Skip to comments.Anatomy Of A Murder: Westerfield vs. Van Dams (A Mother's Story)
Posted on 06/27/2002 6:47:45 AM PDT by FresnoDA
Amid the superstores and strip malls that pass for community in the suburbs of San Diego, some small-town traditions remain. Parents still come out to watch their kids play Little League baseball, just like their parents did.
Theres sunshine and sunflower seeds. Dirt and grass.
But in the Carmel Mountain Ranch Little League, grass is a touchy subject this season. Parents have admitted smoking it, and one of them says a coach supplied it.
Grass. Marijuana, that is.
The coach is Rich Brady (not the well-known San Diego clothier with the same name). Some wanted Brady to resign, but others involved with his team threatened to pull their children out of the league if he left, according to a league official. Brady declined comment on the subject. The dispute went all the way to Little League headquarters in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
The Carmel Mountain Ranch league was covering its bases, according to the league official. The general consensus from everyone involved is unless the man is charged with something, and his performance on the field is affected by choices in his personal life, at this point there are no grounds to remove him, the official says.
Rich Brady is still coaching, but Its one of those situations where we wish he would go away quietly, says another coach.
And who is the parent who says Brady supplied marijuana?
Brenda van Dam.
The disappearance of her 7-year-old daughter, Danielle, set off a San Onofresize chain reaction in San Diego on February 2. Three days later, Brenda and her husband, Damon, were on national television, pleading for Danielles return. They kept making pleas in daily news conferences before dozens of reporters and photographers outside their Sabre Springs homewith the man suspected of abducting their daughter just two doors away.
Police quickly focused on the neighbor, David Westerfield, as thousands of volunteers kept searching for Danielle. Twenty days after she disappeared, the cops arrested Westerfield, who pleaded not guilty to murdering her. It took five more days for searchers to find Danielles body, under a tree by a road in East County.
Westerfields murder trialhe faces the death penaltywas scheduled to start May 17. A judge imposed a gag order on most of the trial participantsincluding the van Dams, the police and the district attorney. San Diego Magazine offered each a chance to comment for this story. They either declined, citing the gag order, or did not respond.
The van Dams
Despite the reluctance of many in the media to explore the van Dams lifestyle choices, one thing is clear: The question of lifestyleboth the Van Dams and that of their neighbor, David Westerfieldis very likely to be a central issue in Westerfields murder trial. And it will be impossible for the media to ignore.
Looking back, Brenda van Dam called it a girls night out. Thats how she described an evening of drinking and dancing with her two girlfriends, on the same night her daughter disappeared. Brenda offered the following version of events that evening:
The three women met two men at a bar. Brady was one of them. They went back to the van Dam house about 2 a.m. Damon van Dam, who had remained home with Danielle and her two brothers, joined the group to eat leftover pizza. The pizza party broke up around 3 a.m., and the van Dams went to bed.
Later that morning, about 9 a.m., the van Dams discovered their daughter was missing.
In the days following Danielles disappearance, allegations about her parents lifestyle began to emerge. There was talk of spouse-swapping and drug use by the van Dams. It had the makings of a public relations nightmare.
At that time, attention was starting to get diverted to allegations of family lifestyle, says a spokeswoman for Fleishman Hillard, an international public relations and communications firm. A week after Danielle disappeared, four employees from the firms San Diego office started working with the van Dams as unpaid volunteers.
The spokeswoman says the van Dams needed help also because of the news crushthe sheer number of reporters now working the storyand the fear other news [stories] would begin to override the search for Danielle. At that point, there was still a child missing, she says. That was the concern.
The Fleishman Hillard employees worked with the van Dams for eight days, but the spokeswoman says the pair didnt need any coaching. In the media, there was a lot of second-guessing, a lot of speculation that the van Dams were heavily media trained. Frankly, thats not true. They knew what they wanted to say; they knew where they wanted the attention to stay focused. We just helped them along.
The spokeswoman has nothing but praise for the van Damsas people and as parents. I dont know that I could have been that strong. I think their strength came from the belief they were doing the right thing in trying to find their daughter. I dont think many people would have been as brave as the van Dams, she says. They were so selfless ... putting themselves through public scrutiny. They proved themselves to be ... good parents [who] do everything they can for their children. Thats exactly what they did.
