EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of two posts featuring Kim Cross on the successful pitch-and-proposal process that led to her new book, ‘In Light of All Darkness.’ In this post, Cross annotates the proposal that landed her a contract after previous pitches fell short. In a companion piece, Cross answers questions about agents, timing and money.
By Carly Stern
Annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Cross’s comments in blue. To read the proposal without annotations, click the HIDE ANNOTATIONS link in the right hand menu of your monitor or at the top of your mobile screen.
In Light of All Darkness
Inside the FBI Polly Klaas Investigation
By Kim Cross
New York Times Best-Selling Author
of What Stands in a Storm
Represented by Leslie Meredith
Dystel, Goderich & Bourret
TABLE OF CONTENTS
On the night of October 1, 1993, a stranger with a kitchen knife abducted a twelve-year-old girl from her bedroom during a sleepover with two friends. It was the rarest of all kidnappings: a stranger abduction from the home.
The kidnapping of Polly Klaas is one of the most famous true-crime stories of our generation, a landmark case as significant in the history of the FBI as the Unabomber, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the World Trade Center attacks. The two-month search for “America’s Child” was every agent’s nightmare. Why did you decide to use bold text on and off throughout? That was my agent’s edit. I think it just makes the key points jump out for an editor who may be scanning. The desperate chase was riddled with red herrings, dead ends, and false summits, from bogus ransom calls to the SWAT team raid where FBI agents kicked in the doors of an empty house.
Not since the Lindbergh baby in 1932 had an abduction so engrossed America, compelling thousands of volunteers to help—then and now. The Klaas case also changed the FBI: Investigative methods tested and proven in this case would forever transform the bureau’s approach to crime scene investigation, forensics, behavioral science, rapid response, and kidnapping protocols. Many of those methods are still taught today, around the world, by the same pioneering agents who solved the case. And those agents have never shared their story in a comprehensive book. There are so many key threads to this story. Why was it important to introduce this particular point so early in your overview? It answers some key questions that an editor will be asking: “So what?” “Why now?” and “What’s new?”
Now, for the first time in three decades, key people at the heart of the case are willing to talk about it. They have refused all previous requests to participate in a book. Author Kim Cross has unprecedented access to inside sources and their files, including never-before-public crime scene photos, documents, and a videotaped murder confession. Why did you choose to describe yourself in the third person (and then shift to first person in the next section, ‘The Case’)? The first page is a summary, much like book-jacket copy. When the proposal begins, I want to bring the reader into the story-world with a scene and a bit more voice.
Cross is the daughter-in-law of Eddie Freyer, the FBI agent who solved the case, and who has taught thousands of agents his crime-solving strategy over the years. (While Freyer has opened doors to key sources, he is not cowriting or editing the MS.) I thought it was important to state this outright. I was raised in an era when journalists were trained to avoid writing about family members or friends, so I was concerned that some readers might assume the familial relationship would compromise my credibility and ability to be objective.
In Light of All Darkness can be published in time for the 30th anniversary of the crime in 2023. It will be the book of record on the Polly Klaas case and its legacy: the insights, methods, and changes that have saved the lives of thousands of children. How did you come up with the framing “book of record?” There were two books written about this case around 1994, before the trial, and both are riddled with gaps and errors. I had unprecedented access to primary sources that would enable the most comprehensive account. What were the merits of stating that ouright up top, vs. letting the reader come to that conclusion throughout as your “proved” that to them? Editors must read a vast number of proposals and I always imagine them skimming and deciding within the first three pages whether it’s worth it to keep reading. Out of respect for their time, it’s important to get to the point quickly and clearly. It’s kind of like a nut graf.
One Sunday in July 2021, I ushered two retired FBI agents into my living room in Boise, Idaho. We’d never met, but I had been studying their professional legacy for more than six years. One of them had lifted an invisible palm print of the kidnapper from Polly Klaas’s bedroom—the pivotal break in the case—and his discovery of this hard evidence had opened the door to the perpetrator’s confession. The other agent had conducted the interview that elicited the confession. These two men were directly responsible for the conviction of a murderer in one of the most famous cases in true-crime history. But their names were missing from everything I’d read or heard about the murder. Why did you choose to open the summary of the case, in the proposal, with this scene? I almost always start with a scene that draws the reader into the story-world. This one (which I also included in the Author’s Note of the book) shows the intimate nature of the access I was given, and it offers transparency into my reporting process. Especially in true crime stories, I feel these two things are important.
We settled into my living room to watch a copy of the videotaped confession, which had been extremely difficult to come by. Not even the lead FBI agent on the case was able to obtain a copy. I appreciate you stating that it was difficult – I think so much of reporting is shrouded and kept from the reader, so it’s not always clear what kind of hoop-jumping journalists have to do to get information. Thanks! I told the whole story in the End Notes, which include a brief narrative that explains how each chapter was reported and written, plus a list of sources. I wanted the End Notes to be worth reading in and of themselves, like a story-behind-the-story.
Larry Taylor, the agent who appeared in the tape, was now 80 years old, a barrel-shaped Texan with a dry sense of humor and a Dallas drawl. He had not seen this tape in almost three decades. Tony Maxwell, the agent who lifted the print, was a spry, exuberantly kind, religious man of Spanish, Irish, and Native American descent. Even though he had been intimately involved in every step of this case, from fingerprinting Polly’s bedroom to participating in the autopsy, had never laid eyes on this tape.
I had been searching for Larry for years, but it was Tony who finally found him living a few miles from my house in Boise. Larry agreed to talk to me, but only if Tony were present. So, Tony bought himself a ticket from New Mexico to Boise. “Why are you so invested in this book?” I asked him. He thought for a minute and said, “I think it’s my last chance to tell the story. I’m over 70. My doctor says, ‘If you got COVID now, you wouldn’t last a week.’”
