- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 22, 2002

SAN DIEGO A neighbor was convicted yesterday of kidnapping and killing 7-year-old Danielle van Dam, the first victim in a series of high-profile child abductions that have horrified the country this year.
David Westerfield, a divorced self-employed engineer, shook slightly as he watched the jury return a verdict that means he will be sentenced to death or to life in prison without parole.
The penalty phase of the trial begins next week.
"I am just in shock," said David Neal, a former brother-in-law of Westerfield. "He thought he was going to get off."
Danielle's mother, Brenda van Dam, burst into tears and hugged her husband, Damon, as they watched the proceedings from the back row of the courtroom. Like the jurors, they remain under a judge's gag order until the case is over.
Westerfield, 50, was found guilty after a lurid trial in which the defense said the swinging lifestyle of Danielle's parents put her at risk.
Prosecutors, however, said drops of Danielle's blood on Westerfield's jacket amounted to a DNA-backed "smoking gun" that jurors couldn't ignore. Westerfield also was convicted of possessing child pornography by a jury that deliberated for nearly 10 days.
Danielle was last seen Feb. 1, when her father put her to bed in their suburban San Diego home. Her nude body was found nearly a month later along a road outside the city, too decomposed to determine the cause of death or whether she had been sexually assaulted.
Westerfield, who lives two houses away from the van Dams, was placed under surveillance early in the investigation after authorities learned he was at the same bar as Danielle's mother and two of her friends the night the girl vanished.
He left on a long, meandering trip in his motor home early the next day as police and volunteers searched the neighborhood. He later retraced his trip with police and made the unsolicited comment that "this would be a great place to dump a body," according to court documents.
The girl's blood was found on one of Westerfield's jackets, and her hair was found inside his home. Investigators said Danielle's blood, hair and fingerprints also were discovered inside the motor home.
The defense said there was no motive and suggested it was improbable that the 6-foot-2-inch Westerfield could have slipped into the girl's home in the dark and snatched her without leaving evidence of his presence.
Defense lawyer Steven Feldman also said Danielle and her mother had once been in Westerfield's home for about 15 minutes as Danielle sold him Girl Scout cookies, suggesting that was why her hair was found inside.
Mr. Feldman repeatedly suggested that someone else was the killer, noting that a fingerprint found in the van Dam home and a hair found on the girl were never identified.
The case captivated much of San Diego, with local television and radio stations broadcasting gavel-to-gavel coverage and talk-radio programs delving into the details.
Mr. Feldman argued that the lifestyle of Danielle's parents, which included marijuana use and spouse-swapping, exposed their home to people who might have been responsible for the girl's disappearance.
Damon van Dam, 36, testified that he kissed and "snuggled" in bed with one of his wife's friends the night his daughter disappeared. He also said he and his wife smoked marijuana with her friends earlier in the evening.
Other witnesses said they saw Brenda van Dam and Westerfield "dirty dancing" and being "huggy huggy" at the bar that night. Brenda van Dam denied she danced with him.
The van Dams said their lifestyle had nothing to do with their daughter's abduction and slaying. Brenda van Dam wept as she testified, and both she and her husband sometimes gazed downward when their lifestyle was brought up during the trial.
Prosecutors also called experts who described the DNA link between Danielle and the blood on Westerfield's jacket. One said the odds that another person would have the same DNA were at least 1 in 130 quadrillion.
Danielle's kidnapping preceded other frightening abductions this year, including those of Elizabeth Smart, 14, in Utah; Samantha Runnion, 5, in Orange County; Cassandra Williamson, 6, in Missouri; and Jennifer Short, 9, in Virginia. Elizabeth and Jennifer remain missing; the other two were found slain.
Sabre Springs, the middle-class neighborhood where Danielle lived, was quiet after the verdict.
"I'm glad that they found somebody guilty and that we can all rest and feel a little more safe," resident Vicki Sanders said. "It kind of puts closure on everything right now."
Steven Vegas, 18, told reporters: "I'm glad the guy is out of here."

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