WHEN THE HULKING, BEVRDED MAN APPEARED IN THE doorway of 12-year-old Polly Klaas's bedroom on the night of Friday, Oct. 1, Polly's friends Kate and Gillian at first fell no fear. There on a sleepover date, they thought their high-spirited friend was merely having some fun with them. "Polly likes to make little jokes," Gillian said later. Added Kate: "She likes to grab the spotlight whenever she can. We assumed there was nothing to be scared of."

But this was no slumber-party prank—and there was every reason to be frightened. The intruder, wielding a large knife, tied and gagged Kate and Gillian, both 12, then hoisted Polly—pleading, "Please don't hurt my mom and sister"—under his arm and carried her away. The abduction has stunned suburban Petaluma, Calif, (pop. 45,000), 38 miles north of San Francisco, and thousands of volunteers—friends and strangers alike—have mobilized a vast effort to find the missing girl.

One former Petaluma resident in particular was struck by Polly's plight: actress Winona Ryder, 21, who had had some of the same teachers as Polly at Petaluma Junior High. "I'm still kind of discombobulated and in shock," says Ryder, who learned of Polly's plight on an Oct. 5 broadcast of the syndicated TV show America's Most Wanted and offered a $200,000 reward for information leading to her safe return. "All the things that are good in my life now I got in Petaluma—when I was Polly's age."

On the day of the kidnapping, Polly had cleaned her room, just as she had promised, so her mother let her invite two girlfriends to spend the night. Polly, Gillian and Kate shared a pizza for dinner, then strolled through the tree-lined streets of the quiet middle-class neighborhood to get Popsicles at the corner store. The girls spent the rest of the evening in Polly's bedroom, giggling, lying on the floor next to Polly's stuffed-animal-strewn bunk bed and playing Perfect Match, a board game involving choosing the man of their dreams.

At about 10 p.m., Polly's mother, Eve Nichol, 42, the manager of mail-order sales for Biobottoms, a Petaluma company that makes fabric covers for diapers, stuck her head in and told the girls to quiet down and be ready for bed by 11. (Eve was divorced in 1983 from Polly's father, Marc Klaas, who manages a Hertz car-rental agency in San Francisco.) Then Eve pried her younger daughter, Annie, 6, away from the older girls, and the two went to sleep in the adjoining bedroom. About half an hour later, Polly got up to go spread three sleeping bags out in the living room. When she opened her bedroom door, the stranger was standing there. He had apparently entered the one-story house through an open window.

According to what Kate and Gillian later told police, the 6'3" man—who asked, "Which one of you lives here?"—tied them up before the full import of what was happening sank in, then carried away Polly, who is 4'10" and weighs only 80 pounds. At this point the girls (whose last names have not been released) say they are glad they didn't scream the moment they saw the man. "If we'd yelled, Polly's mom would have heard," said Kate. "And this guy would have killed one of us."

Within 20 minutes, Kate wriggled free of her bonds, awakened Eve and told her what had happened. "I was in a state of total disbelief," says Eve. "Then I heard Gillian crying. She said, 'It's true. He was here. He took Polly.' Annie didn't even wake up." By the time Eve was out of bed and on the phone to police, she recalls, "Gillian was running through the house wildly, looking for Polly, and Kate began sobbing."

By morning, news of the abduction had spread through Petaluma, and volunteers began distributing flyers with Polly's picture all over the country. Five million flyers went out in the first 10 days. But her parents stress that Polly is not the grown-up-looking young woman she appears on her poster. "She's still a little girl who is afraid of the dark and afraid of being alone," says her father, Marc Klaas, who shares custody of his daughter with Eve. According to Klaas's fiancée, realtor Violet Cheer, 33, "He lives for Polly." Eve Nichol (who separated last year from her second husband, Allan Nichol, 48, a Sebastopol, Calif., architect who is father to Annie) says her daughter is a bookish child who likes to play dress-up with her little sister, practice her clarinet, play with her new kitten, Milo, and visit her dad. Nichol describes her as "shy but very precocious and smart."

Polly's schoolmates are convinced their friend has the spunk to survive. Kirsten North, 13, says that, with her pals, Polly can be "hyper, fun and crazy." Polly's stepbrother, David Nichol, 19, agrees. "She's a really strong kid," he says. "And she always gets the last word.

She also, apparently, has much in common with the actress who has come to her aid. Ryder, who saw a videotape of the dark-haired, elfin Polly leaping about the stage in a school play, says, "I started acting when I was 12, Polly's age. I got a real sense of déjà vu." She isn't the only one. Ironically, just days before the kidnapping, Eve says that Polly's history teacher had told Polly of another shy but talented student from the school—one who was "so shy she never even raised her hand in class," but who had gone on to be a famous star. That student was Winona Ryder. "Polly was so excited," remembers Eve. "She told me her greatest dream was to meet Winona."

She may yet get the chance. Though police and FBI agents admit they are "baffled" by the unusual case, they have given the family cause for some optimism that Polly is still alive. They have searched the surrounding area, including swamps, and are putting together a psychological profile and a composite picture of the criminal. "There's been extensive profiling on Polly and the dynamics of the abduction," says Klaas, "and we are assured she is not in mortal danger." Police spokesman Sgt. Mike Kerns says, "This will take some luck, but somewhere, some citizen may see the suspect or Polly and remember what he or she looked like—and bingo, that's the one that works." The publicity surrounding the case has produced some 2,000 leads, but investigators publicly speculate only that the kidnapper "targeted" Polly, perhaps after watching her around the neighborhood, before striking. "We've been told it's a guy with a big hole in his life," says Eve. "Someone who may be wanting to capture some family feeling by taking Polly."

In the meantime, it is Polly's extended family and friends who are feeling a hole in their lives. Polly's parents are coping as best they can, putting in long hours at the volunteer command center set up in a former stationery store in downtown Petaluma to coordinate search efforts. Gillian's mother has said her daughter is suffering from a sort of post-traumatic shock after witnessing the kidnapping, and Kate told the local newspaper, "I can't feel anything. It's like your emotions are on ice." But a special friend of Polly's has grand plans for her return. Jason Alan Hafer, 12, a Petaluma Junior High classmate, brought a letter on Oct. 12 to Marc, Eve and Violet. "Polly is a good friend of mine and I really miss her," he wrote. "I hope they find her soon and when they do I'm going to get her the biggest present there is."

ELIZABETH GLEICK
LINDA WITT in Petaluma

  • Contributors:
  • Linda Witt.