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.
“As for comparing us to other similar types of places, I don’t think we compare. We have very good food. We can compete with the Brigantine, but as for the whole package from breakfast to two a.m., plus being a sports bar, the only thing I can compare it to is to Trophy’s, but it doesn’t have a band like we do. We sponsor a softball team in Poway for adults, and we sponsor a couple of Little League teams too. Nothing co-ed, nothing Brenda played on.
“Because of the publicity we’re getting, we see a lot of new faces. For us I think it’s a good thing, because people want to see the place, and we’re selling more T-shirts than we did before. Business has picked up by about 20 percent. When I saw Damon [van Dam] in court, I offered him a free dinner anytime they want to come in. He said, ‘We’ll probably never be back again.’
“As for a swingers stigma, some people have associated the van Dams’ lifestyle as part of the bar. We hear it a lot. I think people are here ten minutes, and [they see] this is just like any bar in PB where people hang out. We’ve been here for 30 years overall, so people know us.
“I didn’t know anything about [swinging] in my bar. I’ve been a bartender for ten years, and I’m rarely shocked or surprised. But when it happened I was, like, whoa, what a different lifestyle. Personally, I would never participate in it, but that’s just me. One thing as a bartender I’ve learned, you can’t talk politics, religion, business, or judge [people]. Your whole purpose is to make money and make people laugh. If you judge them, that won’t happen. If Brenda van Dam came in here as a swinger, I’m gonna treat her right and not judge her. But really, I only saw her in here a few times.
“David Westerfield was a loner. He usually came in to meet a male friend.
“Nowadays a lot of these people try to get famous by talking to the media. I don’t even know half the people who now say they’re regulars. Really, there are only about 60 regulars.
“Since all this happened, Dad’s has changed. It put us in the limelight and has given us notoriety. People have come to check us out. That’s the positive thing. The only negative thing I can say is the repetition of questions, you know, like ‘Where were they?’ ‘Where did they sit?’ ‘How was Westerfield?’ and ‘How was Brenda?’ I’m here almost every night, and I hear it nonstop.
“I watched a little of the trial, but not a lot. No reading about it or listening to it on radio. For me it’s unfortunate that there’s a little girl that’s lost, but life moves on, and with me being part owner, I have to move on. The only thing that matters is the end result.”
By 9 p.m. the room begins to fill. A couple stands near the dance floor. The guy, maybe six feet tall, could have played high school football. He wears dark shorts and a polo shirt, holds a beer glass in one hand, and keeps his other hand firmly splayed across the small of his girlfriend’s back. He talks to a male friend who stands near them. The woman’s a slender blonde wearing black-and-white cropped and flared pants, a white peasant shirt, and white plastic sandals. She looks around, glances across the tables and toward the bar as her date continues to talk with his friend. Led Zeppelin’s “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” plays in the background.
A couple of women, tall, in their mid-40s, enter the bar and sit at one of the tables near the dance floor. The more butch-appearing wears black boots, black jeans, and a jean jacket. Her hair is cut short; she wears no makeup. She looks around, as if searching for familiar faces. Her friend, with naturally blond hair cut in straight bangs, also wears black jeans and boots. This couple seems to know the staff. They say hello to and hug several people.
Across the room is Dana, 51, CFO for a construction company. He’s lived in Poway for 15 years but now lives in UTC. Did the Westerfield trial publicity make him want to come to Dad’s?
“It didn’t make any difference. We came here because we hadn’t been here in a long time and we thought it would be a good place to come back to.”
What about the stories that people get sexually frisky here?
“Nah,” Dana says to that. “Dad’s is a sports-bar type of place. I don’t sense this being a different place than most other sports bars I’ve been in. I think it’s been embellished somewhat. I’ve been here for [TV] football, and people are yelling and cheering, but nothing you wouldn’t expect in a sports bar. I never viewed it as a place for guys to pick up gals or vice versa. Randy Jones’s restaurant on Pomerado Road is a similar place.”
As for how all the publicity surrounding murder has affected Poway, Dana says, “Poway has become a place where there has been a lot nicer housing built up, and it’s not so much of a cow town. It used to be known as just a nice middle-class area with good schools. Now it kind of has this image that this is more of a swinging place. I don’t think that will last, but I think now it has put a stain on the neighborhood.”
Dana hasn’t followed the trial in much detail, but he thinks that Westerfield’s guilty. “Based on what I can tell — the technical evidence, hair or fingerprints or whatever. Putting it all together, it seems like he was probably someone who enjoyed the sexual side of small kids. I think he did it.”
Smashmouth’s “Walkin’ on the Sun” plays. The bar crowd thickens with men looking like locals in their regular drag — jeans or shorts, T-shirts with bands or businesses emblazoned on back, caps backward and forward. Bellies getting bigger. So far, no one looks as if he exercises much. A man in his early 50s, with dyed black hair, pinkie ring, slacks, and dark shirt approaches the two women dressed in black jeans. He hugs the blonde familiarly, and they talk.
