Where Is Danielle Van Dam?

It's been 10 days since 7-year-old Danielle van Dam went missing. The blonde, blue-eyed Girl Scout was last seen on the night of Feb. 1, comfy in her blue-flowered pj's as her father tucked her into bed on the second floor of the family's loft-style house, snug in a California suburb. When her mother went to wake her the next morning, little Danielle was nowhere to be found. As if America needed yet another reminder that home isn't as safe as it once seemed, it awoke Tuesday morning to the sight of a tearful Brenda van Dam on the "Today" show, telling of how her daughter had been kidnapped. "We just want our baby back," the soccer mom cried. Overnight the van Dam's upscale bedroom community in the semiarid canyons northeast of San Diego became a hive of media activity, the sort previously reserved for the likes of the Lindbergh baby and Chandra Levy. TV satellite trucks jockeyed for position in front of the family home, poised to broadcast the van Dams' pleas for help and document the vigils of neighbors who've brought banners and flowers, teddy bears and prayers.

As many as 300 children are abducted each year in this country from their homes, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Most don't cause such a frenzy--absent a whiff of celebrity or controversy. It is the latter that seems to have set the van Dam case apart. The first hint that this saga might have an even darker side came when San Diego police last week carted out 13 bags from the home of a neighbor, David Westerfield. Westerfield hasn't been charged with any crime, but police are keeping a close eye on the 49-year-old engineer. On Thursday and Friday investigators were combing through a desert area in Imperial County, where Westerfield is said to have taken his recreational vehicle on the morning Danielle was reported missing. He got stuck in the sand near the U.S.-Mexico border, according to Marc Shepard, who works for a tow-truck company that helped pull the vehicle out. "It was weird... He just wanted to get going, to get the heck out of there." Westerfield, who has hired an attorney, has declined to comment on the investigation. A San Diego Police Department spokesman would say only, "There is a lot of information that has come to light that has led us to explore this man and this house."

By Friday night the story had taken another seamy turn. Word that Brenda and Damon van Dam may have been "swingers" fond of spouse-swapping had been percolating around Internet chat rooms and spilling into the local press throughout the week. But by Friday public discussion of the rumors started drowning out the parents' pleas for help when San Diego talk-radio host Rick Roberts devoted the entire four hours of his broadcast to the family's personal life. Said Sara Fraunces, a family spokeswoman: "They do not lead a perfect lifestyle. But they did not kill their daughter."

All the buzz about the parents' alleged peccadilloes would seem to have little direct bearing on the case, were it not for the sense some have that their "lifestyle" may have played a role in Danielle's disappearance. On the night Danielle was abducted, Brenda van Dam, 39, had been partying with friends until the wee hours of the morning at a local bar, Dad's Cafe and Steak House in Poway. Mrs. van Dam says she ran into Westerfield at the bar that night; Westerfield has told the local press that he danced with her while she insists he did not. In any case, sometime after Westerfield had left the bar, Mrs. van Dam returned with some friends to her house, where her husband, Damon, a 36-year-old engineer for cell-phone maker Qualcomm, had been taking care of Danielle and her two brothers, 5 and 9 years of age. The couple visited with the friends briefly and then went to sleep, without checking on the children.

By last weekend the case was becoming a major PR nightmare for the family. On Saturday morning the radio station's Web site was conducting an Internet poll, asking: "Now that you know about Danielle van Dam's parents' swinging lifestyle, should their other two children remain in the home?" Fraunces, the family's spokeswoman, stepped down, citing the need to spend more time with her own family; she was quickly replaced by Fleishman Hillard, one of the largest public-relations firms in the country. "I'm saddened that the focus of this story has moved away from finding Danielle," Brenda van Dam told NEWSWEEK Saturday afternoon. "We're not watching television, reading the newspapers or listening to the radio. We're just trying to remain strong, and trying to give our kids [the two boys] a sense of normalcy and a safe and secure environment in the middle of all this." Added her husband: "I don't care about what people are saying about us. I just care about finding our daughter." On Monday the family plans to announce a $25,000 reward for any information leading to Danielle's discovery--funds, according to their new publicist, drawn largely from the van Dams' own reserves.

As the van Dams were left to ponder how their family tragedy had turned into a mudslide, local families were trying to sort out for themselves what all the chatter might mean. "I don't believe that the van Dams are practicing Christians, but I don't believe they're evil, either. I think they're maybe a little worldly," said Jerry Miller, one of 50 volunteers manning the phones last weekend in a hotel conference room not far from the family's home in Sabre Springs that has become the "Danielle van Dam Recovery Center." She added, "You have to understand, this is a bedroom community here in Sabre Springs. People feel it's safe to raise your children. We've never had anything like this happen before, and we hardly know what to do about it." An Internet posting on one San Diego news site devoted to the disappearance seemed to provide at least some explanation: "In reality what we are doing is trying to reassure ourselves that 'nothing this horrible could ever happen to me, because I never would have behaved that way.' It protects us from having to face the dreadful truth that the most heinous of things sometimes happen to good and innocent people. People like us." And people like Danielle van Dam.

Where Is Danielle Van Dam? | News