An Angel Named Polly

updated 11/28/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/28/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

POLLY KLAAS ONCE SAID SHE wanted to be cremated rather than buried, and last February her family honored the 12-year-old's wish. After a private memorial service, in which the chapel was decorated with lavender roses and ribbons of purple, her favorite color, the Klaases took a boat out onto California's Carmel Bay. There, Polly's three aunts, Juliet Klaas-Puleo, Marianna Ford and Elizabeth Klaas, scattered her ashes into the sea. "We wanted to put her body to rest in loving hands," remembers Elizabeth, 28. "She had been touched with so many other hands."

In her turn, Polly Hannah Klaas, abducted from her Petaluma home in October 1993, has touched so many people, even in death. At this time last year, Petaluma (pop. 47,000), 33 miles north of San Francisco, was galvanized by the kidnapping, and a massive volunteer search effort was under way. And almost exactly one year ago, on Dec. 4, police found her body in the woods near Cloverdale, 50 miles north of her home. Richard Allen Davis, a 40-year-old drifter with a long history of criminal violence who had just been released from prison, was arrested for her murder. During the nine weeks that Polly was missing, she became a symbol of the country's anger and frustration about violent crime: she could have been anyone's child, and so she became everyone's. Even now, a year later, her absence is keenly felt, not just by her family but also by people who never met her: anticrime activists, advocates for missing children, parents and children themselves. "She seems to be a pretty powerful force," says Joe Klaas, 74, Polly's grandfather. "There's something remarkable going on here."

To her family, of course, Polly will always be remembered as a bright and mischievous preteen who loved to act, and whose greatest fear was that the bogeyman would come in the night and take her away. In the last year, though time has eased some of the Klaases' pain, Polly has never been far from anyone's thoughts. On June 4, her father, Marc, 45, married Violet Cheer, 33, his girlfriend of almost 10 years. At the wedding the couple wore buttons bearing Polly's picture. "In Polly's name," said Michael Groves, who performed the ceremony, "I now pronounce you husband and wife."

Marc, who was divorced from Polly's mother, Eve Nichol, in 1984, now devotes his life to being an advocate for children and to fighting for laws to keep violent felons off the streets. Until last January he ran a Hertz franchise in San Francisco, but after Polly's death he turned the dealership over to relatives and now runs his own organization, the Marc Klaas Foundation for Children. "I can't see myself telling people how to get to 17 Mile Drive anymore," he told his parents. "I've got to help kids." Last month, in that role, Klaas even went to Union County, S.C., to report on the Susan Smith carjacking story for the tabloid TV show American Journal and to lend support to the family; Smith, however, refused to meet with him.

The change in Polly's mother's life has been equally profound. Reportedly wracked with guilt and despair, Nichol, 45, who used to work for a children's clothing company, has gone into virtual seclusion. The day after the abduction she reconciled with her estranged third husband, Allen Nichol, and the couple, along with Polly's half sister, Annie, 7, and Nichol's three children from a previous marriage, now live in Calistoga, 30 miles northeast of Petaluma.

For Polly's sake, the Klaases have stayed in touch with Eve, and they are still close to Annie. Marc's mother, B.J. Klaas, 68, says that this past summer Eve and Annie spent time at a beach house at Sea Ranch in Northern California, taking long walks together. Eve spoke to B.J. of a hand-painted box that Polly had made for her mother when she was 10. "On little strips of paper," says B.J., "Polly wrote things about her mother that she loved—'I love the way you kiss me goodnight. I love the way you smile.' Eve said to me, 'This is the most precious thing in my life.' "

If anything, the Klaases have been searching for sense in what seems a senseless death. In August, Marc's brother Jonathan died at 35 of complications from AIDS, but before he died he told his parents a story—one the Klaases cling to, for it brings them a measure of peace. Says Joe Klaas: "Jonathan called and said, 'Dad, Polly came to me. I swear to God, this wasn't a dream. She was hovering over my bed like a butterfly with these tiny little wings. I said, "Polly, why do you have such tiny wings?" And she said, "Because I wasn't ready to go yet. But, Johnny, you're ready, and you're going to have great big wings." '

" 'I said, "Have you seen heaven?" And she said, "I can't get there yet, but you're going to take me there with your big wings...." ' "

Jonathan Klaas died three days later. Though the family realizes on some level that his dream was just that—a dream—believing in angels helps everyone cope. "You have to have a good thought as an alternative to void and nothingness," says Elizabeth, who wears angel earrings and an angel ring. "If you don't have that, you're left with horrible thoughts."

Polly's friends are also searching for ways to bear their loss. Gillian Pelham, 13, who along with Kate McLean, 13, was with Polly the night of the abduction and was bound and gagged by the intruder, has taken up the clarinet, which Polly used to play. She has also developed a fascination with angels. Polly's other best friend, Annette Schott, 12, is haunted by the kidnapping too. Annette, who used to talk on the phone with Polly for hours every night, was supposed to be at the fatal slumber party, but she had a cold and her mother made her stay home. Annette's birthday is Dec. 4, the day Polly's body was found. "I won't feel like celebrating when I know it's the anniversary of something else," she says. For now she has decided to change her birthday to Dec. 8, the same as that of her golden retriever Julie.

If Polly's death has left an indelible mark on friends and family, it has also had a profound impact throughout California and around the nation. Last March, inspired in large part by outrage over her murder, the California legislature passed its Three Strikes law, designed to keep repeat felony offenders in prison for life. (Marc Klaas, who originally supported the bill, has since come out in favor of a revised law specifying that the previous crimes must be violent, not merely felonies.)

Polly also helped to bring the plight of missing children into the national spotlight. Since her murder, 15 states—bringing the total to 40—have adopted a sex-offender registry to help law enforcement and community members know where a paroled sex offender is living. Meanwhile the Polly Klaas Foundation's aggressive use of computers—to transmit images of missing children across the country—has become a model for similar search efforts. "Polly's case struck a chord," says Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "Parents sat at home and thought, 'There but for the grace of God go I or my children.' "

The Polly Klaas Foundation, which started with Petaluma citizens who wanted to help in the search, still has some 10 full-time and 30 part-time volunteers at work in an office filled with angels and pictures of Polly. The foundation is active in searches for other missing children and is helping to form a school-based child-safety curriculum.

Despite the good that may have come from Polly's death, there remains an ineradicable ache in the hearts of all those who knew her. In September, Marc Klaas was invited to the White House for the signing of the Administration's crime bill. He stood next to President Clinton, and later that night he called his parents. "He told us he felt lower than he had felt since last December," says his mother. "He said, 'All of this good stuff happened, but at the end there's no Polly.' He said, 'Why is there no joy?' " B.J. says she told her son, "Because the price we paid was too high."

ELIZABETH GLEICK
MARIA EFTIMIADES in Petaluma

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