Steve, 27, an electrician who lives in Poway, says this is his first time at Dad’s. He wants to know if this is a good place to hook up with women. When asked if Poway is a snooty place, hard to meet women, he replies, “Scripps Ranch can get pretty snobby. I used to live in Missouri. Scripps Ranch says it’s country living, but it is snob haven is what it is. Poway is more of a country town, a working-man town.”
What has the trial done for the town’s image?
“It doesn’t affect that city’s reputation. It just shows there’s a scumbag running around. You know, I think whoever did it should be shot in the head.”
Did Westerfield do it?
“My personal jury is still out.”
A black woman with a short, red-tinged Afro enters the bar with a tall man wearing shorts and a casual shirt. He stands at the bar’s end, nearest the door to the kitchen, and orders drinks. This becomes the unofficial lineup spot for drinks as the evening progresses and the bar crowd grows five deep.
A man in a Braves T-shirt and worn-down thongs enters with a woman. They know the crowd, say hi, high-five, and hug. She has on a red top showing deep cleavage. He sees a friend at the bar. As they talk, his left hand moves to the back of her pants, where he claims ownership. She returns the favor by sticking her hand in his pocket. He draws circles on her back as he talks to his friend and gestures with beer. Shaggy plays “It Wasn’t Me.”
The rock-and-roll band scheduled to play tonight has been replaced by a DJ playing techno music. Four Latino men set up elaborate equipment on the far end of the dance floor. The music begins, heavy bass along with a light show, to tepid response. The body count at Dad’s is now about 75.
Dale Allen, 42, an unmarried maintenance worker, lives in Poway. Tonight he’s wearing a company shirt with his name embroidered on it. While we talk he lifts his ball cap off and on his unkempt brown hair. About the trial coverage, Allen says, “I’ve followed it a lot…reading, listening to the radio, and watching it on TV. I do think Westerfield did it, because for one thing, an adult does not download child porn on his computer, period. I wouldn’t. I have a ten-year-old son, my niece is ten, and I wouldn’t even think about that.
“Swinging? I never been there, but I’d have to say I’m surprised, because I was here that night. My girlfriend was mad because I was talking to Brenda. My girlfriend said, ‘Let’s go!’ And Brenda said, ‘Why do you let her talk to you like that?!’
“Without a doubt Brenda was liking me. I’m a chest guy, and she’s got a good chest — a great chest — so I stayed and hung out. I danced with her and some girls, I think Denise. I agree with that woman [at the trial] who called it dirty dancing.
“Everybody knows everybody here, but I hadn’t seen them before. When I heard what had happened and who it was, well, my parents and girlfriend said, ‘Oh, shit!’
“I had no idea that swinging stuff was going on here. What I saw from Brenda was that she was a very friendly person. I got here at around 11:30 and stayed until closing. I think if my girlfriend hadn’t been here, I think something would have happened with Brenda and me. I live close, and that would have been a tough call. I mean, come on, what would you have done?
“Dad’s is much more mellow than before. Some people who used to come here from before don’t come anymore. I think all this has made Poway, which used to be a sleepy little town, into a nightmare.”
Jeannie Adelman, 33 years old and single, is a mortgage analyst in Carlsbad. She recently moved from Poway to Vista. She’s been coming to Dad’s for the past year. Tonight she wears black pants with a shiny red semi-sleeveless blouse cut to her waist, the kind of blouse usually reserved for clubbing. Her shoulder-length brown hair falls around a face that will always appear somewhat youthful.
Ms. Adelman says, “I’ve been following all the trial on TV, radio, and in the papers. I think he did it because I think he was angry. I think he abducted her because he wasn’t included in their entourage. I don’t think he meant to kill her, just to keep her quiet. I think he knew the type of life they led.
“My sister-in-law works here. She’s a cocktail waitress, and she was here that night and says Brenda was a regular here. She knew about the swinging because Brenda’d come here and party and leave with other people.
“It’s changed Poway because people are more cautious. In a way, the reputation of Dad’s is different, but I don’t think people think of us as a swingers bar. They were just in their little crowd. Still, I think people were surprised. This is the only happening bar in town. The only other places to meet guys and girls is in downtown San Diego.
“If anything, Dad’s is busier now, not more mellow. Tonight is different because there’s a DJ, not a live band. I’d say I’m a regular. I come here once a week, and I usually stay from about 10 until closing. I like it because the average age of this place is between 25 and 35, sometimes older, because bands play classic rock and Top 40. Overall, it’s a good place to take your family, and it’s just all-around fun.”
Thirty-five-year-old Trina Born, never married, is a personal-care attendant who works with paralyzed veterans. She lives in Poway. On this evening she sports jeans, well-worn boots, and a white cotton blouse over a red tank top. She has long, dirty-blond hair. She has the compact body and the presence of a Marine. A jangle of silver jewelry circles her neck, wrists, and fingers. Something about her stance, carrying a pool cue, makes her seem like a woman you’d not want to cross; and yet, when you talk with her, she’s easygoing and friendly.
“I’ve been coming here,” she says, “for two years, on Friday and Saturday nights, from midnight until closing. There are different groups here. Brenda’s group usually hung out up at one end of the bar. She was always in the same group, the older generation. The guys definitely looked older. Some still come here.
