Van Dam Parents Prepare for Sad Birthday

S A N  D I E G O, Sept. 19, 2002 -- Danielle van Dam's family is getting ready to throw her a big party this Sunday, when she would have turned 8.

"I wanted to try my hardest to make it a positive day and to give back to the community," said her mother, Brenda, referring to neighbors and other volunteers who turned out in their thousands to help look for Danielle after the little girl was abducted from her bedroom in February.

But, Brenda van Dam admitted, "It's going to be one of the hardest days I'll ever have to deal with."

About a month after Danielle disappeared, her body was found in the desert southeast of San Diego. David Westerfield, a 50-year-old engineer who lived two houses away from the van Dams, was convicted of kidnapping and murdering her. Last week, a jury recommended that he be put to death.

"It's weird the things you miss. The sound of her voice. I miss the feeling of her hands," Brenda van Dam said. She and her husband, Damon, spoke to Primetime's Charles Gibson in an exclusive interview at their home in Sabre Springs, outside San Diego.

Empty Bedroom

The van Dams first noticed Danielle was missing when Brenda went into her bedroom to wake her up on the morning of Saturday, Feb. 2. Danielle had never left the house without telling her parents, so they immediately called police.

Westerfield's name came up early on, when police searched 200 houses in the area and his was the only one that was empty. Westerfield later told police he had gone on a meandering two-day trip around the county in his motor home, but police told the van Dams they were suspicious of him.

The van Dams barely knew Westerfield. Brenda and Danielle had been to his house a few days earlier, selling Girl Scout cookies, and Brenda had seen him at a local bar the night of Danielle's disappearance.

As the search went on, and swelled to one of the largest volunteer searches in history, police became more and more sure Westerfield was involved. Then, on Feb. 22, the police chief called the van Dams in and told them they were arresting Westerfield because they found traces of Danielle's blood on a jacket he had taken to the dry cleaner's.

The chief told them it was just a small amount of blood, and that it could have been from a nosebleed, but the van Dams knew it was a bad sign. "He was just trying to make us feel better," said Brenda van Dam.

But it didn't work: Nothing could stop Brenda van Dam from thinking about what Westerfield might have done to her daughter. "All I could see sometimes was him raping her and he's hurting her. It would just pop in my head," she said.

Nevertheless, as the search stretched into a fourth week, she managed to keep hope for her daughter alive.

Her husband was less sure. As he drove around the desert using GPS devices to map where the volunteers should search, in his heart he knew it did not look good. "During that time out there in the desert it kind of really hit me what we were really looking for," he said.

Then, on Feb. 27, volunteers found a small, badly decomposed body in a stand of trees off a two-lane highway southeast of San Diego. A detective came to the van Dams' home and told them it was Danielle. He had recognized her Mickey Mouse earrings.

Guilty Verdict

After a three-month trial over the summer, a jury found Westerfield guilty of kidnapping and murder. The jury recommended that he be put to death. On Nov. 22, a judge will either follow the jury's recommendation and send Westerfield to death row, or sentence him to life in prison with no change of parole.

The van Dams believe his death sentence is "the appropriate penalty," but say the most important thing for them was to know that Westerfield would never hurt another child. If he is put to death, they do not plan to attend his execution.

Their daughter's body was so badly decomposed that it was impossible to determine the cause of death or whether she had been sexually assaulted. The van Dams say they are not sure they ever want to know what really happened, but they hope that whatever it was happened quickly.

"I realized he was with her for two days. I just hoped it happened within a couple of hours," said Brenda van Dam.

But she added: "I really don't believe that in my heart. I believe that she suffered."

Lifestyle Questions ‘Blown Out of Proportion’

During the trial, Westerfield's lawyers suggested that the van Dams' open marriage could have left the family vulnerable to strangers in their home.

The couple admit that they have engaged in spouse-swapping in the past and say they once visited a swingers' club — "It wasn't for us," said Brenda.

But they say they never brought strangers into their home, and deny their lifestyle made them irresponsible parents. "That angers me, because I would never put my children in harm's way," said Brenda van Dam.

"I think the whole lifstyle thing has been blown out of proportion," she added.

"I think part of it, too, is a lot of people fear that this could happen to them and they want a reason that this couldn't happen to them," said her husband.

Open Doors

On the night Danielle disappeared, Brenda van Dam and two friends had gone to the bar, where she saw Westerfield. Witnesses testified that she danced with Westerfield, but she denies it, saying she just spoke to him in passing. Westerfield left the bar around midnight.

Brenda and her friends left around 2 a.m., and came back to the van Dams' home, where they had some drinks and smoked some marijuana with Damon, who had stayed home. As they came into the house, they noticed the garage door was slightly open, but thought nothing of it.

Damon van Dam admitted he smoked marijuana that night and initially lied to police about it, but said he did so because it did not seem important compared with his daughter's disappearance. "I want them finding my daughter, not worrying about whether I smoked marijuana or not," he said.

After the guests left, the van Dams went to bed, without looking in on Danielle and her two brothers. Hours later, shortly before dawn, Damon got up to let the dog out and noticed that the back door was open. Brenda is sure the door was closed when she came in with her friends.

At the trial, the prosecutor suggested that Westerfield entered the house through the garage door before Brenda van Dam and her friends got back from the bar, hid somewhere until the guests left and the van Dams went to sleep, then snatched Danielle from her bedroom and took her out the back door.

Although friends and neighbors agree that the van Dams are good and attentive parents, the couple cannot help going over what they did that night.

"If only I had, you know, checked those doors. If only I had, you know, checked the kids again," said Damon van Dam. "It's things you overlook. We wrestle with that sometimes — Brenda more than I. I think I've written off that the bad guy did it."

Nighttime Scares

The van Dams have no plans to move. They have put Danielle's ashes in an urn next to her grandfather's ashes, to keep her close to the family.

They have repainted her room, which was damaged by fingerprinting and other police tests, but have brought the video game console in to encourage the boys to use the room — "so that the room would get used and it's a happy room," said Brenda.

The boys — Derek, 10, and Dylan, 6 — went to counseling at first but are now doing better, their parents say. However, they are still scared at night. Their mother thinks they overheard someone say that Westerfield might have hidden in the house.

"Every time Dylan goes into the bathroom, he has to move the shower curtain over so that he can check and make sure there's no bad man back there," his mother said.

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