Murder of Danielle van Dam

Danielle van Dam (September 22, 1994 – February 2002)[2][3] was an American girl from the Sabre Springs neighborhood of San Diego, California, who disappeared from her bedroom during the night of February 1–2, 2002. Her body was found by searchers on February 27 in a remote area. Police suspected a neighbor, David Alan Westerfield, of the killing. He was arrested, tried, and convicted of kidnapping and first-degree murder. He was sentenced to death and is currently incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison.

Danielle van Dam
Danielle Nicole Van Dam.jpg
van Dam in 2001[1]
Danielle Nicole Van Dam

(1994-09-22)September 22, 1994
DisappearedFebruary 1, 2002 (aged 7)
Sabre Springs, California, U.S.
Cause of deathHomicide of undetermined etiology
Body discoveredFebruary 27, 2002, Dehesa, California, U.S.
Known forMurder victim
  • Damon van Dam (father)
  • Brenda van Dam (mother)

The crimeEdit

On the evening of Friday, February 1, 2002, Danielle van Dam's mother Brenda and two girlfriends went out to a bar, called Dad's, in Poway. Danielle's father, Damon, stayed at home with Danielle and her two brothers. Damon put Danielle to bed around 10:30 p.m., and she fell asleep. Damon also slept until his wife returned home at around 2:00 a.m. with four of her friends. Brenda noticed a light on the home's security alarm system was flashing, and discovered that the side door to the garage was open.[4] The six chatted for approximately half an hour then Brenda's friends went home. Damon and Brenda went to sleep believing that their daughter was sleeping in her room. About an hour later, Damon awoke and noticed that an alarm light was flashing. He found the sliding glass door leading to the back yard open, so he closed it. The next morning, Danielle was missing, and her parents called the police at 9:39 a.m.

Danielle became the subject of search efforts, with hundreds of volunteers searching deserts, highways and remote areas for weeks. The Laura Recovery Center assisted in organizing the search, and a Danielle Recovery Center was set up in a real estate office in Poway to coordinate the searching.[5] Finally, on February 27, two searchers found her nude, partially decomposed body near a trail in Dehesa, California, an unincorporated town east of San Diego. Some searchers had decided to search the Dehesa Road area, near the trail, after detectives discovered traces of Danielle's blood in David Westerfield's motor home, because Dehesa Road was a possible route Westerfield could have taken to get to the desert.[5] Because of the condition of the body, the coroner was unable to determine the cause of death or whether she was sexually assaulted, and had to use dental records to confirm her identity.[6][7]

David WesterfieldEdit

Westerfield in 2007.

Law enforcement officials interviewed the van Dams' neighbors the Saturday morning of Danielle's disappearance, and discovered that one neighbor, David Westerfield, was not at home. Westerfield (born February 25, 1952) was self-employed as an engineer, 49 years old at the time, and held several patents for medical devices.[8] He graduated from James Madison High School.[9] He had no criminal record at the time, and was a divorced father of two college students. He lived two houses away from the van Dams, and owned a luxury motor home. About three days before Danielle's disappearance, Danielle and Brenda had sold Girl Scout cookies to Westerfield, who invited them into his home. Brenda asked to see his kitchen because she had noticed it was being remodeled when they had sold cookies to him the year before.[10]

On Saturday morning, Westerfield fetched his motor home from another part of town, stocked it with supplies, and left home at 9:50, minutes after Brenda called 911 to report Danielle missing. Westerfield later told police that he had driven around the desert and the beach in his motor home, and had stayed at a beach campground: this was later confirmed by witnesses, cell phone records, gas receipts and credit card records.[11][12] Westerfield said he had intended to go to the desert, but realized he had forgotten his wallet, so instead he drove to the campground at Silver Strand State Beach. He paid in advance for a two-night stay. However, he decided the weather was too cold, so he returned home to look for his wallet, after which he went to the desert.[13] A witness at Silver Strand later testified that he saw Westerfield pull out his wallet while at the campground.[14] He drove to the desert, where he got stuck in the sand on Sunday morning about a quarter mile off the road and needed help from a tow truck to get free.[15]

On his way home on Monday morning, a sleepy-looking and bare-footed Westerfield 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. When law enforcement first interviewed Westerfield, he did not mention going to the dry cleaners, although he detailed almost every other stop on his outing.[16]

Law enforcement placed Westerfield under 24-hour surveillance on February 4,[17] noting that he had given his RV a cleaning when he returned from his trip, although he maintained it was normal for him to do so.[18] His motorhome, SUV, and other property was impounded for testing on February 5.[19]

Westerfield stated that he did not know where Danielle was, but said he had been at the same bar that Brenda had been to that Friday night, which Brenda confirmed.[20]

Arrest and trialEdit

On February 22, police arrested Westerfield for Danielle's kidnapping after two small stains of her blood were found on his clothing and in his motor home. Danielle's partially decomposed body was found February 27.[21] Westerfield pleaded not guilty, and went on trial on June 4, 2002. In pre-trial motions, Westerfield's lawyers moved to have his statements to police excluded, charging that he was unfairly interrogated for more than nine hours by detectives who ignored his repeated requests to call a lawyer, take a shower, eat, and sleep.[22] In the end, the two officers against whom the defense directed their complaint did not testify.

