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Lone Justice : The abduction of Polly Klaas gripped the nation and prompted her father to wage war on anyone who would harm a child. But Marc Klaas has paid a steep price for his lonely crusade.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Time stopped for Marc Klaas on an October night in 1993 when his only child was snatched at knifepoint from a slumber party in her small-town home, never to be seen alive again.

The search for Polly Klaas gripped the nation, and when police found the precocious Petaluma 12-year-old dead two months later, millions mourned a girl they had never known.

Now her father, with a dedication that even he concedes borders on obsession, is on a crusade to rid the streets of the sort of habitual criminal who, police say, confessed to the kidnaping and murder.

Having abandoned the workaday world he inhabited until the night Polly vanished, Klaas says he has trouble relating to old friends or making new ones. His former job renting cars to tourists at an upscale San Francisco hotel is a distant, and unpleasant, memory.

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“I really can’t see myself going back to what I did,” Klaas said recently, sitting amid the jumble of boxes and paper that fill his modest condominium a few blocks from San Francisco Bay. “Dealing with people who go crazy because their T-Bird’s red instead of blue just isn’t something I can deal with anymore. I just think there’s really important things that have to be stressed, important issues.”

With a single-mindedness that some find disconcerting, Klaas’ new mission is clear: to avenge Polly’s death by saving others from a similar fate. The quest has made him a celebrity, and he nurtures his fame as fuel for the cause.

He has hobnobbed with Hollywood stars and met with the President in the White House. He has testified before Congress, become a fixture on morning network news, and even produced stories on missing children for a nationally syndicated TV news magazine.

But even as he pursues his quixotic goal--eliminating crimes against children within a generation--he struggles with an internal contradiction: how to keep Polly’s memory alive in the public’s mind while coming to terms with her death personally.

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The months since her death have been difficult.

Once the voice of a town united to search for Polly, Klaas today is battling the nonprofit foundation that bears his daughter’s name, having been kicked off its board of directors after forming his own group and soliciting contributions from the same donors. He now seems bitter, often lashing out at those who fail to measure up to his standards.

His new endeavor--the Marc Klaas Foundation for Children--is struggling. With little financing, it is hardly more than a shell, its goals mainly a dream shared by Klaas, his wife, Violet Cheer, and a friend who has put her business on hold to help him get started.

Klaas, of course, is not the first to re-examine his life after losing a loved one to violent crime. Advocacy for crime victims, by crime victims, has become something of a cottage industry in California.

“Everybody wants to hear what these people have to say, as if somehow the misfortune they suffered makes them some sort of messiah,” said L. Paul Sutton, a professor of criminal justice administration at San Diego State University. “To argue against a policy position offered by a victim is somehow taken to be a denial of the legitimacy of their pain. Nobody wants to be seen in that light.”

But Klaas has bucked that trend, using his status as victim to challenge the more conservative positions staked out by others in a movement that no one joins by choice. His independence has earned him the enmity of some who believe he betrayed them at a crucial moment in a long fight.

He also stands out because of his own peculiar style. He has an understandably bleak view of the world--"My advice to parents is to raise your children as if there is a registered sex offender living in your neighborhood"--and a tendency to speak openly about his feelings in a way that can make strangers uncomfortable.

“He’s not a professional speaker,” said Janice Gomes, a coordinator of Neighborhood Watch programs in the East Bay. “He doesn’t always come across with the right words. He doesn’t always say the things you want to hear. But he talks from the heart and from the gut, and he makes an impact.”

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After visiting the White House last fall when President Clinton signed the federal crime bill and handed the pen to Klaas, he returned to his hotel room and wept.

“He called his mother and said, ‘With all this good stuff happening, why don’t I feel better?’ ” said Joe Klaas, Marc’s father. “Grandma put it in simple language: Because you paid too high a price.”

*

Emerging from a West Los Angeles theater after the premiere of “Little Women,” a film dedicated to his slain daughter, Klaas squinted into the flashing lights of photographers snapping pictures of the movie’s stars and prepared to make his way to a post-premiere party at a studio down the block.

As Klaas crossed the street, a woman pressed against a barrier and extended a notebook and pen.

“Can I have your autograph?” she asked. An embarrassed Klaas obliged. California’s best-known grieving father, he is recognized almost everywhere he goes.

