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How one girl's disappearance changed Petaluma

Petaluma Junior High School Principal Renee Semik reflects on Polly Klaas in the garden built in her memory at PJHS. Semik was a high school senior when Polly Klaas, a PJHS student, was abducted in 1993.

SCOTT MANCHESTER/ ARGUS-COURIER STAFF
Published: Monday, September 30, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 26, 2013 at 3:47 p.m.

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.

Facts

Remembering Polly

The Polly Klaas Foundation hosts “An Evening of Commemoration & Hope”
When: Friday, Oct. 4, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Petaluma Community Center, Lucchesi Park, 320 North McDowell Boulevard
Presentation includes: Speech by former FBI agent Ed Freyer, non-denominational message of healing and hope, and a dance performance by local youth in honor of Polly, who was active in the performing arts
Reserve a seat by visiting pollyklaas.org or calling 707-769-1334 and leaving a name, phone number and number of people attending.

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.

At its height, the effort involved about 4,000 people. Local, national and even international media descended on Petaluma, and satellite trucks lined Kentucky Street. At any given time, between 300 and 400 people were working at the headquarters, Silverberg said.

“You couldn't go anywhere where you weren't touched by this,” he said. Polly's kidnapper Richard Allen Davis “could have targeted any one of our kids. We had that fear, and we had to do something with it. We did, and we changed the world.”

Gary Judd, a lawyer at Brayton Purcell in Novato and a Petaluma resident, got involved on the first day of the search because his then-wife was Polly's third grade teacher. His boss let him work from Petaluma to enable him to better participate in the search, and he quickly became part of a core volunteer group led by Bill Rhodes.

But a hiccup in the search occurred when it was learned that Rhodes had earlier faced trial for child molestation charges.

When the information emerged, Rhodes stepped down and Gary French, who has since died, took over as leader. However, the change of guard didn't slow the search.

“We weren't in a position to be anything but single-minded about Polly,” Judd said.

With that sense of focus, the Polly Klaas Foundation became a nonprofit on Nov. 11, with Eve Nichol, Marc Klaas, Judd and others joining the board of directors. Over the course of the search, Petaluma volunteers distributed millions of posters and took in thousands of tips and leads, which they passed on to police.

It was the story of the community coming together to find Polly, Judd said, that kept the news alive in the eyes of the nation.

Then, on Nov. 30, Richard Allen Davis was taken into custody. Polly's body was found on Dec. 4 off Highway 101 south of Cloverdale and Davis was officially arrested on Dec. 5. Davis was later convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death; he is still on death row at San Quentin Prison.

More than 1,500 people gathered at a memorial to mourn Polly at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, folk singer Linda Ronstadt, Rep. Lynn Woolsey and other dignitaries attended.

Afterward, the foundation and the community were left to decide what to do next.

“The search was essentially a prayer of hope,” Judd said. “When it didn't work out to find Polly alive, we were left to hold the service and find completion. The last 20 years, the work of the foundation has been furthering and honoring what Polly and the community caused.”

The foundation used the roughly $450,000 left over from the search to carry on work for missing children in Polly's name. In 1994, Marc Klaas started his own organization and was shortly after ousted from the board of the Polly Klaas Foundation. Eve Nichol, who moved out of Petaluma, remains on the board.

The Polly Klaas Foundation estimates that it's helped 8,500 families over the last 20 years from its small building at 312 Western Ave.

“Our relatively quiet work hasn't been in the headlines, but when you say the words 'Polly Klaas,' people know,” said Raine Howe, the new executive director of the Polly Klaas Foundation.

The foundation is holding a community event to commemorate Polly's disappearance and the search for her on Friday, Oct. 4.

Howe said she wants the event to be a “home-grown” one, focused on thanking the community and “bringing everything full-circle.”

Marc Klaas and his wife, meanwhile, are planning a more private commemoration on Oct. 1, the anniversary of Polly's disappearance, in San Francisco.

In talking about his daughter, Klaas focused on the future, outlining new initiatives to help families of missing children.

“We always look forward,” he said. “If you keep your focus forward, try to make meaning from the tragedy, that's probably the best possible situation.”

Klaas often joins searches himself and has also become a national spokesman advocating for families of missing children. Klaas, who now lives in Sausalito, has embraced the work full-time and regularly speaks on television and radio. He says the organization takes about a call a day.

“For me, there's life before Polly and life after Polly,” he said. “The last time I worked a 9 to 5 day was Oct. 1, 1993. I plunged head-first into an advocacy role with my wife. It gave me a purpose in life — to give meaning to Polly's death.”

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@arguscourier.com)

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