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Mourners gather at site where missing girl's body was found

Investigators say the body found had a necklace like the one Danielle was wearing the night she disappeared.
Investigators say the body found had a necklace like the one Danielle was wearing the night she disappeared.  

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Mourners gathered Friday at the desert site were the body of Danielle van Dam, the 7-year-old girl reported missing since February 2 was found Thursday.

Authorities used dental records to positively identify the remains, San Diego County District Attorney Paul Pfingst said. But due to the advanced state of decomposition of the body, the medical examiner had not yet been able to determine a cause of death, he said.

The girl's parents, Damon and Brenda van Dam, issued a statement late Thursday thanking family, friends, neighbors and volunteers for their assistance and support throughout the ordeal.

"Love has conquered evil in our community," the statement read, referring to the more than 2,500 people who helped search for Danielle. "This is Danielle's legacy, and we couldn't be more proud.

"Danielle was a very special, beautiful, loving little girl. We miss her desperately, but find comfort in knowing that she is safe again and at peace."

CNN's Ann McDermott reports on how the search for Danielle van Dam brought neighbors closer to each other (March 1)

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CNN's Frank Buckley has more on the killing of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam (March 1)

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Pfingst called the volunteer effort "one of the most extraordinary things I have seen in my years in law enforcement."

"Looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, and by gosh, the searchers found it," he said.

Police have charged a neighbor, David Westerfield, with murder and kidnapping in the girl's disappearance. In a court appearance Wednesday, Westerfield, 50, pleaded not guilty to those charges and to a charge of possession of child pornography.

Pfingst refused to comment on reports that tests showed the girl had been assaulted before her death, saying that doing so "would just be hypotheticals and guesswork."

"This is a sad day for a lot of people, and I don't want to engender speculation that would possibly make it even sadder," he said.

Danielle's body was found Wednesday in a remote spot 25 miles east of San Diego. It was discovered about 25 to 30 feet from a two-lane road near a lake by a search group that has been working with the family since Danielle disappeared from her suburban San Diego home.

Pfingst said finding her remains would help him prosecute her alleged killer.

Pfingst said a nationally renowned forensic dentist identified Danielle's remains through dental records.
Pfingst said a nationally renowned forensic dentist identified Danielle's remains through dental records.  

"Obviously, the more evidence one has, the better off a case is," he said.

San Diego police Lt. Jim Duncan earlier said investigators were going over the crime scene, near the city of El Cajon, "with a fine-toothed comb" looking for any evidence that could be linked to the missing girl. He said the state of decomposition indicated that the body was dumped shortly after the disappearance and that it had not been covered or hidden in any way.

Cadaver dogs were on the scene, he said, looking for any part of the remains that could have been separated from the body during a long stay in the open, and evidence collectors were taking plaster casts of tire tracks in the area. Later in the day, photographers planned to take aerial photographs of the crime scene.

Soon after the body was found, authorities said it matched the girl's description and that it had a plastic necklace similar to one Danielle was wearing on the night she disappeared and an earring matching one belonging to the girl.

Danielle was last seen February 1 when her father put her to bed about 10 p.m. She was discovered missing at 9 the following morning.

Westerfield, a self-employed engineer and twice-divorced father of two grown children, was arrested Friday after authorities said searches of his home and two seized vehicles turned up DNA matches with the girl's blood. Police also said they found other DNA evidence on an article of Danielle's clothing in her bedroom.


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