Fred Dickey's Island of Human Drama
Detective Mo Retraces Steps to Van Dam's Murderer
Detective Mo Retraces Steps to Van Dam's Murderer
By Fred Dickey San Diego Union-Tribune May 1, 2017
Last Monday, a colorful San Diego Police Department detective, Mo Parga, 53, shared an account of her life as a street cop, from horse patrol to homicide.
Of her 32 years so far in the force, the following case is most stark in her memory, and for which she was given an award.
It is Sunday morning, Feb. 3, 2002, on Mountain Pass Road in the Sabre Springs area of San Diego.
Detective Mo Parga parks her unmarked vehicle amid a scattering of squad cars along the clean, quiet street. All she knows is that a 7-year-old girl disappeared from her bed late Friday night or very early Saturday morning.
Mo has been summoned to join the search because an initial sweep of the neighborhood and nearby canyons has not found Danielle Nicole Van Dam. It quickly escalates from missing juvenile to suspected kidnapping. That has brought in Mo; kidnappings are part of her job.
Mo stands on the sidewalk in front of the very nice, two-story home of Damon and Brenda Van Dam, who live with their two young sons and Danielle.
The detective tries to think of Danielle without seeing her face, because she intuitively believes the little girl is dead. Working this case is going to be awful enough without being haunted by an image.
She hopes she’s wrong, but 17 years as a cop have imprinted dark truths in her mind. Wishes play no part in solving a crime.
Little girls don’t wander off, and when they “run away from home” in a pout, it’s to hide under their bed until they get hungry.
No, if Danielle returns home, it’ll be a miracle. Much more likely, when she’s found, it’ll be a tragedy. Mo pushes those thoughts from her mind. She knows other detectives are trying to push away the same fear.
Mo is doing a routine neighborhood canvass and finds herself in front of a house two doors from the Van Dams’. She will soon learn it belongs to David Westerfield, a successful work-at-home engineer of 49, a bachelor who keeps to himself.
All she knows at the moment is that the resident is a man who lives alone and is not home. Neighbors say he is known as “Desert Dave” for his frequent camping trips to the desert.
She admires Westerfield’s putting-green lawn with its clipped shrubs and swept walks. She finds it especially attractive because out where she lives in East County, grass can be considered frivolous. Horses prefer weeds.
She also notices a garden hose stretched across his lawn to the curb and back. It is just lying there.
Mo studies it and thinks: A fussy gardener would never do this because it will make the grass underneath turn yellow. Why the rush?
The wheels whirr in her head like fruit in the window of a slot machine. When they stop, they leave no doubt in her mind.
It’s him. The guy who was in too big a hurry to rewind his hose – he’s our guy. She doesn’t yet know his name, but she’s convinced he’s the man who took the little girl.
It’s a presumption that other cops might roll their eyes at, but it isn’t a wild guess, at least not to her. It’s based on keen observation and a long time spent figuring out how guilty people act. Yes, it’s a form of profiling, and certainly a rush to judgment.
Walking back to the command post, she strides into the murmuring group of brass and detectives trying to sort out how to tackle the mystery. (Mo is not a shy woman). She points to the hose and explains her rationale.
“One says, ‘Aw, come on, Mo. You're not going to solve this case over a stupid garden hose.’”
She answers: “I'm just telling you, we need to look at this guy. He did something.”
Not only that, she tells them the neighbors have said Westerfield went away for the weekend on Saturday morning in his motor home. How convenient. And that doesn’t remove him from the crime scene or the timeline.
That’s a lot of theory for connect-the-dots investigators to absorb all of a sudden, and here’s Mo jumping dots like a grasshopper. However, they don’t ridicule her ideas.
You can tease Mo, but don’t ridicule her. And as she argues, they slowly come around, very tentatively. They have nothing better working at the moment, so Lt. Jim Collins, the officer in charge, tells Mo to go ahead and work her theory.
Mo and her partner, Johnny Keene, stake out the Westerfield house until 3 a.m. Monday. Then thick fog rolls in and they leave. Westerfield comes home at 8:45 that morning, where he is met by other detectives.
Mo and Keene are summoned and arrive at 9 a.m. Westerfield is standing in the driveway. He quickly singles her out and tries to build a rapport. She sees him sweating profusely, which she considers tell-tale because it’s a frigid morning.
Trying to put him at ease, she tells him all the homes in the area are going to be examined, and she’d really appreciate seeing his. He invites her into the house and Keene follows.
“I’m not about to go in there alone,” she remembers thinking.
Inside, Keene fades into the background and spends his time checking things out. Westerfield seems to be “coming on” to Mo and offers to fix her lunch, which she declines.
“I go upstairs, and he shows us his bedroom. He’s a show-off, bragging about all his stuff.
“I go into his bathroom, and when I go to the window and look out, I can see the Van Dam house, and there is an impression in the screen. I fit my face into the impression, and it looks right down and across to where Danielle would play.”
Are you being coy with him?
“Yeah, I am -- ‘Wow, this is a really beautiful house.’ He’s interacting with me, I’m interacting back. I don't want him to all of a sudden decide, ‘OK, get out of my house.’
“On the kitchen counter, there is a cut-out catalog picture of a child's bed. I’m thinking, Wow! This is spooky.
“I had gone into Danielle's room to get hair from her brush yesterday. She had a canopy bed. No, has. I don’t want to think that way.
“It's white and pink, and this picture on his counter is very similar to her bed. … So, why would a middle-age bachelor have that? He's the guy, definitely. He’s the guy.
“Westerfield is divorced, and he says to me that I look like his ex-wife, and that may be why he’s comfortable talking to me. I’ll take it.”
Do you think Westerfield believes he can manipulate you?
“He’s a very intelligent man. He’s a sick individual, but he’s not stupid. He just thinks I am.”