The public saw another side of the van Dams during David Westerfields preliminary hearing in March. Thats when Brenda described a previous girls night outon January 25, a week before Danielle disappeared. On that night, Brenda testified, she saw Westerfield at Dads, a restaurant and bar in Poway, and he bought her alcohol. But she said she couldnt remember how many drinks she had.
A week later, on February 1, Brenda testified, she, her husband and her two girlfriends smoked marijuana in the van Dam garage. Then the three women went back to Dads for their second girls night out in eight days. Westerfield was back at the bar, too. Brenda testified she and her two girlfriends smoked marijuana again that night in the parking lot at Dadsmarijuana supplied by Rich Brady, the Little League coach.
Brenda acknowledged she told police her two girlfriends were dancing in a sexually provocative manner, rubbing their bodies together. One of the girlfriends, identified as Barbara Easton, tried to grab Brendas breasts, according to the statement Brenda gave investigators.
Westerfields attorney, Steven Feldman, pressed Brenda about her relationship with Easton. Would you characterize Barbara Easton as an intimate friend of yours? Feldman asked.
What do you mean by intimate? Brenda said.
Very close ... sexually very close, Feldman said.
The prosecution objected, and the judge ruled Brenda did not have to answer the question.
When Brenda and her friends came back to the van Dam house on February 1, Easton went upstairs to see Damon van Dam. Under questioning from Westerfields attorney, Damon admitted he initially withheld information from police about what he did with Easton. When he did provide details, he acknowledged telling investigators that Easton got in bed with him. Later during the same hearing, he testified he and Easton kissed and he rubbed her back while he lay in bedbut she was on top of the covers.
Every few years, San Diego hits a lottery no one wants to win. Something really bad happens, and it makes national news. Heavens Gate. Santana High. Danielle van Dam.
She was reported missing at the start of the February ratings period, when TV stations measure audiences to determine advertising rates. There were no other big national stories in early February. There was no news from Afghanistan. The Olympics hadnt started. Enron had already been imploding for a while.
Its a pretty sensational story, says Mike Stutz, news director for KGTV (Channel 10). It certainly generated tons of interest. We saw it in the numbers [ratings]. There were different approaches in terms of how the van Dams personal life was reported. We stayed away from getting into that, not knowing if it had anything to do with the actual crime itself.
At an April 27 Society of Professional Journalists seminar, held on the campus of Point Loma Nazarene University to examine the van Dam coverage, Stutz and KNSD (Channel 7/39) news director Jim Sanders defended their decisions to not air information about the familys lifestyle. Sanders says he confirmed lifestyle reports from two credible sources, but chose not to air the information unless the police department told us it was relevant to the case.
Stutz says ratings had nothing to do with way the story was covered. [But] its nice to have em come along, he says. I didnt approach it [as] Okay, we gotta get a big number here, lets have more Westerfield.
But there was a missing girlwearing a choker and a 7-year-olds smile.
The national networks had their angle. Grieving parents make great television, news professionals say. And those news pros believe the networks go easy on the lifestyle aspect. Shaking her head and looking down, Diane Sawyer seemed barely able to ask the question about the rumors when she interviewed the van Dams via satellite on Good Morning America.
The networks, according to insiders, dont want to ruin their chances for any future access to the van Damssuch as that big sit-down interviewonce the trials over. So they make nice with them, in the words of one producer who made a special trip to San Diego for that very reason.
The tabloids were in town as well, and they had their angle. Danielle was the new JonBenet Ramsey. The two had a lot in common. They were cute little girls, both from relatively affluent neighborhoods, and TV stations across the country played home video of them incessantly.
Who can forget the images of JonBenet performing in that cowboy outfit? And who can forget those images of Danielle playing to the camera, being a happy 7-year-old?
The tabloids played up the van Dams lifestyle, too. But the local media, with the exception of radio talk show host Rick Roberts, didnt talk very much about that. Instead, they were making some bizarre comments about the case.
On the air, KUSI (Channel 51) reporter Paul Bloom said he was not allowed to think about certain aspects of the investigation. San Diego Magazine asked Bloom what he meant. As a journalist, he says, Im not allowed to speculate, or think that way at all. Bloom adds he was happy with the way he covered the story. Every day of the week there was a new rumor ... new speculation. There was no confirmation that it had anything to do with Danielles disappearance.
