On October 1, 1993, 12-year-old Polly Klaas hosted a sleepover with two friends at her mother's home in Petaluma, California. Late that night, a man named Richard Allen Davis broke into the house and kidnapped Polly at knifepoint, leaving her two friends shaking with terror — and all their lives changed forever.
For two months, Polly’s friends, family, and community searched for the young girl. The case drew nationwide media attention, but it wasn’t until December 1993 that authorities would make a harrowing discovery when Polly’s remains were found near a highway in Northern California.
Richard Allen Davis, her suspected killer, would soon be convicted, and his case would change California law forever.
The Early Life of Richard Allen Davis
Richard Allen Davis was born on June 2, 1954, in San Francisco, California. Davis was the middle of five children to Bob and Evelyn Davis, reported alcoholics who had a volatile relationship that ended in divorce when Davis was 11 years old. When his mother left, Davis and his siblings became the responsibility of their father, who wasn’t a caring or nurturing parent.
Bob often sent his children away to the care of relatives, being unable to look after them on his own. Davis had an extremely strained relationship with both of his new stepmothers, after his father remarried twice.
Early in Davis’s life, he exhibited textbook warning signs of future psychopathy: he would brutally torture and murder stray animals, and reportedly had an affinity for burning cats alive (dogs met their fate at the hands of his knife). When Davis was 19, many locals believed he might have been responsible for the death of Marlene Voris, an 18-year-old girl who died via gunshot wound. The suspicion fell on Davis after the girl attended his house party and was later found dead.
Davis never stood trial for this crime, however, likely because there were seven suicide notes found at the scene of Voris’s death.
Davis’s criminal days began early: in March 1967, the 12-year-old was arrested in connection with a burglary. That same month, he was arrested again for forgery, in which the young child had forged a $10 money order. He spent the next year staying out of legal trouble, but in November of 1969, he was again arrested for burglary.
His own father showed him no sympathy, and Bob Davis eventually turned over two of his sons, including Richard, to the police for “incorrigibility.” With an already impressive rap sheet, and a new charge for theft of a motorcycle, Bob asked a judge to reconsider sending Richard to a facility for troubled youth, and instead have him drafted into the Army.
Unsurprisingly, being shipped off to the military didn’t straighten Davis out the way his father might have hoped. He received multiple disciplinary infractions, including marks for failing to report for duty, drug use, and physical altercations. Davis spent barely over a year in the U.S. Army before being dishonorably discharged.
With no job prospects and a storied criminal history, Davis returned to the one thing he knew: crime.
Davis’s Criminal History
He was arrested in Redwood City, California, four times following his discharge, with charges like public intoxication, possession of alcohol, trespassing, traffic violations, and a laundry list of burglaries. Davis served six months in prison for these combined offenses, followed by a four-year parole term. Clearly, his stint in the slammer didn’t reform Davis, as shortly after his release in 1974, he robbed San Francisco High School.
This time, Davis was sent to a medical facility for a diagnostic study lasting 90 days. During this time, Davis enrolled in a program designed to help alcoholics, but he quit after one day. He was then sentenced to one year in prison for the high school burglary. The prison permitted him to leave for his alcohol treatment, but he did not return.
This greatly angered two other inmates, who Davis had taken money from in exchange for returning with drugs. These two prisoners did not forgive Davis for his transgressions, and they shot him in 1975. He suffered gunshot wounds to the back, but ultimately survived.
Davis agreed to testify against the two other inmates, creating obvious security concerns for Davis in the prison yard. With his new reputation as a flaky, unreliable snitch, the authorities placed him under protective custody until his release.
Soon after his release, a parole violation sent him back to prison, when Davis stole a car and had been found in possession of marijuana. He was given an extremely minor sentence of only ten days, and when he earned probation, it was quickly lost due to more burglary and theft. He served time once more, eventually being released on parole on August 2, 1976.
