How one girl's disappearance changed Petaluma

  • Petaluma Junior High Principal Renee Semil reflects in the Polly Klaas Garden on Tuesday September 24, 2013 on how she was a senior in high school when Polly Klaas a student at PJHS was abducted in 1993.

Twenty years later, roses still bloom in Polly Hannah Klaas' memory at Petaluma Junior High School, where the 12-year-old was a student when she was kidnapped from her home in the dark of night.

The carefully tended rose garden is one of many ways Petalumans have carried on Polly's memory since she was abducted on Oct. 1, 1993. Her disappearance galvanized a community-wide search that sparked the interest of the state, the nation and the world. The search ended in tragedy when her body was found 65 days later and her killer jailed, but those most closely affected have not let themselves be characterized by their grief.

For 20 years, Polly's uncle Kelby Jones has been on-call nearly every night as a volunteer to comfort and assist parents of missing children who reach out to the Petaluma-based Polly Klaas Foundation. The organization was created in November, 1993 to aid in Polly's search. It has since grown into a nation-wide support center for families of missing children.

Gillian Pelham, one of the two girls sleeping over at Polly's house the night she was abducted, is pursuing a post-graduate law degree in England, something that her father, Peter Pelham, believes is fueled by a desire to help others and make meaning from Polly's disappearance.

Polly's father, Marc Klaas, started an organization, KlaasKids, that has helped search for missing children and advocate for legislation since it was founded in 1994.

And Petalumans involved in the search for Polly say the efforts changed not only their own lives, but the town they call home.

"There's a feeling of comfort, additional safety, that comes from living in a town that at one point in its history stood up (for a missing child) and did something about it," said Jay Silverberg, a former newspaper editor and Petaluma resident who became actively involved in Polly's search, talking to media and keeping the story alive in the news.

It turns out that wasn't hard to do, he said. The media were captivated by Polly's kidnapping, which occurred at about 10:45 p.m. in her mother Eve Nichol's 4th Street home as Eve and her daughter Annie slept nearby. The circumstances shocked the community, shattering people's belief that Petaluma was a place where no harm could befall their children.

"It was something that grabbed people; it could have been any of us," Silverberg said. "We wanted to do whatever it took so this didn't happen again."

The community search effort began at Bill Rhodes' print shop, where he produced stacks of missing posters. It quickly outgrew the location and moved to the vacant Mattei Brothers building on Kentucky Street, now home to Copperfield's Books.

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