Advertisement

Haunted City Girds for Klaas Case Trial : Crime: Petaluma will revisit painful memories when proceeding begins today against the man accused of kidnaping and murdering a 12-year-old girl.

Share via
TIMES STAFF WRITER

The prisoner got a haircut. The Sonoma County jury commissioner sent out 8,500 jury summonses. The judge turned down all requests for gavel-to-gavel coverage on television and radio.

And the pristine little city of Petaluma, now a shrine to the world’s most famous missing child, is bracing itself for a fresh onslaught of publicity and pain.

Richard Allen Davis goes on trial today for the kidnaping and murder of Polly Hannah Klaas, riveting attention to yet another California courtroom, this one more than 300 miles north of Los Angeles in a town that has neither forgotten nor forgiven.

Advertisement

Davis, who confessed to the girl’s murder but pleaded not guilty to the 10 charges against him, faces the death penalty in a trial that could last up to 10 months. The proceeding is expected to bring few surprises; it also is likely to do little to heal a town that was traumatized almost two years ago when the lengthy search for Polly, who was kidnaped from her upstairs bedroom, ended in tragedy and second-guessing.

“Can Petaluma recover?” asked Steve Dorenfeld, as he contemplated the trial and watered his lawn. “Everything recovers. You go on, but a little bit of the heart dies. It’s the same here. There’s a scar on the town.”

That damage is evident from Dorenfeld’s renovated Craftsman bungalow. His front porch looks out on the Polly Hannah Klaas Performing Arts Center, which shares a building with the Petaluma Seniors Involved Polly Klaas Center.

Reminders of those difficult months also can be seen at the Polly Klaas Foundation across town and at Peter’s Exxon on Washington Street, where owner Peter Foster spent $11,000 to paint a building-sized angel mural dedicated to the slain junior high school student. “Polly liked angels a lot,” Foster said.

The scar tissue is particularly evident along 4th Street, where the 12-year-old was abducted from her home at knifepoint on Oct. 1, 1993, during a slumber party with her two best friends. Her mother and little sister slept nearby.

Sixty-five days later, after an international effort that involved tens of thousands of people searching woods, posting flyers, holding prayer vigils and swapping tips on the Internet, Davis led authorities to a shallow grave beside U.S. 101 in the Sonoma County wine country.

Advertisement

Polly’s old streets now bristle with new Neighborhood Watch signs, evidence of the town’s recent grappling with violence. The two nearby parks where Davis allegedly loitered before the abduction, drinking beer and smoking marijuana, today bear ominous placards warning that alcohol is prohibited.

“I think people in Petaluma hold their children a little closer at night and are a little more careful about closing their doors and locking their windows,” said Marc Klaas, Polly’s father. “But I would hope people don’t feel safer [with Davis in jail]. . . . There are a lot of monsters like him out there.”

When Polly was first reported missing, an outpouring of Northern California residents donated time and money to search for the dimpled girl who wanted to be an actress. Technophiles uploaded information about the case onto computer networks for worldwide distribution. Winona Ryder, a Petaluma native and star of “The Age of Innocence” and “Little Women,” donated $200,000 for a reward.

To this day it is difficult to walk the streets of this historic city--graced with Victorian houses, crowded with coffeehouses and antique stores--and find someone who did not help in the search effort.

“I had the Greyhound and Western Union franchise in San Rafael at the time, and we passed out 600,000 flyers,” said Patti DellaBruna, now bookkeeper at Peter’s Exxon. “My 11-year-old daughter and I distributed flyers to every 24-hour Greyhound station in the United States.”

DellaBruna plans to attend the Davis trial--even though she is angry that the career criminal is being tried at all. “The DNA evidence leads to him,” she said. “I say why waste the money. I’m real bitter about it.”

It is just this combination of involvement and anger--widespread throughout the area of suburbs and rural towns--that makes jury selection, which begins today, such an arduous task.

Advertisement

More than 3% of all registered voters in Sonoma County have been summoned to Department G in Santa Rosa as potential jurors.

Selection is a two-questionnaire process that probably will last two to four months and is mysterious even to Superior Court Judge Lawrence G. Antolini, who is presiding over the Davis case.

“I have nothing to base it on, this jury-picking process,” Antolini said at a last-minute hearing. “We’ll know a lot more after the first week and a whole lot more after the first two weeks. But that’s only the first leg of the journey.”

The next leg of the journey, the trial itself, will probably take between four and six months. Assistant Dist. Atty. Gregory J. Jacobs considers the case simple, a mixture of eyewitnesses and physical evidence.

DNA from a hair found in Polly’s bedroom matches Davis, Jacobs said, and strips of cloth used to bind the girls were found with Davis’ shirt. Davis “was already placed in her room by the girls, by his own admission, by a palm print,” Jacobs said.

Public Defender Barry Collins will say little about his strategy in representing Davis, but acknowledges that the defense’s job is “keeping him alive” rather than getting him off.

Advertisement

Collins dropped his bid for a change of venue because surveys by defense and prosecuting attorneys alike showed that juries outside Sonoma County have traditionally been more likely to give defendants the death penalty in capital cases.

But even this area’s liberal tinge may have shifted since 1993, yet another casualty of Polly’s death and a further barometer of change.

Charles V. Parker, artist and gallery owner, is grappling with his own feelings about the death penalty and sees his neighbors doing the same. Parker acknowledges that different levels of retribution are desired here, “from rehabilitation to flogging [Davis] in the town square.”

But the majority of his neighbors look at the stocky career criminal and “want to see a slow, horrible death, starting with ripping out the fingernails to make him suffer,” said Parker, who has a daughter. “I know a lot of very liberal people in this town who want him to fry.”

Sentiment is running so high in Petaluma that when Copperfield’s Books took delivery two weeks ago of “Polly Klaas: The Murder of America’s Child,” there was instant outrage from at least one young customer.

As managing partner Dan Jaffe tells the story, a stack of the books, with their self-proclaimed “16 PAGES OF DRAMATIC PHOTOS!”, was sitting on the checkout counter before being stored.

Advertisement

“We had a very young girl, maybe Polly’s age, challenge us: ‘Isn’t that sensationalism to have that on the counter?’ ” Jaffe recounted.

Copperfield’s now keeps only one copy of the book on the true-crime shelf at any given time, spine out, unobtrusive. And sales have not been brisk in this edgy little city with the long memory.

“The kidnaping hurtled us into new fears about security that will just never leave,” a somber Jaffe said. “Over the course of time we will be more unconscious or subconscious in our reactions, but I think in this community 100 years from now people will still be talking about it.”

Advertisement