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Girl's body found near El Cajon

February 28, 2002|By DARREN SIMON and SETH HETTENA

Staff and Associated Press Writers

The search for 7-year-old Danielle van Dam may have come to and end with the discovery of the burned remains of a child's body in a remote area of east San Diego County.

San Diego authorities on Wednesday, hours after the body was found by volunteer searchers, voiced confidence the body was that of Danielle, who has been missing from her home since Feb. 2.

Authorities have said they could confirm the identity of the remains as early as today.

If the child is determined to be Danielle it would bring to a close a three-week search that at times focused on the Imperial Valley.

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As recently as Friday and Saturday, teams from the Imperial County Sheriff's Office, joined by the San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties' sheriff departments, were in the eastern Imperial Valley desert following leads in the case.

Imperial County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Charles Jernigan confirmed this morning authorities were searching a mine in the county's eastern desert.

"We had had reports there might have been activity around one of the mines, so we were exhausting that lead," Jernigan said.

That search involved the use of a Los Angeles Sheriff's Department helicopter and mine search and rescue teams.

Jernigan added the plan, up until the discovery Wednesday, was to continue the search in the mine area this weekend. He said that search will be canceled, depending on confirmation that the body found is that of Danielle.

The search turned to the Valley after the San Diego Police Department focused on David Westerfield, 50, a neighbor of Danielle's family.

Westerfield, who has been charged with murder, kidnapping and possession of child pornography, traveled to the Imperial Valley desert on Feb. 3 in his motor home.

Spots of blood, which reportedly have been identified as Danielle's blood, were found in his motor home and on an article of his clothing.

Westerfield has pleaded not guilty in San Diego Superior Court to the charges brought against him by the San Diego County District Attorney's Office.

The search for Danielle may have reached its end near a small grove of trees 25 miles east of San Diego off a winding road where searchers found a body at 2:15 p.m. Wednesday.

‘‘We believe that Danielle van Dam's body has been found,'' San Diego County District Attorney Paul Pfingst said.

The child was wearing a plastic necklace similar to one Danielle was seen wearing in thousands of flyers distributed after her disappearance. An earring matching the description of a pair she was wearing at the time of her disappearance also was found, Pfingst said.

The body was removed from the crime scene late Wednesday night. Investigators hoped to use dental records to identify the remains.

‘‘At this point we cannot positively confirm that it is Danielle,'' San Diego police Lt. Jim Collins said Wednesday. ‘‘However, we don't have any other young children missing in the county that have been reported. It's a high probability that it is her.''

Pfingst said, "Investigators believe the body was dropped at this site,''

Authorities have not yet determined the cause of death. No murder weapon was recovered from the scene.

Initial reports indicated the body had been burned but authorities declined to discuss the condition of the remains except to say that they were partially decomposed.

After the discovery, investigators at the crime scene worked through the night under spotlights. They kept the roadway closed Thursday morning as they continued to search for evidence and clues.

‘‘We are hopeful we will know what happened to this young girl,'' Pfingst said.

Danielle's parents, Damon and Brenda van Dam, did not immediately make any public comment on the discovery. The Rev. Joseph Acton of a local Episcopalian church visited the family Wednesday to pray with them. He said the van Dams were ‘‘devastated.''

Danielle was last seen on Feb. 1, when her father put her to bed in her family's north San Diego home. She was discovered missing the next morning. A methodical search for her involving thousands of volunteers stretched from Mexico to the desert east of San Diego.

Westerfield, who was charged on Tuesday, was being held today in a San Diego jail in isolation without bail.

Westerfield, a twice-divorced father of two grown children, has a 1996 drunken driving conviction but no violent criminal history.

Westerfield said he was at the same bar where Brenda van Dam was spending time with friends the night the girl disappeared. Damon van Dam was home with Danielle and two sons.

Westerfield spent the weekend of Danielle's disappearance traveling around San Diego County in his motor home, stopping in the desert east of the city.

Police have received permission to search a dry cleaner in suburban Poway for Westerfield's bedding and clothing. Westerfield reportedly had taken seat cushions from his motor home and clothing in for cleaning after his weekend in the desert.

Police also have searched Westerfield's home and examined three of his vehicles. In warrants, police said they were looking for child pornography, children's pajamas or clothing and a set of Mickey Mouse earrings. Police also sought any ‘‘binding materials'' such as tape or rope, leather or rope collars.

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