Polly Klaas’ Petaluma kidnapping led to advocacy for children

The kidnapping and murder that rocked Petaluma 25 years ago spurred two foundations to help protect children.|

On Oct. 1, 1993, Polly Klaas was having a slumber party with a few friends at her mother’s house in a quiet west Petaluma neighborhood, when a stranger broke into her bedroom and abducted the 12-year-old girl at knife point, setting off a national search and opening a wound in the community that still stings 25 years later.

Over the next two months, as the world’s media descended on Petaluma, scores of volunteers and law enforcement searched for Polly and tracked her kidnapper. Her strangled body was found on Dec. 4, outside of Cloverdale, and Richard Allen Davis was arrested, tried and sentenced to death for murdering Polly.

As the 25th anniversary of Polly’s kidnapping approached, Marc Klaas, her father, said he was filled with anxiety.

“The milestone anniversaries, those are the ones that are most dreaded for me,” he said. “I surrounded myself with people that I love. That made it easier.”

While the tragedy thrust Petaluma into the national spotlight, it also spurred the creation of two nonprofits dedicated to preventing and finding missing children. Marc Klaas has since worked tirelessly to preserve Polly’s legacy, first through the creation of the Polly Klaas Foundation, which continues to operate in Petaluma.

After he left the foundation - he says he was forced out after a dispute - Marc Klaas founded Klaas Kids, a Sausalito-based organization that advocates for laws to protect children. Klaas Kids has fingerprinted and photographed more than 1 million children, providing a record for law enforcement in case a child goes missing. The foundation also actively searches for missing children, and trains search and rescue volunteers.

“You have to look forward with hope, you can’t look back with regret,” he said. “I’ve tried to give meaning to Polly’s death and build on her legacy.”

The Polly Klaas Foundation has a similar mission of keeping children safe, but employs different tactics, said Raine Howe, the organization’s executive director. The Petaluma-based foundation has distributed more than 250,000 free child safety kits to families and provides social media safety programs to middle school students in Sonoma County.

Howe said the threat to children has evolved in the 25 years since Polly’s kidnapping. While Polly was taken by force from her bedroom, the new generation of child predators tries to lure kids from their bedrooms via social media, she said. Many of the missing children cases her organization deals with involve an abusive adult that has contacted a child on social media and convinced them to run away from home.

“We have this whole new situation where kids are being groomed by adult predators in their own bedrooms,” Howe said. “It’s very disturbing.”

Davis remains on death row in San Quentin, and while Marc Klaas would like to see him executed (“I’d bring champagne to his execution”), he said he does not think about Polly’s killer much any more. But he does spend much time thinking about his daughter, who would be nearing her 38th birthday.

“I think about her daily,” he said. “I would have hoped that she would be leading a happy life.”

(Contact Matt Brown at

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