“The people I know who testified are Terry, the bartender at O’Harley’s; Dwayne, who owns Something Fishy. I punched him a good one once. He was picking on someone and called me a cunt, and I coldcocked him.”
Asked if she had been following the trial, Ms. Born says she has not. “Not at all. And I never saw Westerfield here. I don’t think the van Dams are telling the whole truth. There’s something weird between all three of them — van Dams and Westerfield — or at least two out of the three. I think Westerfield couldn’t handle rejection from Brenda. But, still, you don’t take it out on an innocent girl.”
Since Danielle van Dam’s abduction, Ms. Born says, Dad’s has changed. “There are different people here now. More fights from outsiders looking for something that’s not here. And Poway, we stick together. We’re bad.
“Dad’s has gotten more business with the lookie-loos. What they see is that the food is good. At Dad’s you have more fun, have more variety than any other place in Poway, except for the bowling alley. But I can’t go there anymore. I got in a fight there too. But someday I’ll go back.
“I’ve been coming here since this place was Comiskey’s. I came here one time, and it was just odd. Everybody looked at me weird. Even when I came in that first time, I was told it was like a swinger place, even then. But I thought it was fucked that people looked at me funny, especially since this place was supposed to be a swingers bar. They need to look at themselves.”
A trail of young people is still arriving. Friends waving to each other. The girls, in their early 20s, are in standard summer of 2002 garb: low-slung jeans, crop tops, cleavage, wedgy or strappy sandals, long hair ponytailed or pulled back. They all carry their purses on their arms, never putting them down. Two or three are on cell phones. The boys vary: many in shorts, a few with sandals or thongs, most with caps.
A couple in their late 30s/early 40s grabs a booth. He’s in jeans, starting to bald, the beginning of a gut pushing out against a plain cotton T-shirt and sloping toward his belt. She wears bell-bottom jeans and a light blue, V-necked, long-sleeved crop top that makes an inverted V against her taut, bare, brown belly. She stands up often and walks across the room to greet friends. She is in the best shape of her age group; her position will remain unchallenged throughout the evening.
Two of their friends arrive. The first is chubby and cute, wearing a short-sleeved maroon top, jeans, and sandals. Her cranberry lipstick matches her top. Her companion has a buzz cut that looks military. He wears jeans and a black T-shirt, tucked in. His belly is flat and his work boots are worn. They are regulars; the waitress hangs at their booth, whispering, laughing, and coming back often.
“Mojo is my NTN handle. Everyone knows me by Mojo.” Mojo (Bill Wallner) is a 58-year-old insurance underwriter who spends a lot of time at Dad’s playing the NTN video trivia game. He lives two blocks away.
“I know they weren’t regulars,” he says of the van Dams. “They said they were only here twice, and I think that was probably true. Dad’s is a fairly large restaurant and bar with entertainment on the weekends. They court regulars on weeknights. On weekends you get a bigger crowd drawing from a bigger radius. They stay until one or two o’clock in the morning. On Friday and Saturday there is usually a good band with a good draw. Tomorrow the band 619 plays. A couple of years ago they had Liquid Blue, which was the premier San Diego dance band.”
What has the trial done for Poway?
“We were just talking a few minutes ago about some court testimony about all the men in Poway looking like Westerfield. Well, most of us took offense at that. This all came from a guy who has been here twice. Most of us don’t know what went on here or, after they left, what went on at the van Dam house. I’m convinced nobody knows 100 percent of the truth, and we may never know. These people weren’t Dad’s Café people. They seemed like they belonged at the Big Stone Lodge. That place closed up last fall, and a lot of the people who used to go there come here because it’s the only place in town. The only night I went to the Big Stone Lodge was the night they closed. I said to myself, ‘What a scary place this is.’ It was a pretty rough crowd.”
Did Westerfield do it?
“Based on his actions, yeah. Either that or he’s covering up for something. He was being way too weird.”
Is Dad’s where you go to pick up women in Poway?
“Not everybody comes here to pick up women. [But since the trial] it’s become this swinger thing. All we know is four people who would be categorized as swingers by most people’s definition came here twice. It’s interesting that [all this happened] about the same time Dad’s started having swing-dancing lessons here. They were immediately canceled.”
Because of the name swing dance?
“Yeah. They thought that would be more of a confirmation that this is a place for swingers. But I’ve been coming here probably six days a week on the average for five and a half years, and I’ve never seen this as a swinger place.… It’s a restaurant that serves alcohol. It’s a place with a dance floor and a bandstand and a good-sized bar that’s crowded on weekends. But it’s a social thing, not a bunch of weirdos coming here to swap wives and stuff. These four people would clearly fit the definition, but they weren’t Dad’s customers.”
So where might these people go in Poway?
“There’s nowhere. For a long time there were only two places in town where you could have a cocktail. Comiskey Park and the Brigantine. That was it. The Brigantine is more of a dinner crowd. A lot of us, the regulars, we come here to play this trivia game. This is most of the reason I’m here.
