DA: 'We believe Danielle van Dam's body has been found'
SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Authorities say they believe the body of a young girl found Wednesday in a remote area under a group of trees is that of Danielle van Dam, the 7-year-old girl missing for nearly a month.
The body was found by a volunteer search group that has been working with the family since Danielle disappeared on February 1 from her two-story suburban San Diego home.
"Tonight we believe Danielle van Dam's body has been found," District Attorney Paul Pfingst told reporters.
Danielle's disappearance mobilized her neighborhood in a massive search and drew national attention. The discovery of the body came a day after neighbor David Westerfield, 50, pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, kidnapping of a child under 14 and possession of child pornography.
If convicted, Westerfield could face the death penalty.
Danielle, whose only reported contact with Westerfield was when she sold Girl Scout cookies to him this year, was last seen February 1 when her father put her to bed about 10 p.m. Danielle was not discovered missing until 9 a.m. the next day.
The body was found about 25-30 feet from a two-lane road near a lake just outside the town of El Cajon in the eastern portion of the county and was removed from the area late Wednesday to be handed over to the medical examiner for further identification and examination.
Pfingst said the body had a plastic necklace consistent with one Danielle was wearing on the night she disappeared, and that an earring also matched one belonging to the girl.
He described the body as that of a young, white girl about 3 to 4 feet tall. San Diego police and homicide detectives have cordoned off the site with yellow police tape.
"The discovery of Danielle van Dam's body provides a new avenue for clues for forensic examiners and crime scene examiners. Hopefully, we will know what happened to this young girl," Pfingst said.
He said the cause of death was not immediately known and that no "homicide instrument" has been found at this point.
"Investigators believe the body was dropped at this site," the district attorney said.
San Diego Police Chief David Bejarano said the girl's parents, Damon and Brenda van Dam, had been notified and that officers were remaining with the family to help them cope with the news.
He said it would take between 12-18 hours to fully examine the crime scene, before the body would be handed over to the medical examiner for further identification and examination.
Pfingst said investigators were being careful not "to touch, move, manipulate or change anything" at the crime scene. They are also looking for footprints, tire marks and other potential evidence.
Authorities said the volunteer searchers, who had recently expanded their search of the county, discovered the body around 2:20 p.m. (5:20 p.m. ET) and immediately contacted the sheriff's department.
Pfingst thanked the searchers for conducting the "most extensive search and manhunt in the history of San Diego County."
Westerfield, a self-employed engineer and twice-divorced father of two grown children, was arrested last Friday after searches of his home and two seized vehicles turned up DNA matches with the victim's blood. Police also said they found other "DNA evidence" on an article of Danielle's clothing in her bedroom.
Westerfield had gone on a camping trip to the desert that weekend in his motor home, leaving town before the young girl was reported missing.
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