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American Morning

Arraignment Probably Toughest Day For Van Dam Family

Aired February 27, 2002 - 08:32   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: More now on the disappearance of 7- year-old Danielle Van Dam. Prosecutors in San Diego aren't saying whether they will seek the death penalty for David Westerfield. Even though they haven't found the little girl's body, they charged Westerfield with murder as well as kidnapping. Yesterday, he entered a plea of not guilty.

Joining us now from San Diego is the host of the TV program "AMERICA'S MOST WANTED." Welcome back, John Walsh.


ZAHN: Good of you to be up for us this hour of the morning. John, for starters, I know you had the opportunity to spend some time with the Van Dams. How are they doing?

WALSH: Well, yesterday was probably the most torturous day in the three and a half weeks that she's been missing. I went to the arraignment with them. I think it was really, really tough for them to handle two things. First, seeing David Westerfield and seeing him in that courtroom. And most important, was the fact that the DA has now charged him with murder, and this family has been praying and hoping in their heart of hearts that Danielle is alive.

We don't know where Danielle is, now, but the DA had to do this to avoid double jeopardy. For example, if David Westerfield had made a plea arrangement to the kidnapping charges, he could be out of jail in seven or eight years, and they couldn't have charged him with Danielle's murder. So the DA went ahead and said, "we think this little girl is dead, we have a lot of DNA evidence." So it was a really, really tough day for the Van Dams yesterday.

ZAHN: Did the Van Dams happen to say whether they believed David Westerfield was involved from the beginning?

WALSH: Well, they didn't know. I mean, he became a suspect when, you know, police canvassed the neighborhood. He didn't participate and help in the search. He had been, you know, Mrs. Van Dam had run into him the night before. He knew the neighborhood, he knew Danielle. And, of course, police started focusing in on him.

We got a tip that he'd been out in the desert, the Saturday morning that Danielle was kidnapped. He'd been there all weekend. And a tow truck driver called up and said, "hey, I pulled this Winnebago out of a spot in the desert that it should have never have been in." So they started to work on the Winnebago. They found out that he had chloroxed the entire bottom of the Winnebago and had all the sheets and garments in there, including his jacket, dry cleaned. But, evidently, he wasn't -- he didn't do a good enough job, and they have some very strong DNA evidence, especially blood on his jacket, linking him to Danielle.

ZAHN: They also talked about having DNA evidence that they found on Danielle's clothing in her bedroom. Does anybody have more specific information on what that is?

WALSH: Well, there's a misconception about that. What they did was take hairs and things of Danielle's -- of Danielle herself to match the DNA to the blood on his jacket, and that's where they got the positive matches.

ZAHN: Walk us through the process, now ,of the wait the Van Dams have ahead. The search continues. How critical is it for these investigators to find Danielle's body if they want to get a murder conviction?

WALSH: Well, there's two aspects of this. The Van Dams haven't given up looking for Danielle. As a matter of fact, they're organizing a very intensive search in the area surrounding their home and in a large area in the desert. Now this guy covered a lot of ground over the weekend that he was in the desert. So Danielle could be anywhere, but the Van Dams are not giving up.

The prosecutor and the team in San Diego have done a very good job, they have Woody Clark, who is a national DNA expert. And they have actually prosecuted four homicides in the last several years, where they won all four cases and got first -- and convictions of murder, when there were no bodies involved. But these were not cases involving children. So, these are tough, tough cases to prove, but they feel that they've got enough evidence. They've got a strong team. And they're going to go after this guy.

ZAHN: I expect that, to a certain extent, because the Van Dams are organizing another search, that that might bring them some solace, but the fact remains, they still have to deal with the uncertainty of what happened to their daughter. What have they expressed to you about having to endure that?

WALSH: Well, you're absolutely right, Paula. The worst is the not knowing. I think everybody holds out hope that their child will come back alive. We know, the Justice Department did a really extensive survey last year saying that the vast majority of stranger- abducted children are dead within the first four hours, although we've gotten 24 kids back alive on "AMERICA'S MOST WANTED," which I think is a miracle. But, as everybody hour goes by, the likelihood that she'll be found alive is less and less.

And people just want to know. I think parents are prepared for the worst. But the not knowing is what kills them. When the child is found dead, that ends the chapter in your life. You hope for justice. You hope that the perpetrator has been caught. In this case, here's a guy that's already charged with it. But the Danielle -- Danielle's family is desperate to know. The not knowing is what's keeping them in Hell.

ZAHN: Yes, you think about their personal hell and the hell of the Etan Patz family, 23 years later, still, you know, investigators looking for his body. And now prosecutors saying yesterday, there's not enough evidence to charge anyone in that little boy's disappearance. What a heart break.

WALSH: Well, there's so many families. There are literally thousands of families that are listed with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that have had no resolution, not a tip, not a -- not anything relating to their children. And certainly, no one ever arrested for kidnapping their children. It's just -- the not knowing is the worst.

And people always talk about closure. It's not so much about closure. I don't think, in my lifetime, I will ever get over the fact that my son was kidnapped and murdered. But justice is what is important and knowing what happened to your child, and that's what people are looking for. They're looking for justice.

And I'm hoping that this prosecution team in San Diego will be able to accomplish what they've set out to do. Convict this guy of kidnapping of Danielle. And I am praying for this family that they find out what happened to their daughter.

ZAHN: John Walsh, as always, good of you to join us. And again, thanks for keeping such odd hours for "AMERICAN MORNING."

WALSH: Well, I'm glad to do it.

ZAHN: Maybe you can go out and get a cup of coffee, now, and grab a doughnut, since we woke you up in the middle of the night.

WALSH: Glad to do it for you, Paula.

ZAHN: Thanks, John, we'll be staying touch with you as the case continues to evolve.