Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Damon and Brenda van Dam. "I've seen worse situations where people have literally beaten up their children and not been investigated."
The saturation of news about the lifestyles of Brenda and Damon van Dam has not been lost on North County residents. While few can think of any friends who use recreational drugs and "swing" with other couples, most seem to believe that the parents' admitted drug use and the Friday-night partying gives them a share of the culpability for their daughter's death.
The van Dams’ garage (in front of SUV). "Their son is getting a little older, so if they want to smoke pot in the garage, their son is going to understand."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Joe Bernstein of Escondido believes that the van Dams' social life was possibly a factor in their daughter's kidnapping. "I've read and heard that they've had extracurricular activities as a couple. It could have been a situation of her turning down offers from the gentleman [David Westerfield] in question. There could have been some jealousy. It's possible, it's probable. I don't know anyone who takes recreational drugs or is involved in swinging. I think Child Protective Services should investigate them. They were probably too busy taking care of their own particular 'joys of life' to check on their kids that night. I think they'll probably find Westerfield guilty."
Another Escondido resident, Brenda Deal, immediately thinks of one thing when the van Dams are mentioned. "They're partiers. I probably know two people who use recreational drugs and zero who are swingers. Their partying definitely had something to do with Danielle's disappearance. When I'm at home at night, my child is in the same house as me. I check up on her, and I would not even think to go out and lock myself in the garage and do that kind of stuff without checking on my daughter. I don't think they are unfit parents, but I think they should change a little of their priorities. Honestly, I think they didn't check on their kids that night. Their only daughter was taken from them forever, and I would rather be dead than have that happen to me."
Amanda Arendt of Fallbrook finds the van Dams' social life "pretty controversial." "I feel really sorry for the parents, but at the same time I question their lifestyle. Personally, I couldn't do that to my kids. None of the people I know take recreational drugs or 'swing.' I'm sure that anything that influences your state of mind can lead to any act. If anybody you had a grudge against, or if there's, you know, any false doings against anybody else, there's just...I'm sure they'd want to take it out on them somehow. Children are a target that's close to home. I wouldn't investigate their fitness as parents, though. They're entitled to do what they want. Children go missing every day, and Child Protective Services doesn't investigate those parents. I have no idea why they didn't check on their children that night. Personally, I think it was stupidity. I would be kissing and hugging my daughter every night before I went to bed. Different people raise their kids different. I think a lot's going to come out in this trial -- a lot that the parents don't want to come out."
Bill Schlote has heard plenty about the case even though he lives in Sierra Madre. "I understand that she goes out on her own with some friends, apparently, but he stays at home with the kids. I don't know of anybody who uses recreational drugs, and I don't know anybody who's into swinging either. It's a possibility that their partying had something to do with the kidnapping. She apparently had seen their next-door neighbor, who allegedly committed this crime, numerous times. As far as investigating them as parents -- I think it's a little late for that. I don't know if everybody checks their children. Normally, when they tuck the children away, they probably get up once or twice a night to check on them, but that's kind of hard to say. Who really knows? You think you're in a safe neighborhood, and they apparently thought they were. It's difficult to say what's going to happen. The justice system has a lot of attorneys who do plea-bargaining, and too many people who get off of their crimes because of plea bargaining. They make a mockery of the system."
Angela Rhodes of Ramona has followed the case closely and has talked about it with her friends. "I've heard from a couple of different people. I heard [a] police officer...[who] was much more in depth than what was on the news. It's second-hand, and I don't want to repeat anything. But I expected a lot more to come out at the pretrial. I listened to quite a bit of it on the radio, and they just touched on [their lifestyle] compared to what I heard the officer had said. What I heard on the radio wasn't as much as the officer had said either.
"Personally, I have really mixed feelings. I'm pretty conservative, but people can do their own thing. I was surprised about the drugs. I can just see the type of women dancing together in the bar -- dancing together is one thing, but being as risqué as they were...it would disgust me if I saw them dancing in a bar. I know one person who I work with who is involved in swinging. But that's all I know. Based on what I heard from the pretrial stuff, they didn't even know Westerfield. He apparently seemed surprised that the dad was even home, because she had originally told him that the dad had taken the son. If he had been one of their partners or more involved in their life, then I would think the parents' lifestyle was a little to blame, but no, I don't believe so.