The Terror of Napa
A month and a half after Davis was released on parole, he made an odd change to his usual habits. He had been arrested many times on theft and burglary charges, but now, he was deviating from that pattern.
On September 24, a 26-year-old secretary, Frances May, awaited her train in South Hayward, California when she was abducted by Davis, who tried to sexually assault her. May managed to escape and flag down the nearest vehicle, which happened to be a patrol car. Officer Jim Wentz arrested Davis at the scene.
Davis was sent to Napa State Hospital, where he was subjected to a lengthy psychiatric evaluation. While at the facility, Davis attempted to take his own life by using his bedsheets to form a noose. He was quickly discovered and transferred to a medical facility for treatment. He escaped this hospital on December 16, and later confessed to faking his suicide attempt in order to better his chances of escaping.
Davis terrorized the Napa area after his escape. He brutally beat a nurse that tried to stop him from leaving, and she nearly died from her injuries. Davis managed to steal a shotgun, which he used in the abduction of Hazel Frost, a local bartender. Luckily, Hazel was able to escape.
Davis’s crime spree came to an end when he returned to his old ways, robbing the home of Josephine Kreiger. Davis was apprehended, and he was sentenced to ten years in prison. He was released early, in March 1982, and soon met Sue Edwards, an accomplice who soon became the Bonnie to his Clyde.
Together, they robbed Selina Varich at gunpoint, forcing her to hand over six thousand dollars. They robbed two banks, a grocery store, a yogurt shop and an upscale restaurant before being stopped in a routine traffic stop for a broken taillight. The couple was brought into custody, and Davis served nine years in prison. He was released on parole in June 1993.
The Kidnapping and Murder of Polly Klaas
Davis managed to evade further arrests for just over three months. But sometime after 10 p.m. on October 1, 1993, Davis drunkenly broke into Eve Nichol’s home, where her daughter and two friends enjoyed a slumber party. Davis took a knife from the kitchen and entered Polly’s bedroom. The three girls were terrified, but Davis assured them he only wanted money. He tied up Polly’s friends, slipping pillowcases over their heads, and told them to count to one thousand. While they were counting, he abducted Polly Klaas from the home.
When he left, the girls rushed to tell Polly’s mother. Immediately, the search for Polly began. For two months, the case received round-the-clock media attention, even being featured on America’s Most Wanted. Over four thousand locals and law enforcement officers helped look for Polly. For two months, Polly’s friends and families refused to give up the search. They pleaded with the public for any information.
On the same night of Polly’s abduction, about twenty miles from her home, a homeowner received a call from a hired babysitter who had just left the house. The babysitter said there was a strange and unfamiliar vehicle in the ditch of the family’s driveway. The homeowner took her daughter and went out to investigate.
They saw Davis there, walking away from the car. The homeowner called the police, and two officers were sent out to the residence. However, these officers had not been given a description of the kidnapping suspect, as the two police forces used different radio communication channels. The license plate returned no warrants, and without probable cause, they could not arrest Davis.
The only way they could have arrested him was through citizen’s arrest for trespassing, but the homeowner refused to participate. The vehicle was searched before being towed, and the only probable cause they found was an open beer. But because they did not see Davis driving, they could not arrest him. The deputies recorded the interaction and Davis was allowed to leave.
In late November, the same property owner made a concerning discovery. She found items on her property she thought may be related to the missing girl. They had been obscured by the trees, which she recently had cleared by a logging company. She reported these items to police, who took them as evidence.
A pair of ballet leggings the homeowner found matched the description of what Polly was wearing, and the FBI confirmed they were the same pair. Having discovered this on the same property, a search into records of the home revealed the interaction with Davis. Having a name associated with the suspect, they ran his prints against the ones left at the scene, and it was a match. Davis was put under surveillance as the search continued, and was later arrested for the kidnapping of Polly Klaas.
With Davis in custody, law enforcement began a massive search of the area — to this day, one of the largest such searches in California history. They found multiple items of interest, but no human remains.
