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The Long & Winding Road To Recovery

Polly Klaas

Polly Klaas

The past two years have offered much opportunity for personal reflection. 2013 was the 20th anniversary of Polly’s tragedy, which I wrote about in the last edition of the KlaasKids Foundation newsletter Klaas Action Review. The year 2014 now marks 20 years since the founding of the KlaasKids Foundation. Earlier this year I penned an open letter to Polly on her birthday, reminiscing about that horrible experience two decades ago, and I blogged about being honored by the president of the United States as I battled debilitating grief.

 

This is the first post in a four-part series on the theme of reflection as three other parents, all friends of mine, who lost their children have generously offered to share their stories. Only one has been reunited with their child.

Michaela Garecht

Michaela Garecht

Nine-year-old Michaela Garecht was kidnapped in front of witnesses from a supermarket parking lot in Hayward, California, on November 19, 1988, and hasn’t been seen since. Tomorrow, her mother Sharon Murch, who continues to search for her precious daughter, shares her story with a focus on the endurance of hope and the therapeutic value of writing: How it has helped her to reconcile emotions and define her feelings.

Andrea Brewer

Andrea Brewer

On Friday Rebecca Petty will share a remarkable tale of triumph over tragedy. On May 15, 19999, 12-year-old Andi Brewer was kidnapped, raped, and murdered. Three days later, Karl Roberts led the FBI to her remains. Andi’s mother, Rebecca Petty rose from the ashes of despair and recently graduated from Arkansas Tech University with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. She is currently pursuing her vision of ensuring that children grow up safe by running for the Arkansas House of Representatives.

Nathan Slinkard

Nathan Slinkard

Next Monday Steven Slinkard, who was recently reunited with his son Nathan after nearly two decades will share his story. Steven was completely unprepared when his ex-wife failed to return his three children after a court-ordered visitation and then disappeared in October 1995. He spent the next 18-years afraid that he might never see his kids again. Yet that did not stop him from reaching out through his own pain, doubt, and uncertainty to help others in a similar situation. Steven shares the elation he experienced just recently, on February 4, 2014, when he was finally reunited with a son he hadn’t seen on almost 20-years.

 

I thank Sharon, Rebecca, and Steven for sharing their stories. For all of them, it would have been much easier to reject my request. Introspection is difficult at the best of times, but when done in the context of a dead or missing child, the challenges can become debilitating. However, as Sharon Murch says, the redemptive qualities of writing can also be profoundly therapeutic. Their generosity affords us a glimpse into the range of feelings and emotions that can span decades in a parent’s quest for answers.

Happy Birthday Polly

8 yr old Polly - HalloweenHappy Birthday baby! Instead of celebrating the beginning of your 33rd year today, you remain a fading memory that informs my humanity as you guide my soul. Much has happened in 2013, some good and some bad, but there is so much left to do in this New Year that looms before us all.

 

2013 was not a good year for kids or crime victims, but it was a great year for criminals. While public support for our cause remains strong, political support has all but disappeared. It is as if the lessons learned from tragedy have been forgotten by policy makers and those that they represent. Unless you symbolize the cause de jour, elected officials ignore our pleas. If we can’t help them to win reelection, they have neither the time nor the inclination to stand with us or commit to our cause.

 

I’m afraid that child/public safety legislation has, for the most part, stalled in Federal and State legislatures, so the voice of the people is now represented in voter driven initiatives, State ballot measures and propositions. Eighty-one percent of California voters supported Proposition 35, which strengthened prison sentences for human traffickers and provided social services for victims of human trafficking, but we couldn’t muster enough support in two years of legislative lobbying to get the issue out of committee.

 

According to the FBI, violent crime rates have increased for the first time since you were murdered 20-years ago, yet lawmakers prefer to debate ideology, gay marriage, marijuana legalization, or any of a host of other fringe topics over public safety. In California Governor Brown continues to dump incarcerated felons into communities. As a result, property crime is at a 30-year high, and sex offenders are cutting off their GPS ankle bracelets and absconding without consequence.

 

I continue to be perplexed by funding within our industry. While the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children continues to rake in millions of tax payer dollars to support their golden calf in Alexandria, VA without explanation or justification, KlaasKids continues to work in the trenches on a shoestring. In 2013, we were actively involved in 106 cases. This number does not adequately reflect the total number of calls received by our Search Center but does detail the specific cases in which we provided services at the request of family or jurisdictional law enforcement agency.

