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San Diego Officials Address Death of Missing 7-year-old

Aired February 25, 2002 - 14:03   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: We now take you to San Diego, where the D.A., Paul Pfingst, is going to address the disappearance of 7- year-old Danielle van Dam.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

PAUL PFINGST, SAN DIEGO COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: ... and from her neighborhood.

Since Danielle disappeared, we've witnessed a valiant and exhaustive search effort that is unprecedented in this county, perhaps even in this state. San Diego Police, with the help of other law enforcement agencies, have aggressively investigated this case from the beginning. They have been thorough, disciplined and patient.

Fliers with Danielle's picture posted in every portion of San Diego, and television stations extensively reported her disappearance, with extraordinary amount of video portraying Danielle's appearance.

Over the past three weeks, all San Diegans have come to know Danielle's face. Police and community volunteers have searched endlessly since February 1 for Danielle, without finding her.

After conferring with Police Chief Dave Bejarano, the case investigators, my prosecutors, and the van Dam family, I must conclude that Danielle van Dam is no longer living and was killed by her abductor.

Today, I'm announcing that my office will file one count of murder against David Westerfield for abducting and killing 7-year-old Danielle van Dam. In addition, I am directing that a special circumstance allegation be added to the murder charge. The special circumstance filed against David Westerfield is murder during a kidnapping. This charge carries with it a potential death penalty sentence or a sentence of life without parole. The decision whether to seek death in this case has not been made yet and will be decided after my offices formal death penalty review process has been completed.

Recognizing what this family has been through and what this community has been through, I understand that murder is a harsh word. But it is the correct charge in this case. Mr. Westerfield will be arraigned Tuesday afternoon at 1:30 p.m., in Department 11 at the county courthouse. I have assigned two senior prosecutors to go forward with the case: Jeff Dusack (ph), an outstanding homicide investigator with the District Attorney's Office who has been with the district for 25 years, and Woody Clark (ph), an internationally respected expert on DNA evidence. I'm also directing members of my victim witness staff to work with Danielle's family and help guide them through the court process and address any needs that they may have.

I know that there are teams of people in San Diego County who have been searching for Danielle. We hope that the decision to file murder charges against David Westerfield will not stop those searches. Any information regarding the disappearance of Danielle van Dam is still critically important to law enforcement and, of course, critically important to the van Dam family, Danielle's parents.

That having been said, I give you Police Chief Dave Bejarano.

DAVE BEJARANO, SAN DIEGO POLICE CHIEF: Thank you.

Thank you. Good morning.

As Mr. Pfingst mentioned, this truly has been probably one of the most extensive, thorough investigations, searches, involving the disappearance of Danielle. We've had dozens and dozens of law enforcement personnel, and countywide, we've received lots of support, particularly from the FBI, regarding this investigation.

In discussions over the last few days with our investigators, District Attorney's Office, Mr. Finks, and the family, I do agree and support and believe it is appropriate that we add the murder charge at this point. I would love at some point to be proven otherwise. And that's why we ask that the information continue, hopefully, to be brought to the attention of our department with any information regarding the possibility of locating Danielle.

Again, it's very difficult. It has been a long three weeks for all of us. But I do agree and believe this is your appropriate charge at this point.

Thank you.

PFINGST: Any questions?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

PFINGST: We've had a number of case in the history of San Diego County all involving murder prosecutions without a body being found. We can recall, just in the office a few minutes ago, at least four; all four of those cases resulted in guilty verdict, and a number of those cases ended up on death row.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

PFINGST: Of course, a case that would involve usually circumstantial evidence, and we would like to have as much circumstantial evidence as possible. And it's always desirable in a homicide prosecution to have a body, but it's not uncommon that people who commit homicide do dispose of body and a body not found, and the prosecution goes forward.

QUESTION: Can you talk about the potential issue of double jeopardy -- the murder charges were not to be filed tomorrow?

PFINGST: If we were not to file murder charges tomorrow, and a kidnapping charge were filed, and the defendant were to go to court and plead guilty to the kidnapping, there would be an issue to whether or not he could be tried in the murder. I don't know how that issue would ultimately be resolved by the courts, but it's an issue, of course, we would not want to test.

QUESTION: Can you rule out the possibility that Westerfield leading you to the body could be used in the future as a bargaining chip for plea bargaining, if it is used would the family (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

PFINGST: I am not going to answer that question.

QUESTION: In past trials where you have someone who found a body, there was a lot of circumstantial evidence and a motive. Any word on the motive here?

PFINGST: I am not going to answer that question. There will be a hearing, a preliminary hearing, and the evidence we have will be disclosed at the prelim. Now is not the time to discuss the evidence we intend to present in the case in front of a judge.

QUESTION: How close do you feel you are to finding Danielle, (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

PFINGST: We can't answer that question. We can't -- we can't answer. I don't any anybody can answer that question. There's been an extraordinary search. You've all covered that search in some detail, in the newspapers, on television, and so on. And you've seen how many people have been involved in searching for Danielle. We have not found her. This community has not found her.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... has not been cooperative?

PFINGST: I wouldn't make any comment on that one way or another at this point.

QUESTION: Is there anything to link Westerfield to other crimes of this type? (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

PFINGST: The department, and my office, will be looking into all crimes of abduction within the last number of years, for all the obvious reasons, just as a matter of making sure that we cover all potential bases. I'm not trying to suggest that we have any information to believe that he is or is not involved in any other criminal behavior.

QUESTION: Would you offer Mr. Westerfield if he gave up the body?

PFINGST: I wouldn't comment.

PHILLIPS: Forty-nine-year-old David Westerfield will be charged with murder. That's what the D.A. there in San Diego, Paul Pfingst, has said with regard to the kidnapping and disappearance of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam.

It's a story we've been covering for three weeks, the little girl was missing at that time. And DNA brought police to David Westerfield, the neighbor of Danielle van Dam. And they conclude that they are definitely going to charge him.

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