Twelve-year-old Polly Hannah Klaas was having a slumber party when a strange man holding a knife entered her bedroom, tied up all the girls and put pillow cases over their heads. The intruder then took a sobbing Polly off into the night.
Her friends stood back-to-back trying to untie themselves. When that didn't work, one girl was able to bring her hands under her feet to free herself. The girls then awakened Polly's mother, who immediately called the police.
It was October 1, 1993.
A stranger had invaded a private home in Petaluma, CA and snatched an innocent child from her very own bedroom. There were witnesses to tell the story. People in her home town and throughout the world helped search for her.
By the time Polly's body was found on December 3, 1993, over 2 billion images of Polly Klaas had been distributed worldwide.
The High Tech Search for Polly Klaas
New Technologies Bring New Child Search Tools
From the very beginning the search for Polly Klaas was conducted using the Internet, which had never been done before.
Previously, missing child posters were blurry reproductions that were photocopied, faxed, and hand distributed.
But this was 1993, the dawn of the "Information Super Highway." The day after Polly was kidnapped, two Petaluma residents, Gary French and Bill Rhodes, contacted the police department to inform them that Polly's missing child poster could be digitized, resulting in a crisp recognizable image.
French and Rhodes were joined by a third person, syndicated computer columnist Larry Magid, who contacted several Internet networks with world-wide clientele of more than 20 million users.
Polly's crisp, recognizable, missing child poster soon received a far wider distribution than any previous missing child poster, which is one of the reasons why so many people know about Polly Klaas.
Gary French, Bill Rhodes and Larry Magid introduced a huge technological innovation to the process of finding missing children. Since 1993, their innovation has helped find many, many missing children.
In 1993, Time Magazine published a story on this innovative use of technology titled "A High-Tech Dragnet."
To this day, the Polly Klaas Foundation follows the path laid by these high tech pioneers, and continues to creatively use innovative technology in their child-find operations.
Men, Women and Children Join Forces Throughout the World
From Ground Searches to Mass Mailings
The ground search for Polly Klaas covered over 1000 square miles of apple orchards, fields, oak savannahs and redwood stands. Bloodhounds were brought in from throughout California.
The air search covered over 3000 square miles. For the first time, the missing child search areas were recorded on CAD maps.
The people in Petaluma and surrounding communities banded together and formed the Polly Klaas Search Center. They were outraged, and determined to find Polly.
Men, women and children came by the dozens, to do what they could--answer phones, stuff envelopes, develop PR packages, help manage special events and volunteers. All told, there were almost 4000 volunteers.
Gary French and Bill Rhodes called on local computer companies and received donations of eight personal computers, which were used to fax thousands of Polly's posters to truck stops and supermarkets throughout the country. Data bases were developed for poster mailing management, volunteer management, search area management, and management of leads phoned in.
PIP and Kinko's printed high quality posters by the thousands. Over 54 million Advo flyers were mailed nationwide with Polly's photo and the police drawing of the kidnapper and that extraordinary question, "Have you seen us?"
Local businesses donated everything, including the search center's office tables, chairs, phones, phone lines. Pens, pencils, mailing envelopes, and postage.
Residents brought food, including homemade cookies and banana bread. Restauraunts delivered pizzas, burgers and soft drinks.
The hearts of people throughout the world were touched by the thought of Polly being kidnapped from her very own bedroom.
They began calling and writing, asking for posters and about ways that they could help find this little girl. The world's press came to Petaluma, covering this kidnapping as they had no other.
For nine long and painful weeks, celebrities and ordinary folks alike contributed to the search efforts.
Searching for Polly While Helping Others Search for Their Children
Compassion Steps In and Opens Hearts
An amazing thing began happening. In the midst of searching for Polly, phone calls began coming in from other parents whose children were also missing.
After seeing the publicity surrounding the search for Polly, these parents wanted advice on ways to find their children.
There were very few resources to help parents of missing children in 1993. Law enforcement had no defined policy of quick response to child abductions, systems for notifying other agencies were not optimal, and the legal system let repeat offenders move back and forth between prison and civil society.
So, while helping to search for Polly, some volunteers at the Polly Klaas Search Center began to specialize in helping other parents find their missing children.
Everyone was keenly aware that Polly was not the only child who had ever been kidnapped. What they were doing to find Polly could be done to find other missing children as well.
Blowing Out the Candle
A Girl Without Shoes
Two weeks after Polly's kidnapping, her mother Eve Nichol was quoted by the Press Democrat (Dec. 10, 1993) as saying, "I have a daughter out there--without shoes."
Her expression of pure motherhood brought the situation into perspective. While there were many, many people who cared for Polly and searched for Polly, this little girl would always be the beloved daughter of her very own parents.
A candle burned in her window for nine weeks. The flame was extinguished when they were told her remains had been found.
Her kidnapper is now on death row in California's San Quentin State Prison. You can learn more about Polly's case by watching the FBI Files story.
An Internet Child's Memorial Service
Polly's missing child poster had been spotted in Mogadishu and Nairobi. When her remains were found, the headline of a newspaper in Munich, Germany was, "America Cries: Polly is Dead."
People were stunned by their lost sense of personal security--a child had been kidnapped from her very own bedroom. They felt betrayed by a legal system that was supposed to protect their families, and could not manage to keep a repeat offender from harming yet again.
The press called her "America's Child". It is also appropriate to call her the world's first Internet Child. What happened to Polly became known to so many through the Internet.
Around the world, adults and children mourned Polly and all missing children.
Her memorial service.