 

KlaasKids 2013 caseload ranged from reports of SAR consultations (54%), SAR missions (25%), Human Trafficking consultations (9%), Human Trafficking rescue and extractions (5%), leads submitted to law enforcement (6%), and child abuse (1%). Of those, 77-cases have been resolved. We also certified our West Coast Search and Rescue (SAR) team, so that we will be able to provide more comprehensive national coverage for less money in 2014. None of this would have occurred without your inspiration.

 

Technology has not produced a silver bullet that will protect children when they venture online and engage social media. However, by combining existing technology solutions with good parenting skills and a do/don’t approach, we can ensure that kids are better protected in 2014 than they were in 2013. Kids should have fun with the Internet. They should experiment, email, chat, surf, research, play games, and create social networking profiles so that they can communicate with their friends. They just need to be careful about doing so. Kids should trust their parents and talk to them about their Internet experience, follow their rules, and allow them to monitor online activities. They should inform their parents if they see violent or pornographic images. These may be illegal images, and are certainly not intended for the eyes of children. Stay on public, monitored, child friendly rooms if they are using instant messaging or entering chat rooms. Predators have the advantage because they are anonymous on the Internet. Remember, not everybody is who they say they are.

 

Don’t share personal information online. Kid’s identity, address, school, phone number, passwords, etc. should never be shared with people that they don’t know in real life. Predators and rogue marketers can use this information against them. Be smart and keep social networking profiles private. By sharing social networking profiles only with friend’s children are ensuring the integrity of their friends and the validity of their profiles. Don’t reply to or start a conversation with people they don’t know. Don’t accept gifts from them or agree to meet with them. It is a terrible idea for anyone to open email attachments from people that you do not know. They may contain viruses or malware. Finally, don’t plagiarize. It is cheating to copy other people’s ideas and pass them off as your own.

 

The prevention front represents a shining star in the child safety constellation. One thing that Democratic and Republican elected officials agree on is the importance of investing in at-risk kids so that they have opportunity later in life. They agree that the best way to prevent crime and violence is through investments in early childhood development. Federal after-school funds served fewer than 10,000 kids in 1996, but today federal funding supports programs that serve over one million children.

 

One last thing before I go. Last year we also created a new fund to help the families of kidnap victims with housing costs and KlaasKids donated $6,000 to Cleveland kidnapping victim Michelle Knight. Her beautiful thank new note said, “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, she became a butterfly.”

 

And so another year has passed. The seasons have come and gone. Tragedies occur with every rising sun and miracles grace our sunsets. People remain hopeful as our politicians dither in their legislative playpens. Music, flowers, the arts, love, family and everyday good deeds remind us that hope reigns eternal. However, I find it difficult to conceive the concept of eternity without you in my life.

Endgame

polly-s-poster-cropped-irfan-480When Polly’s mother Eve Nichol and I were summoned to the Petaluma PD on November 30, 1993 my ability to reach reasonable conclusions had morphed into unreasonable and angry denial. We were in the Chief’s office with Petaluma Police Captain Parks and FBI Special Agent Mershon who told us that they had arrested the man who kidnapped Polly. They watched us carefully for signs of recognition, as we looked at the cold blank eyes staring back at us from the Polaroid snapshot. The kidnapper looked remarkably like the composite on the flyer in a crude unnerving way, but with harsh features. We said that we had never seen him before. They told us that we should get used to the fact that Polly was probably dead because the perp had a long history of violence and had spent most of his life behind bars. “What? You dare to tell me that Polly is dead without proof? Has he ever been convicted of murder?” No. “Then fuck you. I’m not interested in your opinion. Go find my daughter, and then we’ll discuss opinions.” Hobbled by a badly strained back, I shuffled out of the station, got into my car and returned to the donated apartment that Violet and I had been using and in which I was spending increasing amounts of time.

 

Confined to the floor by pain, my world was shrinking as the truth about Polly’s fate slowly played out on television. The kidnapper denied that he had kidnapped “the fucking little broad,” but his sordid criminal history included incidents of kidnapping, robbery, assaults with shotguns, handguns, knives and fireplace pokers. An old girlfriend had committed suicide by shotgun in his presence. He was diagnosed as a sexually sadistic psychopath in 1978. On scene television correspondents breathlessly reported that Polly’s remains had been located seemingly wherever a dog had left its bone. I took comfort in the knowledge that any real break in the case would be conveyed to me by the police, in person and not through the irresponsible speculation playing out on television.

