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CNN Wolf Blitzer Reports

Search Continues for Missing California Girl

Aired February 14, 2002 - 19:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, a special edition of WOLF BLITZER REPORTS: "Missing in America."

The numbers are astounding. Across the U.S., some 2,000 children go missing each day. Most cases get resolved quickly. But one heartrending case is still very much unsettled.

Seven-year-old Danielle van Dam vanished two weeks ago. Her mother went to her bedroom to wake her and she simply wasn't there.


BRENDA VAN DAM, DANIELLE'S MOTHER: Please tell me where she is.


BLITZER: Police have just one potential suspect. We'll get an update on the investigation. I'll speak with Danielle's desperate parents, Damon and Brenda van Dam, and with Mark Klaas. He's tried to make America safer for children, since his own daughter, Polly, was abducted and murdered nearly a decade ago.

Good evening, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting tonight from Washington. Welcome to our special edition. The sad truth is that at any one time, there are thousands of missing children in the United States. Most of them eventually are found, but some never are.

Tonight, we'll focus on the heart wrenching case of little Danielle van Dam. Seven-year-old Danielle was last seen February 1st when her father put her to bed in the family's San Diego home. She was reported missing the next morning. CNN's Art Harris picks up the story.


ART HARRIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Armed with a search warrant, San Diego Police back at a neighbor's house they searched before, spending hours combing for potential evidence in the kidnapping of Danielle van Dam.

B. VAN DAM: I have to just keep hope that she's still alive and that she is coming home.

HARRIS: Across the street at the van Dam's, police take away two fans and other items they hope will reveal a kidnapper's fingerprints.

DAMON VAN DAM, DANIELLE'S FATHER: Please sign up for volunteers and help us find Danielle, please.

HARRIS: A seven-year-old girl missing for 12 days, a reward unclaimed, more than 250 tips, but no arrests, and police say none in sight.

LT. JIM DUNCAN, SAN DIEGO POLICE: The process is slow, and if it has to do with our lab analysis and all of that, you just can't rush those things.

HARRIS: Danielle's DNA could be matched with hair or blood wherever she may be found, or a stranger's DNA could be found on her, but testing can take weeks. CNN has also learned police are taking fiber samples from carpets and clothes in the van Dam home for any future matching, and keeping an eye on the neighbor whose house was searched, David Westerfield, a 49-year-old design engineer, called cooperative, even as officers tail him in unmarked cars.

He came under police scrutiny after leaving for a weekend in the desert the day Danielle turned up missing. His motor home has been impounded for testing.

DUNCAN: He's still a potential suspect, yes he is.

HARRIS: Lead investigator, Jim Duncan, has asked if he has any other potential suspects.

DUNCAN: Not at this point.

HARRIS: Westerfield has denied any knowledge.


HARRIS: And her parents say they hardly know him.

D. VAN DAM: Not, not someone we know well.

B. VAN DAM: We do not know him well.

D. VAN DAM: We know his name. You know, we know who he is. We recognize him. We've talked to him a couple times, but not a friend.

HARRIS: But Westerfield says he had drinks with Brenda van Dam at this bar the night before Danielle vanished.

WESTERFIELD: I didn't plan to meet her there. Oh, they were having a good time, you know, just playing pool with people and joking around.

HARRIS (on camera): It was here Danielle's mother ran into her neighbor. He says they danced. She says they didn't. With her husband at home with the kids, she called it a girl's night out with two friends.

HARRIS (voice over): Police have ruled out the van Dams.

D. VAN DAM: We were both very happy to take polygraphs, and we're not suspects.

HARRIS: And friends from the bar, who left at 2:00 a.m. for pizza at the van Dam home, where a door was found open. Brenda says she saw no reason to check the children because her husband had put them to bed earlier. The couple told police the friends left at 3:00 a.m. They fell asleep and awoke to find Danielle gone.

With searchers striking out, police are counting on special bloodhounds like Maggie Mae, veteran tracker, to pick up Danielle's scent.


BLITZER: And Art Harris joins us now from the CNN Center. Art in this day of high tech crime solving, why is the dog still the police best friend?

HARRIS: Well, Wolf, in this case it is the detective's best friend because there are some things machines can't do, like find missing persons by smelling something that they have touched.

And in this case, the dog was taken into the home of the van Dams and actually scented, as they call it, on Danielle's clothes and other things, and those items police took for possible identification to see if the killer may have, or the kidnapper may have touched them and to lead the dog to another spot in the future.

