By
February 25, 2002 12:00 PM

Ordinarily, Brenda and Damon van Dam aren’t churchgoers. But on Feb. 10 they attended Sunday services with a friend near their home in an upscale San Diego suburb. For the van Dams, these are desperate hours. Just over a week ago their 7-year-old daughter Danielle went missing without a trace, in the middle of the night, from her bedroom. As each day passes, the couple struggle to remain optimistic. “We just know that Danielle will be found and she’ll come home to us,” says Brenda, 39, wearing on her sweater ribbons of pink and purple—her daughter’s favorite colors. “We’re all waiting for her.”

The fear about Danielle’s fate was bad enough. But making matters worse have been ugly insinuations and accusations that Brenda, a stay-at-home mom who recently started selling books to libraries, and Damon, 36, a software engineer at San Diego-based Qualcomm, lead an unorthodox private life and that their behavior may have somehow played a role in Danielle’s disappearance.

All seemed in order the evening of Friday, Feb. 1, when Brenda left her five-bedroom home in the suburb of Sabre Springs around 8:30. She and two girlfriends went to Dad’s Cafe and Steakhouse in nearby Poway for a night out, leaving Damon to look after Danielle and her two brothers Derrick, 9, and Dylan, 5. Damon says he put Danielle to bed at around 10:30, then went to sleep himself. At roughly 1:30 a.m. he woke up and let out the family weimaraner, Layla. Brenda still wasn’t home, but Damon noticed that a sliding glass door was ajar and that a light for the house’s alarm system was blinking. He says he shut the door and went back to bed without checking on the kids. An hour later Brenda returned with her friends, and Damon joined them for late-night pizza. The friends left about 3:30 a.m., and the next morning at 9 a.m., when Brenda went into Danielle’s room, she found her white canopy bed empty. “We looked in all the kids’ usual hiding places—their hide-and-seek places,” says Damon. They realized that their daughter was gone and called the police.

The authorities launched an intensive search of the well-manicured neighborhood, where many of the houses go for $400,000 and up. Nothing was found. But police began to take a close look at one neighbor, David Westerfield, 50, a self-employed engineer who lives two doors away from the van Dams and who had left for a solo camping trip on Saturday. Over the weekend he had been spotted in the desert of the Imperial Valley, where his motor home had become bogged down in deep sand off the main road and had to be pulled out by a tow truck. Police later scoured the area for several days.

When he returned home, Westerfield, the divorced father of two college-age children, told reporters he had run into Brenda at Dad’s and had danced with her before leaving around midnight. (Brenda has said she barely knew him.) Investigators searched Westerfield’s house, at one point emerging with 13 bags of potential evidence. After cooperating with police, who tagged him as a possible suspect, Westerfield hired a criminal defense lawyer. Westerfield and his lawyer declined requests to be interviewed for this story.

Meanwhile, the van Dams—who have worked tirelessly to publicize the case, offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to the return of Danielle and going on the morning news shows and Larry King—were coming in for some uncomfortable scrutiny of their own. In the days after Danielle’s disappearance there had been whispers in Sabre Springs that the couple were “swingers” who had an open marriage. The issue came to a head when a local radio talk show host, Rick Roberts, devoted a four-hour program to the van Dams, whom he accused of “not being honest” about “what really occurred” on the night of Danielle’s disappearance. Citing an unnamed law enforcement source, he said the couple had participated in “lots of wife swapping,” implying that their lifestyle was at least partly to blame for the tragedy. In response, a spokeswoman for the van Dams declared, “They do not lead a perfect lifestyle. But they did not kill their daughter.” The van Dams, who have been married for 13 years, tried to brush off the gossip as irrelevant. As Brenda told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “This is in no way related to the investigation. I don’t know why people want to be hurtful.”

Still, other neighbors wondered why Damon had not checked on his children when he initially found the door open. All the second-guessing infuriates the van Dams’ friends. They portray the couple, who moved to the San Diego area from Dallas four years ago, as fine folks, pointing out that Brenda has been deeply involved in the school and social life of all three of her children. “I can’t stand that they’re questioning these people,” says Paula Call, whose daughter Sara is in second grade with Danielle. “They’re great parents.” Good or bad, they are now in the middle of a nightmare. “It’s all a fog,” said Brenda. “It’s surreal.”

Bill Hewitt

Maureen Harrington, Michelle Bowers and Jill Movshin Singer in San Diego

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