Did David Westerfield Kidnap and Murder Danielle van Dam?
In 2002, 7-year-old Danielle van Dam was reported missing from her San Diego home. She had apparently been kidnapped, and just two days later, the police decided that the kidnapper was her 49-year-old neighbor David Westerfield - which is surprising as he had never done anything at all like this before - and he was placed under round-the-clock surveillance. This quickly became a high profile case, it was frequently discussed on shows such as CNN’s Larry King Live, it was even mentioned by President Bush, and it launched the “Summer of Child Abductions”. Danielle’s body was found nearly a month later, by which time Westerfield had already been arrested. Within just months he was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death. But did he do it? I shall now examine the facts.
Overview of case
Westerfield was a design engineer who worked from home. He was divorced with two children in college, a girl and a boy, the latter a teen who lived with him part-time. He had lived in this house since 1997. Until they first broke up about a couple of years earlier, his girlfriend had also lived there, and her older daughter and grandson as well. Danielle’s family consisted of her parents, Damon (aged 36) and Brenda (39), and both an older and a younger brother (ages 9 and 5). They also had a young dog, a large and active Weimaraner. They had lived in that house for about three years. Damon was a software engineer, and Brenda a stay-at-home mom, though she had started working from home. They were swingers, though apparently hadn’t done much swinging. They also smoked marijuana, which was illegal.
A year earlier, Danielle had sold Girl Scout cookies to Westerfield (among other neighbors), and then gift wrap before Christmas.
On Friday evening, January 25, 2002, Westerfield was at a local restaurant and bar, and so was Brenda with two of her girlfriends, on a “girls’ night out”. The three women drew attention to themselves with their sexually provocative inebriated behavior.
On some day the following week, Danielle walked around the neighborhood with her mother and younger brother, selling Girl Scout cookies. They went inside Westerfield’s house as Brenda was curious to see his kitchen, which was being remodeled during their previous cookie sale.
The next Friday evening, February 1st, Westerfield was again at that bar, and so were Brenda and her girlfriends for another “girls’ night out”. He socialized briefly with them. They again drew attention to themselves with their inebriated behavior - and they invited strangers home for sex, but those invitations were rejected. They had smoked a little marijuana at Brenda’s house, and smoked some more in the parking lot at the bar. While there, they met two male friends of theirs. Westerfield left some time before midnight; Brenda, her two girlfriends and their two male friends, left when the bar closed at 2 a.m. They all went to her home, where they socialized together with Damon for about half-an-hour, before returning to their homes.
Later that Saturday morning, at about 7:45, Westerfield drove his SUV to where his large RV had been stored since the previous November (after complaints about it being parked outside his house), then brought his RV back home where he cleaned its windows, filled it with water, and stocked up on groceries. At about 9:30 he left home, intending to go to the desert (a frequent destination), but realized he didn’t have his wallet and therefore didn’t have enough money for gas for such a long trip, so he went to the nearby Silver Strand beach instead (another frequent destination), where there were other people in close proximity, including a party of off-duty police officers. At about the same time that he left, Brenda discovered that Danielle wasn’t in her bed. After a brief search, she dialed 911. The police soon arrived, and then there began a massive search for her.
Meanwhile, Westerfield decided the weather at the Strand wasn’t to his liking (it was at least partly cloudy, and he wanted the sun), so that afternoon he returned home to look for his wallet so he could go to the desert. Probably shortly before 4:30 p.m., he entered the neighborhood in his RV, and discovered the large police presence. He spoke to some neighbors who were watching the activities to enquire what was happening, and also spoke to one of Brenda’s girlfriends from the bar, who had come to be interviewed by the police.
Not finding his wallet at home, he left for the RV’s storage location, and found it in his SUV. He then filled up with gas and drove to the desert, probably arriving there shortly before 10:30 p.m. He spent some time unsuccessfully looking for friends, but the RV got stuck in the desert sand. So he spent the night there, and had to summon the help of a tow truck to pull the RV free the next morning, Sunday. It was now probably after 1 p.m. He then drove to a couple of places in the desert, looking for a site where he could camp with his son during the upcoming long (Presidents Day) weekend, then returned to San Diego. He had intended spending the night at the Strand, but arrived after the gates were closed (it was probably 8 p.m., and the gates closed at 7 p.m. in winter), so he stayed instead in the residential area opposite, maybe at the Yacht Club. The next morning, Monday, he drove his RV back to its storage location, then drove his SUV back home, arriving probably shortly before 8:30.
Soon after arriving home, he went outside to fetch his mail, at which time he was seen by a waiting police officer. Then began a long series of interviews with the police. They briefly searched his house, then went with him to his RV to briefly search that, then back to his house for a dog search at around lunchtime. After a gap of about an hour and a half, he went to the police station for a more intensive interrogation, including a lie detector test. They kept him there until almost midnight, and then followed him home, where he wasn’t allowed in while they waited for a search warrant. And his son, who was there, was told to leave. A much more thorough search of his house was then conducted. Later that morning - it was now Tuesday - they took him on a trip to retrace his weekend trip to the desert.
In the subsequent weeks, there was further intense investigation of him, culminating in his arrest on February 22 after two small stains of Danielle’s blood were identified: one drop on his RV carpet, and a small and very faint stain on his jacket (it couldn’t even be seen on the photo shown in court). This was believed to be a violent sexual crime on a small girl, so where was all the other blood you would expect? Her body was found five days later under an oak tree in a meadow off a dirt track at Dehesa, a rural area some 25 miles by road southeast of her home. This was well south of the northerly route he took to and from the desert, a route confirmed by cell-phone records and gas receipts.
