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Tearful Petaluma remembers Polly Klaas

A large crowd at the Petaluma Community Center watch a film about Polly Klaas during the Polly Klaas Foundation's Evening of Commemoration & Hope on Friday, October 4, 2013. (Conner Jay/ Press Democrat)

Published: Saturday, October 5, 2013 at 8:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, October 5, 2013 at 8:30 a.m.

Twenty years later, the emotions still run strong.

Speaker after speaker at Friday's commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Polly Klaas' kidnapping choked back tears in recalling the 64 long days and nights searching for the Petaluma 12-year-old abducted from her bedroom during a slumber party.

“Petaluma is a community that cares about its own,” said Jay Silverberg, a volunteer and later a board member of the Polly Klaas Foundation.

His sentiments formed a thread that weaved throughout comments of other volunteer searchers, police, child advocates and everyday Petalumans who came Friday night to remember.

More than 350 people filled the Petaluma Community Center on Friday night, and more watched a simulcast at Walnut Park, to commemorate the date and acknowledge the hundreds of local volunteers and community leaders who gave of themselves 20 years ago in pursuit of a singular goal: “Find Polly.”

It is estimated that 4,000 volunteers helped search for Polly in October and November 1993 after she was kidnapped at knifepoint from the Fourth Street home she shared with her mother and little sister. Her body was found Dec. 4 in Cloverdale.

Air and ground searches covered 5,000 square miles. More than 60,000 tips were called in and 12,000 viable leads were followed.

In the first child abduction case in which the Internet was widely used, police estimate that Polly's image was shared 2billion times worldwide. Fifty-four million hard copies of her missing poster were printed.

Donations totaled $250,000 in the first 30 days, rising to about $450,000 after two months.

Numbers can illustrate the enormous reach of Polly's case, but they only hint at the feelings it stirred — then and today.

“It quite possibly changed all of us,” Silverberg said.

Poignant images from 1993 lined the walls of the community center, photographs Julie Colt captured to document the search: candlelight ceremonies, handmade signs of support, searchers planning their day's path, intimate and painful images that convey the community's shared hope and concern.

“It's profoundly amazing to see these images on the wall,” Colt said, her voice quavering. She said she felt moved to document the search after she'd been told kidnappers often convince their victims that their families didn't want them anymore.

She wanted to be able to present Polly with the proof of how much she was loved and wanted when she returned home.

Eddie Freyer, the FBI agent in charge of the case, said Petaluma's response to the kidnapping “was like none other.”

“I describe this case as a pivotal case,” he said. “It defines us.”

It forever changed the way law enforcement, emergency responders and communities respond to kidnapping cases, he said. The case proved instrumental in California's three-strikes law, Megan's Law sex-offender registries, the Amber Alert system and standards for handling forensic evidence.

Today, the Petaluma-based Polly Klaas Foundation is the nation's second-largest “child-find” agency, behind only the nationally funded National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Board President Gary Judd said.

In its 20 years, the foundation has worked with more than 8,500 families around the country to educate and counsel them, help find their missing children and support worried and grieving loved ones.

Since 1993, it has staffed a telephone hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Its volunteers make and distribute posters of missing children for families within hours of abductions. One of its primary missions is creating and distributing free child safety and Internet safety kits from its website.

Polly's killer, Richard Allen Davis, remains on San Quentin's Death Row.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.

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