BLITZER: Art Harris reporting in Atlanta, thank you very much. And coming up in just a moment, my interview with Danielle's parents. But first, the big picture about missing children. It's a troubling one and the numbers don't tell the whole story.


(voice over): Attaching statistics to the phenomenon of missing children is a horrifying, difficult, and according to some experts, deceiving practice. The numbers offer a window into the problem, but hardly a complete picture.

According to the FBI, approximately 725,000 children were reported missing in the U.S. last year. That's an average of about 2,000 children per day. Those numbers represent those cases where the disappearances were reported to police and entered into an FBI databank, even if resolved within hours.

REGINALD JONES, NATIONAL CENTER FOR MISSING AND EXPLOITED CHILDREN: The first few hours are very, very crucial, very, very crucial from the time that the child is missing and the time that the police report is made, and then forward on to us so that we can start the generation of media and getting that child's picture out into the public.

BLITZER: The majority of cases reported to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, are endangered runaways. Next are family abductions, where a child is taken in violation of a custody agreement. Then there are the lost, injured, or otherwise missing children, and finally the smallest category, non-family abductions.

JONES: The non-family abductions are what you might call stranger abductions. Then, of course, they're jumped on immediately, because they're the more important cases.

BLITZER: Only rarely is an abducted child murdered. The Washington State Attorney General's Office has estimated that there are about 100 such incidents in the U.S. each year. Nearly three- fourths of these murders occur within three hours of the abduction. But overall, and this is important, between 90 and 95 percent of all the cases reported to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, get resolved.


BLITZER (on camera): Earlier today, I spoke with Damon and Brenda van Dam, the parents of Danielle. They joined me from San Diego.


BLITZER: Brenda and Damon, thank you so much for joining us. God forbid, I can only imagine how painful this must be for both of you and our hearts, of course, go out to both of you. First of all, Brenda, how are you coping?

B. VAN DAM: Well, it's not easy. Each day it gets a little bit harder, and I just have to keep telling myself to stay strong for Danielle, because she's going to need me when she comes home.

BLITZER: Damon, how do you cope? How do you stay strong?

D. VAN DAM: I'm spending my time on the search as much as I can, and focusing on that, and also staying strong for our two boys.

BLITZER: But you are, Brenda, still hopeful that your daughter is still alive?

B. VAN DAM: I can't give that up until I know for sure.

D. VAN DAM: We're both hopeful, yes.

B. VAN DAM: I just can't do that.

BLITZER: As far as you know, where does the investigation stand? What are local law enforcement authorities telling you?

B. VAN DAM: Well, they're not telling us much right now, which is good. They do come and talk with us, but I think it's better that we don't know everything that's going on in the investigation.

BLITZER: Why is that? B. VAN DAM: Just so that -- I think we need to know in the end, when everything's said and done, we'll find out exactly what's going on.

D. VAN DAM: Right, and we're keeping our focus in finding Danielle and we're letting them do their jobs.

BLITZER: And do you have confidence, Damon, that they are doing everything possible to find your little girl?

D. VAN DAM: Definitely. Definitely.

B. VAN DAM: Absolutely. We see them often. They talk with us. They tell us what they're doing, but we don't ask them about the investigative part. WE don't want to ruin any of that, so we leave that to them.

BLITZER: What can you tell us about this neighbor that the police say is, what they described as a potential suspect, David Westerfield? What do you know about this man?

B. VAN DAM: I just know that he's a neighbor. He's someone you wave at when you drive by. That's all we know.

BLITZER: Damon, did you ever talk to him? Did you ever have a chance to get to know him at all?

D. VAN DAM: Not really get to know him. I spoke with him very short when we first moved in many years ago, three years ago, and since then it's been a wave as we go by.

BLITZER: And nothing more than that?

D. VAN DAM: Nothing more than that.

B. VAN DAM: Nothing more than that.

BLITZER: I understand that both of you did take lie detector tests. Is that right?

B. VAN DAM: Yes.

BLITZER: And, Damon, both of you? You did as well, right?

D. VAN DAM: Yes, we did. As soon as we were asked, we went in. We know how this goes, and we know the parents are suspect at first, and we wanted to get that out of the way so the police could move on to finding...

B. VAN DAM: To finding Danielle.

D. VAN DAM: ... whoever did this.

B. VAN DAM: And who took her.

BLITZER: And you were -- you didn't feel violated or anything, insulted that the police wanted you to take a lie detector test? Because that is, as you point out, standard operating procedure when these kinds of cases unfold.

