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PEOPLE Top 5 are the most-viewed stories on the site over the past three days, updated every 60 minutes
- May 13, 1996
- Vol. 45
- No. 19
Odyssey of Violence
All His Adult Life, Richard Davis Was a One-Man Crime Wave. Why Was He Free to Kill Polly Klaas?
Davis has been charged with one count of murder with special circumstances. Despite his formal plea of not guilty before the judge, there is little reason to doubt he killed Polly, whose greatest childhood fear was being grabbed by the bogeyman and taken off into the night. It was Davis who led police to the body buried in an empty lot in Cloverdale, 50 miles north of Petaluma. On April 30 his videotaped confession to strangling Klaas was played in court. "I cinched up the knot," he told police, "tightened it just to make sure." His own lawyer, public defender Barry Collins, declared his client guilty of murder but not of sexual assault. The only real issue at stake in this trial, which is expected to continue for at least I three months and cost $2 million, is whether Davis should be put to death or spend the rest of his life in prison.
Yet an even larger question looms over the case: How was it that Richard Allen Davis was roaming free to commit this crime in the first place? Even before Polly's murder he was the living embodiment of a violent career criminal. Starting out as a juvenile delinquent, Davis had repeatedly been arrested for a string of crimes that became more violent as he got older. By 1993 he had spent 14 of the previous 20 years behind bars and had been convicted of kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon, armed robbery and burglary. The depths of his character were no secret to law-enforcement authorities. In 1978, while Davis was in prison for a crime spree, a psychiatrist asked by a judge to evaluate his mental state flatly predicted that "if released, he would be certain to resume his pattern of criminal behavior." Moreover, Davis has shown little remorse for any of his crimes. Asked by a judge in 1977 whether he felt sorry for the violent acts he had committed, Davis replied, "If I did, I wouldn't have done it."
Yet time and again he was released from prison. Indeed, Davis's life offers a case study in the flaws of a justice system that often can't contain its most violent offenders—and a glimpse into the life of the sort of career criminals who find their way in and out of the nation's prisons. "Society should not have a man like this walking the streets," says Lt. Larry Boss, head of the criminal investigation unit at the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office.
Like most repeat violent offenders, Davis grew up in a loveless, violent household. Born in San Francisco in 1954, he was the third of five children of truck driver and longshoreman Robert Davis and his wife, Evelyn. His younger sister Darlene Schwarm, now 35, remembers a chaotic and dangerous childhood. Robert once threw young Richard against a wall and later broke his jaw, she says. When Evelyn would catch Richard or his two brothers lying or smoking, "she held their hands over the gas stove burner until they got blisters on them." Richard Davis—then known as Rick—was 6 when his parents separated. His mother stayed in San Francisco, while his father moved with Rick, Darlene, a sister, Pat, and a brother, Donald, to La Honda, a community of 500 in a heavily wooded area south of San Francisco. "We used to feel sorry for him," says a former librarian at Davis's elementary school. "He was kind of sullen, quiet."
Outside school, though, Rick was a terror. He carried a knife and was known for dousing cats with gasoline and setting them on fire. "He was a real lowlife," says logger Pat Fluharty, 47, who knew him. By age 12, he had started his criminal career, stealing from mailboxes and burglarizing homes.
In 1969, Davis's father called the San Mateo sheriff's department to have Rick and Donald taken away for being "incorrigible." "They show no respect towards him or anyone who lives in the area," reads the police report from the incident, which also indicates that Robert, working as a longshoreman in San Francisco, was only home on weekends and left the children to fend for themselves during the week. Evelyn Davis was no more nurturing. "I remember calling her when I was 12, and she told me I was my father's problem," says Darlene.
Outside of his home, too, Davis found his share of trouble. "He hung out with a bad crowd all the time," says Wayne Peterson, 42, a heavy-equipment operator who still lives in La Honda. "He stole a friend of mine's car and got caught. My friend kicked the crap out of him." Though an indifferent student, Davis did make the soccer team. "He could run like a deer, run all day," says the coach, Jim Brawley, 65, who recalls Davis once showing up for practice with a big gash he'd suffered while jumping a fence. "I found out later he was running from a burglary."
At 17, Davis had become such a town nuisance that a judge offered him two options: join the California Youth Authority, a sort of reform school, or the Army. He chose the latter but, belligerent and unable to adjust to military life, was discharged 13 months later. He returned to La Honda in 1973, and soon afterward his girlfriend, Marlene Voris, was found dead of what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Davis had been among the last people to see her before her apparent suicide. (After his arrest in the Klaas case, police reopened the matter but again ruled it a suicide.)
Davis later told a psychiatrist he was profoundly upset by Voris's death and that he had started hearing her voice in his head. "At times another voice would appear, telling him that she wanted to be assaulted or robbed or raped," wrote Dr. George Ponomareff, a psychiatrist who interviewed Davis in 1977. "He describes a number of instances of his responding to this voice with criminal behavior."
That behavior included a frightening range of offenses. Just a week after the suicide, Davis burglarized a La Honda cabin, drinking the liquor and sleeping in the bed before police arrested him when he tried to pawn his loot. After he confessed to the crime—as well as to two other burglaries—he spent six months in county jail. Upon his release, he moved to San Francisco, where the next year he was caught trying to burglarize South San Francisco High School. Sent to prison for the first time—for a term of six months to 15 years for second-degree burglary—he was paroled in August 1976 after serving a year.