He uses his celebrity--indeed, depends on it--to gain access to the famous and the powerful, people in positions to help him enact his agenda. That night in Los Angeles, Klaas was accompanied by a publicist he hired to help him arrange interviews.

“I realized after we got Polly back that I had somewhere between 30 and 90 days to do what (I) want to do,” Klaas said. Although the window of opportunity has lasted longer, he knows that the public’s attention span has limits.

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“Everyone will forget.”

*

In a way, Polly Klaas’ death could not have come at a better time for the backers of “Three Strikes and You’re Out,” a proposal to mandate prison terms of 25 years to life for two-time losers convicted of a third felony.

Blocked by a legislative committee traditionally hostile to anti-crime measures, supporters had drafted a ballot initiative and begun the arduous task of gathering signatures to place it before voters.

Then, when a parolee with a history of violent crime was charged with Polly’s murder, it brought an outpouring of support that helped propel Three Strikes onto the ballot, where it passed in November with more than 70% of the vote.

Almost lost in the din was Marc Klaas’ adamant opposition. He even signed the ballot pamphlet argument against the proposal, calling it too hard on soft crime and too soft on hard crime. “We really need to focus on the evil, on those people who are now committing crimes against people,” he said.

Klaas had endorsed Three Strikes in the days after the discovery of his daughter’s body and the arrest of Richard Allen Davis, who is still awaiting trial. But then, Klaas reversed his stand and pushed for an alternative proposal that targeted only violent felons.

His change of heart made Klaas a turncoat in the conservative and tight-knit community of victims and their relatives.

“We all pulled together and worked for one united cause, with the exception of Marc,” said Mike Reynolds, the Fresno photographer who sponsored the Three Strikes law after his daughter was murdered by a repeat felon. “I think he was either lied to or misinformed.”

Klaas insists it was neither. Rather, he simply approaches questions of crime and punishment from a different point of view.

Although a convert to the death penalty who says he thinks of “blowing away” the man accused of killing his daughter, Klaas retains a tolerance for small-time criminals that separates him from other victims’ rights advocates.

“There’s limited money, and every dollar we put into a back-end approach like incarceration is money we take away from preventive measures, things that will help keep our children from becoming these types of individuals.”

Klaas’ father conquered alcoholism 30 years ago; a brother succumbed to it last year. Marc Klaas smoked pot as a youth and has struggled to control his drinking. A few years ago, he had a drunk driving conviction.

Perhaps as a result, he tends to view drug and alcohol abusers, even those who commit property crimes to feed their habits, as sick people in need of treatment, not bad people in need of punishment. He doesn’t mind if his views are out of sync with others’.

“A lot of these people are very shortsighted,” he said. “They tend to run in packs.”

Running in packs is something Klaas has never done.

Coming of age in the late 1960s, he split from his combat-decorated father and opposed the Vietnam War. He joined the Army to avoid the draft and found his way into the medical corps, where he spent three years stateside.

After his discharge, Klaas settled in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, the center of America’s emerging counterculture, and briefly attended San Francisco City College.

He toured Europe and, he said, was accepted to study Eastern religions at the University of New Delhi. But at the last moment, he backed out and came home to San Francisco. He drove a cab, then settled into the hotel business as a bellhop and concierge. That’s what he did for more than a decade before buying into a rental car franchise at the Fairmont Hotel, shortly before Polly’s death.

Until the tragedy, he limited his political involvement to what he calls bumper-sticker activism. But always, he said, his philosophy tended toward left-of-center.

“I’ve always had problems with authority figures,” Klaas said. “I’m pigheaded. The only time it ever served me well was when I was looking for my daughter.”

*

The idea of the Polly Klaas Foundation firing Polly’s father may have seemed puzzling to outsiders, and even Klaas at first seemed stunned. But those closest to the situation--including Klaas--now recognize that the board’s decision, shortly before Thanksgiving, was a long time coming.

Within a few days of police recovering Polly’s body near an abandoned Cloverdale sawmill, the volunteers who had joined to search for her began confronting their future. Should they close up shop or reinvent themselves with a new purpose? Perhaps the last thing Klaas and the majority of the board agreed on was that the foundation should continue, expanding its work to benefit children everywhere.

The board wanted to hire a professional manager but Klaas was opposed. Klaas wanted the foundation to do political advocacy but the board resisted, fearing for its tax-exempt status.