B. VAN DAM: Exactly.

D. VAN DAM: And didn't feel a problem with it at all. We were glad to do it.

BLITZER: Tell us what happened that night, because on our e- mail, I got a lot of questions. When you came home that Friday night, it's almost two weeks ago, why didn't you check your daughter's room to make sure everything was OK after there was apparently a security light that went on, the side door had been opened. Wouldn't it have been normal to make sure the kids were OK?

B. VAN DAM: Let me tell you, first of all, we can't talk about the facts, and those facts aren't all correct, and the reason I didn't check on my daughter is because her father, who is a fully capable parent, put her to bed that night, and there was no reason for me to check on her.

BLITZER: And since...

B. VAN DAM: And the other facts we can't discuss.

D. VAN DAM: As far as the details, the police have asked that we don't discuss any of that.

B. VAN DAM: We don't discuss the details.

BLITZER: What can people do out there to try to help you, because as you well know, your case has generated an enormous amount of sympathy and interest, not only in your area, but around the country.

D. VAN DAM: Around the country, people can go to the Web site,, print out flyers, hang them up. We still don't know for sure where she is. She could be anywhere. Locally, in the southern California area, they can call...

B. VAN DAM: The Danielle Recovery Center, and we need lots of volunteers for searches. The number is 858-485-4185.

D. VAN DAM: And also if anyone has tips, anyone in the country, on the Web site there's a number to the San Diego Police, and if they want to give anonymous tips, the number is 1-800-THE-LOST.

BLITZER: When you say the searches are still going on, where are those searches going on?

D. VAN DAM: Right now, they're searching all around San Diego County, and this weekend we're going to try to focus as much as we can on the deserts in San Diego and Imperial counties.

BLITZER: Tell us a little bit about Danielle before our time runs out. I know this is very hard for you Brenda, but what kind of little girl was she?

B. VAN DAM: She was a very happy...

D. VAN DAM: Sweet, loving.

B. VAN DAM: Sweet, loving, caring, she cared about everybody. She was just a wonderful child. She is a wonderful child. She loved to ride her bike, and rollerblade, play with her friends. She loved playing with her brothers and...

D. VAN DAM: Reading and writing.

B. VAN DAM: Reading and writing were one of her favorites.

D. VAN DAM: Helping out, helping cooking, helping mom around the house.

B. VAN DAM: She would sit on the counter every night and make dinner with me, and now at times...

BLITZER: How are her brothers dealing with this?

B. VAN DAM: Well, I think they realize that Danielle was taken. They just, each night we pray as a family, and they both say "Danielle, we love you and we hope you come home soon." I don't really think the full -- that they've gotten it, you know. They don't know. I don't think they've realized how bad this is.

BLITZER: Brenda and Damon, I think I speak for everyone watching, everyone out there. We only wish the best. We hope that she comes back as soon as possible, and our hearts, as I said earlier, certainly go out to both of you. Thank you so much for joining us.

D. VAN DAM: Thank you.

B. VAN DAM: Thank you.

D. VAN DAM: Thanks to everyone who has helped.

B. VAN DAM: Thank you all.

BLITZER: And when we come back, his own daughter was taken from her home and murdered. Now he tries to help others. I'll speak with Marc Klaas.


BLITZER: Welcome back. Each year, thousands of parents cope with the loss and anxiety that comes when a child goes missing. Marc Klaas went through that in 1993, when his 12-year-old daughter Polly was kidnapped from a slumber party. She was found dead and the killer was later caught and sentenced to death. I spoke to Marc Klaas earlier today about his involvement in efforts to find Danielle van Dam.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER (voice over): Marc Klaas, thanks once again for joining us. I wish it would be under better circumstances. I've know you now for several years, but tell us what attracted you. Why did you get involved in this particular search since every year apparently, hundreds of kids are kidnapped from their homes.

MARC KLAAS, FATHER OF POLLY KLAAS: Well there were a couple of things, Wolf, that attracted me to this. First of all, the incredible similarities between the cases, little girls stolen out of their home in the middle of night, little girls who were breaking absolutely nobody's rules.

I was ultimately invited down here by the friends and supporters of the van Dam family. They thought that maybe I could have a little bit of input and help them move the search effort forward a little bit.

BLITZER (on camera): As you well know from your own personal experience, and your daughter who was killed in 1993, Polly, the suspicion almost always immediately focuses in on the parents themselves. When did you become convinced that these parents, obviously, had nothing to do with their daughter's disappearance?