“I’ll be glad when it’s over. I hope that we’re satisfied that we know the truth. Most of the evidence against Westerfield is circumstantial. Even the DNA stuff is really circumstantial. A lot of the defense position is circumstantial, like the swinger angle. I think that Westerfield’s actions are pretty suspicious. They don’t seem normal, but here again it could be he’s covering up for somebody. But I’m convinced he was involved. I’m convinced we don’t really know what happened at the van Dam house. When the gang got there from here, I don’t think we know the truth.”
Is this embarrassing to Poway?
“Poway is a small, provincial town that has gotten big, but against the wishes of the founding fathers and the locals. It’s like Roger Hedgecock, when he talks about not wanting a bunch of people moving to San Diego, that it’s going to ruin the quality of life. Poway is like a small version of that. [The city is] very restrictive in their rules. It’s very difficult to do things with businesses. This place used to have a sign on the outside wall advertising all-you-can-eat fish. The city made them take it down. They aren’t really friendly to business because they’d just as soon Poway stay small and semirural. There are a lot of expensive homes in Poway. There is a lot of money here, and all this publicity isn’t going to change property values.”
The van Dams live in Sabre Springs.
“We don’t even consider that Poway. These people came from a ways away, and they got involved in all this stuff, and something really tragic happened, and somebody in that group is responsible. If we had our druthers, it would have never happened here. It’s 3G miles between us and the [I-15] freeway. Between us and the freeway, Sabre Springs occupies about two miles of that.”
Poway does not seem to be a nightlife destination point.
“On weekends when there is a band playing, we get phone calls from people from Escondido, Rancho Bernardo, and Mira Mesa asking for directions. But they are coming here to see the band. They are not coming here to see the swingers place. That’s why they hire these bands and pay them a lot of money. These bands have followings. On a typical Friday or Saturday night at about 8:30 you’ll see people here because of that band.
“I think if the van Dams came here and everyone knew they were swingers, they probably would not have been welcomed. If they came in wearing a sign or a scarlet letter, they probably would not be well received.”
Have the van Dams been seen here since?
“No. They’ve been completely incognito.”
A hundred people are in the bar, mostly standing, with all seven tables around the dance floor filled and all booths occupied. The diners have left. At a table at the far end of the bar, by the bathrooms, are two blonde women flipping their hair around, edging up to the bar for a drink. “Brick House” comes on, and they head for the dance floor. The thinner of them wears jeans and a pink short-sleeved V-neck shirt. Her breasts heave as she gyrates around the floor with her friend, whose hair is also blond but bleached with a slight ratted top, à la Jean Shrimpton from the early ’60s — the London mod scene. She wears tight black jeans and a tight, black cropped top. Her stomach, which protrudes fleshily around her waist, is darkly tanned. A man moves in and dances with both of them. All three move their hips a lot — air humping, shimmying, good ol’ bump ’n’ grind. The guy, with his khakis slung low and T-shirt pulled up, is as into his own performance as the girls are. “Rhythm of the Night” plays, with more house and techno thrown in.
The women’s bathroom has two stalls, one of them for the handicapped. The counter is brown linoleum. Paint is chipped, institutional green. Door locks are broken and replaced with hooks and eyes. A stopped-up toilet floats with a tampon and much toilet paper.
Two girls in their early 20s enter. Both have on jeans and tank tops with the obligatory cleavage. One wears black eyeliner, and her hair is parted in the middle. Her sister’s hair is pulled back, a brighter blond. They are fresh-faced and cute and could be teenagers but say they’re not.
“This is the first time I’ve been with her. But every time I turn around, she’s talking to someone else. She wants me to meet some friend of hers.”
“It’s lower key than it usually is. Did you knock on that stall?”
“It’s stopped up. Don’t go in there.”
“Do you have lipstick?”
“I forgot my makeup bag, can you believe it? I need some too…”
“It’s feeling hot in here.”
David says he is 30 and a meat cutter. “I grew up here. I don’t have any kids, but Poway is a good place to raise a family.”
Do you get inundated by new faces asking about the trial?
“You’re the first. I usually just come in to get a bite to eat and get a couple of beers. I just live around the corner.”
The surroundings don’t seem to support the swinger image.
“It doesn’t, because it shouldn’t. It got a bad rap that it doesn’t deserve. Some bad seeds came in one night and ruined the whole gig. It’s unfortunate.”
What’s the wildest thing that ever happened here?
Is Westerfield guilty?
“I will reserve judgment until it’s over.”
Jeff, 47, works in construction and lives off Mercy Road in Scripps Park. He says he’s never seen any fights or drugs in Dad’s.
What is going on in Poway?
“This is pretty much it.”
Did Westerfield do it?
“It’s like the new [murder] in L.A., where they picked up that girl. It could have been the same guy [who killed Danielle]. I’m not sure if [Westerfield] did it or not. You have all the DNA and everything, but he was dancing with [Brenda van Dam]. He was out there bumping and grinding. His DNA could have been all over the place because of the situation. Granted, he was here [with Brenda], but who knows what happened?”
What about Dad’s?
“This bar had absolutely nothing to do with the trial.”