When I’d first interviewed Tony on Skype in 2015, he wept as he recalled the impact Polly Klaas had made on his profession, his career, and his heart. I like how you convey why this story matters to him — which can also serve as a conduit to persuade the reader why this story matters writ large. I interviewed about 50 FBI agents and detectives who worked on this case, and I’d say about half of them wept, sometimes surprising themselves with the magnitude of their emotions. I was touched by that and felt it was important for the reader to know how personal this story was for them. He remembered minute details and wanted to ensure that this story is told as comprehensively and accurately as possible. He spent hours actively locating other key sources in the case and vouching for me. “Tony, you’ve never talked to the press before,” I said one day. “Why are you talking to me?” He smiled. “Because you’re family.” Then he confessed that FBI habits die hard—he’d thoroughly vetted me and my work.
I’d watched the confession tape Every time I read this now, I hear Greg Jacobs in my head: It was technically an admission, not a confession. But no one ever calls it “the admission tape.” only once before, a couple years earlier, with my father-in-law, Eddie Freyer. Even though this was Eddie’s case, he hadn’t been able to get his hands on a copy of the tape. I myself had spent several years searching for a copy. I couldn’t find it anywhere online or in the possession of the FBI agents or cops who worked the case. Finally, through dogged reporting and sources outside the FBI, I obtained one.
This tape is not only rare, but unusual: longstanding FBI policy prohibited agents from recording or videotaping interviews. The culture of Hoover’s FBI held that an agent’s word should be enough to stand up in court. For decades, it was. This videotape only exists because the interview was conducted by an FBI agent and a Petaluma Police detective. Standard practice for local police was to record interviews, either by audio or video, preferably both. Yet Eddie had asked the Sonoma County District Attorney for a copy to use as a teaching tool in the 40-hour Interviewing and Interrogation course he teaches for the Behavioral Analysis Training Institute (BATI). The D.A. had declined. Even though the case is closed, and the murderer is on Death Row in San Quentin, the D.A. refused to release it for fear of future litigation.
When Eddie and I sat down to watch it, he had not seen the recording in more than two decades. Is it common to use footnotes in a proposal? I have no idea! I did use them, judiciously, in the book, so looking back I do think it shows the editor how I think and address little diversions that are ancillary to the main narrative, yet too interesting to leave out. With his commentary, it was like watching a Director’s Cut. He paused the tape to identify interviewing tactics and point out body language and behavioral cues used to detect lying. He explained the extraordinary sequence of events that led to this legally admissible confession—even after the suspect had invoked his Miranda rights. That’s just one of the parts of this story that has never been reported. How do you balance the insertion of bold text with a belief in trusting the reader to determine what’s most important to them? Ask my literary agent, Leslie Meredith! I think it’s a way to help a time-starved editor who is probably skimming. I obviously wouldn’t use such a treatment in a book, where the engaged reader has more time and is expecting nuanced storytelling.
When I watched the confession again with Tony and Larry, they added another layer of insight that has never been reported. Larry was a kidnapping specialist assigned to high-profile cases including Amber Swartz Garcia, and Ileane Mischeloff. He was the agent who, in 1992, opened a closet door to find Charles Geschke—the Adobe CEO who had been kidnapped at gunpoint and held for ransom—gagged and chained to the floor, alive.
As Larry watched the tape, it shook loose some long-forgotten memories of the moments before recording commenced. Suspect Richard Allen Davis, a repeat offender who had been in and out of prison for most of his adult life, had recognized the deputy who arrived to take his fingerprints. “The deputy had been a guard at Folsom Prison,” Taylor recalled. “And it was sort of like a class reunion. Davis lit up. He said, ‘Hey! Did you know so-and-so?’ It was like old lodge brothers coming together. He felt that comfortable within the prison system.”
Larry recalled driving the kidnapper to the body recovery site with Petaluma Detective Mike Meese, his partner in conducting the confession interview. Mike Meese is deceased, but he was a notorious hoarder of case files (including the confession tape). I’m working to track down his family and obtain a copy of the recording from the drive. I like how you show you’re doing your homework here, and have other means of obtaining more info in the works. Mike’s widow entrusted me with several of his hard drives and a very useful PowerPoint presentation with a few crime scene photos, facts and bits of info I didn’t find anywhere else.
Tony, in turn, recalled the behind-the-scenes drama never shared with the press. On the night that Polly was found, his supervisors ordered him to transport her body to the morgue before dawn, to keep it out of sight of the media. At the risk of losing his job, Tony refused. Too much trace evidence would be lost in the dark. Rushing felt not only risky but disrespectful, and he wanted to do it right, with care and dignity. On that cold night, he sat in the dark beside Polly’s body, praying and talking to her softly. “We found you, Polly,” he said. “We’re going to bring you home.”
In the six years I’ve spent researching this story, I’ve been struck, again and again, by the deeply personal nature of this case. “It’s one of the most significant things I’ve ever done in my life,” said Jay Silverberg, who lived in Petaluma and helped organize the volunteer center. “Aside from my kids, there’s nothing else I could do with that much impact, that kind of legacy.”
The emotional gravity touched every agent, every cop, every forensic technician who worked this case, no matter how seasoned. The pain still echoes today. Tony Maxwell still thinks about Polly Klaas “every single day.” District Attorney Greg Jacobs, who prosecuted her murderer, Richard Allen Davis, said this case is the reason “I’m still in therapy.”
Eddie Freyer and I have driven to Polly’s house, which looks today much as it did in 1993. The owner of the house invited us in to look around, and said her house is not haunted.
But Eddie is.
Eddie and I have also walked through the brambles of a vacant field outside Cloverdale, where the roar of semis on Highway 101 drowned out the birdsong. We stood by an oak tree and looked at the stones that strangers had placed there, the painted-on messages faded by sun and time. Eddie comes here from time to time, alone, to think. This is the spot where he stood, one December night, and lifted a piece of plywood. Underneath it lay a small body in a flannel nightgown, an answer to the 2-month-long search. The lights of media trucks lined the service road by the highway. The command post was on alert, the Evidence Response Team poised to act. Polly’s family was waiting.
On the night that Polly vanished, Eddie had sat down in the living room next to her mother and made a promise that echoes in his ears today. “Eve,” he said gently, “I promise you we’ll do everything humanly possible to find your daughter.” Everything he did in the following days was in the service of his word. Still, he wonders. Was there anything they could have done differently to find her alive? He goes through the events, yet again, in his mind, reviewing every juncture. He reevaluates the early clues. The decisions made with incomplete information. The flaws in the system. The errors they made. How tragically close they came to saving her. The lessons that changed everything.
