(EL CAJON, Calif.) - Investigators believe the gruesome discovery of a nude, partially burned girl's body ends the hunt for Danielle van Dam, the 7-year-old who disappeared more than three weeks ago.
Volunteers who have tirelessly searched for the little girl found the body Wednesday near a small grove of trees, just off a winding, two-lane road east of San Diego.
``Tonight we believe that Danielle van Dam's body has been found,'' San Diego County District Attorney Paul Pfingst said. ``Investigators believe the body was dropped at this site.''
The child was wearing a plastic necklace similar to one Danielle was seen wearing in thousands of flyers distributed after her disappearance. An earring matching the description of a pair she was wearing at the time of her disappearance also was found, Pfingst said.
``At this point we cannot positively confirm that it is Danielle,'' San Diego police Lt. Jim Collins said at the scene. ``However, we don't have any other young children missing in the county that have been reported. It's a high probability that it is her.''
At the crime scene, investigators closed off the roadway and set up search lights Wednesday night as they prepared to carefully examine the scene, which could yield a whole new set of clues.
``We are hopeful we will know what happened to this young girl,'' Pfingst said.
Initial reports indicated that the body had been burned but authorities declined late Wednesday to discuss the condition of the remains except to say that the body was partially decomposed. A positive identification could take several days.
Authorities have not yet determined the cause of death. No murder weapon was recovered from the scene, an unincorporated area about 25 miles east of San Diego.
Danielle was last seen on Feb. 1, when her father put her to bed in her family's north San Diego home. She was discovered missing the next morning. A methodical search for her involving thousands of volunteers stretched from Mexico to the desert east of San Diego.
A neighbor of the van Dam family, David Westerfield, 50, pleaded innocent Tuesday to charges of murder, kidnapping and possession of child pornography. He was being held without bond.
Westerfield spent the weekend of Danielle's disappearance traveling around San Diego County in his motor home, stopping in the desert east of the city.
Authorities said they found traces of Danielle's blood in Westerfield's motor home and on an article of his clothing.
Westerfield, a twice-divorced father of two grown children, has a 1996 drunken driving conviction but no violent criminal history.
He has said he was at the same bar where Danielle's mother, Brenda van Dam, was spending time with friends the night Danielle disappeared. Her husband was home with their daughter and two sons.
Police have searched Westerfield's home and examined three of his vehicles. In warrants, police said they were looking for child pornography, children's pajamas or clothing and a set of Mickey Mouse earrings. Police also sought any ``binding materials'' such as tape or rope, leather or rope collars.
On the Net: http://www.daniellemissing.com