The forensic evidence presented by the prosecution included Danielle's blood stains on Westerfield's jacket and on the floor of his motor home, Danielle's fingerprints in the motor home, hairs from the van Dam family dog on Westerfield's motor home bed comforter, hairs consistent with Danielle's on the sheet of his bed, and matching acrylic fibers found on Danielle's body and in Westerfield's home, among other evidence.[23][24] One witness testified that she had left a side door in the garage unlocked, and prosecutor Jeff Dusek theorized that Westerfield might have entered this way; he emphasized, however, that the prosecution did not have the burden to demonstrate how the kidnapping was done, only that it was done.[23]

During the trial, Westerfield's lawyers suggested that the police were in a rush to solve the case and declined to consider other suspects. They suggested that the child pornography found on Westerfield's computer was downloaded by Westerfield's son, Neal, who was 18 at the time of the murder. In testimony, Neal denied this.[25] Part of Westerfield's defense focused on the lifestyle of Danielle van Dam's parents, who they argued had an open marriage, were swingers, and smoked marijuana in their garage regularly. The defense suggested that because of this lifestyle, there might have been other people in the home that night.[26]

To establish an alibi for Westerfield, the defense called three entomologists who testified that insects first colonized Danielle's body sometime in mid-February, long after Westerfield had been under police surveillance.[27] The prosecution's entomologist testified that Danielle's body could have been colonized as early as February 2.[28]

In closing arguments, Feldman argued that no evidence of Westerfield was found in the van Dam residence[29] or at the body dump site, and that a foreign hair found under Danielle's body was not his.[30][31][32] In rebuttal, Dusek argued that it is plausible for an intruder to enter a home without leaving trace evidence, especially if he is taking appropriate precautions.[33] Conversely, Dusek argued, the nature and volume of Danielle's trace evidence in Westerfield's home and motor home, and on his jacket, allows no reasonable explanation other than guilt.[34]

The trial lasted two months and concluded on August 8. On August 21, the jury found Westerfield guilty of first degree murder, kidnapping, and possession of child pornography.

During the penalty phase of the trial, Westerfield's 19-year-old niece testified that, when she was 7 years old, her uncle entered his daughter's bedroom, where the niece was spending the night with her parents while attending a party, and woke up to find him rubbing her teeth. She said she bit his finger as hard as she could, then went downstairs to tell her mother. Westerfield was questioned about the incident at the time by his sister-in-law, where he explained that he had entered the bedroom to check on the children, and was trying to comfort her. The incident was then forgotten.[35]

The penalty phase ended on September 16 when the jury rendered a verdict of death against Westerfield.[36] In January 2003, Judge William Mudd sentenced Westerfield to death.


Westerfield is currently incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison while his appeal is pending.[37] Because of the continuing 2006 moratorium on executions in California, and the July 2014 ruling on the unconstitutionality of the death penalty in California, it is not known when or if Westerfield will face execution.

The van Dams sued Westerfield, but the case was settled out of court. The van Dams were awarded $416,000 from several insurance companies who insured Westerfield's home, SUV, and motor home. The settlement also prevents Westerfield from ever profiting from his crime.[38]

When the trial was over, the media, quoting unnamed police sources, reported that Westerfield's lawyers were just minutes away from negotiating a plea bargain when a group of private citizen searchers organized by the Laura Recovery Center found Danielle's body. According to these reports, under the deal Westerfield would have taken police to the site where her body was located, in exchange for a sentence of life without parole.[39] Both the prosecution and the defense declined to comment on these reports.[40][41] Many people, including Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly, expressed outrage at the revelation, claiming that Westerfield's attorneys misled the jury by proposing an "unknown kidnapper scenario" even though their client said he knew the location of the body; however, legal specialists pointed out that defense attorneys are obligated to mount a vigorous defense regardless of their own opinion of the client's guilt or innocence.[42]

