A couple of years ago a 14-year-old girl ran away from her home, got caught up in the sex trade and was headed toward becoming just another statistic when a person having lunch in a caf?spotted the teenager on a flyer and called the police.

The Polly Klaas Foundation had emailed the flyer around the country through its Rapid Response Team. A volunteer in another state posted it at a restaurant, where a customer noticed the same girl getting into a tow truck and wrote down the phone number on the side of the truck. The young teen was eventually returned to her family.

According to Raine Howe at the Polly Klaas Foundation in Petaluma, volunteers can register online to be part of the team, and possibly, save a child's life.

More recently, on Aug. 10 of this year, FBI agents using the Amber Alert System were able to rescue 16-year-old Hannah Anderson, who was kidnapped and taken to Idaho after her abductor murdered her mother and brother and set their house on fire.

While every child abduction story does not have a happy ending, the ability of local police and federal agents to rescue a child in the early stages of abduction — when the chances for survival are greatest — is far better than it was in 1993, when Richard Allen Davis stole Polly Klaas from her Petaluma home.

"This case was pivotal. It changed a lot of things," said Ed Freyer, who was the lead FBI agent in Santa Rosa at the time, and partnered with the Petaluma Police Department to find Polly.

For one thing, "it cemented the FBI's approach to kidnapping," Freyer said.

Before Polly, the FBI was typically called in for assistance within a day or two after the kidnapping, but now "best practices" dictate that the agency be contacted immediately to assist local law enforcement.

"Whether they call us, or we call them, we try to make that connection as soon as possible," he said.

Now retired from the FBI and living in Walla Walla, Wash., Freyer travels around the world offering four-hour seminars on what law enforcement learned from the Polly Klaas case and how to handle the families, media, stresses and demands involved in working a kidnapping.

Lt. Danny Fish, then a young patrol officer who was the first to respond to the report of Polly's kidnapping, said things have changed at the local level, too.

Twenty years ago officers radioed in reports of crimes to their own departments. But now, partially as a result of Polly Klaas, every police car is equipped with a computer that automatically sends out an alert when an officer issues a BOLO (Be On the Alert). In addition, every dispatcher in the county receives alerts whenever the local dispatcher puts it into the system.

"The Polly Klaas case set law enforcement on the track of understanding what systems we needed," Fish said.

One of the most important developments, from the law enforcement point of view, is the Child Abduction Response Team (CART), which local police and FBI have established in many parts of the country. The teams receive a standardized three to four-hour trainings, and are often interdepartmental, with police and federal agents working together to respond as quickly as possible.

"Kidnapping is time sensitive. It is urgent. Every second is important," Freyer said. It (CART) has worked quite well and there are a number of success stories around the country."

From the public perspective, the two most visible systems for rescuing children are the Amber Alert and its corollary, Suzanne's Law.

Named for 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped and murdered in 1996, the Amber Alert broadcasts abductions of children under 18 through a variety of media: radio in all its forms, television, the National Emergency Alert System, the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency) Weather Channel, email, traffic condition road signs, and LED billboards. Local police departments have the discretion to declare Amber Alerts when they determine that they would be helpful in recovering a child.

Suzanne's Law provides the same alert system for young adults 18 to 21. It was named for college student Suzanne Lyall, who was last seen leaving her job in Albany, NY in 1998.

What keeps people like Freyer, Fish and the staff at the Polly Klaas Foundation continually refining and improving their techniques for tracing missing children, and teaching these skills to others, is the memory of what happened 20 years ago.

"It is seared into your mind," Freyer said.

That memory drives Polly's father Marc Klaas, too, who started his own organization, KlaasKids, to help search for missing children and advocate for legislation like Three Strikes laws, which target repeat offenders like Davis and Megan's law, which targets sex offenders.

Freyer recalls the thousands of volunteers, 60,000 phone calls and tips and 12,000 leads that poured into the Petaluma Police Department, which became command central for the rescue efforts, and the day it all came to an end.

"I had my best day and my worst day three days apart," he said. "The best day was when they identified Richard Allen Davis' palm print in Polly's bedroom. The worst day was when we found her body three days later in Cloverdale. I remember those things like they were yesterday."

Fish, who is on the board of directors of the Polly Klaas Foundation, said the case is what made him commit himself to police work.

"Not just as a career," he said, "but as a value and a passion. It affected me profoundly."

(Contact Lois Pearlman at argus@arguscourier.com.)