20 years later, Petaluma remembers Polly Klaas
Published: Sunday, September 29, 2013 at 4:25 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, September 30, 2013 at 8:32 a.m.
The house where Polly Hannah Klaas once lived on Petaluma's Fourth Street has been repainted cheery red with bright white trim in the days since the 12-year-old was stolen from her bedroom during a sleepover with two friends.
A white picket fence and rose-covered trellis now border the sidewalk where her killer was seen lurking in advance of the abduction that brought disbelief, then despair to her family and community alike.
Life has gone on in the two decades since Polly's disappearance, the desperate two-month search that ensued and, finally, the discovery that the bright-eyed girl had lain dead all the while the world hoped for her safe return.
And yet, with the 20th anniversary of the day on which Polly vanished approaching on Tuesday, the memory of that time remains, for many, starkly fresh. The grief that mobilized 4,000 people to help find the seventh-grader is like an old wound still vulnerable to the slightest irritation.
“It's like yesterday,” said Jerry Lapinski, long retired from his post as principal at Petaluma Junior High School, where Polly and her friends were only weeks into the school year when she was taken away.
The Oct. 1, 1993, kidnapping stands as a milestone in the life of Petaluma and the rest of Sonoma County, both because it was such a shock to a town county Supervisor David Rabbitt likened to the fictional Mayberry of the 1960s, and because of the community involvement it inspired.
Every parent felt the suffering of her mother, Eve Nichol, and her father, Marc Klaas, divorced nine years before. Every resident experienced the psychological blow of so profound a violation of the sanctity of home.
Raine Howe, executive director of the Polly Klaas Foundation, a permanent iteration of the search organization that bloomed when Polly vanished, said people still approach her at public events “able to describe exactly where they were and what they were doing” when key developments in the case unfolded.
Many in town say Polly's abduction and murder are lodged in their conscience the way the 9/11 terror attacks or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy reside in the American psyche.
“The history of it is embedded in the DNA of Petaluma,” said Jay Silverberg, who joined the community search effort early on.
“Nobody will ever forget it,” said Mayor David Glass.
Had the vivacious girl's disappearance been somehow different, perhaps it would not have resonated quite so deeply and her case not drawn the attention of the nation as it did.
But Polly should have been safe at home that Friday night, playing a board game with friends Kate and Gillian while her mom and 6-year-old sister slept nearby.
Instead, a bearded stranger slipped into the house unheard and entered her room, brandishing a knife and threatening the girls. He bound them and covered their heads with pillow cases before stealing into the night with Polly.
The intruder, a twice-convicted kidnapper named Richard Allen Davis whose criminal past included multiple, violent attacks on women, was indeed a stranger, with no connection whatsoever to Polly, her family or her life.
Davis, then 39, had spent most of his adult life in prison. He had been paroled to a Bay Area half-way house three months before he detoured into Petaluma on what he later claimed was a quest to track down his estranged mother. He stumbled on Polly instead.
The crime struck a chord that resounded near and far, stunning the town of what was then about 45,000, many of whom participated in search efforts, distributed fliers and broadcast the girl's picture in hopes someone somewhere might see her.
Days of waiting for word of her whereabouts turned into weeks, despite a round-the-clock, multi-agency investigation on which then-FBI Director Louis Freeh was said to have received daily briefings.
Polly, the girl with the warm smile, curly hair and penetrating eyes, became known across the country — the visage of a girl some called “America's Child” providing a symbol of the innocence many say was lost that year.
Finally, an East Santa Rosa woman hiking one Sunday morning through rugged, wooded property near her home off Pythian Road came upon scattered scraps and pieces of clothing that turned out to be a child's red tights, an adult sweatshirt and other random items, including an unwrapped condom.
The woman recalled for investigators how eight weeks earlier her babysitter had driven down the road and encountered a scary man, his car stuck in a ditch and his behavior both creepy and menacing.
Two sheriff's deputies who responded to reports of the trespasser that night questioned the man, unaware a little girl had been kidnapped about an hour earlier. Without finding cause to arrest or investigate him further, the deputies let him go. Authorities believe Polly probably had already been killed and left on the hillside. Davis' encounter with law enforcement as he left the crime scene likely prompted him to move her to another place so he would not be connected.
The deputies, it turned out, had been using a different radio channel than the one carrying Petaluma police traffic in the first hours after the abduction. They had not received the bulletin about a missing girl named Polly. And in the days that followed, neither they nor the woman who reported the trespasser noticed any resemblance between Davis and the widely circulated drawing of the kidnapping suspect.
The fact that Davis eluded the grasp of law enforcement that night was made all the more painful by the eventual news that he was briefly jailed in Ukiah for drunken driving 2 1/2 weeks later, an arrest that somehow eluded parole officials who could have sent him back to prison right then.