And you want him to think that, right?
“Yeah, oh yeah.”
She notices he has a Toyota 4Runner in the garage. It’s been freshly cleaned inside and out. Mo’s immediate hunch is that he used it to transport Danielle to his motor home, which he keeps some distance away.
It’s now Monday afternoon, and Mo breaks away and rejoins the other investigators. As they talk, the others come around to her point of view, one by one. Westerfield’s name is now in bold face. They ask her to return and keep him talking while they seek search warrants.
She goes back and sits with Westerfield for several hours to buy time. Keene is still poking around taking notes, but Westerfield tends to forget he’s there. He becomes part of the furniture, which is the idea.
Mo has to sit and try to make small talk with a man she is convinced is a child killer.
At one point, he again seems to be coming on to her. He invites her to dinner. She’s thinking, “Yeah, that’s what I need, a boyfriend who kills children.”
Mo wants to earn Westerfield’s trust so maybe he’ll confess or blurt out what he did. It sometimes happens that way.
She wants him to believe her when she says, “I want you to know that whatever happens, I’ll be there and make sure everything is done right.” She lies with a straight face. “Just show me where Danielle is, if you know.”
He asks if he’s under arrest. “No you're not, David. This little girl is missing, and we have to find her.” She tells him other neighbors are being interviewed, including the parents.
Mo is sympathetic. She is Westerfield’s new friend. “I know this is really putting you out. You’re probably tired from driving back from – I forget, where were you?”
She finally asks him to take a polygraph exam, downplaying it by saying others are doing it, and it just helps investigators clear people.
He agrees, so they drive to the northeastern police station on Salmon River Road. She waits while he takes the test. Later, when he’s told he failed, he says, “I don’t know why.”
Mo’s job is done for the day and Westerfield says he’s hungry and is going home for dinner. He then drives back to his house to find detectives waiting to serve him with a search warrant. It was obtained while he was occupied by Mo’s “harmless” conversation.
It can’t have helped his appetite.
Westerfield’s denials quickly collapse. Investigators find Danielle’s blood and hair evidence in his house, the Toyota and the motor home.
He is arrested on Feb. 22, 2002, three days before his 50th birthday. Danielle’s body is found in rural East County near the Sycuan casino five days later.
Lt. Jim Collins was in charge of the investigation at the time. This was how he sorted out the scenario of the abduction.
Westerfield had seen Brenda and her female friends in a local bar the previous Friday night (Jan. 25). Then, by happenstance, she and Danielle went to his house on Wednesday, five days later, to sell him Girl Scout cookies.
He invited them in and asked her why she hadn’t introduced him to her friends at the bar. During the conversation in his home (and probably his probing), she happened to say she and her friends would probably be at the same bar the coming Friday (Feb. 1) for a going-away party, provided she could get a babysitter for Danielle because Damon and the boys would be out of town.
Consequently, when Westerfield observed Brenda and her friends at the bar on Friday night, he soon left, presumably to prepare Danielle’s abduction. We can only guess what would have been the fate of a babysitter had that person been there.
However, Damon and the two boys had canceled their trip, and there was no babysitter. That Westerfield did not awaken the sleeping three, was able to find the right bedroom, did not alert the dog and managed to avoid causing an outcry by Danielle as he swept her away is an ugly chain of improbable circumstances.
(We can only marvel at the force of the dreadful compulsion that drove him to take such a foolish chance.)
So, not realizing Damon and the boys were all at home, Westerfield crept through an open side-yard door, through an unlocked garage door and up the stairs to Danielle’s room with cat-burglar stealth.
He then carried her small sleeping (or muffled) body back to his home. Hours later, he put her in the cargo area of his Toyota and drove to his motor home, where he transferred Danielle, living or dead. He then returned to his house, where he hastily filled the vehicle’s water reservoir – Remember the hose in the yard? – and then drove away. Danielle was not discovered missing until around 9 on Saturday morning.
Mo looks back on the case with regret that the Westerfield defense chose to portray the Van Dams as bad parents, which the press repeated. Did I say regret? No, anger is more like it.
Mo recalls how horrible she felt asking Brenda to lead her to the garage so she could look for evidence there. The hard-to-miss implication was that the parents might become suspects.
“That was heart-wrenching. They were loving parents. Brenda was a mess. Can you imagine: I’m going into your house, your child’s missing and I’m asking you where the duct tape and zip ties are, indicating that this is what might have happened to your child and you did it?”
Would Westerfield have been caught without Mo’s educated guess? Bet on it.
A little girl murdered? Cops are parents. And Westerfield, as smart as he may have thought he was, didn’t realize that a hose and rag can’t erase all forensic evidence.
As Mo testified at the trial, she looked over at Westerfield sitting at the defense table to see him smiling at her. She didn’t smile back. Smiling was no longer a part of her job description.
He was convicted of Danielle’s abduction and murder, and was sentenced to death on Aug. 21, 2002.
Westerfield never had the chance to take Mo to that dinner he proposed, although she says she’d happily serve him his last meal.
We will probably never know, but maybe Danielle was not the only one. We don’t want to think about that.
In 16 months, Mo Parga will retire. And over time, she will settle into being Mrs. Maura Mekenas-Parga.
Her horses out in East County will benefit from many more cubes of sugar, but they’ll also have to carry her around those hills a lot more.
Thus will exit this street cop who can get all squint-eyed and grim-faced, but I’ve also seen her shed a tear for a victim.
Help is on the way.
In a future police academy class, maybe even the current one, there is a quippy, saucy gal who gives as well as she gets, and is liked as one of the guys. The difference is that today’s “guys” are not the guys they used to be.
Mo redux. The baton will pass.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at [email protected]
Danielle Van Dam: