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Grim Guesswork Led to the Body of San Diego Girl

by Nick Madigan, The New York Times

SAN DIEGO, Calif. Feb. 28 — The volunteers who found Danielle van Dam were acting on a hunch.

Almost a month after Danielle, 7, disappeared from her bedroom in the Sabre Springs section of northeast San Diego, two members of a 10- person search team came across her body some 25 miles away from the city on Wednesday in a thicket of oaks off a winding rural road that leads to the desert. This afternoon, officials confirmed her identity.

The man charged with her murder, David A. Westerfield, a 50-year- old neighbor of the van Dams, was known to have spent part of the weekend of her disappearance in the dunes of Imperial County, almost 150 miles east of here, but the route he took was unknown.

Once detectives discovered traces of Danielle’s blood in his motor home, according to police accounts, some searchers turned their attention to the route he might have taken. But with hundreds of square miles of open country, canyons and hills to search, police and volunteers continued to come up empty.

Finally, after searchers combed an area off Dehesa Road, near the Sycuan Indian Reservation east of El Cajon, the grim discovery was made. They found the body of a child four feet tall, with blue eyes and blond hair, just like Danielle, and wearing a plastic necklace, like the one Danielle was seen wearing in the thousands of posters plastered around the county.

The San Diego County district attorney, Paul Pfingst, said the cause of death could not immediately be determined because of the body’s state of decomposition.

Police Chief David Bejarano was quoted by The Associated Press as saying the body had not been burned, contrary to earlier reports. Bodies exposed to the elements often appear burned, he said.

Bill Garcia, a private investigator who has participated in more than a dozen missing children cases and who volunteered to coordinate the search team that found Danielle’s body, said the spot where it was found was on the route to the dunes. Mr. Garcia said his team had guessed it was a logical place for someone who wanted to avoid a major highway.

Shortly after 11 p.m. on Wednesday, Danielle’s body was removed from the trash-strewn site under the glare of lights provided by two fire trucks.

Up and down the block on Mountain Pass Road where both Mr. Westerfield and the van Dams live, signs and banners still fluttered today, offering rewards for Danielle’s return, begging her to come home.

But the hope that kept hundreds of volunteers going for so long had given way to sorrow.

At the Danielle Recovery Center in Poway, near Sabre Springs, in the offices of a real estate firm, a notice placed on the front door early today said, “All searches on hold. Thank you for all the support!”

Still, until the identification was made, volunteers continued to call or show up to offer a hand, a hug, anything that might alleviate the burden of those who had been at it since Danielle vanished on Feb. 2. Many left flowers at the door and wandered off, crestfallen.

“This touched my heart,” said Barbara Belasco, 41, who thought her own child, Steven, now 18, was lost for good when he was 2. “This brings back all my memories. My son was lost for nine hours in a canyon. I was screaming, `My child is dead!’ So I know how it feels. I wish I could just hug these parents. I mean, I was lucky. I got my son back.”

This morning, Danielle’s parents, Brenda and Damon van Dam, accompanied by their two young sons, led volunteers at the center in prayer and thanked them for their efforts.

A private memorial service will be held on March 13. A public remembrance will be held three days later.

This morning, a Web site set up to coordinate volunteers bore a new element: a picture of the girl in a flowered hat and the legend, “In Memory of Danielle van Dam, 1994/2002,” accompanied by a line from a song by Sarah McLachlan:

You’re in the arms of the angels

May you find some comfort there.

Jill Ward, 33, a volunteer who helped organize search parties, which combed hundreds of square miles of San Diego and Imperial Counties and spilled over into Mexico, helped place a large placard outside the volunteer center thanking everyone who had helped and donated services and supplies.

“If it happens again, which I certainly hope it doesn’t, we’d be there to do it again in a heartbeat,” said Ms. Ward, who has a 9-year-old girl.

Outside the van Dams’ home, where a candlelight shrine to Danielle attracted respectful passers-by, another mother, Lisa Winans, thought of the van Dam family and all it had endured.

“They’ve got a long, long road ahead of them, but I’m sure having this man in custody makes them feel better,” said Ms. Winans, 37, whose two sons are 10 and 11. “You think, oh, you live in a nice neighborhood and think you know all your neighbors; you think something like this could never happen here. But it can. It can happen anywhere.”