WHEN RICHARD ALLEN DAVIS was convicted in June of murdering 12-year-old Polly Klaas, he turned and faced the father of the dead girl and contemptuously thrust both middle fingers into the air. Strangely, perhaps, the grieving Marc Klaas felt more relief than rage at the courtroom gesture from the man who had abducted his daughter at knifepoint from a slumber party at her mother's Petaluma, Calif., home on Oct. 1, 1993. "I thought it would be my job to ensure that he got the death penalty," says Klaas. "When he flipped everybody off, he did the job."

And, indeed, last week the jury in San Jose asked for the death penalty, and on Sept. 26, Judge Thomas Hastings is expected to impose it.

Klaas, who is continuing his relentless campaign to prevent crimes against children, hopes to attend the execution. "I can't even tell you the depth of my hate for that individual," he said after Davis's Aug. 5 sentencing. "It's as deep as my love for my child." So fervent is his obsession that he has given up the job he loved and lost most of his friends. And his relationship with his ex-wife Eve Nichol, Polly's mother, has collapsed. "When Polly was found dead, I was really, really, really angry," says Klaas, 47. "I've been motivated by anger ever since." His one solace: his second wife, Violet Cheer, 36, a secretary whom he married in 1994 at a ceremony in which Polly was to have been the flower girl.

Working through a meagerly funded group that bears his name, Klaas spends his days in the living room of his modest Sausalito, Calif., condominium surrounded by pictures and mementos of his daughter. There is only about $20,000 in the bank, even though Klaas originally envisioned an annual foundation budget of $200,000. Undaunted, he prepares speeches on child safety, lobbies for bills such as Megan's Law, which tracks child sex offenders, and lends his support—and Polly's name—to everything from fingerprinting programs to Halloween safety pamphlets. "He's not really taking care of himself physically or financially but he's keeping it going," says his father, Joe, 76. "He calls it Polly Power."

Whether Klaas is effective is an open question. Some critics say his constant publicizing of Polly's case, a rare scenario, exaggerates the dangers most children face and thereby skews public perceptions. L. Paul Sutton, a criminal-justice professor at San Diego State University, admits that Klaas's "intent is not to inflame," but worries that he fills audiences with a fervor that may not translate into smart policy. Other critics are turned off by Klaas's blunt, hard talk (although in 1994 get-tough advocates were disappointed when he opposed California's "Three Strikes and You're Out" law as both too harsh on petty criminals and a waste of taxpayers' money).

Fighting crime may seem an unlikely calling for Klaas. The oldest of six children, he was born to radio talk show hosts Joe and B.J. Klaas in Anchorage, but by the time he was 10, the family had settled near San Francisco. After graduating from high school in 1969, he hitchhiked around the country and joined the Army as a medic to avoid fighting in Vietnam. Discharged in 1971, Klaas traveled in India, sometimes in the company of Eastern holy men, until a shortage of cash—and a bad case of dysentery—cut short his stay. In retrospect, says Joe, "he was always a crusader looking for a crusade."

Klaas's first marriage, to hotel assistant personnel director Eve Lax in 1977, was rocky almost from the start. "I was really not a happy soul," says Klaas, a concierge at the same hotel. Although the couple was thrilled with Polly's birth in 1980—she was conceived in an attempt to save their relationship—Klaas moved out three years later. Eve, now 47, soon married Allen Nichol, an architect, and moved to Petaluma, but Klaas stayed close to his daughter, teaching her to swim, watching her perform in community plays and seeing her every weekend. He and Cheer began dating in 1984 and eventually moved to a larger apartment so Polly could have her own room. "She was not my daughter, but she was part of us," says Cheer. When Klaas took over a car-rental franchise early in 1993, a job he liked, he remembers thinking, "This is really perfect. What could go wrong?"

Then "Polly got kidnapped and everything changed," he says. The next day he drove to Petaluma. "I became manic on this whole thing of finding Polly," Klaas admits. Subsisting on coffee, cigarettes and the occasional pizza, he lost 30 pounds over the next two months. With $200,000 sent in from around the country, he set up the Polly Klaas Foundation to aid in the effort. But after 65 days, Polly was found dead. Klaas quit his job to work full-time for the foundation, which is now devoted to finding other missing children, but his abrasiveness led to clashes with the 10-person board—including, at times, Eve—and ultimately he was fired. In 1994 he set up the Marc Klaas Foundation for Children. Eve now lives in Calistoga, Calif., with Allen and their daughter Annie, 9.

Today, Klaas has a cause but little contentment. Before Polly's death he was "easygoing, lots of laughter, lots of kidding around," say Cheer, who supports them with her paycheck. Klaas works from the apartment that he has turned into a shrine. Pictures of Polly fill the living room, and her bedroom remains as she left it—down to the swimming goggles and heart-shaped locket she left on a small desk. The front-door frame still shows pencil lines charting her growth—ending, chillingly, at 4' 10" in August 1993. If he ever has to move, Klaas vows, that door frame is coming with him. "I see sadness," Cheer says. She thought their having a child together might help him, but efforts to conceive have been unsuccessful so far.

Cheer accepts his devotion and supports his work. Had they just met, she admits recently telling her husband, "maybe I would feel you're obsessed." But she doesn't; she misses the little girl almost as much as he does. "I understand," she says. "Polly is his life."

CURTIS RIST
LAIRD HARRISON in Sausalito

  • Contributors:
  • Laird Harrison.