The Kidnapping and Murder of Polly Klaas

When it comes to child abductions and murders, there are two that likely are first to come to mind to just about anyone who was alive and remembers them... Adam Walsh and Polly Klaas.  Why is that? Well part of it surely is because they seemed to especially gruesome crimes but there is another reason.  Both of the victim's fathers, John Walsh and Marc Klaas, not only fought for justice for their own children but they also proceeded to change policies in how abducted children are looked for as well as fought for justice in other missing/abducted/murdered children cases.

When Adam Walsh was abducted and murdered in 1981 there was very little known in how to handle an abducted child and the Walsh family all but had to wing it.  In 1993 when Polly Klaas was abducted from inside her home, things had come a long way since 1981, but not nearly far enough. To add to this, the Internet was now available and there were many more ways to contact and reach people than there were in the past.  Ottis Toole, a man with a career criminal background confessed and recanted to the Walsh murder several times and was long held to be the suspect and responsible.  Toole died in prison in 1996, but it was not until 2008 that authorities announced that the Walsh case was officially closed and Toole was named his murderer.  In my opinion, that was a courtesy for the parents.  John Walsh had made a career and an impact in victim advocacy, in catching criminals through his widely popular television show, America's Most Wanted, as well as organizations in helping find missing children.  

This was not the case in the Polly Klaas murder.  Within a few short months a man by the name of Richard Allen Davis was arrested, confessed to the murder, led police to her body and was charged with her murder. In June of 1996 he was convicted and sentenced to death.  It seemed to be simple and quick, but nothing about this case was simple and although conviction and restitution seemed to take place in a timely manner (although as of 2015 he still sits on death row), the ramifications of this case are still being discussed as to whether they were proper and appropriate.

On the night of October 1, 1993, twelve year old Polly Klaas was having a slumber party at her mother's house in Petaluma California with two friends.  While her mother (who reportedly had taken a sleeping pill of some sort) and younger sister slept in other rooms in the house, Polly and her friends were up playing games and doing the things that pre-teenage girls do. They had decided to go outside to the bedroom to retrieve some of their things in another part of the house.  When they opened the door Richard Allen Davis was standing at the door.  He threatened the girls with a knife and told them if they screamed that he would kill them.  Polly's two friends testified in court that while in the bedroom Davis asked which of the children lived there, remember this because it has brought up questions.  When Davis was informed that Polly was the one who lived in the house, he then tied the other two girls up, covered their faces with pillowcases and told them to count to 1,000.  He then left with Polly.  The girls did not count as they were told and immediately after freeing themselves they went to wake Polly's mother, Eve Nichol,who in turn immediately called 911. An APB (All Points Bulletin) was placed but it only went out on one channel with the local police.  Law enforcement claims this was policy at the time and has since been changed.

A few hours later, about 20 miles north of Petaluma, a woman who owned a large property was informed that there seemed to someone acting strange near her driveway on her land.  She got into her car and headed out of the property seeing a car in a ditch and a man with the car. The man was Richard Allen Davis. The woman drove out of her drive way and to a near by store to call the police.  The sheriff's office used a different channel on their radio than the local police that had issued the APB and did not know about the kidnapping.  When they arrived at the scene they found Richard Allen Davis, with his car stuck in the mud in a ditch.  They claimed that they ran his license and plates and that nothing came up as far as "wants and warrants."  This later came into a huge question because many claim that Davis was wanted on a parole violation and that he was wanted, but the sheriff's department stood by that it did not come up when they ran him.  Another issue at hand was the fact that there was an open container of beer in the car but police claimed that their hands were tied as to arresting Davis because when they detained him, he was not driving, nor was he behind the wheel of the car.  They claimed that their only recourse would have been to get him on trespassing but that that required a "citizen's arrest" that would have required the land owner to come to the scene and "arrest" him while then the police could take him and they claimed the land owner refused.  They did however file what was called a "Field Interrogation Card" that in essence reported that they had made a stop and included the information that they had acquired.  

