COLUMN ONE : A Father's Bittersweet Crusade : Mike Reynolds vowed that his murdered daughter would not die in vain. Few thought he could win, but today he will see the 'three strikes' bill signed into law.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was the summer of 1992, a few days after Mike and Sharon Reynolds had laid their only daughter, Kimber, to rest after she had been fatally shot by a parolee who tried to steal her purse.

He remembers it as if it were yesterday. Gov. Pete Wilson had come to Fresno on business, heard about the crime and asked to meet the Reynolds family.

"Let me tell you," Mike Reynolds said to the governor, "I'm going after these guys in a big way, the kind of people who would murder little girls in this way."

Wilson gave a sad smile of frustration. He could offer little hope that the laws would change.

Today, Wilson will sign into law a bill popularly known as "three strikes and you're out." It requires that habitual criminals like the man who killed Kimber Reynolds must serve at least 25 years in prison. By 2001, state corrections experts predict, 100,000 more criminals will be serving what amount to life-in-prison terms because of the law.

California will have one of the toughest criminal sentencing laws in the country. And the man most responsible is Mike Reynolds.

In California politics, a Mike Reynolds comes along once in a great while. There were Paul Gann and Howard Jarvis. They changed property tax laws in California through Proposition 13, an anti-tax movement that spread across the country. There was Candy Lightner. Her daughter's death led to the creation of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

They were able to take lapses in the law, personal tragedy, drama and broad but unfocused public concern and create a powerful whirlwind strong enough to overcome politics as usual: a girl killed by a drunk driver. Elderly people losing their homes because they could not pay property taxes. The murder of a teen-age daughter followed by the kidnaping and murder of a 12-year-old Petaluma girl named Polly Klaas.

"These were issues that were lying there waiting to be dramatized," said Bruce Cain, a UC Berkeley professor who specializes in California politics.

In Reynolds' case, he came up with the plan, brought it to the Legislature and did not give up when it was rejected. He resorted to an initiative. When the rage of Californians propelled crime to the top of the political agenda in this election year, Reynolds was in the right place at the right time to focus it.

The policies that come of such events are not always the best, Cain noted. Critics say the cost of building new prisons to house the felons sentenced under terms of the Reynolds law will debilitate the state and lead to the warehousing of geriatric convicts. Joe Klaas, Polly's grandfather, said Reynolds' idea is badly flawed and pushed by a "distraught parent who wants to memorialize his daughter."

"It's a classic case. Some incident was going to make this come to light," Cain said. "A dramatic event has to coincide with a huge consensus out there. There was a big consensus. Remember, we're in an election year. That is going to quicken the pace of any idea. It's a matter of timing."

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Mike Reynolds is a few days past his 50th birthday. He describes himself as a "short, little fat guy," a wedding photographer, an "average Joe" who got married on Valentine's Day 25 years ago and never wanted much of anything other than to take pictures and raise his three children.

Mike Reynolds also salvages things.

Walk into the back yard of his home on Harvard Street in Fresno, and there is an old cast-iron bathtub. He made it into a gas-fired barbecue. Next to it is a discarded restaurant stove, and a motel ice machine. Reynolds fixed them, and uses them on warm San Joaquin Valley nights. The well-worn picnic table is made of salvaged 4-by-8 lumber.

Reynolds also knows that some things cannot be fixed.

His daughter Kimber, an 18-year-old student at the Fashion Institute of Design and Marketing in Los Angeles, came home for the wedding of a high school friend in June, 1992.

She stayed an extra day so her father could repair her car, and went to a restaurant in Fresno's Tower District for dessert. While she was out, two parolees sped up on a motorcycle and tried to snatch her purse. She fought. The driver pulled out a .357-caliber handgun and shot her in the head. She died two days later. Her killer died in a shootout with police. His accomplice was sentenced to nine years in prison. He could be out in half that time.

Reynolds reacted the only way he knew how. Here, beginning in this back yard built for neighborhood parties and kids, he would change the criminal justice system that allowed a career criminal out of prison to kill his daughter.

"My daughter had the guts to stand up to those two jerks. The least I can do is do everything I can to try to prevent this from happening to some other kid," Reynolds said.

Sitting at the picnic table he built, Reynolds came up with the idea of imprisoning habitual felons for much longer terms and went to his assemblyman, Bill Jones.

Jones, a Republican, doubted that he could get Reynolds' idea through the Democrat-controlled Assembly. But he agreed to try, and enlisted a Democrat, Jim Costa of Fresno, to help.

Reynolds arrived at the Capitol for the bill's first hearing April 20 with four busloads of people from Fresno. One Democratic assemblyman refused to meet with him. Another agreed to meet him, but said upfront that he would not support the bill. The measure died at its first committee hearing.

Among other things, Democratic lawmakers complained that it was written in such a way that felons could face huge sentences for property crimes such as burglary, even shoplifting in certain instances.

"They figured they'd listen to me, pat me on the head, say, 'I'm sorry about your daughter,' and send me home," Reynolds recalled. He told them: "You are the guys responsible for turning these guys loose. Don't you see that? You are the enablers."

Rebuffed, Reynolds decided the solution was to bypass the Legislature and pursue a ballot initiative. There the crusade might have ended, no matter how strenuous his efforts. Without a lot of money behind them, initiatives do not get on the California ballot.

