SAN DIEGO – A mother's frantic 911 call to report her daughter's February disappearance was played Thursday for jurors in the trial of a neighbor accused of killing the 7-year-old girl.
"My daughter is not in her bed this morning," Brenda van Dam says in a panicked voice on the tape. She is breathing heavily. Crying children can be heard in the background.
The 911 operator asks the mother for a description of the girl, Danielle, and tells her: "Think positive thoughts, everything will be OK."
Prosecutors played the tape on the third day of the trial of David Westerfield, who is charged with murder, kidnapping and possession of child pornography. He has pleaded innocent.
Danielle was reported missing Feb. 2, prompting a search by thousands of police and volunteers. Her nude body was found three weeks later along a rural road east of San Diego.
Van Dam, 39, testified Thursday that Westerfield bought drinks for her and two friends at a bar the night of Feb. 1.
"He said, 'Ladies don't buy their own drinks,' and he threw some money on the bar," van Dam said under questioning by the prosecution.
Danielle was reported missing from the van Dam residence the next morning.
Westerfield, a 50-year-old divorced engineer, lives two doors from the van Dams' in San Diego. He could receive the death penalty if convicted.
Investigators say they found Danielle's blood, fingerprints and hair in Westerfield's motor home and have other forensic evidence linking him to her disappearance.
Van Dam said that several days before the encounter at the bar, she, Danielle and one of her sons went to Westerfield's home to sell Girl Scout cookies.
She said Westerfield mentioned that he had seen her with the other women previously at the bar and wanted to be introduced to one of them. She said she told him that they might be at the bar the following Friday.
She said that until that time she and Westerfield had only a passing acquaintance: "We may have spoken one or two times but it was very limited."
Under cross-examination by defense attorney Steven Feldman, van Dam admitted that during the Girl Scout encounter, she and her children went into Westerfield's home for about 15 minutes to see his remodeled kitchen.
That sets the stage for the defense to provide an alternative explanation about why Danielle's hair was found inside the home.
Van Dam also admitted Westerfield's motor home was parked outside his house on several occasions, apparently an attempt to suggest that van Dam's children had access to it.
Earlier Thursday, the county medical examiner testified that it was impossible to determine the exact cause or time of death because Danielle's body was badly decomposed when it was found.
Dr. Brian Blackbourne said he concluded the girl's death was a homicide from the position of the body, its location far from her home and because searchers had been looking for her for weeks. Under questioning by the defense, Blackbourne said there was no evidence the girl was strangled or sexually assaulted.
The uncertainty over the time of death might aid Westerfield, whose lawyer has argued that he was under police surveillance and media scrutiny that prevented him from dumping the body where it was found Feb. 27.