 

Words weren’t really necessary when Eve and I were next summoned to the Petaluma PD on Saturday night December 4. We were picked up in separate patrol cars. By the time I arrived in the Chief’s office Eve was already there, sitting with her face in her hands, crying softly. Captain Parks and Agent Mershon, the only other people in the room, also had tears in their eyes. They were sorry to inform me that the kidnapper had confessed and led them to the garbage pile near a rural highway off ramp where he discarded our baby. They recommended that we not view the remains, but instead remember Polly as she was in life.

 

I heard his words, but they hadn’t yet pierced my heart. I asked if we could tell our families before the news broke. Within fifteen minutes the Chief’s office was full of Polly’s relatives. I did not cry as tears welled up in their eyes and as they expelled sighs of sorrow with their heads bowed in anguish. I asked if we could inform the volunteers at the search center so that they wouldn’t have to learn the truth on the television. I called over and conveyed the sad news, my voice soft, but never wavering. Then we climbed into our cars and drove home in a slow, silent, caravan.

 

The little street on which we lived was covered in winter leaves and as I walked through our front door I remember thinking how beautiful they looked in death. Somebody started a fire, and Violet and I, drained from two months of futile battle, lay down in front of the fireplace. Only then did my emotions fully engage. The rumble began in my core, but quickly found primal voice. I jumped to my feet blinded by tears, a banshee scream escaping from my torched soul. I would have destroyed my home had the men in the room not held me and contained the explosion of my broken heart. Polly was dead and the only thing I wanted to do was to join her.

2 year old x-masFinally, the wire had snapped and I plummeted into the bottom of the abyss without a net to break my fall. I had hung my hope on the illusion that hard work would allow me to snatch life from the clutches of death, but death is irreversible and indisputable. It took a 65-day, high velocity descent to learn that the reality of death exists in its finality. When I hit bottom I shattered like glass and shattered glass cannot be easily reassembled. Even if you manage to precisely fuse the shards, the best that you can hope for is a bizarre mosaic of refracting light that bears little resemblance to the original. Instead of strength you have fragility; instead of clarity you have mirrors of illusion.

Missing Kids on Facebook

Bryce

We see and hear about these stories all the time. Some hideous pervert, masquerading as Johnny Cool, befriends a young girl on Facebook and entices her to a clandestine meeting at a remote location. By the time she realizes that she has been duped it is too late. We then read the disturbing results online or watch the grisly aftermath on Nancy Grace or any of a number of True Crime television shows. Well, that’s not what this is about. This is about how Facebook has become the milk carton project of the 21st Century.

 

The most enduring symbol of the missing child issue is the flyer. They have been with us ever since 4-year-old Charlie Ross was kidnapped in front of his Germantown, PA home on July 1, 1874. Since then very few things have changed. Flyers are printed on paper, and people post them in storefronts and on telephone poles. As technology advances, so do the places that you will find missing child flyers. First they were in newspapers, then on TV, and now on the Internet. For a short time in the early 1980’s they were even reprinted on milk cartons.

 

Polly was the Internet’s first missing child. But, instead of that representing an evolutionary step forward the Internet simply became another missing child flyer destination. The only difference is that instead of taping them to telephone poles, various organizations stacked missing flyers like cordwood on their website.

 

BM WebsiteIn 2001 I co-founded BeyondMissing.com, to provide law enforcement with a cost effective, efficient means of using the Internet to create and distribute missing flyers to targeted recipient lists. This was the first time that missing flyers were able to be easily created and distributed en-mass by America’s law enforcement community. Although the program had a 95% recovery rate lack of Federal and industry rival support forced us to shut our doors earlier this year. The BeyondMissing parent flyer tool has been accessed and utilized over 3,560 times by families and organizations searching for a missing child, and will be available on KlaasKids.org in the very near future. BeyondMissing was evolutionary in that it represented the first and only option beyond print media utilized to create and mass distribute missing flyers.

 

Facebook has changed all that. Instead of a static, forlorn photograph staring  back at you from a missing poster, Facebook has enabled the families and supporters of missing persons to post multiple photo’s, videos, links to news stories, and testimonials from friends and family in one easy to reach destination. Missing person Facebook pages are not static so they can be updated in real time. Pending fundraising events or press conferences can be advertised, as can case updates. There are missing person communities on Facebook that share missing pages far and wide. They talk about the kids, create forums, share ideas and find commonalities. There is no charge for this dynamic, user friendly application.