Instead of questioning the van Dams lifestyle, the local media went with one of its favorite anglesfear. [Its] Polly Klaas redux, KUSIs John Soderman told viewers, referring to the Northern California girl abducted at home and murdered by a stranger in 1993.
The media didnt know if that was the case. David Westerfield was no stranger to the van Dams. Brenda and her daughter even went to Westerfields house a few days before she disappearedto sell Girl Scout cookies. Westerfield bought one box of Thin Mints from Danielle and her mother, according to her testimony in court. During that visit, Brenda testified that she asked to go inside Westerfields house to look at his remodeled kitchen, while Danielle went in the backyard to look at the pool.
Danielle van Dam wasnt another Polly Klaas.
In an interview with San Diego Magazine, Soderman defends his Polly Klaas analogy. Basically, if Westerfield did it, you still have somebody in your neighborhood who scooped up your child, he says.
I think [readers and viewers] were frightened needlessly, says Dean Nelson, founder and director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University. Im not ready to demonize [the media], but I wish they were more skeptical.
The media have a tough job, Nelson says, because they cant be too skeptical, either. Lets say something else happened, and a warning could have served the public well ... Police say Lock your doors, and the media say, Oh, thats bogus, theyre just buying time.
But the police were clearly buying time following Danielles disappearance, according to Nelson. The police knew this was not a stranger, he says. I dont fault the police department, because they knew that was going to be a temporary fear, because they knew who they wanted: Now we can all breathe easier. Okay, it was somebody down the street, so I guess it wasnt a stranger after all.
At 2:30 in the morning on February 5, homicide investigators from the San Diego Police Department are standing outside David Westerfields house, preparing to go inside and search it. Sergeant Bill Holmes is one of the cops.
Sergeant Holmes, what are you doing here? a reporter asks.
Were here to relieve robbery, he says. Robbery detectives had also been assigned to Danielles case.
At 2:30 in the morning? Thats some pretty high-priced talent.
Holmes smiles. Thats the way they want it, he says.
Over the next several hours, Holmes and his crew search Westerfields house. Its easy to track their progress. They take dozens of pictures before dawn, and the flash from the camera lights up the windows in each room.
Sergeant Holmes, you werent here to relieve robbery, the reporter says to him when he comes outside.
Holmes smiles again. Well, we were. Kinda. Sorta.
Police arranged to have search warrants in the case sealed by the court, so the media couldnt find out what investigators took from Westerfields home. It was an extraordinary effort to keep the information confidential. And it was a spectacular failure.
Sources close to the investigation started talking about the van Dams lifestyle almost immediately. Then came reports of blood in Westerfields motor home, and child pornography on his computer.
The cops were furious, according to those same sources. The police department threatened to fire anyone who talked about the case. They were after the leaks, a source says.
Police acknowledge being angry over the leaks. Yeah, we were pissed off, says Steve Creighton, an assistant chief. But he says the leaks did not result in any large-scale internal investigation. Its not even a blip on the radar screen.
Two police detectives, Michael Ott and Mark Keyser, made big news for the department when they arrested Westerfield. Then they made news again, in a rather embarrassing way. Ott and Keyser attempted to visit Westerfield in jailwithout his attorney present. The police department reportedly reprimanded them.
Westerfields legal team started hammering Ott and Keyser, saying they had repeatedly violated Westerfields rights during the investigation. The lawyers released a memo from the district attorneys office saying the two detectives made false statements during another murder investigation two years ago. Westerfields lawyers used that memo in a legal maneuver
to review the personnel files of Ott, Keyser and 10 other police officers involved in the case for any reports of misconduct during their careers. Judge William Mudd ruled the defense could have information from the file of one unidentified officer.
I think its safe to say Ott and Keyser are the Mark Fuhrmans of the Westerfield trial, says a court insider, referring to the rogue cop vilified by the defense in the O.J. Simpson case.
The pressure of such a high-profile investigation was getting to the cops. The detectives are sick of it, a source says. Others say there were even references to the case as The Isle of the van Damned.