He is ready, at last, to tell the whole story. You build this up in a quite propulsive way. What influenced your thought process here in terms of ending the intro on him? At this point in the reporting, I expected Eddie to be the central character. As I dove deeper into the documents, I realized—with considerable chagrin—that he wasn’t going to get as much airtime as I originally anticipated. As a supervisor, he didn’t leave as much of a paper trail as the agents and detectives doing the hands-on work. His role as Case Agent made him a sort of Wizard of Oz, orchestrating the massive investigation outside of the public eye. (He’s not mentioned in any press coverage from 1993.) Eddie’s job was to manage the agents and cops who were conducting interviews and writing reports. They were the ones who left the paper trail of records that contained the facts, details, and (most importantly) dialogue that allowed me to write in-scene. I had to rely on his memory of events from three decades earlier in order to write him into a scene.
On a Friday night in October 1993, three seventh-grade girls at Petaluma Junior High were planning a sleepover. The hostess, twelve-year-old Polly Klaas, a brown-eyed girl who still possessed the dimples and figure of a child, rushed home to clean the small house she shared with her mother and six-year-old sister. Her friends, Gillian Pelham and Kate McLean, arrived with sleeping bags and games, planning to stay up late. In a small room with a wooden bunk bed, they giggled as they put makeup on each other and played board games. Polly’s mother, Eve Nichol, told the girls to quiet down. Before going to bed, she checked the front door to make sure it was locked.
Eve closed both doors to the Jack-and-Jill bathroom that separated the two bedrooms, and crawled into bed next to Polly’s little sister, Annie. She could still hear muffled laughter through the walls. Eve took a sleeping pill, read for a while, and sank into a deep sleep.
Around 10:30 p.m. Polly stood up to get the sleeping bags from the living room. She opened her bedroom door to face a stranger in the hallway. Dressed all in black, he seemed over six feet tall. Black eyes. Black hair. Salt-and-pepper beard. In his right hand was a black bag. In his left, a kitchen knife.
“Don’t scream,” he said, “or I’ll slit your throats.” The dialogue in this scene (and subsequent book chapter) came from interviews detectives conducted with Kate and Gillian the night of the abduction and from trial transcripts of their testimony on the witness stand three years after the event. I read the chapters to Kate and Gillian to fact-check and make sure they were comfortable with how they were portrayed. If my memory serves, they made two factual corrections.
He made the three girls lie face down on the floor and he bound their hands behind their backs, first with torn strips of silky white cloth, and then with black cords he cut from a Nintendo game in the room and a strap he sliced from Polly’s purse. He pulled pillowcases over their heads.
“Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you,” he said. “I’m just doing this for the money.”
Polly offered him thirty dollars stashed in a jewelry box, but he made no move to find it. Instead, he took Polly. He told Kate and Gillian to count to one thousand. By the time they were done, he promised them, Polly would be back.
When the screen door slammed, the girls stopped counting and struggled to untie themselves, biting the ligatures to work the knots loose. They ran to the next room and woke Polly’s mom. As Eve surfaced from sleep, a fog of disorientation gave way to panic. She grabbed the phone and dialed 911.
Six minutes later, a Petaluma Police deputy knocked on her door. Shortly after midnight, two FBI agents arrived. It was too late. Polly was gone.
The two-month search that followed remains one of the biggest manhunts in the history of California—and the FBI. It involved more than one hundred agents and dozens of local cops and detectives, who followed a non-stop stream of leads—tips that may or may not warrant investigative action. Their actions ranged from hour-long interviews to a full-blown investigation with surveillance teams, SWAT operations, and a grid search over many square miles. A “big” FBI case might involve 5,000 tips. The Klaas case had 60,000 tips and 12,000 actionable leads.
The public, outraged, came out in full force to help. Four thousand civilian volunteers beat the bushes along every creek and country road in Sonoma County. One of them was actress Winona Ryder, who grew up in Petaluma, had attended Polly’s junior high, and signed a check for a $200,000 reward.
“The nature of this case was so shocking, so bold on the part of the offender, it struck at the heart of every family in this country,” says FBI Senior Resident Agent Eddie Freyer. The first FBI agent to arrive on the scene, Freyer became the lead agent in charge of the Polly Klaas case.
Volunteers manning a twenty-four-hour telephone bank took calls and passed tips and leads to police. Eight million Missing Person fliers were distributed nationwide and abroad. The Polly Klaas Foundation, a 501(c)(3), was rushed through the IRS paperwork in just a few days to manage donations that topped $250,000 almost overnight. When, two months into the case, the overtime expense threatened to bankrupt the Petaluma Police Department, the Foundation offered the city $50,000 to keep the search going strong. These small details are super effective. I try to use specificity and telling details as a way to avoid cliches and platitudes.
Everyday citizens played a critical role in this case. They were instrumental in keeping the search—and just as importantly, the story—alive. The volunteers held the media’s interest, and the media, in turn, kept leads streaming in from the public. One of those leads helped to solve the case.
On the 59th day, a Sonoma County resident called in a tip that altered the course of the investigation. She had stumbled upon suspicious items on her property, key evidence that led quickly and directly to the identification of the kidnapper. This citizen might not have recognized the connection and called the cops had she not seen the media coverage. Were you worried about giving key details of the story away? Not so much here as in the book itself. I wrangled with the decision of when to let the reader know about a key event that transpired on the night of Polly’s abduction. Two sheriff’s deputies responded to a trespassing call from a woman named Dana Jaffe, who encountered a man whose car was stuck in a ditch on her property. The deputies freed the man’s car and sent him on his way. The trespasser turned out to be Polly’s kidnapper. But investigators didn’t know this until two months later, when Dana Jaffe found suspicious items on her property. She called the sheriff’s again and they linked the items to the trespasser. I had a tough choice to make: When do I tell the reader this? When the investigators find out? Or when it happens? I chose the latter, a form of dramatic irony used in Shakespearean plays and Greek tragedies, because it amped up the tension.