"As far as what I've heard of her as a mother, I think she sounds fine. Their son is getting a little older, so if they want to smoke pot in the garage, their son is going to understand that something funny is going on. If their children are unaware of the sexual things, that's okay, but if there are drugs and other things around the children, that's different. But it sounds as if it was not around the children. It also sounded like they didn't smoke pot that often in their garage. If my husband is home with my kids, I don't check them before I go to bed. Everyone is totally all over them for not checking on their kids, but their dad is their parent too, and he's just as responsible as the mother. If I have a baby-sitter, I go check on my kids. But if my husband's home, I don't necessarily go check on them unless there's a reason, like if they were sick. I certainly think they have the right person and I certainly hope...you know, O.J. got off, and it was shocking and amazing, so nothing would surprise me."
Leana Navarrete of Escondido has read a lot of Internet bulletin boards discussing the van Dam case. "I've read a lot of people condemning them, saying they are swingers, and I've read a lot of people defending them, saying they aren't. All I know are rumors. The only facts I've heard is that this lady Barbara came in and jumped on his bed and was kissing him. So I assume that if he was okay with that, then I would assume that he is okay with being with other women. Personally, I know one or two people who use drugs recreationally, but none that I would consider amoral people. I don't know anyone who is a swinger. I think their lifestyle had a direct effect on her disappearance, but I believe it had a direct effect on how well they watched their children. I think that if the person who committed the crime knew of this lifestyle, he may have known that they would not be around to protect their children at that time. If the person who committed the crime knew about it, it might have effected him pulling it off. I don't think the parents need to be investigated by Child Protective Services. I've seen worse situations where people have literally beaten up their children and not been investigated. I think that they were good parents. They were involved in the kids' sports, Brownies, Girl Scouts, you know, all that stuff. I think they were suitable parents. I assume Damon didn't check his kids because he had put them to bed and saw that they were in bed, and Brenda trusts her husband, so she didn't feel the need to check. The father should be just as responsible for them as the mother is. I think, according to the DNA evidence, that Westerfield's attorneys have a really hard job to prove that he didn't do it. It's really incriminating evidence."
Chris, who did not want her last name published, lives in Rancho Peñasquitos, right across the 15 freeway from Sabre Springs. "Sure, I've read that they were swingers and all those things." She reports the number of people she knows who use recreational drugs or engage in swinging as "zero." While she is aware of their lifestyle, Chris says that it had no effect on the disappearance of their daughter. "From the way it was described, it points to the fact that they kept it a very separate issue from their parenting. Based on what I know, I wouldn't report them as unfit parents. But I have no idea why they didn't check their children before going to bed that night. I thought that was extremely bizarre. I think he's [Westerfield] going to be found guilty. There's enough evidence."
Raylene Kaaisubish from Pauma Valley has a contradictory take on the van Dams. "They were pretty good parents from my point of view. They took care of their children, and they love their kids. You're talking to somebody who knows a lot of people who do recreational drugs, but nobody that I know of is into swinging. But their partying had something to do with her disappearance. If they weren't doing what they were doing that night, she wouldn't have been kidnapped. I think they should just let them grieve. I mean, they lost their daughter. They were probably tired, and their dad tucked them in, so that's probably why they didn't check on their kids. Somebody -- David Westerfield -- is going to be convicted."
Rick Hanson of Escondido says he's read a lot of rumors about the van Dams. "Specifically, they were swingers. Personally, I know of no one who uses recreational drugs or is involved in swinging. I think their lifestyle had something to do with it. For one thing, they weren't paying very good attention to their children. The other thing is, people who get involved in that sort of thing aren't exactly normal, and their friends aren't either. I think they should be investigated by Child Protective Services. Frankly, from what she testified, it wasn't normal what was going on in her house that night. They were under the influence of something, and, frankly, it doesn't sound like they were too interested in checking on their kids. I think Westerfield is involved, and I think there will be more coming out about the parents."
John Walsh, 20, of Escondido has heard similar rumors about the van Dams' lifestyle. "I heard they like to party. The mom smokes pot. They were swingers. Nothing too credible. I know quite a few people who use recreational drugs, but I haven't met any swingers yet. From what I heard, the next-door neighbor was jealous because he didn't have a partner for the swinging. I think that had a part in it, because he got jealous because he didn't have a wife. He got angry at them and, I guess, took it to the next level and kidnapped their daughter. I agree totally that Child Protective Services should investigate them. Since this first started, I think they've had something to do with it or were doing something wrong, because Mrs. van Dam didn't show very many emotions when the case first came around. It seemed like the neighbors were more involved in her disappearance than the mother was. They probably didn't check on their children that night because they were wasted. They're not really great parents. I hope that the neighbor who committed this serves life or death, and the parents should be investigated. They hold some responsibility for what happened to their own daughter."