But in October, Polly Klaas was kidnaped and later found dead. A parolee confessed to the crime--and everything changed. The publicity surrounding the case was extraordinary. Pent-up public anger at crime became focused on a state seemingly incapable of keeping habitual criminals in prison. It was a mighty force seeking an outlet.

The outlet's name was "three strikes and you're out."

It became almost a mantra, repeated in the newspapers, on talk radio and on television. In a burst of recognition, hundreds of thousands of people signed Reynolds' initiative petitions. Politicians from California to the White House, keen to the message, wrapped themselves in the "three strikes" concept.

Jones and Costa revived their bill, and by last Monday, it was on the verge of passing its final committee.

But first, Sen. Art Torres, a Los Angeles Democrat, wanted to amend it. It was an apple-pie idea. State fiscal analysts had calculated that the bill would cost billions. Torres' amendment sought to ensure that some of the money would get spent on crime prevention. Torres got the votes and the amendment was added to the bill.

Reynolds, sitting in the committee room as he had done half a dozen times this year, was not sure what the lawmakers were up to. He stood and said he wanted to speak.

Legislators generally do not allow people from the audience to speak when they are in the midst of a debate. But Reynolds had attained special status. The senators gave him the microphone.

"When we start adding amendments," Reynolds told them, "it's going to open a Pandora's box. . . . It will also demonstrate to me at least the inability of the Legislature to act in a responsible way."

Reynolds went on to point out that the November elections were nearing. One of the senators protested that Reynolds' words sounded like a threat. Minutes later the committee rescinded the amendment.

Torres got up from his seat, walked to Reynolds and whispered into his ear, smiled and shook his hand. Later, Reynolds said, Torres told him that he was only trying to improve the measure and that he supported the bill. The Senate gave Jones' bill final legislative approval on Thursday, sending it to the governor.

The Legislature that had rolled its eyes at his proposal last year now treated him with deference. Polling had showed that 80% of the state's voters liked Reynolds' idea.

Reynolds still fears that lawmakers will find some way to undermine the legislative version of "three strikes." Even though the law Wilson will sign today is virtually identical to the initiative, Reynolds intends to deliver his petitions to county clerks today for a vote on the November ballot.

Nor does Reynolds trust the prosecutors and criminal justice experts who say there are ways to write a more focused statute that would ensure only violent felons would be locked up for life. Even Jones, the author of the bill, believes it could be made better.

In less than a year, Reynolds' life has been transformed. Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, who earlier this year said Reynolds was motivated by crass political gain, has invited him to appear on Brown's new television show.

President Clinton has invited him to the White House. He and Sharon, a Veterans Administration nurse, have been featured on ABC's 20/20 news magazine and in People magazine. He has had offers to run for office and to work for the passage of other initiatives.

Jarvis, Gann and Lightner all were swept up by events in this "electronically driven media state," Cain said. In the process, they became national figures.

"He will have the option and the temptation to continue in this mode," Cain said of Reynolds.

John Stoos, director of the Gun Owners of California, one of the strongest pro-gun lobbies in Sacramento, makes it his business to keep track of the goings-on at the Capitol. When Reynolds showed up last April with four busloads of people from Fresno, Stoos was there to introduce himself. Later, the group gave Reynolds $40,000 for his initiative.

"He's probably the closest thing to Paul Gann I've seen since 1978," Stoos said. Come 1996, Stoos said, he hopes to enlist Reynolds in an initiative that gun owners hope to place on the ballot.

"Paul had a knack with the press. Whether they agreed with him or not, he was a great quote," Stoos said. "That's a talent that some people have. It's rare. I saw it in Paul. I see it Mike."

Reynolds would trade it all.

"I wish somebody else would have done this and I would have a daughter," Reynolds said. "If I could, even knowing that this law would save a lot of lives, if I could go back and have my daughter and not have this bill and not have this notoriety and just go back to life the way it was, I'd do it in a heartbeat. But that is not real. What we have to do is go on with the cards that have been dealt."

As he sits in his back yard, a squirrel climbs down a pine tree, and Reynolds hands it a peanut. He recalls how Kimber spent hours feeding them. The phone rings, as it does constantly, and interrupts the memory.

A local banker is offering a $1,000 contribution. Reynolds does what any good and gracious politician would do. He tells the banker that he will be appearing at a radio station later that day for a talk show and news event. If the banker would like, he could show up and publicly present the check.

"There has been a lot of pressure on me and suggestions that I run for some political office. I am emphatic about resisting it, to this point," said Reynolds, a Republican. "The thing that has driven this is my daughter's death. To use that for some personal gain for me would be a real travesty."

Inside, in the dining room, there is the old piano, damaged in a flood. He reworked it into the dining room table. On it, he and his wife spread the mementos of their daughter: a kindergarten picture, a snapshot of Kimber as the proprietor of a front-yard lemonade stand, a plastic bag with a baby tooth and a sugar-and-spice note to the tooth fairy offering her 17 cents so the tooth fairy could give the pennies to some other child who might need it more.

The Fresno High School yearbook is opened to the page with a black-and-white ocean scene and the words: "Remember me with a kind word or deed. Then I will live forever." The Class of '93, the one that followed hers, dedicated it to Kimber Reynolds.

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