 

LinneaMy advice to anybody with a missing child is to use the Facebook advantage. You don’t have to be particularly computer savvy, and in fact you don’t even really need a computer. FedEx Office (formerly Kinko’s) has all of the hardware and software tools, including online access that you need to create a missing person FB page. If you still don’t feel that you have the skill set to accomplish this objective ask friends and family to help you.

 

Of course, there is a downside to all of this. There are no restrictions on who can create these pages. Unfortunately, I know of many cases where either fake or misleading pages have been posted.  People who have no attachment to the case and don’t even know the missing person or their family have also exploited this opportunity for one reason or another. Therefore, you must be careful and try to determine if the page that you have landed on is real, or is it fake!

 

I think that we can all agree that technology has and will continue to change the way we approach child safety and missing kids. However, Facebook above all other technologies or applications has evolved the imagery of missing children in ways that were unimaginable during the 20th Century.

Death Penalty: Fix It, Don’t Nix It!

 

ScumThe events that transpired during the 1996 death penalty trial of my 12-year-old daughter Polly’s killer were extreme, even for a death penalty case, but the events that have transpired in the 17 years since simply defy belief. No one, not even the defense, argued that Richard Allen Davis wasn’t the person who snuck into Polly’s bedroom in the late evening of October 1, 1993, tied, bound and gagged her girlfriends and stole her into the night. All agreed that he strangled and discarded her remains on a trash pile adjacent to a freeway off ramp in Cloverdale, CA in the early hours of the next morning. The points of contention were whether or not he raped my child and whether he committed the heinous crime of his own free will or if the Devil made him do it.

 

More of his life has been spent behind bars than on the street. He had been previously diagnosed as a sexually sadistic psychopath, and his endless rap sheet was filled with violent encounters, attempted sexual assaults and kidnappings. People would avoid him on the street because of his public drinking, prison tattoo’s, surly manner, or gruff language. He had no friends because he couldn’t be trusted, so he depended upon his duplicitous family for support.

 

He was three months out of prison, rehabilitated, and working a job that paid more than twice the minimum wage when he decided to murder my child. Prior to being released from prison he told cell mates that he would avoid AIDS by, “Getting a young one.” Kidnapping, raping and murdering my little girl was Richard Allen Davis’ definition of safe sex.

richarddavis3Evil exists and he epitomizes evil. When he was found guilty of killing Polly he turned toward the jury and stuck both middle fingers in the air. As the sentence of death was about to be imposed, he told the judge that he didn’t rape the little girl because she told him, “Don’t do me like my dad.” Apparently, the depths of his depravity have no boundaries.

 

Many good men and women who helped to solve the case have quietly passed since he was sentenced to death row seventeen-years ago. Should the glacial appeals process for Polly’s killer be exhausted there is a small, but determined group of individuals who will continue to lobby on his behalf. They decry the death penalty. They say that it is inhumane, that it is beneath us as a civilization, that it is immoral and that it costs too much. They have successfully denied the law and subverted the will of the people of California for far too long.

 

We need to exert our will and demand that justice be served. It has become apparent that this will never be accomplished through the California state legislature. Join me in supporting the Death Penalty Reform & Savings Coalition.

Polly Klaas – Jan. 3, 1981 – Oct. 1, 1993

1.5 yr & Dad on Merry Go Round

In 1993, 868,345 persons were reported missing in the United States of America. I wish to write about, remember, and honor one of them.

 

1993 sometimes seems so near that I can reach out and grab it, and sometimes so distant that the details are blurred memories, but since very few people who were touched by her plight ever met Polly, I will do my best to tell you about her. She was a very pretty, smart, cheerful and engaging girl who was just beginning to realize life’s potential. She was a skilled actor who could nail the first read through of a script. She could ride a bike, had mastered swimming and wanted me to teach her how to play baseball, so that she could ‘play with the boys.’ On Sunday evenings I enjoyed sitting on the couch with Polly on one side and Violet on the other. Polly and I would cackle at Homer and Bart Simpson’s mindless antics while Violet looked at us quizzically and asked what was so funny? Even in life we thought of Polly as an old soul because of the depth of her compassion and capacity for love. She was the kind of a girl who would make her presence known when she entered the room. When she left it would be with an unspoken, “Hey, remember me!”