The first kidnapping to be publicized internationally, this unfolding drama dominated the news for months and etched itself in popular memory. It’s hard to find anyone alive in 1993 who doesn’t recognize Polly’s smiling face, so often was it flashed on TV and printed under the headlines.
That face reminded everyone of someone they cared about: a daughter, a sister, a student, a friend. Polly Klaas was the all-American girl next door, and her abduction signaled the end of a collective innocence. A woman in Bulgaria recalled that her mother took her bike away because of this case 6,500 miles away.
The bad guy—Richard Allen Davis—was the quintessential boogeyman. “He was a Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy type of offender,” Freyer said. “The worst of the worst.” Davis was a career criminal who had spent nearly his entire adult life in and out of prison. As a child, he set cats on fire and cut stray dogs with a knife. At 12, he was arrested for burglary, a crime he’d repeat more than 20 times. His crimes escalated. In his twenties, he attempted—and failed repeatedly—to kidnap or rape at least three different women. One ran away and flagged down a car that happened to contain a highway patrolman. Another pulled a gun and shot at Davis’s back as he fled. At the time of Polly’s kidnapping, Davis was on parole for his second 8-year prison sentence, convicted of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a woman. Experts characterized him as a frustrated sexual sadist who turned to younger and more vulnerable prey.
Everyone cared. Joan Baez sang “Amazing Grace” at the memorial. The church could only hold 1,500 people, so hundreds stood in the rain to watch the service, which was directed by a producer of the Grammys. Winona Ryder dedicated her film, “Little Women,” to Polly Klaas. Robin Williams made a surprise appearance at a benefit to help raise money for her search. Mark McGuire wore a special wristband honoring missing kids and wrote a $75,000 check to the Polly Klaas Foundation.
People still care.
“At the twenty-year remembrance, I made the comment, ‘Why us? Why did this happen to us?’” says Jay Silverberg, a former journalist who became the media liaison for the Polly Klaas Foundation as the search began, served as a founding board member, and remains an advisor to the board today. “But look at what we did with it. My grandkids may be safer because of this.” It was a case that changed America.
It was also a case that changed the FBI.
WHAT’S NEW? Why did you decide to make this a header? It’s the number one question editors will be asking about a 30-year-old story. What new information will this book reveal? The tricky part about answering this question in a proposal is that you haven’t done the years of research that will uncover all the answers. But that’s why I do a ton of pre-reporting before every story pitch or book proposal. (As a result, I have a pretty good batting average.) The “What’s new?” also comes into play during the marketing and publicity phase of publishing. When my publicist pitched a 20/20 producer the two-hour documentary, I started with the list from the proposal and added insights I discovered later in the reporting of the book.
Featuring a cast of investigators working ceaselessly—FBI agents, detectives, and forensic technicians sharing never-before-published details—this book will be the first narrative to take readers through every beat of the case through the Go-Pro point of view of the people who lived it. I love the term “Go-Pro point of view.” So vivid! Full disclosure: Pretty sure I borrowed/stole that phrase from my friend and fellow investigative reporter Bronwen Dickey, who supported me throughout this book project. With Eddie Freyer at the helm, central characters include a FBI’s behavioral science expert who conducted key interviews, a pioneering police sketch artist who rendered the suspect’s face with stunning accuracy, the forensic specialist who lifted the palm print that led to a confession, and the agent who elicited the confession that led to a conviction and a death penalty sentence.
Written with the cinematic scenes and suspense of a thriller, and fact-checked with primary sources, the search is a narrative vehicle for a more expansive story: How the Polly Klaas kidnapping was a proving ground for investigative tools, procedures, and people who forever changed how the FBI gathers evidence and solves crimes. The history and science of CSI methods will be woven throughout the story, adding narrative pacing, depth, and insider details that true crime readers obsess about. (I used a similar approach in What Stands in a Storm, which laced the fast-paced narrative tornado narrative with bits of exposition about the history and science of severe weather; the book is now required reading in high schools and colleges in at least four states.)
No podcast, TV show, or story has ever delivered so much unique information or demonstrated why this case was so pivotal in the history of the FBI. To me, these paragraphs feel like the most important, and urgent, yet in the proposal. Maybe I should have moved them up higher! It’s part of the “What’s new” answer, and the more I dug, the more specific information I found to support this theme. In the book, several chapters contain historical asides that document insider FBI history I wasn’t able to find written elsewhere. It marked a major turning point when the bureau was forced to change how it responded to the most urgent and time-sensitive of all crimes. Kidnapping statistics paint a grim picture: 44 percent of abducted children die within the first hour; 74 percent die within the first three hours; 1 percent survive more than one day. Sadly, 40 percent are dead by the time they’re even reported missing. It’s worth noting that the kidnapping statistics were one of the hardest things to report and fact-check. Exact numbers of stranger abductions have always been controversial (and sometimes dramatically inflated as a result of multiple reporting systems). The numbers I used here came from a presentation given by one of the FBI agents who worked on the case. The ones that made it into the book survived rounds of fact-checking with various sources and consultation with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
When Polly went missing in October 1993, the nation was plagued with a string of unsolved stranger abductions, many of which took place in Northern California. Amber Swartz-Garcia. Ileane Mischeloff. Kevin Collins. Jaycee Dugard.
“These children were in their homes or playing in their front yards or walking home from ice skating practice a few blocks away,” Eddie Freyer says. “They vanished from the face of the earth. They were unsolved.”
The community was demanding to know: When are you going to stop this? What are you going to do about these unsolved cases? I like how you zoom out to paint the broader historical context here that was influencing this time. I think it’s important to “zoom out” and paint the bigger picture framing the story-world. What else was happening in the world at the time? What pressures were unique to this moment in time? It provides important context and anchors the narrative in time and history.
FBI kidnapping protocol required dispatching forensic experts from the lab in Quantico to conduct crime scene investigations. But during the time it took to get them there—24 hours or more in some cases—trace evidence could deteriorate, disappear, or become contaminated inadvertently. Even more urgently, the first 24 hours after an abduction are the most critical. Odds of survival decline with each minute.