An affair of the heart, was held on December 9, 1993.
Shortly after her remains were found.
So many people and dignitaries wanted to attend that a lottery had to be held to assign seats.
Loudspeakers were set up outside the church. The streets were packed with thousands of
grieving search team volunteers, participating law enforcement professionals,
and Polly's friends and schoolmates.
Joan Baez sang "Amazing Grace," Linda Ronstadt sang "Somewhere Out There,"
the Casa Grande High School Choir sang "Come To My Garden," and
James Locke, a soloist from the San Francisco Opera sang "Laudate Dominum."
Elected officials spoke.
Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, Senator Dianne Feinstein,
Governor Pete Wilson.
Spiritual teacher Ram Dass spoke.
There was a eulogy and a message from the family.
The Santa Rosa Children's Choir sang, "I'm Going Up a Yonder."
Polly Hannah Klaas
A Grassroots Organization Expands Its Mission
Finding Missing Children, Not Just Polly
In order to handle the many generous donations to the Polly Klaas Search Center, the members had to file for official non-profit status. This was achieved within a month of Polly's kidnapping, and the Polly Klaas Foundation was born.
During their search for Polly, these dedicated volunteer team members had developed specialized skills in helping find missing children--working with the family, law enforcement, the press, and community volunteer management. They knew they could make a difference in the lives of children and their families.
They committed themselves to:
--Use "the expertise and techniques learned in the search for Polly Klaas to assist other families, agencies and law enforcement in the rapid response and recovery of abducted children."
--"Work with elected representatives and government agencies to inform and educate the public in order to effect changes which will ensure that children can be safe in their own homes and communities."
--Educate and empower "children, parents and communities so that children do not become victims. The Foundation will support programs for children which build self-reliance and emergency skills without fear."
Volunteer Phil Grosse shared, "We derive our strength from the support of the thousands of people who have written or called to encourage us. Sometimes they send poetry, sometimes a donation, often the children send drawings of Polly. But all of them send a piece of their hearts. That's what keeps us going."
Saving Children One Vote at a Time
Changes Come to Law Enforcement
"I really believe that this case was solved because we came together and the community became involved and we worked toward a common purpose," said Mike Meese, the Petaluma Police Department's lead investigator for Polly's kidnapping and murder investigation. Press Democrat, October 20, 2003.
During the two years it took to go to trial, citizens learned a lot about the state of their legal system.
They were not happy to learn how inadequately the legal system handled repeat offenders. Voters across the country began passing 3 strikes laws, so repeat offenders would face life in prison.
Law enforcement officials re-worked their practices on saving abducted children, now realizing that speedy response was critical for the safety of the child.
Law enforcement established better communications systems among themselves. They also re-worked their child search protocols so that when a child was kidnapped all affected agencies would be notified and begin working together.
And, most importantly, in a nationwide effort led by the Polly Klaas Foundation, all 50 states now have Amber Alert laws in place.
Amber Alerts give ordinary citizens opportunities to be aware of a child in danger, and when appropriate, to act to help save the life of that child. More than one ordinary citizen has heard an Amber Alert on the car radio, looked up and actually seen the car with the kidnapper and child in it, called the police with their cell phone, and followed the kidnapper's car until law enforcement arrived.
Her Mother's Wish
"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,"
Polly's mother, Eve Nichol. - San Francisco Chronicle, Sept 28, 2003.
Moms and dads, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers throughout the world are actively
engaged in vigorous action to keep children safe and help find missing children.
We witness this passion for the safety of our children everyday. At the Polly Klaas Foundation.
- Americans in all 50 states joined together in a national online campaign to get the Amber Alert system implemented across the country. They repeatedly sent online letters from the Polly Klaas Foundation website to their elected officials at the state and federal levels telling them to implement the Alerts. These letters were credited with getting this important legislation passed.
- After Amber Alerts were implemented, there was a significant threat to their federal budget allocation. Americans once again used the Polly Klaas Foundation website to send online letters to their elected officials. These online letters were credited with resolving the budget issues.
- Massive numbers of people continue to sign up to receive Amber Alerts by email and cell phones.
- Hundreds of thousands of parents throughout the world are teaching their children how to stay safe with abduction prevention information they receive when they order their free Child Safety Kit (includes Internet Safety information) from the Polly Klaas Foundation website.
- Tens of thousands of people around the world receive safety information and missing child news from the Polly Klaas Foundation monthly eNews.
- Moms, dads, aunts, uncles and grandparents who are members of the Polly Klaas Foundation Rapid Response Team eVolunteers receive official emails with links to missing child posters. They download the posters, print them on their personal computers, and then distribute the missing child posters in their communities throughout the country.
- Neighbors, teachers, and healthcare professionals may feel something is not right in a child's circumstance, go to The Polly Klaas Foundation website, search our Master List of Missing Children, find a photo of the child, and call in the information. Many missing children have been found this way.
- Parents whose children have runaway or gone missing call us (800-587-4357) or email the Polly Klaas Foundation, reporting their missing child. We are honored to have helped over 10,000 families with missing children since Polly's kidnapping in 1993. The families receive custom-made missing child posters and assistance throughout their search for their child.
- Restaurants and many other businesses throughout the country receive fax blasts with posters of missing children. Posters really work. For example, a pharmacy in Massachusetts received a faxed missing child poster, checked their customer database, found a listing for the child with an address, and called us with the information within 15 minutes. The child was located safe within days.
The Lives We Wish for All Children
Sometimes people ask us why
our website and publications have pictures of happy children.
These pictures reflect the lives we would like for all children.