Klaas also was feuding with Polly’s mother, Eve Nichol, over plans for a television movie based on the case. Klaas said Nichol and the Polly Klaas Foundation wanted to split proceeds from the film. He vowed to oppose any project in which he was not involved. He said he did not have time to be involved in this one, nor was he asked to be.

The remarkable demonstration of community purpose that drew the world’s attention to the search for Polly had rapidly disintegrated into anger, backbiting and turmoil.

The board tried conflict mediation, hiring a professional to seek to resolve the differences. That failed. It offered Klaas a position as director of a political action committee on children’s issues, but he rejected the job. Later, he called the offer an attempt to silence his criticism of the foundation’s performance.

“They own my daughter’s name,” he said of the foundation. “It blows my mind.”

After months of discord, Klaas decided to form his own foundation, with him as president and a three-member board of directors composed of people close to him.

“I’ve got to do this,” Klaas told reporters as he announced creation of the Marc Klaas Foundation for Children. “I’ve really got no choice personally. I need to somehow make a living, which I have not been able to do at the Polly Klaas Foundation.”

Klaas hoped to build an organization with a $220,000 annual budget, a salaried staff of six (including himself), and an ambitious list of special projects ranging from a summit on criminal justice issues to development of a nonviolent video game for children.

He also planned to host a crime prevention video series to be distributed to schools and libraries and to circulate a national newsletter to 50,000 subscribers.

To do all this, Klaas would need to raise a ton of money--more than half a million dollars just to get started. He printed some stationery and sent requests to businesses and philanthropists throughout California, many of them contributors to the Polly Klaas Foundation.

Officially, the vote to remove Klaas from the board of the Polly Klaas Foundation was taken “without cause.” Unofficially, those close to the foundation say the group could not stand idle as its most visible board member launched a competing endeavor.

Gary Kinley, the Polly Klaas Foundation’s executive director, declined to discuss the board’s reasons for ousting Klaas. He said the foundation is trying to move on with its mission: making America safe for children. Kinley said the foundation named for Polly remains strong, even without her father. Polly’s mother remains on the board, and the organization has established an endowment and is spending less than it takes in from donations, he said.

Klaas, meanwhile, is struggling. While he remains a popular guest speaker, his foundation has so far shown few signs that it will be able to live up to his ambitious goals.

His summit on crime has been postponed indefinitely, one of many projects yet to get off the ground. Although he recently forged an agreement with Arizona grocers to piggyback his message on an ad campaign, he had raised only about $10,000 from the private sector by the end of the year.

*

As last Christmas approached, Marc Klaas’ condominium was unadorned. Without his daughter around, he said, there was little reason to celebrate.

“Christmas used to be something we so looked forward to, and now it’s something we dread,” he said.

More than a year after her death, Polly continues to dominate Klaas’ private life.

From inserting her name into his wedding ceremony in June--"In Polly’s name, I now pronounce you husband and wife"--to celebrating her birthday by dining on her favorite meal, teriyaki chicken, Klaas and his wife commemorate her almost daily.

In the living room, pencil lines still chart Polly’s growth. On the mantle, eight pictures of Polly surround a vase of dried purple flowers--her favorite color.

“Everything I see reminds me of my daughter,” Klaas said. “Every time I turn around I see her. I have sadness followed by profound anger that chases me through my days.”

His preoccupation with Polly has made it difficult for Klaas to interact with people who cannot appreciate his sense of loss or, no matter how sympathetic they might be, share the depth of his anger.

Recently, he said, he attended a cocktail party and found himself, amid the polite chitchat, lecturing fellow guests about sex offenders. “We’re at a party and I’m talking about child molesters, for God’s sake,” he said.

During the search, Klaas lost 30 pounds. He has gained back only 10 and looks perpetually haggard. He chain smokes Marlboro Lights.

“It’d be the easiest thing in the world for me to be in a vodka bottle all the time,” Klaas said. Instead, he has turned inward, reassessing, with the help of professional therapists, his own belief in spirituality, his own belief in God.

Not long ago, he returned from a three-day workshop at which adherents of author Elisabeth Kubler-Ross led a seminar on dealing with death. He said it helped him come to terms with Polly’s passing and reconcile some of the anger that has driven him since.

Even so, Klaas said, he never will fully release his hold on Polly, no matter how much time passes.

“You learn how to deal with it, maybe. But you never let go.”


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