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The Other Van Dam Story—Thomas K. Arnold
Talk show host Rick Roberts made headlines with his KFMB-AM radio show about Damon and Brenda van Dam’s allegedly swinging lifestyle. But he wasn’t the only radio personality—or media outlet—to cast a critical eye on the backstory of the Danielle van Dam kidnapping case.
John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, whose John and Ken Show airs weekdays from 3 to 7 p.m. on Los Angeles station KFI-AM, devoted three shows to the case, even traveling to San Diego to broadcast from the van Dams’ Sabre Springs neighborhood. The week before that, they were the first to cast aspersions on the van Dams, a full day before the Roberts broadcast.
The Millennium Children’s Fund had just announced a $10,000 reward for information leading to the safe return of Danielle. Fund administrator Douglas Pierce had visited with the van Dams, and the next day he called a press conference in Los Angeles at which he voiced suspicions about the couple’s behavior. For an hour, Pierce blasted the van Dams for their apparent lack of emotion and general rudeness to him.
“I don’t know how much was true and how much was hysterical, but that’s what made it fascinating. We tried to unravel it on the air,” Kobylt says. “In retrospect, I think he did peg their personalities very well—the lack of emotion, the detachment, the obsession with the media message—and perhaps he got the vibe that they live a different life than most people.”
As soon as Pierce finished on-air, John and Ken introduced their next guests: an angry Damon and Brenda van Dam, who lambasted Pierce as a nut case. “We had scheduled them in advance, but when they heard Doug was on the show, they canceled, only to change their minds right before show time,” Kobylt says.
After the interview, John and Ken picked apart the conversation and spoke critically about the van Dams’ lack of emotion and their defensiveness about questions pertaining to their own behavior and actions the last night Danielle was seen. The next day, the swinger story broke in The San Diego Union-Tribune—furthered that evening on San Diego radio by Rick Roberts.
“It’s a very dramatic story,” says Kobylt. “Everybody got obsessed with it pretty quickly... We have a pretty fair audience in San Diego—we’ve even made it into the top 10 on occasion—and we started getting calls from people who live in the neighborhood and know the van Dams. As a result, it might as well have been in L.A. I tend to look at the whole [Southern California] area as the same, anyway.”
(By press deadline, the van Dams could not be reached for comment by San Diego Magazine.)
While the van Dam case has been duly covered by most of the mainstream media, the Star tabloid stoked the flames of controversy with a front-page banner that screamed, “The new JonBenet—what Danielle’s mom and dad are hiding.” Inside was a two-page story headlined, “Tragedy of little Danielle—and the dark sex secrets her parents are trying to keep hidden.”
Quoting the proverbial unnamed sources “close to the probe,” the Star reported that later-arrested suspect David Westerfield “was aware of the van Dams’ sexual activities and had approached Brenda about hosting a sex-swap party in his house.” The Star said Brenda had admitted to police “that the couple belonged to a swingers’ club called Club CB” and that sources say she “flirted outrageously and danced with Westerfield” the Friday night Danielle disappeared. “He [Westerfield] knew that Brenda and her friends were sexually involved, and he wanted to be part of the action, but for whatever reason, he was not invited by Brenda to accompany her and her four friends back to her home that night for more partying and sex,” the Star says it was told by a source.