Successful Police Search Guided by 'Angel'

by Susan Gembrowski and Brian E. Clark San Diego Union-Tribune

Shawna Miller just knows her sister, missing for 16 years and feared dead, helped guide her search team to Danielle van Dam's body.

"I truly believe she was my angel," said Miller, barely able to contain her tears yesterday.

Two men in Miller's group, Karsten Heimburger and Christopher Morgan, found the 7-year-old's body Wednesday in a spot thick with brush off Dehesa Road, east of El Cajon. The group had searched the area for nearly three hours, and some searchers had gone home.

For more than three weeks, thousands of volunteers organized by the Danielle Recovery Center in Poway had undertaken a heartbreaking mission, checking thousands of acres of brush and desert.

Miller has lived with the pain of a missing relative since Oct. 23, 1985, when her sister, Mary Colette Rawlinson, then 19, was last seen. Her sister disappeared during the three-year period in the mid-1980s when more than 40 prostitutes and drug abusers were murdered in the San Diego region. Police didn't seem interested in finding her, Miller said. Her sister's roommate was found decapitated nine months later.

Looking for Danielle was therapeutic, said Miller, a 28-year-old Crest resident. She had participated in three other searches in the Kitchen Creek area of East County.

"I found a little bit of peace," she said. "We were all very elated we found her, but at the same time we found a child no longer breathing."

On the day of the Dehesa Road search, when Miller had walked back to her car to recheck maps, the two members of her search team called her cell phone to say they had found a body. Heimburger also called 911, and the group waited for police, as they had been instructed to do.

Wednesday's search was the first time Heimburger and Morgan, friends since junior high, had looked for Danielle.

"I'm glad to be able to be considered a part of that wonderful crew," said Heimburger, 31, of University City. Morgan, 31, of Hillcrest, said: "I'm just overjoyed that the family had closure. That's the main focus. They don't know what happened, but they know where their baby girl is."

The searchers declined to talk about what they saw. Miller also wouldn't discuss what she said to Danielle's parents, Brenda and Damon van Dam.

"Out of respect for the family, and I don't want to compromise the case," Miller said.

The search team had dwindled to five people from 13 when the body was found at 2:05 p.m.

"Now, at the very least, the family can have some kind of closure," said Jill Ward, a volunteer and neighbor of the van Dams' who worked at the Danielle Recovery Center. "Of course we all wanted to find her alive. But now, as horrible as this ending is, they will be able to move on."

Ward, whose 9-year-old daughter attends Danielle's school and whose family lives two streets away, was one of a score of searchers who stopped by the recovery center on Poway Road yesterday.

They paid their respects, delivered flowers, dropped off bright yellow vests and consoled one another.

They were joined by Brenda and Damon van Dam and their two sons, Derrick, 9, and Dylan, 5, about 11 a.m. The family stayed for several hours, met with San Diego police officials and thanked searchers for their efforts before leaving without speaking to reporters.

The van Dams and volunteers were led in a prayer circle by the Rev. Joseph Acton of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Rancho Penasquitos.

"Brenda told us that 'love conquers evil,' " Acton said, speaking in front of a tall poster board covered with more than 100 photos of Danielle. "And that her family's thanks went out to everyone who helped them in the search for their daughter."

Michael Lemire, who spent nearly three weeks in the search effort, said there were many tears in the prayer circle.

"A lot of emotions were loosed," said Lemire, a musician who lives near Mount Shasta.

He was performing in Alpine when he heard Danielle was missing and came to help. Fiona Oberrick, who helped direct the recovery center efforts, said she hoped she would never have to help look for a kidnapped child again.

"But I think everyone who participated would do it again in a heartbeat," she said. "The feelings are terribly bittersweet today, but we are all glad that we could help bring Danielle home to her family."

The van Dam family plans to hold a memorial service for Danielle, though no date has been chosen, said Diane Halfman, director of the recovery center.

They have asked that people send donations to a Danielle memorial fund at the Community Bible Church, 9919 Carroll Center Road, San Diego, CA 92126.

The recovery office will remain open for another week, Halfman said.

The searchers in Miller's group plan to keep in touch long after that, Miller said.

"The moment we found her, we became a family," she said.

Miller said she hopes the effort to find Danielle will be the model for other searches of missing children around the country.

"Organized searches do get results," she said. "Get out there and rattle every stone and look under every bush and you'll find what you're looking for. There is power in the masses."

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