Killer claims he was framed for Danielle van Dam murder

By Alex Roth

May 3, 2003

From his cell on death row, David Westerfield spends his time reading murder mysteries and writing letters declaring he was framed for the murder of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam, his Sabre Springs neighbor.

"From the second that the police said that they found dvd's blood on my jacket, I knew I was being set up by one of two groups of people," the former design engineer wrote to one friend. "#1 the police or #2 the parents. My attorneys started to think that I had been involved or was covering for some one. (Neither is true!)"

In response to the accusation in those letters, the county's former top prosecutor yesterday confirmed one of the most explosive stories of the case: that Westerfield offered to lead police to the second-grader's body in exchange for escaping the death penalty. It is the first time former District Attorney Paul Pfingst has commented publicly on the aborted plea bargain.

"He wanted to plead guilty to a lesser charge in return for telling us where Danielle's body was," Pfingst said, "so I am disgusted that this pervert would make such a charge in light of what he did to Danielle van Dam and her family."

Westerfield has been writing to friends since his arrival in January on death row, which he complains is "cold, wet & drafty all the time."

In page after page, he spells out elaborate theories about how he thinks he was framed. He accuses police of planting evidence, suggests Danielle's parents set him up and accuses Pfingst of filing murder charges as a way of increasing his chances for re-election.

The letters provide a rare personal glimpse of the man at the center of one of the most notorious murder cases in county history. The trial was televised live from start to finish, and through most of it Westerfield sat silently next to his lawyers. He never took the witness stand to explain all the forensic evidence – Danielle's hair in his bedroom, her fingerprints in his motor home, fibers linked to the girl found in his sport-utility vehicle.

But in the letters, he touches on many of these topics, including the piece of evidence that prosecutors labeled the smoking gun – the bloodstain on a jacket he dropped off at a dry-cleaning store Feb. 4, 2002, two days after the girl was reported missing from her bedroom. The blood was Danielle's.

Westerfield's explanation: The stain was planted by detectives, who were under pressure to solve the case. He speculates that police obtained a small sample of the girl's blood from a pair of pajamas, mixed the sample with water and then placed it on his jacket.

Westerfield, 51, also says he expects to get a new trial.

"The only people that are of use and need to receive all the information are the 12 people of the jury in the next trial," he wrote in a March 24 letter. "That last one was the worse (sic) example of the justice system I have seen."

One of the letters was sent from Westerfield to John Neal, the brother of Westerfield's second ex-wife. Two other letters were sent to a friend of Westerfield's who gave them to The San Diego Union-Tribune on condition of anonymity. Another friend, who also asked for anonymity, provided excerpts from several more letters.

Deputy District Attorney Jeff Dusek, who argued at trial that Westerfield was a pedophile, was out of the office this week and unavailable for comment. San Diego police Lt. Jim Duncan, who supervised the investigation, called Westerfield's statements "a fantasy story."

"They were still finding evidence when the trial ended," Duncan said. "It's not conceivable to me that someone could plant evidence like that."

Danielle's mother accused her former neighbor of living "in total denial." Brenda van Dam said she still hopes that Westerfield might someday admit his guilt and provide details about when he killed her daughter, whose nude body was found dumped on a roadside in East County three weeks after she vanished.

"Hopefully someday, when he's been in there awhile, maybe he'll have an ounce of decency and tell us," she said.

As with all male death-row prisoners in California, Westerfield, a twice-divorced father of two college-age children, is housed at San Quentin State Prison near San Francisco. And like all death-row prisoners, he lives in a cell by himself. His family has sent him money to buy a television, radio and other personal items. He passes the time writing letters and reading novels, including "The Seventh Sin," a book about a woman wrongly suspected of murder.

In one letter he complained that the prison, which dates to the 19th century, "is cold, wet & drafty all the time." In another letter, he complained that he was sick with the flu but wasn't allowed to see a doctor.

"The facility needs a lot of work," Westerfield wrote. "It is not a good example of California high-tech society. Most of my days are spent reading and thinking about the outside world."

His letters are riddled with grammatical and spelling errors, including references to "trueth" and "innosence."

"I do not believe in coeincidence (sic)," he wrote to a friend March 24. "Either the VD's or the police or both set me up."

Among the theories he advances:

Pfingst, who was in the middle of what would be an unsuccessful re-election campaign, filed charges because he wanted "to have the case come to completion quickly & with positive results. Once they started down the path they could not turn back without giving up the election."

The van Dams may have been secretly watching his house and motor home, waiting for the chance to plant incriminating evidence. He speculates in one letter that the couple might have planted evidence after he left on his weekend motor-home journey on the morning of Feb. 2, the day the girl was discovered missing.

"If you look at the timing of my leaving in the MH & their discovery of dvd missing, is it possible that they were in their bedroom looking out their bedroom window waiting for me to leave?"

Danielle's palm print, which was found in the motor home, might have been planted by the Police Department's fingerprint expert. He speculates that police wanted to frame him to avoid having him sue them for violating his rights. He estimated that he could have won up to $20 million by bringing such a lawsuit.

In none of the letters does Westerfield discuss why he didn't testify at the trial, although he has told friends in the past that his lawyers decided to keep him off the witness stand.

"As far as why the attorneys did what they did, I don't really understand all of it," he wrote March 24. "They kept telling me that I had nothing to worry about because the bug evidence was so obvious."

The reference was to testimony from insect experts hired by the defense, who testified that Danielle's body was dumped at a time when Westerfield was already under police surveillance. Other insect experts hired by the prosecution contradicted the testimony.

He also doesn't touch on the subject of the pretrial plea bargain. The Union-Tribune first reported the story after Westerfield was sentenced to death. The newspaper quoted anonymous sources as saying Westerfield, shortly after his arrest, offered to disclose the location of the girl's body in exchange for a sentence of life in prison rather than the death penalty.

The deal fell through when searchers found the girl's body, sources told the newspaper at the time.

Pfingst's comments yesterday represent the first official public acknowledgment of the aborted plea deal. Pfingst, now a legal commentator for KUSI-TV, said he felt compelled to defend himself against Westerfield's accusation that politics played a role in the prosecution.

"He's singing a different song now than he did when he wanted a plea bargain in return for showing us where he had dumped Danielle's body," Pfingst said yesterday. " . . . He knows full well that his attorney was involved in plea negotiations on his behalf, and for him to now say that he didn't do it is ridiculous."

Westerfield's lead trial attorney, Steven Feldman, couldn't be reached for comment late yesterday.

In a March 7 letter, Westerfield said he was mulling the idea of writing a book. "Everything stated is backed up with documents," he wrote. "I hope you can see what is obvious to me."

In the March 24 letter, he ends by telling his friend he's in the process of documenting all the "witness lies" and "false statements" at his trial. He signs with: "Say hi to everyone that wants to admit knowings (sic) me. Take care. All my best, David."