Valencia Facchini of Scripps Ranch says that all she knows about the van Dams' lifestyle is rumors. "Just that they were swingers. I probably know about six or eight people into recreational drugs. I know two people who are into swinging. I don't think their lifestyle had anything to do with the kidnapping, though. I feel she really loved her daughter, and I don't think she would have exposed her daughter to that. Maybe they should be investigated as parents. But the father put the kids to bed and they were buzzed, and the kids were already in bed. I think something's going to come out of it -- I think the mom knows David Westerfield better than she's saying. I don't know if she's having an affair with him or not, but I think he's going to be convicted."
Valencia's husband, Luca Facchini, moved to San Diego from Italy ten years ago. The news reports and rumors have only fueled his cynicism. "I've heard different things, but I don't believe anything, honestly. If there is no proof, there is nothing to say. I know about 50 people who use recreational drugs and maybe 5 involved in swinging. I don't think that had anything to do with the disappearance of Danielle. They seem like good parents to me. They probably didn't check their kids that night, just out of routine. They shouldn't check every five minutes, you know. If they went to bed, they went to bed. The mother was at the bar and left the responsibility to the father. I think there will be a trial, and Westerfield is in big trouble. We can speculate all day long, but without proof, you don't know."
Nick, 22, a Carmel Mountain Ranch resident, is quite critical about the van Dam family. "I know quite a few people who use drugs, but I don't know anyone involved in swinging. But their social life absolutely had something to do with the tragedy. In their neighborhood, with the type of activity they had in their house, who knows what type of influences or other types of things were going on in that house? It all stems from that type of behavior. They should absolutely be investigated. You don't lose your kid at that hour of the night, and you don't have those types of things going on in a house where there are children. Who really knows why they didn't check their kids? If she were my daughter, I would make sure she was in bed and tucked away. That tells me that Mrs. van Dam wasn't a very good parent. I think that enough exposure to the incident and the investigation to their private life will shed some light with what's going on with that family and what's going on with America today."
Nick's friend Jenna, 17, is visiting from Oceanside. Although a bit less clear on the details, she still has an opinion. "I haven't really read that much, but I guess...I don't know. I know a lot of people who use drugs. I know a few who are into swinging but not very many. Their lifestyle definitely had something to do with the case. If you're into those kinds of things, it's going to influence the other parts of your life, including family life. I'm not really sure if they're unfit parents, but if somebody can enter the house and take their child without them noticing, that's pretty messed up. It just shows they're not paying attention too much. They're more involved in their own things. There could have been a number of reasons why they didn't check on their kids. They could have been busy doing whatever. I don't know. I heard something about the neighbor, and I truthfully think he had something to do with it, because I read that this guy was kind of crazy, and he was involved in weird things like child pornography."
Corinne Slawinski, 27, lives in Temecula and works in Carmel Mountain Ranch. "I used to know a lot of people who used drugs -- in my youth, but not anymore! I don't know anyone involved in swinging -- especially of that age! I think that the mere fact that when the alarm went off or when their door was open, they thought it was just a friend going out at whatever time of the morning, instead of checking on their children...it might have had something to do with it. I don't think that being a swinger means that you are a horrible parent. I think you need to keep it away from your kids. Assuming that people are coming and going in and out of your house at all hours of the night and not thinking to check on your child... I think that would have something to do with it -- not necessarily their sexual escapades. I couldn't care less about that. I think maybe Child Protective Services should look into it just a little bit more. I've been asking myself over and over again why they didn't check on her before they went to bed, and I feel very badly because a child was killed. I never, ever want to say that it's the parents' negligence because I'm a parent myself. I have a three-year-old. But they may or may not have been partying too much or just not paying attention. I think that Westerfield is going to get convicted, but I don't think he'll get the death penalty."
Slawinski's friend, Gina Mangiameli, 20, also lives in Temecula, though she grew up in Rancho Bernardo. "I've only heard the negative things about the van Dams. At first, everyone was kind of bleeding heart, because it was parents who lost their child. Then as the case was delved into deeper, I heard about a lot of shady, underground things going on. I work in a group home, and a lot of the kids I work with are in rehab programs. But in my personal life, I don't know anyone who uses drugs. And swinging? No one. I don't think any of that directly had anything to do with their daughter's kidnapping, but I think it had to do with their level of awareness of where their daughter was at the time. I'm studying the area of parenting, children, and social services at Palomar College, so this hits a little close to home. I think that any chance where a child's life is endangered for whatever reason, whether it's sexual activity or drug use, should be investigated. I've been asking myself a lot about why they didn't check their kids before they went to bed. It could have been drug use...I really wouldn't know. I babysit for her [Slawinski's] three-year-old a lot, and I check him even when he's taking a nap an average of three or four times. It just makes me wonder. I think that because it's been so widely publicized that Westerfield is probably going to get the death penalty, although a lot of cases like this go in unexpected directions."