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Westerfield pleads not guilty to missing girl's murder

Westerfield entered a not guilty plea.  

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- The neighbor accused of abducting 7-year-old Danielle van Dam pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges of murder, kidnapping a child under 14 and possession of child pornography.

David Westerfield, 50, stood behind a glass shield with guards posted between him and court observers during his arraignment in San Diego Superior Court. The enclosure is normally used as a holding area for felony-case prisoners until they appear before a judge.

The missing girl's parents were in the courtroom during the hearing. Her mother, Brenda van Dam, burst into tears when Westerfield entered the room. She was comforted by a woman sitting next to her.

Westerfield, wearing a white shirt and a tie, spoke only when Judge Peter Deddeh asked him to enter his plea. Asked if he denied the allegations, he responded, "Yes, sir."

Westerfield could face the death penalty if convicted of murder during a kidnapping. Prosecutors have not yet decided whether to pursue a death sentence.

Police in the U.S. say they are charging the neighbor of a missing California girl with murder in addition to kidnapping. CNN's Thelma Gutierrez reports (February 26)

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Defense attorney Steven Feldman asked the judge to impose a gag order on all trial participants and law enforcement officials involved in the case, but that request was denied.

"Today's arraignment was difficult beyond even what we had imagined, and there are no words to express the anguish we feel as Danielle's parents and her greatest admirers," Brenda van Dam told reporters outside her home later.

"We've been asked again and again how we are feeling. All I can answer is that we miss Danielle desperately and that the pain of her absence is absolutely unbearable," she said.

No body, only DNA evidence

The murder charge is unusual since the victim still has not been found. Police Chief David Bejarano said Monday night authorities haven't completely given up hope Danielle may be found alive.

Westerfield, a self-employed engineer and twice-divorced father of two grown children, had been cooperating with police after he was identified as a potential suspect.

He was arrested Friday after searches of his home and two seized vehicles turned up DNA matches with the victim's blood. Police also said they found other "DNA evidence" on an article of Danielle's clothing in her bedroom.

Danielle van Dam has been missing since February 1.
Danielle van Dam has been missing since February 1.  

In addition to the murder and kidnapping, Westerfield is charged with possession of material depicting children engaged in sexual conduct and using that material for "personally engaging in and simulating sexual conduct."

The missing girl's only reported contact with Westerfield was when she sold Girl Scout cookies to him earlier this year. She was last seen February 1, when her father, Damon van Dam, put her to bed at about 10 p.m.

That night, Danielle's mother, Brenda, did not get home from an evening out with friends until 2 a.m. Danielle was not discovered missing until 9 a.m. on February 2.

Defendant bleached his motor home

Law enforcement officials and hundreds of volunteers have searched for Danielle without finding her. District Attorney Paul Pfingst said Monday he was forced to conclude Danielle had been killed.

Westerfield had gone on a camping trip to the desert that weekend in the motor home, leaving town before the young girl was reported missing. Police said the vehicle had been thoroughly washed before they could inspect it.


"There was so much bleach in the motor home that it severely affected the search dogs' ability to smell for a body scent." San Diego Police Department spokesman Bill Robinson said Tuesday.

Pfingst has said he hopes that the teams of volunteers that have been looking for Danielle since she disappeared would continue the search.

When asked if it would be difficult to prosecute Westerfield for murder if Danielle's body was not found, Pfingst said his office had won a number of convictions under similar circumstances.




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