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AMERICAN MORNING WITH PAULA ZAHN

Authorities Believe Body Found Yesterday in Remote Area Near San Diego That of 7-Year-Old Danielle Van Dam

Aired February 28, 2002 - 07:04   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.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Up front this morning, that grim discovery in southern California. Authorities believe a body found yesterday in a remote area near San Diego is that of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam. A positive I.D. may take several days, but this morning it does appear that the month long search for the missing girl has reached a tragic conclusion.

CNN's Frank Buckley joins us now from El Cahone (ph), California with the very latest -- good morning.

FRANK BUCKLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Paula.

A difficult day ahead for the van Dam family. Police here all but saying that the body found at this location about 30 minutes east of San Diego is, indeed, the body of their 7-year-old daughter. The body was found right back here along this lonely stretch of rural road, traveled road. There is a casino that's open 24 hours a day in this location but it is, in fact, a rural road. The body found about 25 to 30 feet off this road behind those trees that are still lit by those generator lights back there.

Overnight, the body of the little girl was removed from this location. Investigators say there is a "high probability" that this is, indeed, the body of Danielle van Dam. The body had on it a necklace that was seen in home video and in missing posters posted across the county and the girl was wearing an earring consistent with the one that Danielle was wearing the night that she went missing.

Authorities say the discovery of the body yesterday will assist them in their investigation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The discovery of Danielle van Dam's body provides a new avenue for clues for forensic examiners and crime scene examiners. So we will hopefully, we will know what happened to this young girl. This will provide the information as to what ultimately happened to her. It may also provide information about who killed her.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BUCKLEY: The prime suspect in this case is David Westerfield, who was charged on Tuesday with Danielle's murder along with kidnapping and child pornography. He entered a plea of not guilty. But authorities believe they have a case against Westerfield based in part on DNA evidence that they say was found on his clothing and in his motor home -- Paula.

ZAHN: Frank, as you called our attention to the scene behind you, it seems remarkable given how dense those trees were that this voluntary search group was able to make this discovery. Describe to us the terrain all around that area.

BUCKLEY: It is an area that's, as I described, rural. There is a casino in the area. Directly behind the area where you see the trees behind me there is a small area that is flat. There's some debris back there and a dirt road, as if people go back there to dump trash. There was a great deal of debris that was right back in that area.

But this is an area that's far removed from the family home of the van Dams. A local was telling me it would take a good hour to an hour and a half to get to the family home from here. And police said that the reason that this area was searched was that the volunteers came out here and decided to expand the search area, look in this area that hadn't been looked at before. And clearly it was the effort of those volunteers that resulted in this finding yesterday.

ZAHN: All right, Frank Buckley, thank you so much for that update.

And despite the fact that one of their neighbors was already charged with Danielle's kidnapping and murder, Brenda and Damon van Dam never lost hope that their daughter would somehow be found alive. And this morning they are facing a terrible reality.

Joining us now from San Francisco is Marc Klaas, head of the Klaaskids Foundation. Marc's own daughter, Polly Klaas, was kidnapped and murdered in 1993.

First of all, Marc, I know you have had a lot of contact with the van Dams. I know you expressed to us they had never given up hope. Walk us through what they possibly could be going through now as they have to wait again for a positive identification of this body that police do believe is Danielle's.

MARC KLAAS, KLAASKIDS FOUNDATION: Well, I suspect that there's no doubt that this will turn out to be Danielle. But the van Dams have had the rug pulled out from under them in the very worst sense of the word. I mean they are in an emotional, they've reached an emotional and a psychological depth that very few people ever find themselves in and oftentimes people are not able to extricate themselves from this kind of a situation. Simply because they were looking for this child and they were so hoping against hope that they would find her alive, it makes the reality of the situation even that much more difficult to really comprehend.

And it oftentimes takes quite some time for all of that reality to be absorbed and for it to really come to you. It's just, it's so terrible. But I think, you know, on the bright side, they've had so much support from so many people, not only in San Diego, but around the country. And certainly that's got to help them and give them some degree of comfort.

ZAHN: They also have to find some comfort in knowing that they basically have done everything possible. In fact, you know, even the police conceding had it not been for the van Dams pushing for this volunteer effort, this body may never have been found.

KLAAS: It's unbelievable. The amount of criticism that they were, that was being directed at them by some of these shock jocks down in San Diego, it was so terribly unfair. But throughout it all Damon and Brenda van Dam just pleaded with people to please come and help them locate their daughter.

And it's such a testament to the loyalty that's been shown by their friends and their supporters that these volunteers actually did what no one else was able to do, and that was locate this little girl. And they did it through tenacity and they did it through organization and they did it through some wonderful volunteer leadership.

ZAHN: Have you had any contact with the van Dams since this gruesome discovery was made?

KLAAS: No. I just felt it was not in my place to call them yesterday. I, it's too overwhelming. It's just too gigantic of an emotional minefield to try to get through. I will certainly try to talk to them in the next day or so. But I didn't feel that the time was quite right yet.

ZAHN: You did speak with them, though, after the arraignment of David Westerfield, right, once he was charged with kidnapping and the other charges?

KLAAS: I believe that happened yesterday, if I'm not mistaken. I think I spoke to Damon the night before the arraignment, if I'm not mistaken. These events have been moving very, very quickly in this case and I have to tell you, everything is so close to what happened to my daughter that it's really taken my breath away and sort of discombobulated me in a certain sense, as well.

ZAHN: Oh, I can well understand that.

KLAAS: Yes.

ZAHN: In any of your conversations with the van Dams did they ever talk to you about David Westerfield, who he was and any of the doubts they may have had about him?

KLAAS: You know, they did. And it's really interesting because they're such a believable couple. It's so obvious that they're telling the truth and everything. And van Dam would taunt them. He would talk about having danced with -- I'm sorry. Van Dam, Westerfield would talk about having danced with Mrs. Van Dam, which he adamantly did not do. Damon said that when they first moved into the community some years ago he had a brief conversation with Westerfield and then they became waving neighbors, like we all have, and it never really went beyond that.

Then I guess there was the incident where he purchased some Girl Scout cookies from little Danielle quite recently. And then he just took advantage, I guess, of what he thought was an opportunity to outsmart the world once again. And unfortunately he -- well, fortunately he got outsmarted and the world now knows the great Mr. Westerfield for the psychopathic little baby killing punk that he really is.

ZAHN: Well, we know this is very difficult for you to join us, particularly when you said this case very much mirrors what you went through many years ago.

KLAAS: Yes.

ZAHN: Marc Klaas, thank you very much for joining us this morning. We appreciate your time.

KLAAS: Sure. Sure thing, Paula.

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