A different approach was bubbling up from the ranks, who saw the need for “a new way of doing business.” Outside FBI headquarters, agents in field offices were assembling local teams that could arrive at a crime scene within hours or even minutes. This had led to the creation of the San Francisco FBI Evidence Response Team (ERT), among the first of its kind in the nation in 1991. I don’t know if it comes out clearly here, but this was one of the most pivotal ways in which this case “changed the way the FBI does business.” I wasn’t able to find a good written history of the ERT. Then I realized I was talking to the primary sources who wrote that chapter of history.
These ERT mavericks were considered rogues, at the time. Breaking protocol and outside the chain of command, they were experimenting with new forensic tools and methods. Many of their previously untested methods concerned the recovery of trace evidence: hair and fibers, fingerprints and DNA, “the evidence we can’t see,” says Senior Team Leader Tony Maxwell, the FBI’s lead forensic investigator on the Polly Klaas case. “Before, you’d want the gun. Now you want the smoke from the gun.”
Maxwell, who has never before spoken to the press, is a forensic pioneer who would change how crime scene investigators gather trace evidence and protect it on its journey to the lab in Quantico. Oops! As I corrected in the book, the FBI lab was located in Washington D.C. at the time of this case. (It was later moved to Quantico, Virginia.)
“There are only two ways a guy goes to jail: witnesses and evidence,” Maxwell told me. “If witnesses are compromised, it all comes down to evidence.”
Committed to telling this story, Maxwell actively tracked down and recruited other characters central to the investigation, including Frank Doyle, a 33-year FBI veteran who co-founded the ERT program and went on to teach forensic investigation classes with Maxwell in more than 25 countries. This is striking. Do you have a sense of why Maxwell was motivated to do this? I think he may have felt the same imperative that Eddie and I did: If this story is to be told accurately and thoroughly, we need help from everyone who lived it—while they’re still alive and able to remember. Doyle also served as the explosives expert for 56 episodes of the Mythbusters TV show. Sadly, Frank Doyle died a few months ago. I attended his funeral with Eddie and FBI SWAT team leader Tom LaFreniere. The next day, we lost Lillian Zilius, who supervised Frank and Tony and the ERT. I was sad, and grateful I had recorded their interviews, which I shared with their families. Maxwell and Doyle introduced me to Mike Stapleton, their FBI colleague and founder of Forensics R Us, a consulting firm through which he currently conducts fingerprint identification courses. Maxwell, Doyle, and Stapleton all say that what they learned from the Polly Klaas case would be crucial to their subsequent work on the Oklahoma City bombing, the Unabomber, the Olympic bombing in Atlanta, and the World Trade Center attacks in 1993 and 2001. “This case was the most instrumental model used in all our case responses thereafter,” Maxwell says.
The Polly Klaas case marked the FBI’s first application of techniques such as cyanoacrylate fuming—aka “Supergluing”—a method in which a fine mist of superglue is sprayed on an object to permanently affix fragile, perishable fingerprints that can be destroyed by conventional dusting. Electrostatic dust collectors were used to gather hairs, fibers, and microscopic particles from every inch of Polly’s room.
This was also the FBI’s first use of fluorescent powder and alternate light source (ALS) to detect latent fingerprints invisible to the human eye. In the months before Polly’s disappearance, Maxwell came home from work and practiced using fluorescent powder and a borrowed ALS—which the FBI didn’t yet own—in his living room, where his wife ran a children’s daycare. A day of Mrs. Maxwell’s business as usual generated all sorts of trace evidence: DNA-rich body fluids, the finest human hair, and children’s fingerprints, which are smaller, harder to find, and more perishable than those of adults. One hundred times more sensitive than traditional black powder treatments, fluorescent powder could pick up prints missed by an everyday fingerprint dusting. In Polly’s room, Maxwell and his team would use this new technique to lift 48 fingerprints missed by the Petaluma Police. One of them would be the palm print that linked the killer to the crime scene, prompted his confession, and led to his conviction.
But even as these teams were making forensic history, they faced considerable resistance within their own organization. “This new team concept was not received warmly by either the Laboratory Division or the agents in the field,” Maxwell says. “We had to win the support of our colleagues one by one, case by case.” Once they did, the San Francisco ERT would become a model for other such teams across the nation. Today, the bureau employs 1,000 trained ERT agents nationwide, and every local office has a dedicated team.
Concurrently emerging in the FBI was the use of behavioral science in criminal investigations, particularly those involving threats or acts of violence. The Polly Klaas case marked the first time a profiler was embedded within the forensic team, which sped up the investigation. It marked the merging of forensic science and behavioral science for the first time in the FBI. From a fact-checking perspective, how did you verify all of these “firsts” to make these assertions with confidence? I interviewed an FBI historian and also emailed Louis Freeh, who was the Director of the FBI at the time. Both of them said I knew more about this case than they did. So I corroborated the assertions made in separate interviews by Tony Maxwell, Frank Doyle, David Alford, Mike Stapleton, and Mary Ellen O’Toole—all pioneers who most likely would have been aware of all the precedents. Special Agent Mary Ellen O’Toole, an expert in criminal profiling and psychopathy, worked closely with the Evidence Response Team throughout the entire case—and beyond. “Mary Ellen would sit across from me,” Maxwell says. “I would do the forensic side. She would do the ‘voodoo’ side. She has worked almost every kidnapping since.” O’Toole used new profiling methods to get inside the mind of the killer, including an approach called “victimology,” which involved analyzing Polly’s artwork to characterize what kind of child she was, and then deduce what kind of criminal might prey on such a child.
Paired with forensic evidence, behavioral analysis helped focus the investigation and support the prosecution. “Tony and I worked side by side,” O’Toole said. “Now, it’s clear you have to blend the empirical and behavioral sciences.” But in 1993, that concept broke new ground. After Polly’s case, O’Toole went on to work for the FBI’s new Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), which became the focus of the hit crime serious “Criminal Minds.” She later worked on the Elizabeth Smart and Natalee Holloway disappearances, the Columbine shootings, and many other high-profile cases. A Fellow with the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, she continues to lecture at the FBI Academy, the FBI’s Leadership Development Institute, and the Smithsonian Institute. She is the director of the Foresnic Science Program at George Mason University, where she is heading up the creation of the nation’s second “Body Farm,” where forensic scientists use donated corpses to study the decomposition of bodies. (The first Body Farm, run by the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, was featured in Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Cadavers.)
