PETALUMA, Calif. — The painful search for missing children has come a long way from photographs on milk cartons. The hunt for Polly Hannah Klaas, under way for two weeks, is a lesson in the new global media.
The 12-year-old Petaluma girl who wanted to be an actress has made MTV News and the E! entertainment channel; her picture is featured in a Soul Asylum rock video shown regularly on MTV.
Likenesses of Polly and her suspected abductor are available to millions of users on Internet, the world's biggest network of computer systems. An alert to watch for Polly or her kidnaper is the first item seen by thousands of users who sign on to bulletin boards every day.
Electronic versions of flyers about the kidnaping have been sent by computer modem to print shops around the country, which have spit out millions of copies for local distribution.
"This girl's face has been seen by more people than any child in the history of child abductions," said Jay Silverberg, former executive editor of the Marin Independent Journal and a volunteer in the search. "We are rewriting the book on how to organize the search for a missing child."
The massive volunteer campaign to find Polly--abducted at knifepoint from her bedroom the night of Oct. 1--has also blanketed the traditional media, saturating the network news, tabloid TV shows and newspaper front pages across the country with images of Polly and the bearded man police say kidnaped her.
Bay Area news shows have even taken to broadcasting from Petaluma, a Sonoma County suburb 40 miles north of San Francisco, during the search, which is being directed by thousands of volunteers in a donated storefront.
The story jumped from the crime pages into cyberspace when computer-savvy residents of Northern California donated their time to upload information about the case onto the Internet and commercial on-line services such as CompuServe and Prodigy.
The crossover into new wave sources of news, such as MTV and the E! channel, became complete last weekend when actress Winona Ryder, a Petaluma native who went to the same junior high school as Polly, offered a $200,000 reward for the girl's safe return.
"The awareness of (media) alternatives comes in part from the past presidential campaign, where any candidate who wanted to be taken seriously had an E-mail address," said Dan Amundson, research director for the Washington-based Center for Media and Public Affairs. "Now when something happens, whether it's a missing child, an uprising in China or a flood in the Midwest, you have people looking at these alternative methods of communication."
For suburban Petaluma, where the 1973 coming-of-age movie "American Graffiti" was shot, this case shows that the town once known for its chicken ranches is not far removed from either the reality of urban crime or the global reach of modern telecommunications.
"This is a case where a real community confined to a small geographic area can project its needs into a virtual community that can span the world," said Howard Rheingold, author of the book, "The Virtual Community."
Rheingold said he came across information about the kidnaping in his electronic mail and posted it on a Marin County-based bulletin board known as The Well. He presumes other users quickly sent the material on to other computer screens via E-mail and Internet, which links computer networks in 125 countries.
"One of the qualities of the network is that it's almost viral in its ability to multiply," he said.
Polly was playing a board game in her bedroom with two friends when the abductor entered the house, most likely through a window. He asked which of the girls lived in the home, tied and gagged them and carried Polly away. Her mother and a half sister slept in a nearby room.
With the help of polygraph tests, police and the FBI have ruled out family members as suspects and rejected the notion of a hoax. Instead, authorities have concluded that it is an unusual case of a stranger who broke into a home and abducted a child.
More than 2,600 people, few of whom ever met Polly, have volunteered to help at search headquarters in Petaluma. The efforts have generated more than 3,700 tips to the FBI and police, but no solid leads. A third of the Petaluma Police Department and three dozen FBI agents are working the case.
"The volunteer center has kept this story alive," said Petaluma Police Sgt. Mike Kerns. "It's phenomenal. I've never seen anything like it."
The coincidence of a Hollywood connection has been a key element in the ability to reach people who don't watch or read traditional news sources and might otherwise never hear of Polly Klaas.
Ryder, who starred in "The Age of Innocence" and "Beetlejuice," returned home a week ago to visit Polly's school, talk with her classmates and announce the $200,000 reward. The 21-year-old actress also taped a TV public service announcement seeking information about Polly or her abductor.