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20 years later, Petaluma remembers Polly Klaas

  • After the body of Polly Klaas was discovered off highway 101 in Cloverdale 20 years ago, a shrine of sorts was created by people who left dozens of items near the area she was found dead. On Sept. 27, 2013 painted rocks and a few other things are all that remains of the shrine. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2013

The house where Polly Hannah Klaas once lived on Petaluma's Fourth Street has been repainted cheery red with bright white trim in the days since the 12-year-old was stolen from her bedroom during a sleepover with two friends.

A white picket fence and rose-covered trellis now border the sidewalk where her killer was seen lurking in advance of the abduction that brought disbelief, then despair to her family and community alike.

Life has gone on in the two decades since Polly's disappearance, the desperate two-month search that ensued and, finally, the discovery that the bright-eyed girl had lain dead all the while the world hoped for her safe return.

Remembering Polly Klaas


And yet, with the 20th anniversary of the day on which Polly vanished approaching on Tuesday, the memory of that time remains, for many, starkly fresh. The grief that mobilized 4,000 people to help find the seventh-grader is like an old wound still vulnerable to the slightest irritation.

"It's like yesterday," said Jerry Lapinski, long retired from his post as principal at Petaluma Junior High School, where Polly and her friends were only weeks into the school year when she was taken away.

The Oct. 1, 1993, kidnapping stands as a milestone in the life of Petaluma and the rest of Sonoma County, both because it was such a shock to a town county Supervisor David Rabbitt likened to the fictional Mayberry of the 1960s, and because of the community involvement it inspired.

Every parent felt the suffering of her mother, Eve Nichol, and her father, Marc Klaas, divorced nine years before. Every resident experienced the psychological blow of so profound a violation of the sanctity of home.

Raine Howe, executive director of the Polly Klaas Foundation, a permanent iteration of the search organization that bloomed when Polly vanished, said people still approach her at public events "able to describe exactly where they were and what they were doing" when key developments in the case unfolded.

Many in town say Polly's abduction and murder are lodged in their conscience the way the 9/11 terror attacks or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy reside in the American psyche.

"The history of it is embedded in the DNA of Petaluma," said Jay Silverberg, who joined the community search effort early on.

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