — On February 1, 2002, at about 10 P.M., seven-year-old Danielle van Dam was tucked into bed by her father, Damon, at their family home in the Sabre Springs neighborhood of San Diego, California.
Her mother, Brenda, and two girlfriends had gone out to a bar, so Damon stayed at home to look after Danielle and her two brothers. When Brenda came home at around 2 A.M., she noticed that a light on the home’s alarm system was flashing, and soon discovered that the side door to the garage was open.
But nothing in the house appeared to be out of place, so the couple, who practiced a sexually open lifestyle, continued to hang out with the two women, smoking marijuana. Damon and one of the women went upstairs to the bedroom to fool around for a while, with Brenda’s permission. After the party died down and the other women left, Brenda and Damon went to bed.
The next morning, the van Dams woke up to find that Danielle was missing. The search for the little girl became one of the largest search efforts in California history, with hundreds of volunteers scouring deserts and roadways for weeks.
Investigators became interested in one of the family’s neighbors, a 49-year-old self-employed, divorced engineer named David Westerfield. Westerfield, a father of two, appeared to be a regular guy with no criminal record. But detectives became suspicious after coming into his home to interview him.
San Diego Police Department detective Mo Parga would later tell the San Diego Tribune about the day she went into Westerfield’s home with her partner. She said that Westfield invited her into his house, and appeared to be flirting with her as he offered to fix her lunch — which she declined. Parga then noticed a “cut-out catalog picture of a child’s bed” on the counter. “I’m thinking, Wow! This is spooky,” she said.
She then noticed that he had a Toyota 4Runner in the garage that had been recently cleaned — and immediately suspected that he may have used the vehicle to transport Danielle to his motor home.
Minutes after Danielle was reported missing, Westerfield went to another part of town to get his motor home. He later told investigators that he had meant to go to the desert, but decided on Silver Strand State Beach as a destination after realizing that he had forgotten his wallet. He then claimed that his motor home became stuck when he was en route home to retrieve his wallet.
On his way home on Monday morning, a tired-looking and bare-footed Westerfield, wearing only underwear, stopped at his regular dry cleaners and dropped off two comforters, two pillow covers, and a jacket that would later yield traces of Danielle’s blood.
Investigators eventually found Danielle’s blood and hair evidence in his house, the Toyota, and the motor home. He was arrested for kidnapping on February 22. Authorities say Westerfield entered the van Dam home through the unlocked side garage door and hid in Danielle’s dark bedroom for an hour before abducting her.
Searchers decided to check a route that they believed he could have used to get through to the desert and, on February 27, two searchers found Danielle’s nude, partially decomposed body near a trail in Dehesa.
During the trial, Westerfield’s lawyers suggested that the police were in a rush to solve the case, so declined to consider other suspects. The defense also focused on the lifestyle of Danielle van Dam’s parents, interrogating them about their marijuana usage, and implying that their open marriage left their daughter vulnerable to other partners who would be in their house.
Some media outlets at the time were brutally critical of the parents, and quoted several local residents who stated that they believed that the parents’ lifestyle may have played a role in their daughter’s fate.
Nevertheless, on August 21, the jury found Westerfield guilty of first-degree murder, kidnapping, and possession of child pornography.
In January 2003, Judge William Mudd sentenced Westerfield to death. He is currently incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison.
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Main photo: Danielle van Dam [Wikimedia Commons]