His trial began on June 4, and was broadcast live on radio and TV. He was convicted on August 21, and was sentenced to death on January 3, 2003. He has now been on Death Row in San Quentin for 15 years. His automatic appeal should be heard soon.
There are a number of reasons the police suspected him, and did so so quickly. For example, he went away shortly after Danielle went missing (despite the fact that he returned home twice that same day). He knew about her upcoming father-daughter dance, which Brenda said she hadn’t told him about (so they believed her over him, despite the fact that she and Damon had lied to the police to conceal their illegal marijuana use and swinging). The lie detector operator said he failed that test (despite the fact that lie detectors aren’t that reliable, and this particular test, by an operator who believed him guilty, was apparently seriously flawed). There was a lot of pornography on his computer (despite the fact that none of it was clearly child pornography, most was clearly not, and only a few images were “questionable”, and those images were old and had been seldom and not recently viewed, and it wasn’t even certain it was he who had downloaded them).
It’s also difficult to believe the prosecution’s theory of the abduction. They argued that, some time after leaving the bar, but while Brenda and friends were still there, Westerfield had entered the van Dam home through an unlocked side door, triggering their burglar alarm, which gave both an audible and a visual warning. (He would first have had to climb over the van Dams’ high side gate, yet he’s overweight and doesn’t look athletic.) At this time, Damon, the three children, and their dog were at home, but heard nothing. Brenda then returned from the bar with her four friends, trapping Westerfield inside. She noticed the burglar alarm light, so she searched for the open door and closed it, without investigating further or checking on her children - she just closed their bedroom doors. Damon joined the group, and the dog was running around freely, but none of them noticed the intruder, not even Brenda, even though the intruder was likely inside Danielle’s room when she closed that door (and Westerfield is a large man). The four friends then left, and the parents went to bed, so the intruder took the opportunity to escape, taking Danielle with him out through the sliding door at the rear of the house (why would he have used a different route?), again triggering the burglar alarm, but again no one heard anything - not him, not the kidnapping, not the burglar alarm, nothing. Some time later, Damon awoke and noticed the alarm light. So he investigated, discovered the sliding door open, and closed it but, like Brenda before him, didn’t investigate further.
Physical evidence is important, so it is important to note that the police could find no evidence Westerfield had been in the van Dam house: no fingerprints, no hair, no DNA, no fibers, nothing, even the police’s search dogs couldn’t detect his scent there. There were unidentified fingerprints there, and unidentified DNA in blood on her bed, the bed she was taken from, but no evidence of Westerfield. Nor could they find any evidence that he had been at the body recovery site: again no hair etc., no footprints or tire tracks, and no soil or vegetation on his shoes or his RV. There was an unidentified hair under her body, but no evidence of Westerfield. (There was an orange fiber tangled in her hair which matched some fibers in his house (but not in his RV), but she could have picked that up during the cookie sale - or maybe all those orange fibers came from her own home, and were shed in his house during the cookie sale. And there were many other fibers found with her body which didn’t match anything of his.) How could he be the culprit if he hadn’t been at either of the two crime scenes? There was only a small amount of evidence of Danielle in his environment (the two small blood stains, one fingerprint, and a few hairs, no fibers), and a small amount is exactly what you would expect from close neighbors and her known innocent visits. What’s more important is that there was evidence that this physical evidence was old. In particular, the search dogs did not alert to her scent in his environment, which they should easily have detected had she been there as recently as the weekend of her kidnapping.
How could the crime laboratory not do everything possible to identify that unknown blood, hair and fingerprints? And why weren’t the jury, the journalists and the public outraged at this failure?
Additionally, the insects on her body showed that it had only been placed there at least several days after Westerfield could have done so. In fact, the most likely date was the 17th of the month, implying she most probably only died two weeks after she was abducted. Which is particularly significant as, just two days earlier (on the 15th), someone had phoned Brenda, informing her that Danielle was alive but abused. It is also significant that both the insect expert hired by the police (but who eventually testified for the defense), and the insect expert hired by the prosecution, put the date well after Westerfield could have dumped the body. How often does a prosecution witness give evidence against the prosecution? And how often does a jury believe the prosecutor and not the scientific evidence?
So why did the jury decide he was guilty? I think it was due to emotion. They were upset by the horror of the crime, the condition of the body, and by a set of violent video clips found on his computer (though it’s a real stretch to believe that someone could be so strongly influenced by images which hadn’t been viewed by him or anyone else in months - since November 18 - that he would kidnap and kill a child). They must also have been influenced by Samantha Runnion’s mother. Samantha, aged 5 and also from California, was kidnapped and murdered during Westerfield’s trial, and her mother vociferously blamed a previous jury for having freed the man suspected of her killing, in a previous trial. Westerfield’s jury must have feared he was guilty despite the weak evidence of guilt and strong evidence of innocence, and didn’t want a repeat of Samantha. And I believe they were afraid of the angry public. They weren’t sequestered, so they were well aware of the community anger, stoked by the media. Two of them had been followed to their vehicles, and they didn’t want their identities revealed.
We must also take into account that, a year later, someone else confessed to killing Danielle. This was James Selby. Not only was he a convicted serial rapist, but his victims included girls not much older than Danielle, and his crimes included kidnapping and attempted murder. All this makes him a very likely suspect in the crimes against Danielle, but law enforcement quickly dismissed his confession, apparently after only a cursory investigation.
Based on all this evidence, I believe that David Westerfield is innocent, and should definitely not have been convicted.
Numerous media reports, especially those by Court TV, the North County Times, and the San Diego Union Tribune. Regrettably, most of these articles are no longer available, but the Union-Tribune coverage, including the transcripts of the trial, can still be found at: