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When you drive along Mountain Pass Road in suburban Sabre Springs and you go by the two-story van Dam house, it’s difficult to believe that a few minutes before 8:30 on Friday night, February 1, 2002, 39-year-old Brenda van Dam was standing out in the garage attached to this home and lighting up a joint. It’s difficult to believe because these Mountain Pass Road houses seem like houses you live in if you are churchgoing, straight-arrow, family-values Republican respectable. Having fed takeout pizza to her 36-year-old husband, Damon, a Qualcomm software engineer, and their three children — 5-year-old Dylan, 7-year-old Danielle, and 10-year-old Derrick — Brenda was sharing the doobie with her friends Denise Kemal and Barbara Easton.

So what do you do when you’re stoned in a garage in Sabre Springs on a Friday night? You go somewhere else. Maybe a place where there is music and dancing, vodka and tequila, and spinning, stuttering colored lights.When you look around Dad’s Café and Steakhouse at 8:30 on a summer Friday evening, you can hardly believe this is the place where Brenda van Dam allegedly asked Cherokee Youngs, “Do you like girls?” You can hardly believe you might be sitting on a barstool where Brenda van Dam sat when she said, in reference to a couple whose names she didn’t know, “I wouldn’t mind taking these two home.”

Dad’s has the air of a landlocked beach bar. It is a big restaurant divided into rooms for dining, dancing, pool, pinball, and video games. You find fewer windows here than at a Denny’s or a Coco’s, but more windows than in what you would call a dive bar. It is less harshly lit than those places, but as with them, you can get breakfast anytime. You’ll find pictures of ballplayers like Babe Ruth on the walls, and you might find kids dining with their parents as late as 9:30 in the evening in one of the alcoves. It’s like a much larger version of Saska’s in Mission Beach, without the salt air. It’s the kind of bar where you’d have a drink during the day. Hardly an opium den. Not necessarily a staging area for pornographic activities. But sure, why not? It is no sleazier than a Black Angus and way less so than a Bully’s or the Butcher Shop. The atmosphere has a kind of twilight TGIF vibe; but it certainly seems no more likely to inspire the kidnapping and murder of a child than any other playground with a liquor license.

Anyone who’s recently read the newspapers, listened to the radio, or watched television knows about Dad’s, the Poway eatery and watering hole at 12735 Poway Road, where Brenda van Dam may or may not have lasciviously rubbed her hipbones and good-sized bosom against 50-year-old design engineer David Westerfield’s hulking frame. Dirty dancing is how it was described in the San Diego courtroom where California vs. Westerfield is now in its last days. Westerfield is alleged to have kidnapped and murdered the van Dams’ second-grader, Danielle. He is alleged to have committed these heinous deeds only hours after Brenda van Dam is described in court as “having her tail feathers up” and “acting frisky” and “acting huggy-huggy” on the dance floor at Dad’s.

From the June 7 Union-Tribune: “A day after he grilled Damon van Dam about the couple’s sexual and marijuana habits, [defense attorney Steven] Feldman did the same with Brenda van Dam, asking whether she had sex with her friends Barbara Easton and Denise Kemal and their husbands. She acknowledged that she had. She later admitted that she and her husband had sex with Kemal and Kemal’s husband, Andy, during a Halloween party in October 2000.”

But at 8:30 on this Friday evening at Dad’s, as smokers hunker over the seven tables in the glass-walled smoking section and moms and dads and kids linger over the cheesecake and hot-fudge brownie sundae in the red-cushioned banquettes and booths of the main room, it’s hard to imagine any of this. Folks are dressed in summertime gear: shorts and T-shirts, sandals, baseball hats. At one of the two pool tables, two guys in jeans and work boots lazily rack up the balls.

The dance floor — a 10- by 10-foot linoleum-covered area — waits empty. The floor is bordered by six tables and a bar ledge where, before the sun’s even gone down, three women in their 40s, wearing shorts and shirts, chat quietly with one another. Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” followed by Billy Idol’s remake of “Mony Mony” play in the background.

Across from the dance floor, a small bar hugged by a dozen stools makes an L. In the far corner stand more tables. Men in jeans and T-shirts, some older and balding, some young with enough hair to gather into ponytails, all looking somewhat bored and somewhat weary, tip back beers and watch ball games on TV monitors that are set in every corner. Along another wall are more booths and a door that leads to the kitchen. Waitresses will swing in and out of this door all night.

Dad’s Café bar manager Sean Brown, 32, has worked here for four years. He testified in California vs. Westerfield. He was at the bar on that Friday night of February 1, when the balding Westerfield, Brenda van Dam, Barbara Easton, and Denise Kemal were downing Cape Codders, playing pool, flirting with women and men, and walking out to the parking lot to Brenda van Dam’s SUV to toke a few joints.

“Dad’s,” says Mr. Brown, “has been here for one year and five months. Dad is Pat Lipe, the owner. I will be part owner in ten days. It got the name because Pat wanted a family-oriented place in Poway, and Dad’s is a conservative name you can trust, and it’s a conservative place. There isn’t a Mom’s yet. Before this it was Poway Grill and Spirits for a year, and then it was Comiskey Park for probably about seven, eight years. Dad doesn’t bartend. He’s more on the restaurant side, he knows the food.

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CStevenson July 1, 2012 @ 11:13 a.m.

Very interesting article. Most of the people interviewed who expressed an opinion thought Westerfield was guilty, though some were undecided and some even thought he might have been covering for somebody.

While most of those who thought him guilty believed he is a pedophile and was after Danielle, others thought he desired Brenda and her swinging girlfriends and wanted revenge at being rejected. An attraction to young children and an attraction to adult women are pretty much mutually exclusive, so the difference of opinion points to the lack of evidence of motive.

He didn’t have a history of violence, so why would anyone think he would react so violently to rejection? And an article in the Union-Tribune in March had mentioned a police report which stated that they didn’t find child pornography on his computer, which removes that motive and should have been a big red flag, to both the media and the public, but was ignored by both: he was being charged with possessing child pornography even though expert opinion was that his pornography didn’t include child porn.

Adding to that uncertainty over motive some people’s uncertainty as to whether he was even guilty, makes one question the strength of the evidence. As one person you interviewed pointed out, it is just circumstantial. Another person pointed out that Westerfield’s “dirty dancing” with Brenda would have spread evidence. More importantly, yet another person just didn’t believe that the van Dam kids never crossed the street. I don’t either. Westerfield’s motor home was parked so often in the streets outside their houses, often unlocked, and Danielle could easily have snuck inside.

A weekend-long kidnapping, sexual assault and murder, would have left a mountain of evidence; maybe as many as 200 of her hairs and a lot of blood. Instead, there were only three of her hairs in his motor home, and two stains of blood that were so small and so faint that they could barely be seen. That’s much more consistent with just a sneak visit.

We don’t know what clothes she was wearing during the cookie sale in his house about two days earlier, so the orange fibers that another of your interviewees mentioned might have come from that.

One interviewee thought Westerfield’s actions were weird. On the contrary, they would have been weird for someone who was guilty, particularly bringing Danielle back home with him twice and going to the Strand where he was in close proximity to other campers.

Finally, one of your interviewees said the scientific evidence against him was very strong, and there was nothing to counteract it. DNA and fingerprints might be powerful in placing someone at the scene, but they can’t tell us when that person was there. By contrast, insect evidence, which is also scientific, does provide a date, and in this case it told us that Danielle probably only died several days after Westerfield was placed under police surveillance.

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