 

Polly lived with her mom in Petaluma, but we had joint custody. She would spend 2-days a week with Violet and me, take vacations and spend most Holiday’s with us. We talked on the phone almost every night. The last time we spoke was on October 1. She was very enthusiastic about the slumber party she was hosting for her girlfriends. Before we hung up I told her that I loved her. “I love you too Daddy,” she replied.

 

If Polly were kidnapped in 2013 instead of 1993, things would have played out very differently. In 1993, when the authorities issued an APB with the stipulation that Polly’s kidnapping was “Not for press release,” that led to a series of systematic failures that might have cost Polly her life. Two Sheriff’s deputies that confronted the killer about an hour after she was kidnapped had no idea who they were dealing with and sent him on his way instead of arresting him on the spot. Today we have inter-agency cooperation, written protocols, computer system interoperability, and a much greater awareness of the issue. The two deputies who helped a killer pull his car out of a ditch would have been informed and might have been able to solve the case much more quickly. Also, there is no doubt in my mind that today the killer would be a third striker which means that he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to kidnap, rape and kill because he would already be incarcerated. We simply don’t revolve recidivist offenders through the turnstile as quickly as we did in 1993. Finally, today we have the Amber Alert which was originally designed for this type of scenario. Unfortunately, as it became institutionalized its effectiveness was substantially diminished.

 

Ironically, I don’t know how many of those changes would have occurred if it had not been for Polly. She had become the face of American victimization as quickly as her killer had become the face of crime in America. She was the symbol, first of hope and then of loss. She was the impetus, but certainly not the inspiration, for California’s hugely successful 3-strikes law. The FBI wrote the first predatory abduction protocol based on her crime, she was the Internet’s first missing child, and all future community responses and volunteer search efforts have been measured against Petaluma’s heroic effort.

 

I think that the work the KlaasKids Foundation has done on Polly’s behalf has had an influence on our cause. One of the reasons that Polly’s situation received so much attention is because my family and I were unrelenting in our desire to bring her home alive. Prior to Polly’s kidnapping there had been a rash of predatory abductions in the Bay Area. They would all begin with a roar and end shortly thereafter in a whimper. We embraced the media as partners, not adversaries and did everything that we could to keep her story alive, because we knew that if the media went home people would stop caring. If the people stopped caring there would come a time when law enforcement would stop investigating. I feared that we would join the ranks of those caught in the limbo of “not knowing”.

 

Also, throughout the past 20-years KlaasKids has been there for the families of the missing. We are invested in preventing future abductions, but are also ready to respond if a child is missing. To date, KlaasKids SAR has helped 866-families of missing children throughout the United States, including numerous high profile abduction cases. We’ve conducted 273 searches for missing persons around the country; trained over 1100 professional search and rescue volunteers; and assisted in the recovery of 39 women and children involved in sex trafficking throughout the United States.

 

With BeyondMissing our flyer creation and distribution technology was utilized by registered law enforcement in 35 states in the search for 340 abducted/missing children. BeyondMissing tools had a 95% recovery rate and to date registered users have recovered 323 children. BeyondMissing was utilized by law enforcement to issue 174 Amber Alerts, 56 Local Amber Alerts, 16 Abduction Alerts and 94 Missing Child Alerts. Collectively, BeyondMissing has distribution 1,231,500 emails, 34,400 text messages and initiated distribution to 1,721,800 faxes to “targeted” recipients on behalf of law enforcement. The BeyondMissing Parent Flyer Tool has been accessed and utilized over 3,560 times by families and organizations searching for a missing child.

 

Our community outreach program, the Print-A-Thon, has enabled us to travel to more than 40-states where we have interacted with young families, fingerprinted/photographed and provided comprehensive suites of child safety materials to more than 1,000,000 children without ever charging a family for the service or database personal or private information.

 

We were front line soldiers in the effort to provide interoperability between government computer systems, truth-in-sentencing, Megan’s Law, the Adam Walsh Act and prevention funding for at risk youth so that they would have options in life beyond drugs and crime. We did not help to get 3-strikes passed, but have defended it passionately in the years since. During the last election cycle we took a leadership role in Prop.35, which targets human traffickers, provides much needed services for victims of human trafficking and passed by a greater margin than any other ballot initiative in California history.