Creighton says he had not heard the detectives were sick of the case. But theyre tired, he says. Its a long and involved case, with a lot of long hours.
The San Diego Police Department continued to handle the case with the utmost of care. Chief David Bejarano himself went to the van Dams home to meet with the family when Danielles body was identified. Then he talked to reporters. But at a follow-up news conference downtown, it wasnt the police chief running the show.
It was District Attorney Paul Pfingst, who is running for reelection.
The District Attorney
The timing was interesting. Just four days before the primary election, Pfingst appeared on live television, talking about one of the biggest developments in the case yet. He thanked the volunteers who worked so hard to find Danielle. He expressed the emotions felt by law enforcement and everyone else in San Diego over the murder of a 7-year-old girl.
Politicians live for moments such as this, especially politicians who have not been getting good media coverage. Pfingsts opponents had been relentlessly criticizing him, pointing out ethical lapses and declining morale in his office. But all that was getting pushed aside by news about Danielledelivered by the district attorney himself.
He was doing it for one reason onlythat is, for the election, says Deputy District Attorney Dave Stutz, a longtime critic of Pfingst. He was grandstanding and campaigning. He took advantage of free press during a campaign. Once again, it shows he makes his decisions based on politics.
Citing the gag order imposed on everyone involved with David Westerfields trial, a spokeswoman in the district attorneys office says Pfingst wont commentnot even to deny Stutz accusations. But Pfingsts former spokeswoman, Gayle Falkenthal, comes to his defense.
I cant believe anyone in their right mind would think that Paul Pfingst wished this case into being, just for an election, says Falkenthal, now the vice president of marketing and communications for the San Diego Convention Center Corporation. Because charges had already been filed against Westerfield, she says, the district attorneys office was in charge of the case not the police. So it was appropriate for Pfingst to take over the news conference, according to Falkenthal.
In my opinion, if the district attorney had really wanted to grandstand, he could have handled [Westerfields] arraignment himself, he could have been at the courthouse every day, he could have been at the parents home, she says. He didnt do any of that. There were lots of opportunities. He didnt do any of them.
Pfingst is in a runoff in November with the runner-up in the primary, Superior Court Judge Bonnie Dumanis. Westerfields trial may be a factor in the election.
Its heavy stuff. Careers could be on the line. Reputations may be damaged. Lives have been changed forever. Those are the big themes, playing out before a national audience.
But the case also shows up in small ways, in everyday conversation in Sabre Springs, where Danielle lived. A neighbor tells a story about planning a party. He calls to invite his friends who live in other parts of the city. What kind of party? they ask. A wife-swapping party?
His neighborhood now has a new nickname: Sabre Swings.
Undeserved or not, such has been the fallout. But is the van Dams lifestyle relevant in the Westerfield trial? Thats a question that was finally left for a judge to decide.
Wonder why they all got 10am phone calls but didn't go help look or anything?
You forgot the ruby slippers and Febreze. Please try again.
It's past my bedtime again so goodnight all.
Walking down the street before 1:45 in the morning, carrying your neighbors daughter that you have just snatched from her bed....without one neighbor or someone driving thru the neighborhood seeing him....even if he pulled his SUV up to the curb and put her in there and then drove around the block into his garage....nobody saw or heard and a trace of her was not left in the SUV.
And why take her to his house at all??
MR. FELDMAN: YOUR HONOR, BUT WHILE WE'RE STILL HERE, IF I MAY, THERE'S AN ISSUE OF REBUTTAL, TOO. THE PROSECUTION HAS GIVEN US MANY OTHER WITNESSES, AND WE WANT TO MAKE SURE THAT THERE'S NO SANDBAGGING. THEY KNOW WE'RE CALLING FAULKNER OR WE'RE LIKELY TO CALL FAULKNER WHO IS THE FORENSIC ENTOMOLOGIST WHO'S WRITTEN A REPORT THAT SPECIFICALLY SAYS DANIELLE VAN DAM COULD NOT HAVE BEEN IN THE LOCATION SHE WAS ANY SOONER THAN THE 16TH. THAT'S WHAT THE REPORT --
MR. CLARKE: EXCUSE ME, YOUR HONOR. THAT'S ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT.
