Investigators also check out Tijuana home after reported sighting

UNION-TRIBUNE and SIGNONSANDIEGO STAFF WRITERS

February 22, 2002

Police today have arrested David Westerfield, 49, long considered the prime suspect in the disappearance of 7-year-old Danielle Van Dam.

Westerfield, who lives two doors down from the Van Dam family in Sabre Springs has remained the focus of the investigation since the little girl's disappearance and has been under 24-hour surveillance.

The arrest of the self-employed design engineer reportedly took place in the Golden Hills office of his lawyer, Steven Feldman, around 11 a.m.

The charges have not been announced.

Police have not said what has caused them to focus on Westerfield. He attracted police interest after he came home Feb. 4 from a weekend trip to the desert. Westerfield said he encountered Danielle's mother at a Poway nightspot the night of Feb. 1, before leaving for the Imperial County dunes in Glamis.

As part of a neighborhood search of about 200 homes – a rare search that employed police dogs – officers went into Westerfield's house, with his permission, after he returned Feb. 4. Detectives obtained a warrant for a second, more thorough search the following day, and took numerous containers filled with property, the motor home Westerfield drove to the desert and his Toyota 4Runner.

Detectives said earlier this week that among other things, they are waiting for DNA results that are due back from an FBI crime lab in Washington D.C., this week.

Meanwhile, the search for Danielle went into Mexico yesterday, and dozens of residents gathered at a local church last night to pray for the girl's return. But three weeks after the second-grader vanished from her bedroom, authorities still have no idea where she is.

San Diego police said investigators searched a one-story house in the Colonia Libertad neighborhood just south of the border after a Tijuana woman said she saw a girl resembling Danielle in the area.

"It's one of 500-plus tips we've received," said San Diego police spokesman Dave Cohen.

Raúl Gutiérrez, a spokesman for the Baja California Attorney General's Office in Tijuana, said, "It was rumored that she is somewhere here, and we are doing whatever we can do to locate her, but we don't have any specific information that says she is here."

Baja California state authorities said they had been notified by U.S. authorities to be on the lookout for the girl.

Colonia Libertad residents said Danielle was not in their midst.

"I haven't seen anyone like that around here," said Maria de Jesús González, echoing the comments of other neighbors.

Meanwhile, it was the hope that Danielle might be found alive, and the comfort of prayer in the face of uncertainty, that drew the van Dams and about 50 other people to St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Rancho Peñasquitos for a candlelight service last night.

"It's nice to see there (are) this many people who care," Damon van Dam said before the service. He and his wife sat in a front row, and at the end exchanged hugs with many of those present. Then they left quickly, in tears.

"We're trying to let our light shine tonight," the Rev. Joseph Acton told the congregants, each holding a lighted candle as they followed a special liturgy and sang hymns.

"We want to show that God's light is greater than the darkness," Acton said. He said prayers for Danielle and her family, and for parents everywhere who have missing children.

Jill Ward of Sabre Springs said she came with her 9-year-old daughter, Jessica, because "I want to give where I'd want to receive if I was in (the van Dams') shoes.

"If my daughter was taken from me, I'd be devastated. We've been volunteering to help. My thoughts are toward the daughter, trying to find her."

Ward said she has helped at the volunteer command post by answering phones, filing and putting up fliers, while her daughter has made bead bracelets to sell at fund-raisers.

Dolly Libby, a friend of the van Dams', said the evening service was important to her.

"We want to keep our hopes high. I think the power of the Lord, through any crisis, gets us through this, said Libby, who helped connect the van Dams to the church for an earlier vigil that took place in a neighborhood park.

Acton also officiated at that vigil, and said he has prayed with the van Dams at their home.

Church member Carolyn Burns said, "I hope people realize no matter what the (tragic ) circumstances, there is always a church or someone out there who cares for them."

In other developments yesterday:

Members of the San Diego police horse patrol and the Chula Vista police mounted reserve searched for Danielle at the Silver Strand near Coronado. They said they found nothing of significance.

About 40 Miramar-based Marines volunteered to spend their day off looking for Danielle in the foothills near her Sabre Springs home. They also came up empty.

David Westerfield, the focus of the police investigation, had several visitors to his Sabre Springs home. Two friends stopped by to lend support, and his attorney, accompanied by two associates, paid a late-afternoon visit.

[ February 23, 2002: Message edited by: nomsv ]