 

Our website, KlaasKids.org is nearing the completion of a major overhaul that will make our suite of online services even more powerful, vibrant and excellent than they already are. Our popular comparative analysis of each state’s Megan’s Law has been updated and redesigned with the latest data.

 

We believe that the future of child safety exists in technology. There are documented cases of FB & Twitter having been instrumental in the recovery of missing kids.  There is thousands of missing child pages on FB & numerous communities dedicated to recovering the missing. Each of those pages provides multiple pictures, video, links to articles, & testimonials thereby making organizations like NCMEC virtually obsolete as far as the public is concerned.

 

Smart phone alert apps like PGA can bypass government bureaucracy and distribute missing child information in minutes instead of hours. Free child friendly web browsers like Cocoon for KlaasKids protects children from rogue marketers and other dangers that exist online. We anticipate that GPS technology is on the cusp of great changes that will be protective of kids. Database technology and computer system interoperability are fully realized concepts. Technology’s dream is fast catching up to technology’s reality and KlaasKids will continue to explore how it can prevent, respond to and recover child abduction.

 

Unlike other, much better funded child locater NPO’s the KlaasKids Foundation staff and volunteers do more than sit behind our desks answering phones and posting flyers on our website. We innovate, we advocate, we search, we educate, and we take a stand where others remain silent.

 

Late at night on October 1, 1993, when Polly was being forced into the night at knifepoint, under the threat of death she said, “Please don’t hurt my mother and sister.” At that moment in time she was the bravest little girl in the world. She remains our beacon, our inspiration and the reason that we will continue to focus on the fight for America’s children until we draw our last breath.

Legacy

Legacy is defined as something transmitted by or received from the past. In my business, which so often deals with the aftermath of loss, legacy is at the vanguard of peoples thoughts. While it might not have been at the forefront of our minds when all was well, it becomes integrally tied into future considerations as we cope with the loss of a loved one. The closer our relationship to the one who has passed, the more we think about their legacy.

 

8-year-old Polly Klaas

When the past arrives suddenly and without invitation defining a legacy is a way to make sense of the senseless, and to give meaning to death. It was thoughts of legacy that helped me ascend from the depths of the abyss after Polly’s tragedy in 1993. She had given beautiful meaning to her life, but after October 1, she only existed in memory and risked being measured as nothing more than a statistical abstraction. I wanted to ensure that her death had meaning; that it was not in vain. To achieve that goal I had to create her legacy.

 

Violet and I thought that the Polly Klaas Foundation would be the instrument of that legacy, but instead we were deceived. Finally, the KlaasKids Foundation, which we founded and controlled, became the vessel upon which her legacy would be conceived and implemented. Stop Crimes Against Children became our mission and Polly was our beacon. Almost 20-years later, we feel a sense of accomplishment and truly believe that Polly’s death represents more than a point on a pie chart.

 

Amber Harris Video In Omaha, Nebraska the parents of twelve-year-old Amber Harris struggled mightily to define the legacy of their slain daughter. On November 29, 2005 Amber got off of the school bus at the wrong stop and was never seen alive again. Her remains were discovered in a shallow grave on May 10, 2006. The man sentenced to death for kidnapping, raping and murdering Amber was a registered sex offender who lived near her bus stop. At Amber’s publicly televised memorial her mother announced that her legacy would include school bus rerouting so that proximity to the homes of level 3 registered sex offenders could be avoided. Amber’s parents were successful in that effort.

 

 

 

Megan Kanka & Megan’s Law

So many laws are named after murdered children. When the mother of seven-year-old Megan Kanka quietly and eloquently told reporters that if she had known that a high risk sex offender lived across the street she never would have allowed her daughter to play alone in the front yard, it struck a public nerve. Since 1996, convicted sex offenders in the United States have been required to register with local law enforcement and citizens have been able to access that information to protect their families. Megan’s legacy is Megan’s Law.

 

In 2005, little Jessica Lunsford was sexually abused and murdered by a level 3 sex offender neighbor in rural Florida. Her father Mark began touring State Capitols lobbying for legislation that would classify lewd or lascivious molestation on a person under the age of 12 as a life felony, and a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years in prison and lifetime electronic monitoring of adults convicted of lewd or lascivious molestation against a victim less than 12 years old. Jessica’s Law has been enacted in more than 40-states and Jessica Lunsford’s legacy will protect children for decades to come.