MR. DUSEK: WHAT HE SAYS IS UNIMPORTANT AT THIS POINT UNLESS WE'RE TRYING TO INFLUENCE THE JURORS OUT THERE WATCHING THIS ON T.V.
THE COURT: THEY BETTER NOT BE WATCHING IT ON T.V.
MR. FELDMAN: I WOULD HOPE NOT...
MR. FELDMAN: I WOULD HOPE NOT.
BUT I'M GETTING PRESSED FOR OFFERS. I'M JUST TRYING TO ARTICULATE THIS POSITION. THEY KNOW WHAT FAULKNER HAS TO SAY, WHATEVER, HOWEVER THEY WANT TO SPIN IT, THEY KNOW WHAT THE REPORT SAYS. THAT DOES NOT IN OUR VIEW ENTITLE THEM TO SANDBAG THE JURY AND THE COURT TO SPRING A BUNCH OF DEHESA WITNESSES, AND THERE ARE NUMEROUS WITNESSES THAT HAVE BEEN COMING TO US IN THE DISCOVERY, NUMEROUS, MAYBE TEN, MAYBE MORE THAN THAT, I CAN'T SPECIFICALLY RECALL THE NUMBERS, IN VERY LATE REPORTS, WITHIN THE LAST COUPLE, THREE WEEKS. WE KEEP GETTING REPORTS BECAUSE THE INVESTIGATION, ACCORDING TO THE PROSECUTION, IS ONGOING. BUT WE DON'T WANT TO BE IN A POSITION WHERE WE ARE GOING TO GET AMBUSHED.
So it appears that it is the prosecution who will have witnesses from Dehesa - not the Defense.
Since the prosecution might call (not definite) only one more witness, when would the parade of Dehesa witnesses come forth? Can the prosecution still call witnesses after they rest? I had originally thought that Feldman said that many Dehesa witnesses were coming forward TO THE DEFENSE. Guess the transcript states otherwise, but why are they coming so late -- last 3 weeks? Do they want their 5 mins. of fame, too? If they knew anything, they should've come forward in February/March, not in June right before the prosecution rests.
That's an understatement.
Hmmm. That could mean only one thing: It's time for the fifth annual Take Your Daughter to the Snow Week, which takes place Jan. 28-Feb. 3.
Once again Picabo Street, the two-time Olympic medalist (super-G gold in '98, downhill silver in '94), is the official spokesperson for the nationwide event, and she heartily endorses the promotion.
"Participating in snowsports is a great way for a family to enjoy exercise and the great outdoors together," she says. "Daughter Week offers something for everyone. I invite you to take advantage of the many activities being offered for alpine and nordic skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers."
Another Olympic veteran, Nina Kemppel, who recently won her 16th national cross country ski championship, is also an enthusiastic backer of Daughter Week. "Cross country skiing is my passion and I want everybody possible to share it with me," she says. "I encourage all moms and dads to take your daughters out to the ski trails."
Many of the ski and snowboard resorts in California and Nevada are partaking in Daughter Week to various degrees, with discounted lift tickets and/or lessons being the major draw. However, some resorts are limiting the promotion to parents and their adolescent (or younger) children, while others will include women of any age or relationship (nieces, moms, grandmoms, sisters, etc); it's best to check with specific resorts to find out what they are offering.
Resorts within the Cantina's sphere of influence participating in Daughter Week include Badger Pass, Bear Valley, Bear Valley Cross Country Center, Big Bear Mountain, Diamond Peak, Dodge Ridge, Homewood, Kirkwood, Montecito-Sequoia Lodge Cross Country Center, Mountain High, Mount Rose, Northstar-at-Tahoe, Royal Gorge, Snow Summit, Snow Valley, Squaw Valley, Sugar Bowl and Tahoe Donner. Also, two retail chains (Any Mountain in the Bay Area and Peter Glenn of Vermont in Southern California) will have Daughter Week promotions.
Ok, I see what you mean. On some of the websites that deal with traing the dog, it mentions the dog might alert at a spot without the target --the body was put down for a few minutes.
I seem to remember a factoid that a dog could search on a "live" scent (lost children, prison escapees, etc.) up to 48 hours old. I'd think the "dead" scent would be about the same.
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