Polly loved to sing and act in school productions and she dreamed of pursuing acting when she was older. In 1993, she was 12 years old and living with her mother, Eve, and her younger sister, Annie. Her father, Marc Klaas, and her mother had gotten divorced when Polly was very young, however, she still saw her father regularly.
Polly lived in Petaluma, California, a small city in Sonoma County, California. At the time, Petaluma was home to slightly over 43,000 people. Petaluma is one of those places where everyone pretty much knew everybody. The city had a very low crime rate in 1993, and still does now.
October 1st 1993
Polly had invited her two closest friends over for a sleepover that night. The three girls were playing in Polly’s room at the back of the house, while Polly’s mother was in the front of the house. At some point during the evening, a man broke in via the back door of the home and made his way into Polly’s bedroom. He then tied up Polly’s two friends, gagged them, put bags over their heads and told them to count to 1000. Then Polly was gone. It was the last time anyone saw her alive.
Over the weeks that followed, the search for Polly became the largest search ever carried out for a missing child. It involved 4000 volunteers, working together in any way they could to help find Polly. The search involved both humans and Bloodhound dogs, and took place over 1,000 square miles of ground surrounding Petaluma.
In episode 24 of the podcast ‘My Favourite Murder’, Karen Kilgariff covers Polly’s murder as her ‘Hometown Murder’. She remembers coming home not long after Polly was kidnapped and seeing everyone wearing purple ribbons, which was Polly’s favourite colour. Everyone was shaken and horrified by this unthinkable crime that had taken place in this safe, quiet city.
Polly’s missing poster was also a first for its time. The rise in technology by 1993 meant that the images were digitized and of a greater quality than any other missing child poster ever before. Thanks to the Internet, word of Polly’s disappearance not only crossed state lines, but crossed oceans. Polly’s disappearance revolutionised techniques used to find missing children.
Richard Allen Davis
A lifelong criminal, Davis was in and out of prison regularly. He began having run-ins with the law from the age of 23 in 1967 (if not before). His crimes started out with petty theft and public drunkenness, however, they became increasingly serious as time passed. His later crimes included violent and sexual assault of women and kidnapping.
The same evening that Polly was kidnapped, 20 miles north in Santa Rosa, a babysitter noticed a truck stuck in a ditch at the end of the driveway of the property where she was working, which made her uneasy. She called the home-owner, who came home, and the police. Davis had been drinking in his truck when he got lodged in the ditch.
The APB (All Points Bulletin) regarding the kidnapping had been released just half an hour after after the kidnapping had occurred, however, it only went out over Channel 1, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Channel. The police that arrived at the home where Davis was in his truck were Sonoma Valley Police, who only had access to Channel 3 reports, so they did not even know of the kidnapping at this time.
Davis did not give them a good feeling at all, but the police were stuck - Davis had an open container of beer, but nothing else incriminating in his car. Due to the fact he was not drinking while driving when the police discovered him, he technically wasn’t doing anything illegal. He was trespassing, and the police informed the owner of the home that if she made a citizen’s arrest, they could take Davis with them. She refused to do so, however.
It’s hard to comprehend, but the police had no choice but to let Davis go. Still suspicious about him, however, they did all they could to document the encounter. They filled out an FI (Field Interrogation) card with all of Davis’ details on it. Looking back on it now, this all seems very old-fashioned, but it was all that could be done at the time.
On November 28th, the same woman who owned the home where Davis had been found in his truck was walking in the area surrounding the house. A number of trees had been cleared, and on the ground, she found a pair of torn girls’ leggings. She reported this to the police, who searched the property. Police then made a review of the calls that had been made to them the night of the kidnapping, and came up with Davis, who had also had the FI card filed on him. They were also able to match a palm print, found in Polly’s bedroom that had been too smudged to properly identify, with Davis’s palm print.