In the months following the end of the trial, audio tapes of Westerfield being interviewed were released to the media. During his first interview, he is heard to ask an officer to "leave your gun here for a few minutes" in a seeming suggestion that he would like to commit suicide.[43] In one police interview he tells investigators that he doesn't feel emotionally stable. In one interview he is told that he failed a polygraph test; Westerfield says he wants a retest and that he was not involved in Danielle's disappearance.[44]

In late 2003, San Diego police received a letter from an outside party confessing to Danielle's murder. The author claimed to be James Selby, a man accused of various sex-related crimes in five states, including in the San Diego area.[45][46] Both police and Dusek read the letter, and deemed it not credible; however, Dusek forwarded the letter to the office of Westerfield's attorney, Steven Feldman, who declined to comment.[47] Selby, who also claimed responsibility for the slaying of JonBenét Ramsey,[47] committed suicide while awaiting sentencing in Arizona on November 22, 2004.[46][48]

An episode of Animal Witness, an animal-based forensic series on the US TV network Animal Planet, was based on the belief that hairs consistent with Danielle's dog, which were found in Westerfield's laundry, in his RV, and on his comforter at the dry-cleaners, first got onto her pajamas when she cuddled with the dog, and then were carried on the pajamas to his house and RV in accordance with Locard's exchange principle.[49][50]


An overpass on Interstate 8 in El Cajon has been named the Danielle van Dam Memorial Overpass. It is near the place where her body was found.[51]