On November 28, 1993 the property owner was out on her land inspecting things and found items she thought may be connected to the now, well speculated kidnapping and called the police. Polly's kidnapping, although did not go out to the authorities as we think it should have immediately, had gained a lot of steam by this point.  It was said that both the land owner and a neighbor who knew about Davis being stopped both wondered if he was involved and the police were later chastised in why they did not feel the same way.  At any rate the police went to the property and found some town ballet leggings that they believed belonged to Polly.  They then did a search and found the Field card the officers had filed on the stop.  Suddenly Davis got on their radar and when they checked, they found he was wanted on a parole violation and had a long, long criminal history.  Upon further investigation, they were able to match his palm print to a print found at Polly's home. To be fair, IAFIS (The Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System) was not officially created and widely acceptable until 1999.  After IAFIS, it became common and routine that when a print was/is found at a crime scene to run it through the system. Those with a criminal history are entered into the system with their mug shots, crimes and identifying information, including their prints. 

Davis was brought in and interrogated on December 3, 1993.  On December 4th he confessed to the crime and led investigators to a shallow grave that was still another 30 miles away from where he had been stopped on the night of the kidnapping and that had over the last several days been searched by hundreds of people.  Authorities later said that although Davis confessed to strangling Polly he refused to give a timeline as to when things happened and exactly how.  When everything came out the police were facing many criticisms so their responses and answers, even today continue to be questioned.  I will delve into those issues later.  

Davis' trial was in June of 1996.  He was charged with first degree murder with four special circumstances (robbery, burglary, kidnapping and lewd act against a child) making him eligible for the death penalty.  His lawyer literally stood up and told the jury that Davis was guilty of kidnapping and murder.  The only charge he argued was the lewd act against a child.  According to the defense there was not enough evidence obtained with the body to prove that she had been sexually assaulted prior to her death.  Either way that did not matter as in order to obtain the death penalty there only needed to be one "special circumstance."  In his opening statement the defense attorney to the jury that their real job would come in the penalty phrase. It was during that phase that the defense maintained that Davis had been an abused child and that he had mental issues.  In the same respect the prosecution argued that Davis had a long list of criminal acts behind him and had exhibited behaviors that the FBI considered to be psychopathic behaviors such as torture to animals.  Just before the judge sentenced him to death Davis was granted the right to speak.  He left the whole court room in a gasp when he announced that Polly's last words were "Don't do me like my Daddy" implying that she had been molested by her father.  Mark Klaas had to be restrained and left the courtroom on his own. When the judge announced his sentencing, he said, "Mr. Davis, this is always a traumatic and emotional decision for a judge. You made it very easy today by your conduct." There were cameras in the courtroom and as the judge was announcing his sentence Davis sat with a smile on his face and in the process lifted both of his middle fingers to the camera and to the Klaas family.  

One of the first things that brought outrage was how Richard Allen Davis had a long list of criminal activity, had been sentenced several times to long sentences only to be released early and allowed to be out and re-offend.  My research found conflicting information on his criminal past.  Some only mentioned some petty crimes and burglaries where he serves very short sentences.  Other information stated that Davis had more violent crimes in his history including at least one other possible murder.  That involved an old girlfriend of his.  In 1973 Marlene Voris was found dead with apparently several suicide notes surrounding her.  It was ruled a suicide but reports say that in 1977 Davis suggested to a psychiatrist that he was responsible for her death.  I found no information that he was ever charged with her death. I found a report that in late 1973, after Marlene's death, he was arrested for a string of burglaries and served six months in jail.  In May of 1974, just a few weeks after his release he was arrested again for burglary and was sentenced to serve between 6 months and 15 years but was released after one year.  By the time he was arrested for Polly's murder there was already a push to have what became known as the three strikes law enacted.  Many say due to the exposure and outrage surrounding this case the law was approved in March of 1994. California was the first state to enact the three strikes and over time several other states as well as the federal government enacted similar laws.  The idea behind it was great but it did not take long to discover that while hearts were in the right place when the law was written, it soon needed to be re-written and clarified.  Initially the idea was that when someone committed their third violent felony they would automatically be sentenced to life in prison.  Sounds good right? Well, the problem is that they did not necessarily clarify what "violent" was and basically let the word "felony" assume that there was violence.  What this meant was that not only were people being sent to prison for life for non-violent crimes (I recall a story years ago about a man who stole a piece of pizza without violence being sentenced under this law).  It also meant that prisons were filling up at a much faster rate than before and they were already dealing with overcrowding. 

