The Sad Case Of Polly Klaas

THEY WERE POSTED ON CAR WINDOWS, store windows, telephone poles and seemingly every wall in northern California. Photos of 12-year-old Polly Klaas and composite sketches of the bearded man who abducted her on Oct. 1 were beamed over computer networks, faxed to grocery stores and tucked into shipments of Biobottoms kids' clothes (where Polly's mother was a sales manager). Volunteers sent out more than 8 million reward posters as far away as Katmandu and Mogadishu. But it turned out that the prime suspect had been within the grasp of California cops all along. Richard Allen Davis, a twice-convicted kidnapper, had been in police hands twice during the two-month-long search, and authorities failed to notice that he resembled the description of Polly's kidnapper. Late last week, four days after Davis's arrest, he led police to the body of the girl.

From the beginning, the case was characterized by missed opportunities and eerie twists. The first of the slip-ups occurred the night of the crime. A man wielding a knife broke into Polly's home in Petaluma, 40 miles north of San Francisco, where she was hosting a slumber party. As Polly's mother slept, the kidnapper tied up the three girls, put pillowcases over their heads, then grabbed Polly and vanished. A little more than an hour later, a resident of Oakmont, 25 miles away, reported a trespasser on her property. Sonoma County sheriff's deputies found Davis standing near his Ford Pinto, which he'd driven into a ditch. Davis convinced them he was a "sightseer," and the deputies let him go after searching his car and running a check for outstanding warrants. Petaluma police had sent a description of the kidnapper over the Teletype. But the sheriff's office did not broadcast it to the deputies questioning Davis.

The second slip-up came on Oct. 19. when a California Highway Patrol officer stopped Davis for drunken driving near Ukiah and he was booked at the county jail. By then, composite sketches of Polly's kidnapper were hanging in the highway-patrol briefing room. But the cops never made the connection. They, too, simply checked for outstanding warrants against Davis and let him go after several hours. In fact, Davis had served five years in prison for abducting a woman in 1976 (according to press reports, he told a psychiatrist he'd heard voices from a dead girlfriend "wondering what it was like to be raped"). In 1984 he snatched and beat another woman, forcing her to turn over $6,000. He served eight years in that case and was paroled to a halfway house in June.

As Davis was evading the grasp of police, the people of Petaluma initiated an unprecedented effort to find the missing girl. Nearly 1,000 volunteers, working in 12-hour shifts at the storefront headquarters of the Polly Klaas Foundation, churned out T shirts and tapes asking for news of Polly. Actress Winona Ryder, a Petaluma native, seeded a reward fund that grew to $200,000.

But even the search effort had a bizarre twist. Two weeks ago a woman filed a civil suit claiming that Bill Rhodes, who headed the foundation, had molested her 23 years ago. Local newspapers reported that Rhodes was convicted of indecent exposure in 1968 and acquitted on charges of molesting several young girls at knife point that same year. Police said Rhodes was not a suspect in Polly's case. Rhodes called the lawsuit "ridiculous," but reportedly said he'd joined the search effort to "make amends" for his past.

The real break in the case came Nov. 28, when the Oakmont woman who had reported the trespasser found pieces of white cloth on her land. Police recalled questioning Davis that night, traced him to an Indian reservation where his sister was living and arrested him for violating parole. Late last week FBI officials said that a palm print found in Polly's bedroom matched Davis's, and they intensified their search in the Oakmont area. But on Saturday afternoon, their conversations with Davis led them to Cloverdale, about 45 miles northwest of Oakmont, where they found Polly's body in a thicket just off Highway 101 near town. Police stopped short of saying that Davis had confessed to killing Polly. And they would not rule out the possibility of an accomplice. Questions lingered about where and when Polly had been killed and whether she was still alive when sheriff's deputies first questioned Davis in Oakmont.

As news spread that Polly's body had been found, volunteers began to gather at the storefront center. Paper was taped onto windows and doors to shield mourners from the media outside. Gary French, who took over the Polly Klaas Foundation when Rhodes resigned, said, "This was every parent's worst nightmare...we need to make sure that this doesn't happen again." The foundation had raised half a million dollars. Now, it intends to use that money to search for other missing children.