The years after the murder have led to increased levels of crime awareness in San Diego's neighborhoods as well as the institution of funds and benefits made in her honor. Her family still lives in Southern California. They have formed a Danielle Legacy Foundation which works to "promote volunteerism that will initiate positive changes that will put our children's safety first."[52]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Project, The Angel (2016-01-27). "The Angel Project: Danielle Van Dam". The Angel Project. Retrieved 2016-03-09.
  2. ^ California Legislative Information
  3. ^ CNN
  4. ^ Roth, Alex. “Physical evidence shows Westerfield committed 'evil, evil crime,' prosecutor says," San Diego Union-Tribune, June 7, 2002. Retrieved on 23 February 2013.
  5. ^ a b Madigan, Nick (March 1, 2002). "Grim Guesswork Led to the Body of San Diego Girl". New York Times. Retrieved 8 July 2014.
  6. ^ "Body Confirmed as Danielle van Dam". ABC News. February 28, 2002. Retrieved 8 July 2014.
  7. ^ Roth, Alex. "Will Westerfield face death penalty? Van Dam family wishes, politics may play roles in DA's decision," San Diego Union-Tribune, March 18, 2002. Retrieved April 7, 2015.
  8. ^ Roth, Alex. "Jurors told of love, anguish," San Diego Union-Tribune, August 29, 2002. Retrieved July 8, 2014.
  9. ^ Roth, Alex (4 September 2002). "Ex-neighbors recall loyal friend". The San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  10. ^ Rose, Jeffrey J. “Parents tell of events surrounding Danielle's disappearance," San Diego Union-Tribune, March 14, 2002. Retrieved on March 9, 2013.
  11. ^ Schmidt, Steve, and Joe Hughes. “Volunteer searchers find a body in Dehesa: Parents of young girl 'in a great deal of pain'," San Diego Union-Tribune, February 28, 2002. Retrieved on March 20, 2013.
  12. ^ Magnus, Greg, and Steve Perez. “Westerfield trial moves toward physical evidence," San Diego Union-Tribune, June 17, 2002. Retrieved on March 20, 2013.
  13. ^ Roth, Alex. “Uncoiled hose aroused suspicion, police testify," San Diego Union-Tribune, June 12, 2002. Retrieved on March 5, 2013.
  14. ^ "Transcript of David Westerfield trial". San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved August 8, 2014.
  15. ^ "Tow truck driver: Murder suspect in a hurry". CNN. Retrieved 8 July 2014.
  16. ^ "Clerk says defendant was 'very distant'". San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved November 8, 2006.
  17. ^ Ryan, Harriet, Court TV (June 6, 2002), "Grieving mother recalls day she found her daughter missing". Retrieved on December 18, 2006. Archived February 16, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ Epler, Kimberly. “Accused killer's son takes stand," North County Times, July 24, 2002. Retrieved on May 2, 2007.[dead link]
  19. ^ Hughes, Joe, San Diego Union-Tribune (February 7, 2002), "Anxiety, worries grip missing girl's parents". Retrieved on September 24, 2006.
  20. ^ Perry, Tony (June 11, 2002). "Westerfield Acted 'Creepy,' Witness Says". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 9 August 2014.
  21. ^ Court TV (February 28, 2002), Missing 7-year-old girl believed found near wooded area outside San Diego Archived May 16, 2008, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on October 9, 2006
  22. ^ Court TV (June 3, 2002),"A 'little girl lost' is found dead, allegedly killed by neighbor" Archived April 8, 2007, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on January 16, 2007.
  23. ^ a b "Physical evidence shows Westerfield committed 'evil, evil crime,' prosecutor says". San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved August 7, 2014.
  24. ^ "Jury begins deliberations". San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved August 7, 2014.
  25. ^ "Westerfield's son takes stand against him". CourtTV. Archived from the original on May 15, 2006. Retrieved January 16, 2007.
  26. ^ "'Girls' night out' under scrutiny". San Diego Tribune. Retrieved January 16, 2007.
  27. ^ "When Was Danielle Van Dam Killed?". CourtTV. Archived from the original on October 3, 2002. Retrieved September 19, 2006.
  28. ^ "Transcript of David Westerfield Trial". San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved August 8, 2014.
  29. ^ Dillon, Jeff. “Physical evidence shows Westerfield committed 'evil, evil crime,' prosecutor says," San Diego Union-Tribune, August 6, 2002. Retrieved on February 20, 2013.
  30. ^ McDonald, Jeff, Irene McCormack Jackson and Elizabeth Fitzsimons. “Danielle's parents say 'thank you': Brenda and Damon van Dam issue statement after confirmation of daughter's death,” San Diego Union-Tribune, March 1, 2002. Retrieved April 5, 2013.
  31. ^ Dillon, Jeff. “Orange fibers found on Danielle's body, suspect's laundry,” San Diego Union-Tribune, June 25, 2002. Retrieved April 5, 2013.
  32. ^ Roth, Alex. “Criminalist links hairs, carpet fibers to Danielle: Evidence found in defendant's home,” San Diego Union-Tribune, June 25, 2002. Retrieved April 5, 2013.
  33. ^ "Transcript of David Westerfield trial". San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved August 7, 2014.
  34. ^ "Transcript of David Westerfield trial". San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved August 7, 2014.
  35. ^ Ryan, Harriet, Court TV (August 27, 2002), Niece says Westerfield fondled her when she was 7 Archived September 1, 2007, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on January 14, 2007.
  36. ^ "Jury Recommends Death for Westerfield". San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved August 6, 2014.
  37. ^ "Nearly 30 Reasons for Westerfield Appeal: Attorneys". NBC San Diego. Retrieved August 6, 2014.
  38. ^ "Van Dams settle civil suit against daughter's killer". CourtTV. Archived from the original on August 22, 2007. Retrieved January 16, 2007.
  39. ^ "Plea deal 'minutes away' when body found". =San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved January 17, 2007.
  40. ^ Roth, Alex, San Diego Union-Tribune (December 12, 2002), "A chat room helped Westerfield prosecutors". Retrieved on June 23, 2003.
  41. ^ Roth, Alex, San Diego Union-Tribune (January 3, 2003), "Child killer has proclaimed innocence in cards, visits". Retrieved on October 16, 2006.
  42. ^ Roth, Alex (September 18, 2002). "Defenders in eye of public storm". Copley News Service. Retrieved 8 August 2014.
  43. ^, 2003.
  44. ^ San Diego Union Tribune (January 9, 2003) "Westerfield failed polygraph test" access date September 19, 2006
  45. ^ Flick, A.J., Tucson Citizen (December 10, 2004), "Case of convicted rapist Selby has cold ending" Archived 2016-03-03 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved March 7, 2014.
  46. ^ a b Jones, J. Harry, San Diego Union-Tribune (November 23, 2004), "Rapist linked to S.D. assaults commits suicide in his jail cell". Retrieved March 8, 2014.
  47. ^ a b "David Westerfield's Letters from Death Row". News 8 KFMB. Archived from the original on June 22, 2007. Retrieved August 8, 2014.
  48. ^ "Rapist's 'confessions' could reopen a case". Tucson Citizen. Archived from the original on September 26, 2007. Retrieved October 6, 2006.
  49. ^ Epler, Kimberly. “Hair in Westerfield home similar to Danielle's," North County Times, June 24, 2002. Retrieved on April 16, 2007.
  50. ^ “Follow Me Layla,” Archived 2014-08-10 at the Wayback Machine LocateTV, Animal Witness, Season 1, Episode 9, September 24, 2008. Retrieved on November 14, 2012.
  51. ^ "East County overpass named for Danielle van Dam". San Diego Union Tribune. July 10, 2004. Retrieved 8 July 2014.
  52. ^ "Home". Danielle Legacy Foundation. Retrieved 8 July 2014.

External linksEdit