10 years later Family tries to overcome loss of Polly Klaas

Monday, September 29, 2003

PETALUMA, Calif. -- As October leaves turn to gold and pumpkins appear on porch steps, Eve Nichol sees shadows of her decade-old nightmare, one that began when her daughter Polly Klaas was dragged into the night.

She remembers how it grew harder to hope as the days passed that fall, and how hopes died as 12-year-old Polly's killer led police to her body on a wintry December day.

Much has changed for child kidnapping victims since Polly was snatched from a slumber party in her bedroom that night.

Then, poor police communications meant the sheriff's deputies who encountered Polly's killer soon after the kidnapping never knew a manhunt was under way. Now, Amber Alerts flash beside busy highways warning everyone to be on the lookout in such cases.

Then, the volunteers, family and media that turned the case into a national obsession worked in uncharted territory. Now, those efforts are standard procedure.

And yet, for Polly's family, much remains the same.

"It's the first thing I think about when I wake up and the last thing I think about when I go to sleep," Nichol says.

After the spotlight

When the memorial service was over and the satellite TV trucks had moved on, Nichol and Polly's father, Marc Klaas, faced the wreckage of their lives. They tried to salvage what good they could.

Marc became an activist, creating the KlaasKids Foundation For Children, testifying to Congress and taking a front row seat at the 1996 trial of Polly's killer, Richard Allen Davis.

Still, there were times he wanted to be dead.

"People that would get into a car with me ... were really taking their lives in their hands," he said.

Slowly, he surfaced, marrying his longtime girlfriend, Violet -- he and Nichol had divorced when Polly was small -- and throwing himself into advocacy work.

Sometimes he sees Polly in dreams, but every day, he says, "I wake up knowing."

Eve took a quieter path, moving with Annie, her daughter from a second marriage, to a small town in northern California, "a place where I had no memories."

She got involved with a group that helps at-risk children, and became a board member of the Polly Klaas Foundation, a missing child organization that grew out of the search for Polly.

Annie was six years old when her sister was killed, and Nichol says it was hard not to cling to her after Polly's death.

"What happened to us was just one of those worst nightmare scenarios," Nichol says now. "I was able to put that in perspective ... if you're in a plane crash the chances are you're not going to be in another one. I had to swallow hard and give Annie her life back."

Annie doesn't remember much about Polly's death, although she does recall the attention.

"It kind of got to this point where I thought that I was entitled to sympathy," she said.

Stranger abductions are rare. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, an estimated 800,000 children are reported missing each year, but many are taken by a non-custodial parent, or are abandoned or run away. A recent study of 1999 statistics found that just 115 children that year were victims of kidnappings such as Polly's.

Polly was playing with two girlfriends the night Davis burst into her bedroom. Nichol was sleeping in the next room but Davis had a knife and threatened to kill the girls if they screamed. As he left, he told them he wouldn't hurt Polly.

Davis drove about 20 miles until his car got stuck on a rural road. A suspicious homeowner called authorities, but information about Polly's kidnapping hadn't been broadcast on the police radio channel being used by the two deputies who answered the call.

They helped Davis get his car out and sent him on his way.

These days, information on missing children is broadcast on radio, TV and roadside signs via alerts.

California started using the signs in 2002 and they have been used 39 times, each resulting in a successful recovery.

Polly's case also changed laws in her home state.

Anger that Davis was a free man despite a long, vicious rap sheet fueled passage of California's "three strikes" law, which mandates long sentences for repeat offenders.

In September 1996, Davis was sentenced to die. Seven years later, he remains on death row, and it will likely take years of appeals before he is executed.

'No one is alone'

The kidnapping anniversary, Oct. 1, is a rough day, but Nichol doesn't fixate on it. Instead she and Annie make a point to talk about Polly every day, not just around the anniversary. This keeps the memory of her -- and of the joyful times they spent together as a family -- alive, Nichol says.

On a warm evening this summer, Annie sang for her sister, joining a benefit for an arts center named after Polly. She poured her soul into Stephen Sondheim's "No One Is Alone."

"Sometimes people leave you, halfway through the wood," she sang in a pure, sweet soprano. "Others may deceive you, you decide what's good ... but no one is alone."

In the audience, Polly's grandmother cried quietly, a heart overflowing for the child who was there and the child who was not.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: