Dad leaves for work. Mom stays home. Kids ride their bikes in the street. Dogs run free across the green lawns. Flowers grow even from the street drains. One homeowner confessed that her biggest problem with Sabre Springs is that kids let their softballs fly into her yard. And everyone knows everyone and everyone waves and says hello to everyone. People are so nice here it makes you question your own perhaps questionable nature. Every mother seems to know the right way to handle children, the right thing to say when Johnny scrapes his knee, the right way to correct little Mary when she won’t share her toys. It really does hurt these moms more than it hurts their children when they have to scold and punish. And yet, as I talked with Sabre Springs residents this week, I learned that since that February night when seven-year-old Danielle van Dam was snatched from her bedroom, the residents of this planned community set in among the hills along Poway Road haven’t always slept so well.
Polly Ross, a real estate agent for Remax of Poway, has been selling Sabre Springs for three years. She also lives in Sabre Springs. “I think what happened initially hurt sales in the area, but when people began to recover, so did the market there. It was down for about two months until they found Danielle, and then even more when they found her body and when Westerfield was arrested. I think people had a false sense of comfort, like, the bad guy is cornered so we can go back to normal.
“I had a client who wanted to see the Westerfield property [the house where the man accused of murdering Danielle van Dam lived], and I wouldn’t show it because of my ties to the van Dams. My role is not as a realtor but as a friend. But someone in my office called and asked to list it. So those are just my feelings, not everyone else’s in the office.
“There’s been a division in the neighborhood since details of the van Dam lifestyle [Brenda and Damon van Dam admitted, in court, that they smoked marijuana and had engaged in extramarital sexual relations] came out. The neighborhood treats them differently, because people don’t know how to handle death in a normal situation, much less something like this. So instead of saying anything, they just say nothing.
“I think Brenda is amazing. She’s so strong. I asked her, ‘How do you get out of bed?’ She told me, ‘I do it for my boys because they don’t have anyone else.’ She showed me Danielle’s room, and I think I was more uncomfortable than she was. She keeps Danielle’s room open, and the kids play in it because, she says, she doesn’t want them to forget her, because Danielle is still there.
“Brenda should be commended for holding her head high even though people now know the most intimate details of their life. I have heard they were asked to move from the neighborhood, not from them but someone else, and I never followed up on it.
“I have heard from someone else that the van Dams have approached people who have looked at buying the Westerfield house. They shouldn’t be criticized. Who knows what any of us would do in their situation.”
Realtor Mary Mohebbi observes, “Nine houses are for sale right now, so I wouldn’t say the area has been affected by what happened. I have a client who wanted to see the [Westerfield] house, and I told her it wasn’t a good idea. She’s a friend, and I just thought, ‘I don’t want any problems.’ She really wanted to see it, though maybe to buy. She said, ‘I don’t mind. How do you know he’s guilty?’
“I have heard that the Westerfields have talked to people who are looking at the house. It’s more difficult to show than other houses because the agent won’t just let you in. You have to have a pre-approved client, which means they have the money ready to go. Normally a client only has to be prequalified.”
Vicki Sanders, 33, has lived in the neighborhood for the past two and a half years. Her husband is an air traffic controller at Miramar. They have a seven-month-old daughter, Hannah. Sanders sells real estate from home for Prudential.
Her shoulder-length blond bob is so well manicured that it sways when she talks, going back to exactly the right place. She wears denim shorts and a pale yellow tee (and not the kind from Target) that looks remarkably clean, given that she cuddles the baby against her breast and shoulder. The house, like the yellow T-shirt, is immaculate. Sanders is the wife all men want: freshly scrubbed in her cuteness, sweet, smart, and supportive. Erin Brockovich plays on the oversized television, and baby Hannah giggles in her walker. The only thing that differentiates this house from others on the block is it has pink bougainvillea growing up the side.
As a repairman leaves, Sanders says in her mellifluous soprano, “Have a nice day!” which is what she will say to me, later, when I leave.
“We came from Alexandria, Virginia,” she tells me. “It’s wonderful here. We loved Virginia’s older neighborhoods and hated to leave, but it’s great here. We love it. I’d say the neighbors and neighborhood are considered middle class. Mostly white, some Asians, some African-Americans. No Hispanics that I know of. The kids here are mostly little to middle school.
“The houses range from 1700 to 2150 square feet. We drive a ’95 Explorer, and you’ll see mostly SUVs in the area.
“We moved here because my husband had an acquaintance who was also an air traffic controller and he lived here. Even though we didn’t know them all that well, they were here to help when we moved in. When we’re on vacation they watch our house; a lot of the neighbors have keys to each others’ houses. We work on our yard about two times a week. We’d like to move to a bigger house, but we don’t want to leave the neighborhood.