Less than two months after his release, his behavior took a new and ugly turn, and he committed his first violent crime. Frances Mays, a 26-year-old legal secretary, had just gotten off a Bay Area Rapid Transit train in Hay-ward, Calif., when Davis, wielding a kitchen knife, forced her into her Volkswagen. After a 20-minute drive, he pulled over in an isolated area, where he tried to force himself on her. "I grabbed the knife and struggled with him," Mays later told police. He tried to stab her, but she leaped from the car and was able to flag down a vehicle carrying Jim Wentz, an off-duty highway patrol officer. Wentz pulled his gun and handcuffed Davis, who later told psychiatrist Ponomareff he had committed the crime because he "heard a voice wondering what it was like to be raped."
Davis, who tried to hang himself while in jail awaiting trial for the incident, was sent to Napa State Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. On Dec. 16, 1976, he escaped and went on a five-day crime binge. Breaking into a Napa home through a window, he spotted 32-year-old Marjorie Arlington, asleep in bed, grabbed a fireplace poker and smashed her in the head with it. When she screamed, he fled. Two days later he pointed a shotgun at a woman in a Napa parking lot and abducted her. When he stopped to make a phone call, she ran off. He was finally arrested in San Mateo after he broke into a house and tried to tie up the occupants. In a plea bargain, he was given a six-year sentence. A 1977 probation report said of Davis: "Because of the obvious threat to the community, it is believed that there is no other alternative but imprisonment."
Half a decade served in several California prisons did nothing to change Davis. When he went free in 1982, he found a partner in crime, Susan Edwards, a married mother of two he met at a bar near La Honda. The two of them traveled from California to the Pacific Northwest, holding up a series of stores, restaurants and banks along the way. "It was so cavalier, they sounded like Bonnie and Clyde," says San Jose Deputy District Attorney Lane Liroff, who interviewed Davis in 1990 while investigating Edwards. "And there was no remorse."
On Nov. 30,1984, in Redwood City, the pair abducted Selina Varich—a former roommate of Edwards's sister—threatened her with a gun and forced her to withdraw $6,000 from her bank account. They fled with the cash and remained on the run until a police officer in Modesto pulled them over four months later for driving with a defective taillight on their pickup. Convicted of kidnapping and robbing Varich, Davis was sentenced to 16 years in prison. Earning credit for good behavior, he was released after eight. (Edwards served six months.)
According to Liroff, it was a change in California's sentencing laws—a change that was intended to make laws tougher—that is at least partly to blame for the one-man crime wave that Richard Allen Davis became. "He didn't slip through the cracks," says Liroff. "San Mateo prosecuted him, they got what they asked for, and he did his time." But so-called determinant sentencing laws introduced in 1977—which for the most part replaced the discretion of judges and parole boards with set penalties—made it impossible to keep him behind bars for longer. Later, a law passed in the early '80s that allowed up to a 50-percent reduction in sentence for work and good conduct resulted in Davis's release after just eight years of his 16-year sentence.
Back on the street in July 1993, he took up residence at Turning Point, a San Mateo homeless shelter. On Sept. 23 he secured permission to visit his sister Darlene's family near Ukiah, about 100 miles north of San Francisco. Just over a week later, on Oct. 1, he made his way to Petaluma, a pleasant town of 46,000 where his mother apparently was living, and found his way to the cozy two-bedroom home where Polly Klaas lived.
No one is sure just why Davis chose Polly—or, once he did, why he killed her. Davis's attorney has said that he had come to Petaluma to find his mother to borrow money. Davis has claimed that he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol and that he picked the Klaas home at random. It was about 10:30 that night when the bearded stranger somehow found his way into the house, where Polly's mother, Eve Nichol, and younger half sister Annie were sleeping in one bedroom, and Polly and two friends were enjoying a slumber party. (Her parents divorced when she was 2.) The man, carrying a knife, asked which of the girls lived in the house. He bound the other two girls' hands behind their backs and covered their heads with pillowcases, then fled with Polly. On Nov. 29, after a tip led police to suspect his involvement, Davis was arrested for parole violation at his sister's home in Ukiah and under questioning confessed to Polly's murder.
Though Davis's court-appointed attorney, Barry Collins, has conceded to jurors in San Jose that Davis killed Polly Klaas, Davis has pleaded not guilty to the murder—and to the additional charges of burglary, kidnapping, robbery and performing a lewd act on a child. A murder conviction combined with a conviction for any of the other charges would make him eligible for the death penalty. (Collins fears his client's conviction on a sex charge would make jurors more likely to invoke the death penalty.) In any case, it is virtually certain that Davis will never again be eligible for parole.
To make sure that no other felon can be released repeatedly as Davis has been, California passed the Three Strikes law, which insures that three-time felons receive mandatory sentences of 25 years to life. California passed the law in 1994 largely because of publicity following Polly Klaas's murder. (At least 14 states and the federal government have since adopted similar statutes.) "There's been a lot of these career criminals who've been in and out of the system, and until the Three Strikes law we had no way to keep them confined for long periods of time," says Larry Boss, the San Mateo police lieutenant. "You have to take your hat off to Marc Klaas, who brought all this to public attention." The law comes too late to save Polly Klaas, but, says her father, the man who killed his daughter will finally get his punishment. "She was in the grip of something stronger than she was, and that's the position Davis is in now," Klaas says. "The sun has come up, and the vampire's got nowhere to hide."
LAIRD HARRISON and GABRIELLE SAVERI in Oakland and San Jose
- Laird Harrison,
- Gabrielle Saveri.
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