The death penalty has always been a contentious subject with people. You are always going to find people fiercely devoted to one side or the other.  However, in this case, there were few arguments against it. Many attribute that attitude and reasoning to Davis' own behavior at his trial and towards the Klaas family. Of course over time, as it happens, people forget about particular crimes and criminals.  May be that is why I do this blog.... so we do not forget.  I know sometimes it feels like we give so much credit to the criminals and not enough to the victims but may be it is so we are reminded that not everything or everyone in this world is good.  

Just like so many other cases, this one too has it's conspiracy theories.  You would think this was an open and shut case... a girl was kidnapped and murdered, the suspect confessed and was convicted. I already discussed some of the issues when it came to when the police detained Davis on the night of the kidnapping but other things came up throughout the investigation and Davis' refusal to give a timeline of how things happened and the fact that Polly's body laid in the elements for two months opened up other questions.  

One of the biggest questions that came up right away was whether when the police detained Davis if Polly was still alive at that point. Prosecutors later theorized that when Davis knew he had been spotted by the land owner and before the police arrived he killed Polly and hid her body away from his car.  After the police helped him remove his car from the ditch he left the scene but returned to retrieve her body and placed in the shallow grave he later led authorities to.  They also theorized that Davis had pre-planned the murder and the burial site as it was an area that he passed often.  His lawyers denied this and some believe them citing Polly's friends testified that Davis asked which of the girls lived in the home.  Prosecutors argued if it was random as the defense claimed it would not have mattered which girl he took. In the same respect the prosecutors did not come up with a reason or motive as to why he would have taken Polly specifically if in fact it was planned as they claimed.  

Another question that has been asked is if Richard Allen Davis did this all alone.  The girls never ID'd anyone else although there were some supposed witnesses who said they saw someone else odd hanging around the area and even one claiming they saw them speaking to what looked to be Davis. Then again eye witnesses are notorious for being incorrect and then there are the times that people integrate themselves into cases because it makes them feel important.  There was also the issue of the condition of Polly's body.  Although Davis did not give play by play details of the crime he claimed to have strangled Polly with some piece of cloth of some sort.  When her body was found two months after her disappearance, she was decapitated.  By the time her remains were uncovered some had become mummified while others were literally those of a skeleton.  I could find no information as to the theories behind this occurring.  Of course we know that one definite reason would be the exposure to elements of the weather.  One also has to consider animal activity. 

Many of the theories or questions that have been made about this case have been publicly refuted by Marc Klaas.  He has stated that Richard Allen Davis acted alone and that justice was served. Marc Klaas went on to create foundations in his daughter's name that advocates for missing children.  He became the new face of the advocate father, some say taking John Walsh's place.  I admire what both of these men have done for families, for children and for justice.  I fear however that in both cases that their own grief and fight for justice blinded them in a way.  They are both very outspoken about an assortment of cases, voicing their opinion very publicly.  I often feel however, that they have forgotten how much they had to fight for the truth in their cases and the mistaken made by investigators (whether it was lack of knowledge or resources, or whichever the reason). They both seem to take everything they hear at face value and not always completely as objective as I feel they should be.  Then again, I wonder if I would be that way if I too went what they went through. Of course I am not sure I would be as strong as they were.

On a side note, the actress Winona Ryder grew up in Petaluma and immediately offered a $2,000 reward leading to a conviction.  She soon started working on the movie Little Women.  The book had been a favorite of Polly's.  Winona ensured that the movie was dedicated to her memory.


Popular posts from this blog

Matthew Heikkila

The murder of Jarrod Davidson

Rebecca Simpson