by Steve Schmidt and Joe Hughes, SD Union Tribune
DEHESA, Calif. Volunteer searchers found the decomposing body of a girl believed to be Danielle van Dam yesterday among a clutch of oak trees, nearly a month after she disappeared from her Sabre Springs bedroom.
Searchers made the ghastly discovery in a craggy hollow used as a dump along Dehesa Road, a two-lane stretch east of El Cajon that leads into the backcountry.
"It is her," said a detective close to the investigation. "It's female, a young girl, the same size as Danielle. The clothing looks like hers, and the body appears to have been out there three to four weeks, which is how long she's been missing
"There's nobody like that missing in the county in that time frame that fits that description."
At 11:10 last night, several men moved the body in a body bag placed on a stretcher. They put the body in a van and quickly drove away.
The blue-eyed, 7-year-old girl was last seen when her father put her to bed the night of Feb. 1. She was discovered missing the next morning, spurring a hunt that involved hundreds of volunteers.
Danielle's parents, Brenda and Damon van Dam, did not immediately comment on yesterday's discovery.
The Rev. Joseph Acton of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church visited their home last night at the request of a family friend.
"They're obviously in a great deal of pain, and they're devastated by this," Acton told reporters.
"I really don't want to share what I told them. I prayed with them. We prayed together."
The body was found about 2:15 p.m. Four hours later, District Attorney Paul Pfingst said "we believe Danielle van Dam's body has been found." He described the body as a 3-to 4-foot-tall white female with what appeared to be blond hair.
On the body was a plastic necklace similar to the one pictured on Danielle in a missing-person flier and an earring like the one she was wearing when she vanished.
"Investigators believe the body was dropped at this site," Pfingst said.
Investigators will attempt to identify the body in a day using dental records. If that proves unsuccessful, they will use DNA testing, a process that could take three or four days, police Chief David Bejarano said.
A 50-year-old neighbor of Danielle's, David Westerfield, is accused of kidnapping and killing her. He pleaded not guilty to murder, kidnapping and possessing child pornography at a court hearing Tuesday. If convicted, Westerfield could face the death penalty.
Westerfield, who lives two doors from the van Dams, is being held without bail. A preliminary hearing has been set for March 11.
The body was found about 25 feet from the north side of Dehesa Road, about a mile east of Singing Hills Country Club and about 11/2 miles west of Sycuan Casino.
An employee search of computer records at Sycuan last night showed Westerfield belongs to the casino's gaming club, The San Diego Union-Tribune has learned. The membership may mean little, but it could prove an important lead to establish whether Westerfield may have been in Dehesa in recent weeks. Indian gaming clubs typically track member visits and buying habits.
A Sycuan Casino official would not say when Westerfield last visited, but did say he was trying to reach investigators last night.
"Any information we can give to them will probably be of use in their case," said Sycuan official Frank Martinez, a retired San Diego homicide detective.
Investigators believe Danielle was kidnapped from her bedroom, taken to the Silver Strand near Coronado by Westerfield, who then drove sometime on Feb. 2 to the desert.
The girl's body was found by members of a 10-person volunteer search team about the time it was going to call it quits for the day. Authorities said some of the team members were visibly shaken after making the discovery.
Fiona Oberrick, deputy director of the Danielle Recovery Center in Poway, said 60 people showed up yesterday morning to help out.
The number surprised a lot of people, considering there were only 15 involved in searches Tuesday.
Volunteers yesterday morning were divided into six teams of 10 people each. They were sent to three areas of the backcountry.
One team was sent to one of those areas Dehesa Road on a hunch.
"It is an area we have been keying on," said private investigator Bill Garcia, who led 240 searchers over the weekend.
"This is a back route from Coronado to the desert," Garcia said, referring to a trek investigators believe Westerfield took the weekend Danielle was kidnapped.
"If he wanted to avoid traffic and stay off the main roads to the desert, such as Interstate 8 or state 94, he would take this back way through Dehesa Road," Garcia said.
Searchers on Saturday were in the area where the body was found yesterday and came up empty, Garcia said.
San Diego police Lt. Jim Collins praised the extensive volunteer efforts.
"This shows that volunteers are a very vital and important part of the operation," Collins said. "They can cover more territory than we could at this point."
Police earlier had conducted searches by air and ground in San Diego and Imperial counties since Danielle was reported missing. They quit after determining they were looking for a needle in a haystack. But volunteers continued to muster on weekdays and weekends, systematically searching the region.
Plans had been made for the most extensive volunteer effort ever in the desert and locally in San Diego this weekend. That has been suspended.
Meanwhile, lab technicians continued the painstaking process of analyzing evidence seized from Westerfield's house and motor home, looking for fibers, hairs and blood spatters.
Police also plotted a map from cell-phone records that may help them pinpoint Westerfield's location in the hours and days immediately following the disappearance.
It was unclear whether the cell-phone records place Westerfield in the area where the body was found.
Bejarano estimated it would take 12 to 18 hours to process the crime scene, with investigators working from the outer perimeters to preserve possible footprints and other evidence.
A Sycuan Fire Department ladder truck and a Dehesa Fire Department brush rig set up on the side of the road to provide light for investigators.
The body was found in the trees about 100 yards north of the Sweetwater River, across the road from a sand-mining operation in the riverbed.
Dan Marshall, the security guard for nearby Singing Hills Country Club, said the cluster of oaks where the body was found is a common spot to dump trash.
"There's like a little access road in there and people go up there just on the side of Dehesa Road and dump garbage," Marshall said.
Longtime resident Gloria Chadwick described it as a heavily traveled road.
"This is a main thoroughfare," she said. "Transient traffic, not familiar cars, go back and forth. It's not familiar old-timer cars, where you say, 'There goes our neighbor.' We don't know anybody anymore."
She said people using the area as a dump cannot be seen from the road because there is so much brush. Also, the speed limit on the road is 50 mph, so drivers are moving too fast to notice any roadside activity. It is not unusual to see a lost motorist pulled over to the side of the road.
Investigators sealed off the area where the body was found by closing a stretch of Dehesa Road, cutting off a main artery for patrons and employees at Sycuan and residents of Harbison Canyon.