But the record of deputies' contact with Davis on Pythian Road broke open the case, giving investigators a suspect at last, two months after Polly disappeared. It led to his arrest two days later in Mendocino County, where he was visiting family.
Authorities soon matched Davis' palm print to one found in Polly's room. On Dec. 4, 64 days after he took her away, Davis confessed his crime and led authorities to the thicket off Highway 101 south of Cloverdale where he had left Polly's body covered with scrap wood.
Retired FBI Special Agent Eddie Freyer, a Windsor resident currently serving a stint as undersheriff of Walla Walla County, Wash., said he remembers with absolute clarity going to that place with Davis, knowing Polly's parents, his agency, the Petaluma police chief and the larger world were awaiting confirmation of what he found there.
The case, he said, “is seared in all our minds.”
Though his 30-plus years with the FBI included work on other high-profile cases like the Unabomber and U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, Freyer said, “My best day and my worst day with the FBI were on the Polly Klaas case.
“The best day was when I got the call from the FBI laboratory saying we had matched Davis' palm print. ... Three days later was my very worst day in the FBI.”
The recognition that a man with a lifetime of increasingly violent conduct toward women had been free to hurt Polly spurred a national outcry over what was seen as a revolving-door criminal justice system.
Davis became the new poster boy for eventual adoption of what was known as California's “Three Strikes, You're Out” law, requiring life imprisonment for those convicted of a third crime after two serious, violent offenses.
It played a role, as well, in support for Megan's Law, through which the public now has access to information about sex offenders in their midst. And it was among multiple cases illustrating the need for the Amber Alert child abduction notification system now widely in use.
Polly's legacy extended to the way in which public safety organizations handle large-scale events and investigations involving multiple agencies, community volunteers and media hordes. It led directly to the creation of Child Abduction Response Teams that take advantage of the lessons learned, Freyer said.
Davis was tried for his crimes against Polly and her friends in San Jose because of widescale publicity in Sonoma County. He was convicted in 1996 of 10 felony counts, including the abduction, murder and attempted molestation of Polly, despite his claims there was no sexual component to the case.
He was sentenced to death. His case is still on appeal.
Davis, 59, remains among the 720 inmates on California's Death Row at San Quentin State Prison, where he is permitted five hours a day in the concrete exercise yard among carefully segregated inmates, prison spokesman Sam Robinson said. Davis mostly chooses to remain in his 4-by-9-foot cell, Robinson said.
The lead prosecutor on his case, retired Assistant District Attorney Greg Jacobs, had teenage daughters of his own at the time the case was active. He now says the grief he shunted aside in order to do his job resurfaced in the years afterward, along with the personal cost to him and his family over the three years he was immersed in the case.
Now a grandfather, he says, “Just the whole idea of this crime being against childhood really strikes me more than it ever did.”
“These child abduction cases affect you so much because, at the end of the day, it was potential unreached,” said Brian Sobel, who was Petaluma's vice mayor when Polly was killed. “You don't know what she would have done or become. She's now frozen in time.”
Others who remember that time said they feel it forever altered the way in which parents perceive the vulnerability of home and family, inspiring a new level of watchfulness and concern about child safety.
“It's not just a lingering memory. It's kind of your worst nightmare as a parent, and your worst nightmare as a child,” said Petaluma conservationist and former Councilman David Keller. “It emphasized it in a way that forced families and forced individuals to think it through and grapple with the really rare but the possibility that it could happen, and happen to somebody you know.”
Since his daughter's death, Polly's father has devoted himself very publicly to trying to prevent a repeat of his experience, championing legislation and policies aimed at protecting the nation's young. He runs a nonprofit foundation, KlaasKids, that promotes child safety measures and assists families around the nation whose children go missing.
Still living in Sausalito, Klaas, 64, said he and his wife, Violet, decided soon after Polly's remains were found to pursue the child safety agenda “to create meaning out of her death.”
“And I'll tell you, it really gave me a purpose in my life, purpose that was lacking before that,” he said.
Nichol, now a resident of Monterey County, has dealt with her grief more privately, though she remains affiliated as a founding board member with the foundation that bears her daughter's name.
Her daughter, Annie, Polly's half-sister, is now a writer in New York, while Polly's friends have grown and created their own lives. Kate McLean is a Bay Area journalist and documentary filmmaker. Gillian Pelham, a dual citizen of Great Britain, is a lawyer living and working in England.
She said via email that she returns to Petaluma every year to visit family and friends, and always makes a point to walk by Polly's old house. Should she ever leave England, Petaluma is where she'd most like to live.
“Despite what happened, it is somewhere that I will always love,” Pelham wrote. “And even if it looks different and bigger every time I come back, I still remember how the town pulled together back then and how there was a real feeling of community and looking out for one another.”
Community members are invited to attend a commemorative program honoring Polly and her legacy at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Petaluma Community Center, 320 North McDowell Blvd., hosted by the Polly Klaas Foundation. More information is available at pollyklaas.org.
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