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San Diego Neighbors Search for Girl, 7, and a Reason to Hope

by Nick Madigan, The New York Times

SAN DIEGO, Feb. 8 - In folklore, stories of children spirited away in the middle of the night are the stuff of hobgoblins and hungry wolves, of demons that frequent bad dreams.

When it happens in real life, the shock leaves the child’s parents desperate, clutching at fading hope.

“We’re breaking apart,” Damon van Dam, red-eyed from exhaustion, said in a brief conversation early today, a week after his 7-year-old daughter, Danielle, disappeared from her bedroom at the family’s home in Sabre Springs, an upscale development in rural northern San Diego.

Outside, the street was filled this morning with television satellite trucks, the ceaseless drone of their engines permeating the neighborhood’s vigil. Banners pleaded for Danielle’s return, posters bore her picture, and a small shrine was decorated with candles, messages from her Girl Scout troop and a handful of teddy bears.

On Thursday, San Diego police officers searched the desert in Imperial County, 150 miles east of here, where the police say a 49-year-old neighbor of the van Dams, David Westerfield, went last Saturday, the morning after Danielle’s disappearance. A police spokesman, David J. Cohen, said officers might return to the area in helicopters to continue their search from the air.

Mr. Westerfield, who previously told the local press that he was cooperating with the authorities, has since retained a criminal defense lawyer, and neither is now commenting. Why he emerged as an object of police suspicion is unclear, but in activity before the desert search, investigators not only questioned him but also removed 13 containers of belongings from his home and impounded his sport utility vehicle and his motor home, the vehicle he is believed to have taken to the desert.

The police later returned the S.U.V. but kept the camper. A tow-truck driver told The San Diego Union-Tribune that on Saturday he helped Mr. Westerfield, a regular visitor to the desert, extract the motor home from sand where, the tow man said, it had been stuck more than a mile from the nearest road.

A growing army of volunteers lined up today to search for the missing girl in the hills and canyons close to home, some in areas that the police have already traversed. “The community has been dying for something to do,” said Barbara Morhaim, a librarian who has lived in the neighborhood since 1996 and is the mother of a 16-year-old girl.

The response to Danielle’s disappearance - she was last seen by her father, when he tucked her into bed last Friday night - has not been limited to the people of the surrounding hills. Peter Tellone, 45, a neighbor who set up a Web site to sound the alarm over the case, said he had received thousands of e-mail messages in response, some from as distant as China, Israel and Australia. He has downloaded many of them onto a disk for the van Dams, who have two other children, boys 5 and 9.

Not all the reaction has been kind to the van Dams. Some neighbors have told reporters that they are perplexed by Mr. van Dam’s admission that he found a burglar alarm light blinking and a sliding door open at their house that night but did not check to see whether everyone was accounted for. “I mean, you always check on your children,” said Bea La Scala, who has lived in an adjoining community for 16 years.

But friends and relatives of the van Dams who have been streaming into and out of their house describe the family as loving, and Danielle herself as so selfless that whenever she had money she would spend it on her parents and brothers, the younger of whom she was teaching to read.

“A kid’s bed is the only safe place she has,” said Tommy Cope, Danielle’s uncle on her mother’s side, who flew in from his home in Gainesville, Fla., last Saturday night. “I just hope she’s on the road somewhere, if she’s alive, that whoever took her is just moving her around.”

Mr. Cope said his sister Brenda van Dam and her husband were traumatized by their daughter’s disappearance.

“Their emotions are up and down,” he said. “One minute they’re O.K., and the next they’re falling apart all over the place.”