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Trial ordered in Danielle van Dam case

SAN DIEGO, March 14 (UPI) -- After gut-wrenching emotional testimony from the parents of Danielle van Dam, a San Diego County judge late Thursday ordered David Westerfield, the suspect in the 7-year-old girl's disappearance and death, to stand trial on kidnapping and murder charges that carry a potential death sentence.

Superior Court Judge H. Ronald Domnitz scheduled a March 28 arraignment for Westerfield, 50, a neighbor of the little girl who vanished from her bedroom on the night of Feb. 1-2 and was found dead along a country road nearly a month later following an intensive search.

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Danielle's mother testified earlier in Thursday's preliminary hearing that she saw Westerfield at a neighborhood nightclub on the night her daughter was kidnapped, however she described the suspect in the case as a largely peripheral figure in the festivities who was not invited back to the Van Dam home.

Brenda van Dam testified, sometimes tearfully, sometimes defiant, at Westerfield's preliminary hearing that she and two girlfriends drank, danced with men and with one another and shot pool with different men at the bar that Friday night. But she said their socializing with the twice-divorced Westerfield was limited and he was not invited to continue the socializing at the Van Dam home when the bar closed at 2 a.m.

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"We let him buy us drinks," Mrs. Van Dam said during her three hours on the stand, but said she did not know the exact number of drinks he had purchased for her and her friends because there was "cash on the bar."

There was some conflicting information back and forth between defense attorney Steven Feldman and Mrs. Van Dam over an alleged conversation between her and Westerfield.

On the stand she denied an exchange with him but memorialized interviews with other witnesses were read to her and she was forced to admit that Westerfield had invited her to his home for an "adult" type party. She admitted to giving Westerfield their home phone number. Mrs. Van Dam said that she called her husband from the bar and informed him that they were not "the only ones" who had such affairs.

Domnitz appeared eager to protect Mrs. Van Dam from the sometimes aggressive questioning by Feldman. He sustained dozens of objections by the prosecution when Feldman made forays into the shadowy and suggestive sexual side of Mrs. Van Dam. He also refused to allow her to answer questions pertaining to the marital status of the Van Dams, calling their talk of divorce a year ago "off limits."

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Westerfield allegedly slipped into the Van Dam home on the night of Feb. 1 and carried off 7-year-old Danielle. Her decomposing body was found at the end of the month along a rural road about 25 miles from the family's home in the San Diego subdivision of Sabre Springs.

The interaction between Westerfield and Mrs. Van Dam has been considered an important element in the case because it would indicate whether Westerfield had been invited to the home where he would have had access to Danielle's bedroom.

Mrs. Van Dam testified that she and her husband, Damon, knew Westerfield only slightly even though he lived two doors away, but Westerfield appeared anxious to socialize with her and her two female friends at the bar.

The women, however, preferred to talk and play pool among themselves and with two other male patrons who were invited back to the residence where Damon van Dam was watching Danielle and her two brothers.

"I did not dance with David Westerfield," she said.

Mrs. Van Dam said she had several mixed drinks and a shot of tequila while at the bar and had also shared a marijuana cigarette with her friends at her home and later outside the bar. She denied being a regular drug user, but admitted to smoking marijuana around 30 times in her life. She nevertheless described herself as being clear headed and able to drive home safely.

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After a late-night snack of leftover pizza, the Van Dam's guests departed. Damon van Dam testified late Thursday that he got up to let the pet dog out before dawn and found a sliding door ajar, which he assumed had been left open by one of the guests who had been smoking. His wife had earlier described a situation where she had found the door left ajar.

Feldman prodded Damon Van Dam on the time that the dog was let out after he said he didn't recall the exact time even though he had told police it was around 3:30 a.m.

The next morning, Mrs. Van Dam said she went to wake her daughter for a breakfast of eggs she was cooking and found her bedroom empty. She and her husband and two sons frantically searched the house and yard and then called 911.

A police officer arrived, walked through the house and called in reinforcements.

"Before I knew it, it was total chaos," Mrs. Van Dam testified. "There were a lot of people on streets and neighbors came over and started searching for Danielle."

(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)

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