Rap thumps from the speakers, and 20 young people are on the dance floor, mocking videos, throwing signs, doing ghetto gestures that mimic rappers but look silly on white, middle-class kids. One couple in their 20s are mouthing the lyrics and kissing. He pulls at her pants by her belt buckle; she rides his leg. The blonde duo have made a sandwich with their khaki-wearing male friend, who has turned his cap around but doesn’t let go of his beer bottle. The sidelines are watching intently. One young man with a beard and long, scraggly hair, black jeans, and a black Betty Page T-shirt, dances like a dervish. He is unaware of anyone else and whirls happily in the center. The two blondes charge out for a cigarette, waving to a friend and grabbing their drinks as they go.
New arrivals sidle up to the bar; an older foursome orders drinks. They watch the young kids dance (J-Lo’s “I’m for Real”) and put their arms around each other. First couple: early to mid-40s; man in green khaki shorts, white socks, Hush Puppies, plaid shirt, baseball cap. Receding hairline. Woman wears a plaid straight skirt to her knees, white shirt, black boxy jacket from the mid-’80s. She is bare-legged with black sandals, a single black strap between the toes, which could be retro or remake. She goes off to dance with a shorter, wiry, dark-skinned Mexican man in white tank top and jeans. He is six inches shorter than she and at first appears younger, but up close, his weathered face seems older.
Second couple: an older man in a white polo shirt and shorts with a belt, sandals. He is white haired, with creases on the back of his neck— a lifetime outdoor athlete (tennis or golf) in the 60-year-old range. She is short, squat, in faded jeans and a baggy shirt, lifeless hair with bangs, and glasses. She seems reluctant to dance; he is raring to go, gesturing with the music, snapping his fingers, slinging his arm around her shoulder and moving her out past the tables. He orders a drink with a wedge of lime — maybe a vodka tonic — which he places on a nearby table while he sneezes repeatedly. He pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket and blows his nose. Plaid skirt leans toward him for a hug. Then she and her Mexican friend do a slow, sensuous dance.
Lynn Melvin, 42, is from Poway. She’s a bartender, married with three kids. On this night she sports what appears to be the norm in summer wear for Poway, or at least at Dad’s — jeans and a cotton blue-and-white striped blouse with a white tank top underneath. She has long dishwater-blond hair and looks older than her age.
“I watch the trial on TV and listen to it on the radio. Normally they don’t dance like that one lady [in court] said they do here, that dirty dancing, but there’s a DJ here now, and that’s why. Normally we have a band, and the dancing is more fun.
“I think he did it. I mean, it’s her blood on his jacket! Too many other things too — blue-gray fibers, blood in his motor home, and blood on his jacket. I can’t even imagine why he would do this. He had his life together. Maybe he’s covering for his son. But then again, who says his son didn’t wear his jacket?
“I used to be a regular here five, six years ago. I’m sorry. It’s not a swingers bar. People used to say it was a gay bar.… What it is is a fun place.”
Paul Daugherty is from east Poway, a tow-truck driver. The 41-year-old wears a “Forget Milk, Got Beer?” T-shirt, tennis shoes, and white pants, and has a crewcut. “My girlfriend has been watching all the trial stuff. I’m tired of it. I listen on the radio and see updates on the news once in a while.
“I think there’s a lot that points to Westerfield, but I’m not sure he’s guilty. The hair, the fiber, and fingerprints — that can be dismissed. To say [the van Dam] kids never crossed the street, that’s bull. I keep thinking the prosecutor will bring out the truth.
“I think there’s more to Brenda van Dam and him, the swinging. Most people are cheating anyway, so why not be honest and swing? The child porn…porn is fine, but violence and with children? You’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Maybe his problem just festered that night. Poway is a nice town, but there are sick individuals everywhere.”
Another group comes in, clearly outsiders. They range from early 20s to early 50s, from exposed cleavage and tight jeans to polo shirts and comfortable shoes. All the women carry short, fashionable bags that dangle at their elbows. They take them onto the dance floor. One man wears a Harley-Davidson T-shirt. A woman in her late 30s with feathered hair wears a tan peasant blouse with ruffles. Every woman dancing wears something tight, colorful, and revealing.
Ladies’ bathroom: “We all came from Bonita just to check it out. We work with the district attorney’s office. There’s 15 of us. We were just curious so we drove up here. It seems like fun.” Santana can be heard blasting over the dance floor.
Two women in their late 40s/early 50s, smiling, sit on high stools with their drinks. They look well kept, maybe face-lifted. One redhead, one blonde, both trim, in perfectly fitting bell-bottom jeans, hip huggers, but no belly showing. Pedicured feet show through their high-heeled sandals. One wears a halter top with deep cleavage, the other a tight-fitting black top. They snap and swing to the music and whisper to each other. They watch people watch them and smile. They do not leave each other’s side. They are happy to oblige when a photographer asks to take a picture of them.
Bill, a white attorney who lives in Mission Bay, is accompanied by Cheryl, a black accountant from the College Area.
Did Westerfield kill Danielle?
Bill: “I think the scientific evidence is very, very strong against him, and so far I haven’t heard anything to counteract the scientific evidence.”
Cheryl: “It’s his blood. There is all the forensic evidence. I can ignore all the innuendo about sexual preferences. The pornography would have thrown me for a loop. It takes a special kind of person to want to have that much porn in their world.