 

Legacy can be manifested in many forms. Every time that Michael Le and Krystine Dinh volunteer at the Sierra Search Center they add to their beloved sister and cousin Michelle Le’s legacy. Like so many others who volunteer with the KlaasKids Foundation or the Sierra Search Center, they have found a way to pay their loss forward through legacy building. You can create a movement that will change the world; you can conduct your life in a way that will honor the memory of the child, brother, sister, mother or father who inspires thoughts of legacy; or you can do any and all things in between. One is no more important than the other. What is important is that you honor the memory of loss in a way that soothes your mind and allows you to sleep at night knowing that you have created meaning out of death.

 

While Polly’s years were few, her stature diminutive and her experience was limited, her legacy is as vast as her courage. She inspired us to be bigger, better and more than we otherwise would have been. Through the work of the KlaasKids Foundation her final act has reverberated from the family kitchen table to the president’s cabinet table.

Betrayal

Soon after my daughter Polly was kidnapped on October 1, 1993, she became known as America’s child. Donations to assist and facilitate the search poured in from the far corners of America. Violet and I founded the nonprofit Polly Klaas Foundation (PKF) to best administer funds and to protect ourselves from potential speculation that we would misappropriate money donated to help find Polly. We wanted to be proactive in ensuring that the focus remained on finding Polly.

 

Nonprofit organizations are governed by a Board of Directors. For the PKF we chose individuals who were prominent during the early days of the search. In fact, Violet and I left much of the organizing to those very people as we immersed ourselves in the search for our missing daughter. We named the organization after Polly because the donations, the focus and the hope was all about my daughter. Before the month of October, 1993 ended the Internal Revenue Service had conferred nonprofit status on the PKF.

 

Board responsibilities included fundraising, program development and financial management. Generally, Boards of Directors do not become involved in the day to day running of an organization. Those are tasks that are left to the nonprofit’s President, Executive Director, and staff.

 

Upon learning of Polly’s tragic death on Dec. 4, it was our intention to lobby for laws that would protect children, use the remaining $283,000 to help find other missing children, and continue fundraising, but the PKF Board made it difficult to accomplish these objectives. They seemed more concerned about protecting (their) assets and enjoying the status of sitting on the Board of a high profile nonprofit organization. This resulted in deep and ingrained tension between Violet, me and the Board. Violet, who was not a member of the Board, was not allowed to attend meetings. At these meetings I often found myself with very few allies.

 

Janet Reno’s visit to Petaluma in July, 1994 was a good example of my conflict with the Board. I had secured the United States Attorney General to speak at a town hall meeting to discuss crimes against children. As a result, the PKF Board accused me of grandstanding. They reasoned that if the Attorney General’s visit was a success I would receive the glory, but if it failed they would take the blame. After Ms. Reno’s visit, which went very well, drew massive media attention, and filled the hall at the Petaluma Community Center, relations between the Board and me became even more strained.

President Clinton signing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994

Within a year of my daughter’s kidnapping several events foreshadowed our rocky nonprofit experience and lonely crusade. On September 13, 1994, I stood on the podium with President Clinton at the White House when he signed The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The President gave me the first pen that he used to sign the bill. The Crime Bill provided for 100,000 new cops, allocated $6.1-billion in prevention funds for at risk children, and nearly $10-billion for prison construction costs.

 

Within days of my invitation to join the president the PKF Board informed me that I was no longer allowed to pursue criminal justice legislation. They argued that a non-profit organization is prohibited from advocating for new laws. They knew that this was not accurate. What was happening was the PKF Board had created a mission limitation that did not include legislation. Violet and I believed that Polly’s legacy had to include powerful public policy positions that would protect other children from her tragedy.

 

Without hesitation and a sense of urgency a separate non-profit application to create what would become known as the KlaasKids Foundation had been submitted from which to lobby, advocate and promote legislation. The PKF Board said that I had created a conflict of interest by finding an avenue that would allow me to pursue goals that they forbade me from pursuing. This was their justification for expelling me from the nonprofit that bore my daughter’s name. Ironically, the current PKF website states that a primary objective is to effect legislation which, “Will ensure that children can be safe in their own homes and communities.”

 

Within one year and 20-days of my daughter’s death, on October 21, 1994, without my knowledge, the PKF Board secured a trademark for the name Polly Klaas. My daughter’s name now belonged to the Polly Klaas Foundation.

