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Larry Magid: Polly Klass tragedy changed how we look for missing children

Larry Magid: Polly Klass tragedy changed how we look for missing children

Poster depicting Polly Klass and sketch of suspect 

Just over 30 years ago, on October 1, 1993, 12-year-old Polly Klass was abducted from her home in Petaluma during a sleep-over with two friends. Tragically, she was found dead more than two months later after a massive local search and intense national publicity, including a segment on America’s Most Wanted and articles in Time, the Associated Press and many other news outlets.

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The entire episode is documented in a just-published book, In Light of All Darkness, by best-selling author Kim Cross, which covers the crime itself, the investigation, the aftermath and the efforts of hundreds of volunteers in and around Petaluma.

Digital missing child posters

For me, this case became personal, even though I never met Polly Klass.

A couple of days after the kidnapping, I was driving south on 101 from my house in Redwood City to the offices of Netcom, an early internet service provider that was to show me the first internet browser, Mosaic, for a book I was writing called Cruising Online: Larry Magid’s Guide to the New Digital Highways. My car radio was tuned to a news station that was covering Polly’s case. Someone was asking listeners to consider driving to Petaluma to help in the search. I teared up, thinking of Polly and my own children. My instinct was to ditch my meeting, turn around and drive the 80 or so miles to Petaluma to pass out Polly’s missing child poster.  But, as I approached the freeway exit, it occurred to me that I didn’t need to drive to Petaluma to help. I could distribute posters online.

When I got to Netcom, I did see the new Mosaic browser, but I also had a chance to talk with their staff about getting Polly’s picture on the nascent public internet, which at the time, was dwarfed compared with the number of people using AOL, Prodigy, CompuServe and free online bulletin boards.  All three of those big online services carried my syndicated newspaper column, so I had the contacts I needed to get them to prominently share Polly’s missing child poster. I also reached out to The Bay Area Bulletin Board Advisor (BABBA), which shared the poster on several Bay Area bulletin board systems. I didn’t act alone. I worked with Gary French and Bill Rhodes, volunteers who were on the ground in Petaluma, emailing me the images and files I needed to upload to these services.

Pleas from other families

It was also my first stint as a tech columnist for the Mercury News, and my October 10, 1993, column was entitled “Online services unite to help find abducted girl,” with instructions on how to download Polly’s poster. A few weeks later, Time Magazine published an article on the “High-Tech Dragnet” about what it called “a novel use of the information highway.”  After the Time article was published, I started getting calls from relatives of missing children around the country, begging for help. It was then I realized that I was over my head. Distributing Polly’s poster was a one-off move. Doing this on a national basis required resources and expertise that I couldn’t possibly provide. That led me to place a call to Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), which was, and still is, the congressionally mandated national clearinghouse for finding missing children and protecting children from sexual exploitation. Allen agreed to take on the responsibility of online distribution of missing child posters, which led to NCMEC’s cooperation with these online services and the founding of MissingKids.org, which had 8.1 million visitors in 2022 in addition to NCMEC’s extensive outreach on social media.

Impact on my life

As Kim Cross documents in her book, it also had a big impact on my life. I wound up joining the board of NCMEC, where I served for more than 20 years. A year after Polly was kidnapped, NCMEC asked me to write, “Child Safety on the Information Highway, which led to the founding of SafeKids.com, SafeTeens,com and ConnectSafely.org, the non-profit internet safety organization where I serve as CEO.

My story occupies only two pages of Cross’s excellent 431 page book, which tells many stories of how volunteers, local police, the FBI, forensic artists, lie detector specialists, celebrities and others around the country worked around the clock to help find Polly until we got the horrific news that she was found dead. Cross documents the day Polly’s body was found, the trial of her killer and the ongoing aftermath, including the founding and continued operation of the Polly Klass Foundation and the impact of this case on law enforcement practices around the world. Meticulously researched with first-hand reports from those involved, Cross’s book is the definitive chronicle of this tragic and historic event as well as broader issues of child safety, including the media’s proclivity to focus on cases involving pretty white girls and the underreporting of crimes against children of color.

America Cries

One of the final chapters is “America Cries,” about the day Polly’s father, Marc Klass, announced, “My beautiful child is dead. America’s child is dead.” It brought tears to my eyes at the time, and again as I relived this tragic moment through the pages of Cross’s book. But, along with chapters on Polly’s Legacy and the Epilogue, it reminded me that the tragic loss of Polly Klass spurred changes in the way law enforcement and nonprofits like the Polly Klass Foundation and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children are now better able to help find missing children and help prevent kidnapping and exploitation.

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Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist. Contact him at larry@larrymagid.com.