KLAAS: Well, you can tell an awful lot of things, simply by observation, and just to watch them, it seemed like they were really overwrought over this whole deal. But then when you started hearing about the fact that they had cooperated with law enforcement, that they had taken the polygraph exams, that they had been totally forthcoming with the police, and the police started to echo that sentiment, then it was very clear in my mind that these were people who knew what they needed to do and were actually doing it.

And I think that really is a testament to the awareness of this whole issue. They knew that they had to cooperate. They knew that they had to eliminate themselves. So you know, Wolf, these can go a couple of ways. They can go and hire a lawyer as so many have done, and I believe unsuccessfully, or they can go in the other direction and eliminate themselves so that law enforcement can move on.

BLITZER: Are you hopeful that little Danielle is still alive?

KLAAS: Oh, absolutely. There is no reason to think otherwise. I know that the numbers are very stark, Wolf. What they say is that, of the children that are murdered as a result of an abduction, 74 percent of them will be murdered within the first two hours. However, if this child made it through that first evening, I think the chances of her being alive are very, very good.

BLITZER: So basically, you're saying that the search has to go on. No one should just simply give up and assume, God forbid, the worst case situation?

KLAAS: Well, you know, the parents aren't giving up. Would you? Would anybody in the audience ever give up on their own child, or would you want anybody else to give up on your child if the possibility existed that that child could be brought home alive? BLITZER: I don't think anyone would give up.


BLITZER: Any bottom line piece of advice you have for parents out there?

KLAAS: Well, you know, this is another tragic situation in America, and I think that what you want to do is look at the example of the way this community is reacting. They are coming forth for this child in a variety of different ways.

There's going to be a huge search effort on Saturday. People are giving of their time, of their money, of their resource and it truly means that it does take a village to look after a child, and I think that this again is another example of how America can rise to the occasion to help those in need.

BLITZER: Mark Klaas, I wish we would be talking under different circumstances, but thanks once again...

KLAAS: I know.

BLITZER: ... for joining us.

KLAAS: Thank you, Wolf.


BLITZER (on camera): And Mark Klaas made one other point when we spoke, offering his assessment of what kind of crime this probably was.


KLAAS: I don't for a minute believe that this was a random crime. It would be too difficult for somebody to, first of all, identify this child, find where she lived, case her house, figure out how to get into her house, up into her bedroom, without drawing a lot of attention to themselves.

So I think law enforcement is absolutely correct in focusing in on the neighborhood.


BLITZER: And the search, therefore, will continue and we will continue to monitor developments and let you know what we learned. Remember, I also want to hear from you. Please go to my web page at, click on the designation for comments to me, and to my producers. We read all of those comments.

And terror suspects in custody. We'll be back in just a moment with a quick check of the top stories. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Tonight's "News Alert" begins with word on the status of the five men listed in an FBI security alert. The FBI says the five men have been located. Sources tell CNN the men were found to already be in jail in Yemen. The five were part of a list of 17 associates of a Yemeni man that the Justice Department said might be planning an attack on U.S. interests.

Iran says it's rounded up 150 Arab, African, and European nationals it believes are linked to the Taliban and al Qaeda. All were picked up in Iranian towns and cities close to the border with Afghanistan. Iranian officials say the detainees are being interrogated. So far, no signs that prominent al Qaeda or Taliban are among those being held. U.S. officials say they believe the number of people Iran claims to be detaining is exaggerated.

Flares launched by U.S. forces touched off a fire at the Kandahar Airport in Afghanistan. The fire burned near the end of the airport's runway. U.S. forces had launched flares to light the sky near the airport, a day after a firefight that left two soldiers with light wounds.

Lawmakers heard from an Enron executive they had good things to say about, Sherron Watkins, who had warned her superiors about accounting irregularities. Greeted with praise Watkins told the House panel that questionable partnerships and stock arrangements the company used were, "common knowledge among Enron executives."


SHERRON WATKINS, ENRON EXECUTIVE: I was not comfortable confronting either Mr. Skilling or Mr. Fastow with my concerns. To do so, I believe would have been a job-terminating move. On August 14, 2001, I was informed of Mr. Skilling's sudden resignation and felt compelled to inform Mr. Lay of the accounting problems that faced Enron.


BLITZER: Hearings will continue, and that's all the time we have tonight. Please join me again tomorrow twice, at both 5:00 and 7:00 p.m. Eastern. Until then, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. "CROSSIFRE" begins right now.