“I’ll be glad when it’s over. I want closure, but I want it to be not about marijuana and not about wife swapping. I want it to be about children, protecting the kids, finding out what parents can do differently. The biggest mistake in the van Dam trial is the parents thinking they live in a safe neighborhood. We don’t live in a safe world, and until we realize that as parents there will be these abductions. This could go down in any affluent neighborhood. People think because they live in a million-dollar home they are safe. There are no good neighborhoods anymore. The little girl that got murdered this week was in a nice neighborhood. It was a low-crime neighborhood.”
What about the charge that Brenda allegedly asked a female, “Do you do women?”
Cheryl: “I didn’t believe all the witnesses. How is it that she has two women with her she already knows and she comes up and says that, risking alienating her friends? And why didn’t the daughter [Cherokee] testify? If she was in fact hit on, why didn’t she testify?”
Bill: “The thing I like about the trial is it’s real-life drama. A lot of people watch Law & Order on TV, yet they don’t watch something like this, which to me is so much more interesting because it’s real. These are real people exposing their lives in front of TV, which would be horribly difficult, I would think. The poor woman who lost her job at Southwest Airlines because she testified truthfully that she smoked pot was terrible.”
Is this what you thought Dad’s would be like?
Cheryl: “It was depicted as a place like Buffalo Joe’s, downtown. But it’s homey, where you bring your kids until it gets later, when it’s just for adults.”
Bill: “This bar very much reminds me of Phoenix. Poway reminds me of Phoenix.”
A sweep of new young people — girls in long sweaters and long ponytails, tan flares and short tops, matching purses and pink drinks sipped through straws. Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” brings out the raunchy dancers. The blonde duo is back with their khaki-clad boy-toy. A new May-December: woman in white jeans and tight, bright-blue top; she is tan, fit, and frisky. She dances with a younger man in white T-shirt and jeans, cap, goatee, work boots. He dances behind her, pulsing into her swiveling butt. She leans back; he juts forward. A few minutes later the music ends, and she moves away from him. Shortly after, she leaves.
He wanders to the bar and gets another drink, then approaches another woman at a table, who declines his offer to dance. He persists. She declines. He lifts his shirt, exposing his youthful belly and begins a makeshift lap dance, closing his eyes and pinching a nipple. The bartender comes over and scolds him. “You can’t do that in here.” He stands up straight, looks sheepish but not embarrassed, and moves on, smiling.
The Village People’s “YMCA” plays, and the older crew looks relieved to recognize a tune. Twenty people on the dance floor mock the moves. Older woman and younger Mexican man still slow dance.
Ray Frost, 39, married, works for a vitamin-supplement manufacturer. He lives in San Marcos. Short and stocky with a gut that overlaps his beige shorts, Frost is also wearing a white T-shirt that says Kyocera, a ball cap that touts the Fresno State Bulldogs, sneakers, and white socks. His black goatee is beginning to gray.
“My wife watches the trial all the time, and I watch it on TV and on the Internet. I think he did it. Everything points to it — the orange fibers tack it down. I think he was jealous of Brenda. He knew her husband was supposed to be away, and he tried to make a point and went overboard.
“Swinging and swingers are none of my business. It’s not right or wrong, but I wouldn’t. I had no idea it was going on at Dad’s. I’ll be honest, this is where we come after our softball games, and we’re either up or down depending on the score. We come here to bond. That’s all. I don’t see the dirty dancing. Dancing is all about expressing yourself. We’re all trying to reclaim our youth.
“I come here two times a month and have been for over a year. I bring my kids here. They have good food.
“My friend used to play co-ed baseball with Brenda and said she was nice, but he was surprised at how nice. Ha! I think people are being too judgmental of them.
“If anything, Dad’s is doing better financially than ever. More people come in now. This is the first time I’ve heard this hip-hop music, so I guess it is changing to get the young kids in. This is the best restaurant in Poway, day or night, and it shouldn’t be labeled a swingers club. It’s just people my age trying to be young.”
Robin Johnson, 25, from Mira Mesa, is majoring in liberal studies at Cal State San Marcos. She’s single. With a tight off-the-shoulder gold top, jeans, and a horseshoe necklace, Johnson looks like your all-American beach bunny.
“I haven’t watched the trial too much. I come here because I like the dancing. That thing about dirty dancing is inaccurate. They’re just girls having fun. That’s just an old-lady’s word. It happens everywhere.
“A lot of evidence points toward [Westerfield’s] guilt. Her blood being on his possessions. The family lifestyle probably attracted him to the area and to the van Dams. I don’t really think about it all. I just come here, hang out once in a while, and dance. I mean, it’s sad and all, but what can I say?
“I think Dad’s has benefited from all this. People want to check it out. I don’t think it’s hurt Poway at all. I still like it here.”