After the Polly Klaas case, O’Toole went on to write the Child Abduction Response protocols for the entire Bureau. The ERT techniques and protocols established in this case would be rolled out nationwide, and eventually internationally, when FBI technicians (including Maxwell and his colleagues) began training foreign governments to respond to bombings and terrorism attacks. At this point, you’ve spent quite a bulk of space detailing FBI/investigative methods. How did you think about keeping the reader’s attention? I did enough research on successful true crime books to appreciate that avid readers of this genre love the nitty-gritty details of forensic science and investigative tools. I also saw expository asides as a means of narrative pacing. Many of the scenes are fast-paced and extremely emotionally intense, so these asides give readers a moment to catch their breath.
“All that comes from Polly,” Maxwell says.
Outside the FBI, independent forensic artist Jeanne Boylan was developing new methods of cognitive interviewing to elicit the faces of criminals, images buried deep within the subconscious of a traumatized witness. Trauma affects the mind’s ability to encode—and retrieve—a memory, and Boylan understood that the act of trying to remember a traumatic memory could inadvertently distort that memory. She explained that, after witnessing a traumatic crime, “the mind, as a survival measure, acts with determination to protect the victim from reexperiencing the event by repressing the image that induced the trauma.” In this post-traumatic state, eyewitnesses’ memories were very fragile, highly susceptible to suggestions that could overwrite the memory and compromise its accuracy. What an effective, clear and compelling way in which you described how trauma affects memory. I appreciate the precision of your language while still putting this explanation in layman’s terms. If I learned anything in this project, it’s the extent to which memory is susceptible to suggestion, distorted by trauma, and eroded by the passage of time. For the book, I interviewed a scientist who studies the impact of trauma on memory, and he offered a theory about why one of the two 12-year-old girls who witnessed Polly’s abduction recalled the kidnapper wearing neon yellow bandana across his forehead, and the other did not.
Boylan’s insight, supported by research by University of Washington psychology professor Dr. Elizabeth Loftus on the fallibility of eyewitness recall, unearthed flaws in the longstanding approach of forensic artists. The standard procedure was to show the eyewitness a selection of noses, eyes, chins (et cetera) from which they could select features, which an artist would then combine in a sketch that purported to resemble the perpetrator’s face. This method often produced sketches that eyewitnesses declared “not right.” Even worse, Boylan said, it could potentially “damage the evidence” by “handing to the eyewitness—at the very height of that person’s vulnerability to suggestion and influence—the visual tools to effectively discard, distort, or further entomb the actual image that created the trauma.”
Boylan’s techniques defied convention, which caused law enforcement officials to mistrust and criticize them. The officials tended to view any success on her part as an indication of failure on theirs. Boylan was summoned to Petaluma by the FBI at the insistence of an ABC Television producer named Debbie Alpert, who became interested in the Polly Klaas case and remembered Boylan from a previous story. Boylan’s reception in the command center was lukewarm, at best. By the time she arrived, thousands of fliers had already been disseminated with the sketch of a local police artist, who had used the old techniques.
“The girls say the sketch is wrong,” Polly’s mother, Eve, told Boylan. “Did they tell you that?”
It wasn’t a bad sketch, Boylan thought, but it looked like it could be anyone. The height mentioned in the flyer—six-foot-three—also bothered her. What does six feet three inches mean to a twelve-year-old child seated on a bedroom floor looking up at a man with a weapon?
“I’ll bet he’s a shorter man,” Boylan said. “I think we’re going to need to open that up.”
At first, Mark Mershon, the same FBI agent who had been pressured to have Boylan join the team told her that she would not be permitted to interview the eyewitnesses. After flying home to Washington—and back a day later—she was finally allowed to interview Kate and Gillian. That’s when she realized how much damage had been done. The girls had been interviewed together. When this happens, the dominant witness often influences the recollection of the less-dominant personality. Minor discrepancies trigger suspicion in the minds of the investigators, and that suspicion erodes the confidence of both witnesses. From there, things tend to go downhill, which is precisely what had already happened. Minor inconsistencies in the girls’ perceptions—which should have validated their honesty—were treated as lies by the investigators.
It was one of their biggest mistakes, admits FBI agent Eddie Freyer. “We roughed them up,” he says, almost thirty years later, to every class of new investigators. “We almost lost them, as witnesses, as we dug into the weeds. There were minor inconsistencies. We thought those differences meant lying.”
Eddie Freyer knows every mistake, every red herring, and every small step in the right direction, because he was the FBI agent in charge of the Polly Klaas case. When you were interviewing him, what signaled to you that he would be honest, as a source, about his personal mistakes and oversights? Before I wrote the proposal, I sat in on his Interviewing and Interrogation class for the Behavioral Analysis Training Institute (when he made the remarks noted above). He was frank with his students about those mistakes. I told him at the outset of the project that the book would have to acknowledge what went wrong as well as what went right in the case. He agreed. I needed to avoid writing an FBI puff piece, or what some journalists call “copaganda.” So I made sure to fact-check his memories as thoroughly as I did every other source. As Senior Resident Agent (SRA) in Santa Rosa, he oversaw the efforts of Tony Maxwell, Mary Ellen O’Toole, Jeanne Boylan, and more than one hundred agents—a team that worked in concert (and sometimes at odds) with local police toward a common goal: Find Polly. For 61 straight days, many of them sleepless, Freyer called in the polygraphers, green-lighted the SWAT raids, and made sure key evidence was hand-delivered to the FBI lab in Quantico.
In charge of the command post—the brain of the investigation—he orchestrated its transformation from the “old way of doing business” (butcher paper hung in a break room, scribbled with hand-written leads) to the brand-new Rapid Start system, an electronic lead-tracking database that enabled Freyer to prioritize 60,000 tips and investigate 12,000 actionable leads over two relentless months. Rapid Start was pulled off the Unabomber case, its first application, and reassigned to Polly Klaas, operated by data analysts nicknamed “the mushroom heads” by their colleagues.
