The father and family members of slain Petaluma 12-year-old Polly Hannah Klaas surrounded themselves Tuesday with people they know understand their loss: dear friends, close allies in their life of child advocacy and others who have walked their path.
On the 20th anniversary of Polly's abduction, Marc Klaas said he and his wife, Violet, knew being alone was not an option - that what was needed was the people who had touched their lives and been part of their mission to save other children from Polly's fate.
More noticeable than the day's many tears was how much laughter and love appeared to have been born of the tragedy that two decades ago provoked so much grief.
"I really think, looking back, that she's inspired a lot," Klaas said of the girl who was taken from her home during a sleepover with two friends.
In an event that was part remembrance and part news conference for the child safety nonprofit he runs, Klaas sought to remind those gathered - many of whom had never met Polly - just who she was for the 12 short years she lived: a bright, fun-loving, animated child who loved acting but wanted to play baseball, too, and who cackled like her dad to the antics of "The Simpsons."
A photo montage projected on a screen captured the years she lived, from tiny newborn, to curly-haired toddler, young girl and lanky adolescent. She was at that point, Klaas said, "just beginning to realize life's potential."
He remembered talking to her on the phone a short while before her slumber party, telling her he loved her, and hearing it back.
"It was almost exactly 20 years ago this moment," he said.
And he recalled the words she reportedly uttered a few hours later as, her friends having been tied up, she was being forced at knifepoint from the home she shared with her mother, Eve Nichol, and a younger sister, who slept nearby.
"Please don't hurt my mother and my sister," she pleaded with the stranger.
"At that moment in time, she was the bravest little girl in the world," her father said. "She remains our beacon, our inspiration, and the reason we will continue to focus on the fight for America's children until we draw our last breath."
Murdered by Richard Allen Davis, whose long and violent criminal past included attacks and sexual assaults on numerous women, Polly became, her father said, "the face of American victimization," while Davis became "the face of crime in America."
National attention to the case proved pivotal in enhancing political support for changes to the criminal justice system. Such changes included California's three-strikes law calling for stricter penalties for those with multiple criminal offenses, Megan's Law notifications of where sex offenders live and the Amber Alert, all driven by specific cases and real children.
In addition, Marc Klaas has dedicated his life to promoting change that will enhance child safety and the prospects children will be reunited with their families if they do go missing. He has formed several related nonprofit agencies such as KlaasKids.org, designed to aid in the search for missing kids, mobilize search teams and volunteer efforts, and promote technology that will expedite efforts to find kids and help keep them safe.
Guests assembled in a banquet room at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel included Marc Klaas' parents, Joe and B.J. Klaas, who became well-known to Petalumans during the 64-day search for Polly, and a few of the thousands who worked at the makeshift search center that existed during the days she was still missing. There were members of the law enforcement and prosecution teams involved in Polly's case, and others who have worked since for KlaasKids.org, the child-advocacy group Klaas heads.
And there were the family members of many children who have gone missing in the Bay Area over the past three decades or more - some who know Klaas through his advocacy work and share his mission, others who have been direct beneficiaries of search efforts led by his organization and who remember the support and comfort he brought to them personally.
"It's amazing what Marc and Violet have done to help the world," said Laura Collins, whose younger brother Kevin Collins was 10 when he disappeared from a San Francisco street corner 30 years ago next February.
Klaas recalled having Kevin's dad, David Collins, by his side when Polly went missing 10 years later. "He's gone through what I was going through," Klaas said. "I made an immediate connection."
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or email@example.com.