The search finally ended on December 4, when Davis confessed to murdering Polly. He told investigators where to find her body, which was buried near Highway 101. Davis admitted he strangled the young girl to death, and authorities believed he strategically chose the gravesite, as he regularly drove past it to attend parole meetings. It is unclear whether Polly was buried before or after he was questioned by authorities, and he refused to corroborate any timeline.
The Three-Strikes Law in California
Richard Allen Davis was convicted for the kidnapping and murder of Polly Klaas on June 18, 1996. It was suspected that he sexually assaulted the young girl, though in his court statement, Davis denied the allegations.
“I would also like to state for the record that the main reason I know that I did not attempt any lewd act that night was because of a statement the young girl made to me while walking her up the embankment: ‘Just don’t do me like my dad,’” Davis said in court.
Polly’s father was enraged by this and attempted to attack Davis in the courtroom. There has never been any evidence to suggest Polly was abused by either of her parents, and Davis had been highly intoxicated at the time of her abduction, so it’s highly unlikely this claim was true.
Davis was sentenced to execution, and today he sits on death row in San Quentin State Prison. He’s placed under protective custody, due to attempts made on his life by both himself and other prisoners. Davis seemingly harbors at least some superficial remorse for this final heinous act. He was quoted during an interview back in 1996 as having said: “I feel sorry for the mother… I do feel sorry for them ]the Klaas family]. I apologize, for what it's worth… I am ashamed of myself, for what it's worth.”
Polly’s death, though tragic, was not in vain. Richard Allen Davis’s case would shape California law forever. Upon examination of his extensive criminal history, lawmakers enacted the "three strikes law," signed in 1994.
Under this law, in the state of California, convicted felons who have also been convicted of two or more separate crimes are subject to a life sentence. This case set the precedent for modern day habitual offender laws, which have now become widespread across the United States.
According to a study done in California in the mid-2000s, arrest rates for would-be third-time offenders were down nearly twenty percent. Many have taken this as a sign that the law is an effective deterrent of repeated unsavory behavior.
In the wake of the tragedy, Polly’s father, Marc Klaas, founded the KlaasKids Foundation, which seeks to support parents of missing and abducted children. “We can give meaning to Polly’s death and create a legacy in her name that will be protective of children for generations to come by pursuing the singular mission of stopping crimes against children," Klaas said in an announcement of the nonprofit.
Where to Watch
- "Who Took Polly Klaas?”, Motives & Murders: Cracking the Case, Season 5, Episode 4 (aired October 22, 2014)
- "Polly Klaas: Kidnapped," The FBI Files (aired September 22, 1998)
Sources & Further Reading
- Chronicle Staff, Richard Allen Davis Apologizes To Klaas Family in TV Interview, SFGATE, August 17, 1996
- Kim Cross, In Light of All Darkness: Inside the Polly Klaas Kidnapping and the Search for America's Child, Grand Central Publishing, 2023
- John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Journey Into Darkness, Pocket Books, 1997
- A look at police interview with Richard Allen Davis about Polly Klaas, ABC News, September 20, 2023
- Aaron Rasmussen, How The Kidnapping, Murder Of Polly Klaas Changed The American Criminal Justice System, Investigation Discovery
- Paula K. Harris, Accused killer in court today, Petaluma Argus-Courier, December 7, 1993
- Rob Lopez, 'Just keep her safe', Petaluma Argus-Courier, October 5, 1993
- Rob Lopez, The search continues, Petaluma Argus-Courier, October 8, 1993
- Karya Haat, Kidnapped girl's body found, Pasadena Star-News, December 5, 1993
- Polly's body found, The Press Democrat, December 5, 1993
- Polly Klaas obituary, Petaluma Argus-Courier, December 10, 1993
- David Allen, Case puts crime laws in spotlight, Petaluma Argus-Courier, December 10, 1993
- Important events in the Polly Klaas kidnapping case, Petaluma Argus-Courier, September 27, 1994