A crew of guys in their 20s, in slobby shirts and baggy shorts, travel as a troika to the bar, order beers, don’t stop talking or drinking. Two guys in baseball uniforms wander in before midnight, slap the backs of friends, grab beers, high-five, and disappear into the crowd. Around midnight, a fully made-up, 40-plus woman in a short black vinyl skirt, maybe 15 inches hip to thigh, size 40D breasts barely encased in a black halter, black strappy sandals, and a mane of deep burnished red hair, winds her legs around her partner, a ’70s dance instructor with golden blond hair below the ear line, a print knit shirt, and tight black pants that bulge at the waistline in a way they weren’t meant to. He wears boots with a heel, and they cavort on the dance floor with exaggerated gestures: knees in groins, legs in groins, groins in groins, backs arched, faces plunged, an upright horizontal mambo.
Ladies’ bathroom: “Tell me, honestly, do I look fat?”
“You don’t look fat.”
“But you wouldn’t wear this.”
“I wouldn’t wear it because my butt wouldn’t look good in it, but you look good.”
“Okay, but you’re telling me the truth, right?”
A couple joins the crowd. He has long, black shiny hair in a ponytail; Native-American? She has curly hair in a long shag. She keeps her sweater on. Jeans and sandals. Sips a drink by the bar. Watches dancers. Walks around. He talks to friends.
In the front room, 15 smokers at the several tables. Mostly older. The blonde friends are here, laughing and whispering. They return to dance floor and sing along with a rap song. A tall blonde woman with bobbed hair and her friend, who is dark and shorter, dance with the crowd, now mixed with a few old and mostly young, dancing and mouthing words to the song’s sexual lyrics. Couple in vinyl skirt and tight pants tango across the floor, employing elaborate gymnastics. They take a break at the bar and stare at each other and laugh.
Nate, 29, works with computers, lives in Poway.
Were the van Dams regulars here?
“No way. They just happened to be here. It doesn’t reflect on the bar or the people who work here. You thought this was gonna be like a swingers bar, right? There were many times I’ve been here, and I’ve never been hit on by a bunch of women, or a bunch of men, for that matter. It’s not that kind of bar. I’ve known these guys for years.”
Did Westerfield do it?
“Absolutely. Why else would there be blood in his motor home? It’s hard to dispute that.”
What else is there in Poway?
“The Red Bird. It’s pretty sweet. It’s kind of a dive bar, actually. There’s some places in Carmel Mountain Ranch — a Friday’s and an Irish pub. There’s not a lot, actually.”
Five guys arrive in standard outfits — sweatshirts, shorts, jeans, sandals. Mid-20s. Two young girls follow behind, one tiny, maybe 5´5˝, blond hair pulled back, wearing a boat-necked, pink knit top and low jeans with pink belt. She dances by herself; her friend joins her. They do not interact, but a guy comes over to the tiny one — he’s in cutoff shorts, Hush Puppies, socks, short black hair — and tries to talk with the girl as she dances. She smiles but half ignores him. He’s whispering in her ear. She finally relents and extends her arm, where he writes his phone number. Her friend, in jeans and a print scoop-neck top and a side-parted bob, goes to the bar and waits for a drink.
A tall guy, mid-30s, tattoos, jean shorts, white T-shirt, boots, talks with friends who watch the dance floor. Older couple (vinyl skirt) is back out there. So are the two blondes, who are now dancing with each other intently, until their sandwiched middle-man leads them on a choo-choo train around the floor. More aging athletes enter the bar. Foursome in the booth are out dancing, all of them overlapping with each other. Music is louder, more provocative lyrics, more thumping. Men at the bar are all big guys; not a sucked-in belly in the bunch. Mostly drinking beer. Glazed-eye look. Girls rush by, five across, to the bathroom.
“We should have gone to Escondido.”
“It’s not the same tonight.”
“We normally don’t stay in Poway, but we’re all back from school. We went to Poway High, so this is like a reunion. Normally we go downtown.”
Trish Smith, 26, from Point Loma, single, works in accounting. She wears tight, hip-hugger jeans, a tight light-turquoise short-sleeved sweater top with her shoulder-length blond bob. Her slight frame makes you want to protect and watch over her while she’s here. She watches from a bar stool while her friend Robin Johnson dances alone on the dance floor, suggestively, as if no one can see her. A party of one. You wonder what attracts Smith to a place like this.
“I’ve been here a couple of times in the last few years. My cousin lives close by. I hear things about the trial, but I don’t follow it regularly. I know some people who know an investigator, and things he says this person has said gives me no doubt he’s guilty, but I can’t tell you what that is because people will get in trouble.
“I think swinging goes on everywhere. I think it brings more people here. In my opinion, Poway’s reputation and Dad’s hasn’t been damaged, at least in my mind. Maybe in other people’s it has been. But I don’t care. It won’t stop me from coming here.”
Young people clear the dance floor; four dancers remain — the two blondes sipping drinks, singing with the lyrics, and the porno couple, who have taken to dancing close and very still. A skinny girl pulls her friend to the dance floor, and they turn circles and dance by themselves. “Must Be the Money” plays, and people come back to the dance floor. Girl in black bell bottoms, silver sandals, and jean jacket walks back and forth looking for someone. Her cell phone rings, and she takes it outside.
Waitresses scurry for drinks, do quick pivots for a hollered-after tip, smile, and head to the bar. Boys on dance floor continue to mock rap moves. Girls in tank tops lean in and whisper to each other. Older foursome are sitting at tables, watching. Will Smith’s “Nod Your Head” plays.
