Polly Klaas’ legacy looms large Her kidnapping led to new laws, changed lives

Pamela J. Podger. Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, September 28, 2003

Mention the name Polly Klaas, the 12-year-old Petaluma girl kidnapped and killed by ex-convict Richard Allen Davis 10 years ago this Wednesday, and the memories spill out — vivid and searing.

Her life, snuffed out at a tender age, still shapes the lives of others.

Her best friend, Annette Schott, now 22, works with troubled kids, hoping to prevent the anger seething inside these children from creating another Davis.

Her third-grade teacher, Peggy Dunn Heil, asks any struggling student to sit in Polly’s old chair, knowing her spirit lingers there.

The brazen crime jostled awake this sleepy poultry town, galvanized volunteers for 65 painful days and spawned prevention measures to keep children safer, as well as California’s “three strikes” law, providing harsh penalties for three-time offenders.

The riveting crime drew national attention as it resonated with every parent’s worst fears: Davis swept into the security of a loving home and grabbed Polly at knifepoint while her mother and sister slept nearby.

An army of 4,000-strong volunteers bolstered the agonized family by relentlessly keeping Polly’s case in the public eye, crafting a template for subsequent response to missing children.

Given the dedication and compassion of all who touched her case, Polly became Petaluma’s child. She was the child who loved the clarinet, costumes and cinnamon toast. Yet she was also the child who never wore a prom dress, drove a car or experienced college.

There is a dab of sorrow, mingled with smiles you can hear over telephone lines, that is Polly’s legacy — a desire to do better, to connect, to fix a broken world.

“She’s a very special spirit,” said her mother, Eve Nichol, 54. “Polly is an incredibly passionate, sensitive and hopeful child.

“I would like her to be remembered . . . Her story (should) result in the community coming together in a way that shows just the very best of humanity.”

She and Marc Klaas, Polly’s father, are working toward that end. A public event is set for 6 p.m Oct. 1 at the Polly Hannah Klaas Performing Arts Center, where they hope to raise funds to refurbish the vintage theater with stained- glass windows.

Marc Klaas, changed forever into a crusader for children’s safety, said the anniversary conjures up aching memories. “Polly had joy in her heart. Whatever she would have pursued, she would have been good at. The world lost a gift, as it does every time this happens.”

Polly, hosting a slumber party with two friends, was grabbed by Davis, assaulted and killed, her body ignominiously dumped at an abandoned Cloverdale sawmill.

Her disappearance riveted Petaluma, and later the nation, as relatives and strangers were on tenterhooks, hoping and praying for her safe return.

It was a case that forced her friends to mature quickly, haunted FBI agents and dogged hardened police officers with doubts.

Millions of fliers were pasted up in the Bay Area and posted on the nascent Internet; a spot aired on “America’s Most Wanted.”

Heil, the teacher and Petaluma neighbor, said: “Polly was my teacher, too. She really taught me to treasure every moment. You really do never know.”

Hours after the family alerted Petaluma police at 11:03 p.m. Oct. 1, Davis’s white Ford Pinto became stuck in a ditch on rural Pythian Road. He was spotted by a homeowner, who called the sheriff’s office. But Sonoma County deputies who arrived at the scene simply helped Davis dislodge his car and pushed him on his way. Their antiquated communications technology did not alert them to his parole violation.

On Oct. 19, Davis escaped detection a second time. He was stopped by a California Highway Patrol officer for speeding at 75 mph in Mendocino County and flunked a field sobriety test. Still, a routine check failed to flag his parole status.

It finally came down to gumshoe investigation, when weeks later on Nov. 28 the Pythian Road homeowner again called the sheriff after finding a sweatshirt, an unrolled condom and strips of cloth in the woods.

Deputy Sheriff Mike McManus went to investigate, and, working on a hunch, punched Davis’ name into the criminal history database operated by the state Department of Justice. The computer spat out Davis’ inglorious history, his stints in state prison for two attempted kidnappings and his parole status. Witnesses placed Davis in Wickersham Park, near Polly’s house, just two-and-a- half weeks after he left prison.

In late November, according to retired Petaluma Police Sgt. Mike Meese, Davis was found living at his sister’s house at the Coyote Valley Indian Reservation near Ukiah. Davis’ palm print, taken from Polly’s bed, had been identified. “It all fit, like a puzzle coming together.”

Davis made a jailhouse confession to Meese on Dec. 4 — after demanding two packs of Camels and protective custody in prison. That night, Davis led Meese to Polly’s body, dumped at the Cloverdale sawmill. Police believe Polly was strangled on Pythian Road; Davis says she died in Cloverdale.

Meese recalls how Marc Klaas embraced him that night. “He almost crushed me with that big hug,” he said. “I felt that we had somehow failed and let him down because we didn’t get her alive. Marc told me, ‘You will never know how much peace finding her gives me.’ “

Investigators say not a day has gone by in the last decade without a reminder of Polly — stronger laws, better handling of child witnesses, a blueprint for responding to abductions. Fingerprinting and other safety programs by KlaasKids Foundation for Children and the Polly Klaas Foundation help authorities respond quickly.

“It’s not like any other case — anything that is remotely connected is etched in your mind,” said retired FBI agent Eddie Freyer.

The 30-year veteran says the energy and resources were unmatched, with authorities even chasing down a TV repairman who had visited Polly’s house a year before she was kidnapped. Some investigators said early mistakes included a description of Davis wearing a bandanna, disbelief about the girl’s story, and a misguided theory that Polly had run away. Freyer has misgivings about the handling of minor differences in the statements by Polly’s two chums, Kate and Gillian.

“I wish we had a better way to deal with those two girls. We asked too much of them. We asked them to go to the police department that night, and back again later for more interviews,” Freyer said. “You come up with a small discrepancy in the story, for Chrissake, they are 12 years old and the memories will not be exactly the same.

“This one was really hard on all of us. There was a sense of urgency every day.”

Sonoma County prosecutor Greg Jacobs said the case was consuming; he spent three years leading the 1996 prosecution of Davis, who is on death row.

Polly’s case ignited new laws and public alerts that have made a difference, said Tina Schwartz of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Virginia.

After Davis was caught, Marc Klaas began championing an early version of the “three strikes” law that mandated longer sentences for repeat felons.

Amber Alerts are broadcast in 46 states. California, which started using the signs in 2002, has used it 39 times, says the CHP, each time recovering the child.

Today, Polly’s friend Annette Schott, who had a cold and missed the slumber party that fateful night, said she treasures an audio tape of Polly chanting made-up ads, and singing fake jingles. She recalls her giggle fits and her infectious laugh and a memory of the two of them marching together for their first day at junior high school, where a huge mural now honors Polly.

She said the seeds of working with at-risk kids were planted the day they found Polly — on Schott’s 13th birthday.

“What happened to Polly really made me grow up faster,” she said. “I had to turn it into something positive. Part of me works with these kids because they are the future Richard Allen Davises. If I can do something to prevent them from going down that path, that’s a huge reason of why I’m here.”