Davis Is Arrested
Davis was arrested for the kidnapping of Polly Klaas, and on the 4th of December, he confessed to her kidnapping and murder. He would not, however, give police any further details of what had happened the night of the kidnapping. Due to Davis’ particularly suspicious behaviour on the night of October 1st, it is widely believed that he had hidden Polly in the bushes surrounding the house where his car had gotten stuck in the ditch. He was also particularly dirty and covered in leaves, suggesting he had been in the bushes just before he was discovered that evening.
Davis led authorities to Polly’s body, which he had dumped in a shallow grave near the city of Cloverdale, about 30 miles north of Petaluma.
Davis was not sentenced until June 18th, 1996. His charges were first degree murder, as well as robbery, burglary, kidnapping and a lewd act on a child. Emotions ran particularly high at the trial, due to Davis’ riotous behaviour in the courtroom, where he flipped off the jury as he entered, and made comments about Polly’s father, Marc, raping Polly.
Judge Thomas Hastings sentenced Davis to death by lethal injection, saying:
“It is very easy for me to pronounce this sentence, given your revolting behavior in this courtroom.”
Now aged 64, Davis is on death row, and lives in solitary confinement at San Quentin State Prison, after a number of attempts were made on his life by other prisoners.
Developments After Polly
Polly’s kidnapping and murder brought into effect several changes in the system, which have undoubtedly been instrumental in protecting numerous victims against dangerous individuals.
These include the “three strikes law”, which came into effect in March, 1994, just months after Polly’s murder. The law was formed to stop repeat offenders from being able go in and out of prison after committing a serious violent crime. An offender who commits this kind of crime, and already has two other convictions, will be sentenced to life in prison under the three strikes law.
As mentioned above, at the time of Polly’s kidnapping, the APB (All Points Bulletin) was only broadcast to the radio channel for the authorities where the kidnapping took place. After the kidnapping, the process was changed to APB broadcasting being put out to all channels, increasing the awareness of police to offenders in different counties.
Polly’s father, Marc, started the KlaasKids Foundation (est. 1994), which aims to put a end to crimes against children and promote the wellbeing and safety of all young people.
Polly’s mother, Eve, sits on the board of the Polly Klaas Foundation (est. 1993) which also strives to protect children and their families, help find children who are missing. Since the foundation was founded, it has helped over 10,000 missing children return home to their families.
Actress Winona Ryder, who was also from Petaluma and attended the same school as Polly, came home shortly after Polly’s kidnapping, making an appeal to everybody to help find Polly and to come forward if anyone had any information on her whereabouts. She also dedicated the movie, Little Women (1994), to Polly’s memory.
My Personal Note
I’ve known about Polly Klaas for a long time, but I first found out about her because I was intrigued by the by the song ‘Polly’ by Nirvana. I wanted to know what the background was behind the song. I found out, and it’s a harrowing story.
The words that stuck in my mind were:
“Polly says her back hurts,
She’s just as bored as me
She caught me off my guard
Amazes me the will, of instinct”
The song was inspired by 14 year-old Polly, who was kidnapped from outside the Tacoma Dome in Washington in 1987. Her kidnapper, Gerald Friend, took her back to his home, where he raped her repeatedly and tortured her with a blowtorch. Polly was able to convince Friend that she was enjoying herself, resulting in Friend letting his guard down, and she was able to escape.
Polly Klaas and Polly from the song are obviously not the same person. However, when searching for the song’s meaning, I came across the Wikipedia page on Polly Klaas and reading Polly’s story just stuck with me. What happened to Polly was absolutely horrible and tragic, but I also have the utmost respect for parents of murdered and exploited children that can bring about progressive change after the truly earth-shattering event that is losing a child in the most horrific way imaginable.
The Polly Klaas Foundation: http://www.pollyklaas.org
KlaasKids Foundation: http://klaaskids.org/about/
My Favorite Murder, Episode 24
Murder of Polly Klaas - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Polly_Klaas
Richard Allen Davis - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Allen_Davis