Daniel, 25, lives in La Jolla and works on computer circuit boards for a living. He has long hair, but his friends are more punk looking.
“My friend brought me here. He said it was a great place to party, so I thought I’d come down. I never really thought of Poway as a good place to party, but Poway is full of punks. I grew up with traditional skinheads. I came up here to see my boy with a mohawk and a couple of other punks. If you listen to some of the local bands, you hear ‘Crazy Poway Kids’ by Unwritten Law. Poway has always been a little bit nuts. It’s actually somewhat similar to the San Joaquin Valley.
“There is enough evidence to call that man guilty. The young lady I just dated is a lawyer, and she and I discussed it in depth. Unless there were things that were brought into court that were not supposed to, he has no chance of getting off. Because of the things that were brought in, especially the videotapes, the man is screwed. The law is going to nail him to the wall.
“It has nothing to do with someone being a swinger. I’m a polygamist. Anyone’s beliefs have nothing to do with how well you protect your children or how well you protect your wife or husband. They did not protect their children properly.
“Who cares if they are swingers? There’s a little girl’s life, which is the point here. Society’s intellectual standing right now is at about a tenth-grade high school level, and its emotional standings are at an eighth-grade level. It’s fucking pathetic.”
What about Brenda allegedly asking about doing other women?
“I haven’t heard about it, so I can’t say. But I will say there is nothing wrong with a woman being with another woman. I’ve been in multiple relations where it was me and two women, because there’s no way in the world one man can satisfy all of a woman’s needs.”
A girl in red spaghetti-strapped top and too-tight jeans, big red curly hair; guy in jeans and a T-shirt, say hi to another couple in booth, she with blue midriff-bearing top. But they quickly leave, wrinkling their noses at the music. “This isn’t techno,” someone shouts. A Latin hip-hop song fills the room for three lone dancers.
Tone-Loc’s “Wild Thing.” Couple tries to swing. Near-empty dance floor. Bar area filled with refreshers. Porno couple sweeps past and leaves the bar. A lot of standing around. Sweaty young men smell of alcohol. Girls swoop hair up on top of their heads and then let it fly once the music moves them. Middle-aged foursome gets up for this song. They have switched partners: white hair with boxy jacket; skinny Mexican with short, squat, bejeaned woman. Man in khaki shorts and white socks combo is at the bar getting drinks and watching. He leans over to a woman — mid-30s, overweight, large breasts, tight jeans — and protectively puts his arm on her back. He can’t hear her, so he leans closer, and she shouts in his ear. He smiles, laughs, puts drinks down, and they head out to dance floor to join his group.
Nick Fabreggio, 26, single, electrician, lives in Scripps Ranch. He wears a white shirt, khaki pants, smokes prolifically, and wears a Quicksilver T-shirt, cap, and sandals. He reeks of alcohol, slurs his words, and insists he’s a Dad’s regular who knows the real score here.
“I check it all out…TV, radio, any chance I get. I don’t know if he did it or not. The court case hasn’t proven anything for me. But I really don’t fuckin’ care. What I care about is I come here all the time, and now that’s what everyone is talking about here. Makes it suck for us.”
At this point, Fabreggio is asked to leave because a gray-haired man who appears to be in his 60s begins swearing at him and telling him to “shut the fuck up.” The man says Nick isn’t a real regular — that he is, and Nick’s gonna get his ass kicked if he doesn’t shut the fuck up. A bouncer remains calm when asking both to leave. A backup team of two, including Sean, the bar manager, helps break up the brawl.
Young couple acts out video, complete with call and response (repeat of “It Wasn’t Me”). They interrupt the mock argument with make-out sessions and giggles. His pants droop below his hips; her purple velour single-strap top inches up. Tired gal with skinny legs and tube top trips to the bar. Gets a drink. Heads back outside to smoke. People are at edges of the room or outside. The bar crowd is thinning. Smoke from outside wafts in. Three people play pool. The front room holds five. An attempt to return to techno plays in the dance area, quickly replaced with Naughty by Nature. Black man in crisp white pants and dark shirt dances with a blonde.
Waitresses collect bottles and glasses; workers turn off fans, appliances. A quick peek at the men’s bathroom: reeking of urine. More paper towels on the ground than in the wastebasket. Lights come on. Place is a 1:30 a.m.
Waitresses collect bottles and glasses; workers turn off fans, appliances. A quick peek at the men’s bathroom: reeking of urine. More paper towels on the ground than in the wastebasket. Lights come on. Place is a wreck. Looks aged, like those who remain.
Intercom announces something like last call. Seven folks lingering at the back bar. Wasted men at the fringes lean into each other. Young girls head out. Regulars in the pool area shoot a last round, while their visiting friend — a tall ash-blonde in black linen shorts and black-and-white T-shirt — watches. She’s ready to go.
According to the Court TV timeline, Brenda van Dam, Barbara Easton, Denise Kemal, Keith Stone, and Rich Brady left Dad’s at 1:50 for van Dam house. Brenda was the designated driver.
Brenda van Dam returned home with her friends. She noticed the alarm panel blinking.