MAYBE, JUST MAYBE it was a total stranger who abducted seven-year-old Danielle van Dam from her San Diego home almost two weeks ago. Some thug could have picked her parents’ house at random and snuck in during the middle of the night, evading detection despite the home-security system. Somehow, the intruder could have found his way up to Danielle’s bedroom and removed her against her willagain, without being noticed.
Then again, maybe not.
The practical realities and crime statisticsless than 1 percent of the 800,000 children reported missing in the U.S. last year were abducted by someone unconnected to the familysuggest otherwise. Yet to judge by the initial coverage of Danielle’s disappearance on national TV, one would think her kidnapping had to be the exception to the rule.
The story, as first told on The Today Show, Good Morning America, The Early Show, Larry King Live, and America's Most Wanted, mirrored the account of Danielle’s parents, Brenda and Damon: Brenda was out partying that Friday night with friends at a San Diego nightspot. Damon put the kids to bed around 10. Brenda and her pals showed up around 2:30 and joined Damon for some pizza. The friends then left, and Brenda and Damon went to bed without first checking in on their daughter. They didn’t discover that she was missing until 9 a.m. Saturday morning.
As usual, the story behind the story has been available mostly outside the establishment mediaon the Internet and talk radio.
Last Friday, San Diego talk-show host Rick Roberts presented his listeners with an alternative scenario for what might have happened. According to his "reliable" source "high in law enforcement," the van Dams are "swingers," and not in the dancing sense. They engage in "lots of wife-swapping," and reportedly did so in their garage the night Danielle disappeared. According to rumors circulating like mad on local talk shows and Internet bulletin boards, the van Dams lock their garage from the inside during their swingers’ parties to make sure Danielle and her two brothers don’t stumble in on the festivities.
That would explain why the van Dams might have failed to notice an intruder breaking into their home and walking off with their child. It also provides a motive for neighbor David Westerfield, the only suspect thus far identified by San Diego police. According to the rumorswhich are, it should be noted, only thatWesterfield was a frustrated, would-be swinger who wanted to attend the van Dams’ soirees, but was denied admission for lack of a partner.
There’s more to the Westerfield angle: He saw Mrs. van Dam at the bar earlier in the evening, where, he claims, they danced (which she denies). He also high-tailed it out of San Diego and into the desert the next morning, which was enough to make police suspicious. So far, they have searched his home, where they found child pornography, and seized two of his vehicles, but they haven’t sought his arrest.
It’s easy to speculate by connecting the dots: At the nightclub, Westerfield might have learned about the orgy planned later in the evening. Mindful that Danielle’s parents would be distracted, he could have used the opportunity to sneak into their home and take her, thereby satisfying his perverted sexual appetites and exacting revenge against the van Dams for not including him in theirs.
It’s just a theory, and it’s rooted purely in conjecture, but it’s also the best lead available so far, which raises a worthwhile question: Why have so many in the press, the national TV media in particular, been reluctant to pursue it?
Surely it’s not just that the stories are unsubstantiated. That, after all, never kept the media from investigating claims of Nicole Brown Simpson’s drug use, the basis of O.J. defenders’ absurd charge that drug lords were "the real killer."
For their part, the van Dams have yet to deny the innuendos categorically. Asked about the alleged swinging on a San Diego TV station, Mrs. van Dam replied that "rumors are rumors," and "they have absolutely nothing to do with this investigation." Newsweek, one of few national media outlets that’s questioned the van Dams’ telling of events, quotes their spokeswoman, Sara Fraunces, as issuing the classic non-denial denial: The van Dams "do not lead a perfect lifestyle," she said, but that’s immaterial to the matter at hand.
Fraunces no doubt chose her words carefully. In the last 35 years, the term "lifestyle" has become not only the code word for any sort of sexual deviance, but also the quick way to claim a certain immunity from inconvenient questioning about it. This is the same logic Bill Clinton and his defenders used to rationalize perjury and lying to the American public, because it was "just about sex." For Gary Condit, it justified denying his affair to Washington police. His lifestyle took precedence over their duty to find Chandra Levy, dead or alive.
Like the "right to privacy" (a term invoked almost exclusively in sexual matters), the "lifestyle" claim is an appeal to the sexual revolution and its promise of an uninhibited sex life free of all responsibilities and moral judgment. It supersedes even laws, justice, or, in the case of Danielle van Dam and others, human life. To many of the reporters covering the van Dam story, the couple’s right to privacy similarly transcends the need for a complete and thorough investigation of their daughter’s disappearance.
But the couple’s "personal life" is a legitimate subject of inquiry, and not just for investigators. With their appeals to the press and calls for volunteers to help look for Danielle, the van Dams have made the investigation into their daughter’s kidnapping a very public affair. Privacy concerns should keep neither police nor reporters from pursuing all viable leads certainly not when there’s a chance Danielle may still be alive.
It may be, as Mrs. van Dam claims, that Danielle’s abduction has nothing to do with her parents’ sexual predilections, but at this point, there’s no way for the van Dams to know that for sure. If they are lying about that Friday night’s events, then their credibility on all matters must be called into doubt. And even if they are telling the truth about that night, but they hosted sex parties in their home on others, that could yield a long list of potential suspects people with unhealthy sexual behaviors who know the lay of the house.
The fetishization of "privacy" shouldn’t keep the van Dams from being forthright, or preclude the press from doing its job. The life of a little girl is at stake.