Behind the scenes, invisible to media, Freyer was making thousands of decisions in a case that would profoundly change the way we search for and find missing children. Throughout the entire investigation Freyer kept a low profile, insulated from the press by supervisors like FBI ASAC Mark Mershon, who became the official spokesperson, but was not as intimately involved in the day-to-day decisions that made this case so complex. Everyone who worked the Polly Klaas case says Freyer’s leadership was the grease that kept the investigation running twenty-four hours a day. As Mary Ellen O’Toole said years later, “I think one of the reasons we all worked together so well and solved the case is because working for Eddie was wonderful. He is probably one of the best FBI agents I’ve ever worked for. He was low key. He listened. he was thoughtful, but very decisive. He always seemed to know exactly what to do. I haven’t seen that kind of competence since.”
But it wasn’t cold competence that set Eddie Freyer apart from the ranks of lead investigators. It was his humanity. When he realized how badly Kate and Gillian had been traumatized by the mistrust of early interviewers, he brought the girls flowers and, on bended knee, apologized for how they had been treated. As he learned how forensic artist Jeanne Boylan had helped the girls recover not only the face of the killer, but also their trust and confidence, he asked Boylan to please stay, because the girls needed her. Three years later, when Kate and Gillian were called to testify in the murder trial of the man who had bound and gagged them, each girl was allowed to choose one adult to accompany her on the witness stand. Both chose Jeanne Boylan. Why did you choose to delve into the story so extensively in this section vs. leaning more on the sample chapters? How did you balance what extent of detail and context to disclose? I wanted the sample chapters to showcase the writing, the storytelling, and specifically my ability to stay “in-scene” as much as possible, which makes a narrative read like fiction. But it’s also essential in a proposal to convey to the editor what I call “the smart layer” of nonfiction – the expository asides that add meaning, context, and insight to each scene.
WHY NOW? I love that this is a header. I think about the ‘why now’ in every story pitch I craft and make sure to include a line acknowledging that, but I never state it quite so directly. I might take a leaf from your book!) KC: It’s a key question every proposal must answer, along with “Why are you the best writer to tackle this book?”
Nearly three decades years after her abduction, people are still talking about Polly Klaas. And true crime stories are more popular than ever across media.
At least twenty-seven true crime podcasts have dedicated an episode to the Polly Klaas kidnapping. Netflix is filming an episode on the case for the upcoming series “Crimes That Changed America.” In her newest suspense novel, When the Stars Go Dark (April 2021), New York Times bestselling author Paula McLain writes about a detective obsessed with the search for a kidnapped girl. Set in Northern California in 1993, the story features fictional characters whose paths intersect with real-life kidnapping cases—including Polly Klaas. McClain says her protagonist, a female detective, was shaped by research that she conducted on the Polly Klaas investigation.
This case has been covered extensively—in newspapers, true crime TV shows, podcasts, and books. All of these stories lack the details known only to deep insiders—the color of the powder that picked up the palm print, the moonless night a SWAT team member fell into a ravine, the way the kidnapper wiped his mouth every time he told a lie. True crime fans who think they know everything about this case will find plenty of new information in this book. It will also fascinate anyone interested in the history and evolution of crime scene investigation.
In Light of All Darkness can be delivered 12-18 months after contract signing. The hope is that it will be published in 2023, the 30th year since Polly’s death. How did you determine how long the delivery would take you? I had reported and written three books (one of which I can’t name, because of a non-disclosure agreement) so I knew what I could handle in that time frame. Plus, I had to work backward from the date of the 30-year anniversary of the crime, which gave the book a natural target pub date and a natural news-hook that would be useful for marketing and publicity. It takes readers deep inside the FBI investigation of one of the most famous—and perhaps the most pivotal—kidnapping in the world. This case was the training ground for the people, methods, and procedures used to solve crimes today—not only kidnapping cases, but also sex trafficking cases, serial murders, and terrorist bombings. “It changed the course of history,” said Greg Jacobs, the district attorney who prosecuted Polly’s kidnapper and murderer, Richard Allen Davis.
Polly’s case led to the Three-Strikes law and improved collaboration between Federal and local law enforcement. It informed the Amber Alert system now used in forty-eight states and responsible for saving 800 abducted children. It sparked the development of child abduction protocols taught nationwide. The Polly Klaas Foundation, a nonprofit founded by search volunteers, continues to work an average of 300 missing-child cases each year, helping families and law enforcement teams act quickly to respond to kidnappings. It is the only such organization assigned cases by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Since its inception, the Polly Klaas Foundation has searched for nearly 10,000 missing kids. It has a 97 percent recovery rate.
Eddie Freyer uses the case to train the next generation of investigators. He has given his Polly Klaas presentation hundreds of times around the nation and the world: at FBI headquarters in Quantico; at more than ten agencies in Iraq; and at the Crimes Against Children Conference in Dallas (the nation’s largest conference on child safety), and for classes he instructs for the Institute of Criminal Investigation and POST (California’s Commission for Police Officer Standards and Training). For the past three decades, he has been asked to give this presentation, on average, once a month.
The Polly Klaas case is still that relevant. At this point in the proposal, did you think (or hope) that you’d convinced the reader of this? Yes, but a proposal is a sales document, so it’s a good place to avoid erring on the side of subtlety!
“It’s time,” Freyer says. “This story needs to be told before the people who can tell it are all gone.”
Polly Klaas: The Murder of America’s Child (Pinnacle Books, 1995) and Who Killed Polly? (Monterey Press, 1995) are the only two books published about the Polly Klaas case. Both rely heavily on widely known facts reported in the press and a handful of superficial interviews with FBI and police spokespersons, most of them supervisors who disclosed more platitudes than substance. Eddie Freyer’s name is absent from both books. Mary Ellen O’Toole, Jeanne Boylan, and other inside players are mentioned superficially, but the details and insights of their work have never been documented in a comprehensive book. No book, no TV show, no podcast has ever captured the inner workings of the entire investigation.
This book will.