 

Within a month of trademarking my daughter’s name, while Violet and I were out of town, the PKF Board voted me off the board during a secret meeting. This was the first Board meeting that I did not attend since the inception of the organization. Over the telephone the Board President informed me that I was expelled from the nonprofit organization that bore my daughter’s name. I felt that I had lost my daughter yet again. Violet and I were no longer welcome at the Foundation that we had created and hoped would become Polly’s legacy. We had been betrayed.

 

When Violet and I were locked out of the PKF we had $2,000, a fledgling nonprofit that would become the KlaasKids Foundation and knives in our backs. We felt that we had lost our daughter yet again. With a sense of urgency we believed that there was no time to lose, because otherwise everyone would forget. We struggled. Violet worked a full time job; I volunteered my time to KlaasKids. We lived frugally, turning our home into an office. We worked 18-hour days writing, advocating, traveling and otherwise pursuing our window of opportunity. Fortunately, our voice and our passion were being heard on television, radio, in the op-ed pages of newspapers and at KlaasKids events throughout the country.

 

It was through KlaasKids that we built a solid reputation for action and accomplishment. Meanwhile the PKF struggled. With just a few months of operating expenses left in their account, PKF launched a high profile car donation program. For the next several years a confused public donated millions of dollars’ worth of vehicles in Polly’s name despite the fact that the PKF produced minimal results.

 

The sense of betrayal continues to this day. Today it was brought to my attention that there is an organization exploiting missing Morgan Hill cheerleader Sierra LaMar for profit. The families who suffer and are victimized by the loss of their children are victimized yet again by those who steal, exploit or profit off of personal tragedy. I have witnessed too many instances of family members pursuing a legacy in honor of their loved one only to have their organization hijacked.

 

Shame on them! People or groups who oust family members betray the memories of crime victims by heaping insult upon injury. Sometimes I can still feel the knife in my back, but I take solace in the knowledge that Polly was my child and that her legacy is my destiny. KlaasKids may not bare Polly’s name, but we have created her legacy and given meaning to her death. One of the lessons of betrayal is to remain strong and not allow it to tarnish our character.

 

 

 

 

 

Sierra LaMar: Anatomy of a Search Day 120

Beauty attracts…everyone.

 

With Violet at the Birds Nest Stadium

Violet and I enjoy the Olympics so much that we attended in Los Angeles in 1984 and Beijing in 2008. For two weeks every four years we try to clear our calendars so that we can spend the evening watching the amazing athletic competitions, hopefully without being undermined by smartphone or Internet spoilers.

 

But, truth be told, one of our favorite aspects to the Olympics is simply watching the athletes. Demonstrating dazzling displays of power and speed, Olympic athletes shine on the world stage at the peak of physical perfection, dazzling billions of awe struck onlookers with feats of unequaled athletic ability.  We can see it in their clear focus, scrubbed complexions and toned muscles. They are, simply put, beautiful!

Sierra LaMar

After the Olympics I sometimes go to bed as my thoughts drift toward the search for Sierra LaMar. Like my own daughter Polly, Sierra was doing nothing wrong. She was simply a girl minding her own business when her life was invaded by a fatal attraction that changed everything. An attraction triggered by youthful beauty and fueled by madness.

 

Beauty can propel you to superstar heights. It can bring you happiness and the adoration of millions. Beautiful people seem to walk a path through life that simply appears under the red carpet. They have an ease of confidence and success seems to come more readily. Beauty doesn’t even require personality as it exists of its own accord.

 

However, beauty does have its downside. It attracts everybody and not everybody has best of intentions. When beauty attracts the beast the consequences can be dire because sometimes the beast cannot simply admire, but must possess. And the beast cannot share, but must consume. Then beauty ceases to exist and the beast turns his attention elsewhere, seeking out more beauty. It goes on and on and on until it is stopped.

 

Polly Klaas and People Magazine

Polly always wanted to be on the cover of People Magazine, and to take care of her father when she grew up. I always thought that she had the all American beauty and talent to achieve that goal. Well Polly was propelled onto the cover of People Magazine by a fame that was as unpredictable as it was unwanted. Now, I sit in the back of Town Cars, or watch the Olympics and reflect on the nature of beauty.  If you are fortunate you become adored and walk life along the red carpet. If you are unfortunate and your beauty attracts the eye of evil, you may never have the chance to achieve your dreams or fulfill your potential.

 

Beauty is a double edged sword that can propel you to the heights of glory or drag you into the depths of some psycho’s personal Hell.