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COLUMN ONE : A Father's Bittersweet Crusade : Mike Reynolds vowed that his murdered daughter would not die in vain. Few thought he could win, but today he will see the 'three strikes' bill signed into law.

March 07, 1994|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FRESNO — It was the summer of 1992, a few days after Mike and Sharon Reynolds had laid their only daughter, Kimber, to rest after she had been fatally shot by a parolee who tried to steal her purse.

He remembers it as if it were yesterday. Gov. Pete Wilson had come to Fresno on business, heard about the crime and asked to meet the Reynolds family.

"Let me tell you," Mike Reynolds said to the governor, "I'm going after these guys in a big way, the kind of people who would murder little girls in this way."

Wilson gave a sad smile of frustration. He could offer little hope that the laws would change.

Today, Wilson will sign into law a bill popularly known as "three strikes and you're out." It requires that habitual criminals like the man who killed Kimber Reynolds must serve at least 25 years in prison. By 2001, state corrections experts predict, 100,000 more criminals will be serving what amount to life-in-prison terms because of the law.

California will have one of the toughest criminal sentencing laws in the country. And the man most responsible is Mike Reynolds.

In California politics, a Mike Reynolds comes along once in a great while. There were Paul Gann and Howard Jarvis. They changed property tax laws in California through Proposition 13, an anti-tax movement that spread across the country. There was Candy Lightner. Her daughter's death led to the creation of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

They were able to take lapses in the law, personal tragedy, drama and broad but unfocused public concern and create a powerful whirlwind strong enough to overcome politics as usual: a girl killed by a drunk driver. Elderly people losing their homes because they could not pay property taxes. The murder of a teen-age daughter followed by the kidnaping and murder of a 12-year-old Petaluma girl named Polly Klaas.

"These were issues that were lying there waiting to be dramatized," said Bruce Cain, a UC Berkeley professor who specializes in California politics.

In Reynolds' case, he came up with the plan, brought it to the Legislature and did not give up when it was rejected. He resorted to an initiative. When the rage of Californians propelled crime to the top of the political agenda in this election year, Reynolds was in the right place at the right time to focus it.

The policies that come of such events are not always the best, Cain noted. Critics say the cost of building new prisons to house the felons sentenced under terms of the Reynolds law will debilitate the state and lead to the warehousing of geriatric convicts. Joe Klaas, Polly's grandfather, said Reynolds' idea is badly flawed and pushed by a "distraught parent who wants to memorialize his daughter."

"It's a classic case. Some incident was going to make this come to light," Cain said. "A dramatic event has to coincide with a huge consensus out there. There was a big consensus. Remember, we're in an election year. That is going to quicken the pace of any idea. It's a matter of timing."

*

Mike Reynolds is a few days past his 50th birthday. He describes himself as a "short, little fat guy," a wedding photographer, an "average Joe" who got married on Valentine's Day 25 years ago and never wanted much of anything other than to take pictures and raise his three children.

Mike Reynolds also salvages things.

Walk into the back yard of his home on Harvard Street in Fresno, and there is an old cast-iron bathtub. He made it into a gas-fired barbecue. Next to it is a discarded restaurant stove, and a motel ice machine. Reynolds fixed them, and uses them on warm San Joaquin Valley nights. The well-worn picnic table is made of salvaged 4-by-8 lumber.

Reynolds also knows that some things cannot be fixed.

His daughter Kimber, an 18-year-old student at the Fashion Institute of Design and Marketing in Los Angeles, came home for the wedding of a high school friend in June, 1992.

She stayed an extra day so her father could repair her car, and went to a restaurant in Fresno's Tower District for dessert. While she was out, two parolees sped up on a motorcycle and tried to snatch her purse. She fought. The driver pulled out a .357-caliber handgun and shot her in the head. She died two days later. Her killer died in a shootout with police. His accomplice was sentenced to nine years in prison. He could be out in half that time.

Reynolds reacted the only way he knew how. Here, beginning in this back yard built for neighborhood parties and kids, he would change the criminal justice system that allowed a career criminal out of prison to kill his daughter.

"My daughter had the guts to stand up to those two jerks. The least I can do is do everything I can to try to prevent this from happening to some other kid," Reynolds said.

Sitting at the picnic table he built, Reynolds came up with the idea of imprisoning habitual felons for much longer terms and went to his assemblyman, Bill Jones.

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