I have confirmed access to virtually all of the investigative insiders—within the FBI as well as Petaluma Police Department—who lived and breathed this case. Eddie Freyer has turned down all previous requests to participate in a book. Now, he is ready to tell the full story—but only to me, as a journalist and historian. Your exclusive access and groundwork already done feels like a key selling point. Why did you choose to put the access section lower down, after others? I heard someone (Tom French or Kelley Benham French, I believe) call a story “a promise that the end is worth waiting for.” In the summary, I made a promise of “unprecedented access.” I hoped that promise would keep the editor reading. Freyer does not expect to have narrative control, and he knows this will not be a puff piece that glosses over the many errors and problems in the investigation.
Freyer has helped me forge relationships with other insiders who have been inaccessible to the media. ERT member Tony Maxwell, has declined all journalist requests for interviews about the Polly Klaas case. Maxwell has agreed to be a character in this book, and he is actively opening doors to other FBI insiders. Jay Silverberg, a former journalist who was the liaison between the volunteers and the media, is also connecting me with key leaders in the volunteer effort.
In addition to exclusive interviews with insiders, I have obtained access to case files, crime scene photographs, internal FBI documents, and never-before-heard recordings of 1993 interviews conducted by profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole. Maxwell has given me crime scene photos, evidence recovery logs, and other primary documents. District Attorney Greg Jacobs, the winning prosecutor in the three-year trial, has entrusted me with his personal records: 12,000 pages of court transcripts from the murder trial.
In my preliminary research to confirm access and establish the main beats of the case, I conducted more than 50 interviews with more than a dozen characters, including FBI SWAT team leaders who conducted major raids, Petaluma police sergeants and detectives who canvassed the neighborhood and interviewed witnesses, and volunteers who were active in the community search effort and the Polly Klaas Foundation. More than 50 is a lot! In your estimate, how much time had you spent on the reporting by this point? I keep track of my interviews, documents and sources on a huge spreadsheet, so I don’t have to estimate. Before submitting the proposal the first time in 2016, I’d conducted 28 interviews for a total of 24 hours. When I decided to double down and revise the proposal in 2021, my tally ran up to 69 interviews and a total of 57 hours.
In addition to Eddie Freyer, the central character, the following individuals have agreed to participate in the book: This is another key element the editor is looking for: Characters. And access to these characters.
- Tony Maxwell, Senior Team Leader, FBI Evidence Recovery Team
- Mary Ellen O’Toole, FBI criminal profiler and behavioral analyst
- Vail Bello, Petaluma PD detective; Freyer’s first partner on the case
- Tom LaFreniere, FBI SWAT team leader who conducted several raids in the case
- Danny Fish, first Petaluma Police officer to arrive on scene; former president of the Polly Klaas Foundation
- Frank Doyle, FBI agent, bomb tech, founder of the Evidence Recovery Team, explosives expert consulted on the show Myth Busters
- Mike Stapleton, FBI agent and ERT member who collected trace evidence and now leads training classes in fingerprinting with fluorescent powder
- Mary Nolte, forensic specialist who loaned the first alternate light source (forensic light) to the FBI in 1993
- Larry Taylor, FBI agent, profiler, and kidnapping specialist, who conducted the Richard Allen Davis confession interview with Petaluma PD detective Mike Meese (deceased)
- Ron Homer, FBI polygrapher (called “one of the best in the Bureau”)
- Jay Silverberg, liaison between the volunteers and the media, and later a board member of the Polly Klaas Foundation
- Joanna Gardner, former producer of the Grammy Awards; a Petaluma resident and mother who led the volunteer response and later produced Polly’s memorial
- Gaynell Rogers, wife of blues musician Roy Rogers, who was another Petaluma mother of a daughter Polly’s age and worked closely with Joanna Gardner, her friend, to spearhead the volunteer efforts (Joanna and Gaynell will be characters who represent the face of the volunteers)
- Raine Howe, director of the Polly Klaas Foundation and liaison with many of the volunteers and sources (including Polly’s family)
- Cindy Rudometkin, director of the Programs and Response department at the Polly Klaas Foundation
- Jenni Thompson, Director of Public Affairs at the Polly Klaas Foundation
- Gary Judd, Petaluma resident, one of the first volunteers, and former president of the Polly Klaas Foundation
- Carolina Spence, former Development Director for the Polly Klaas Foundation
- Carol Evans Treu, Petaluma High School teacher in 1993
The following individuals may be available for interviews:
- Larry Pelton, Petaluma Police detective; gathered evidence at Pythian Road
- Gene Wallace, Petaluma Police officer; responded to leads
- Mike McManis, Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy; gathered evidence at Pythian Road
- Chris Allen, hair and fibers specialist at FBI lab in Quantico; matched fibers from bedroom and body recovery site
- Ron Hilley, FBI polygrapher
- Dave Alford, FBI Evidence Recovery Team
- Gary Joseph, FBI Rapid Start team
- Steve Donohue, FBI Rapid Start team
- Joe Davidson, SWAT team member
- Louis Free, then-director of the FBI, who asked for daily briefings on Polly
- Brian Bianco, jury foreman of the Richard Allen Davis murder trial
- Park Dietz, forensic psychiatrist who classified Davis as a sexual sadist and testified in the murder trial of kidnapper Richard Allen Davis
- Richard Allen Davis, currently on Death Row in San Quentin. Eddie Freyer is on a short list of people authorized to attend his execution. Freyer and Cross will reach out to him to request an interview. If he consents, they will go together to San Quentin to talk to him in person. It would be the first time the agent and criminal have ever spoken face to face.
Should a publisher desire that photos be included, I will obtain permissions. I’ve identified a photographer who documented pivotal moments of the volunteer search and the investigation, and the Polly Klaas Foundation, which supports the book, will assist in gathering publishable photos. A large file of FBI forensic and crime-scene photos is being sent to me. Many of these photos may be releasable and publishable, at Eddie Freyer’s discretion. One thing I never anticipated at this point is how instrumental these photos would be in the publicity phase. When my publicist, Roxanne Jones, pitched a producer at 20/20 a two-hour documentary on the case, these photos would be an important part of the production. The other thing I didn’t anticipate, however, was that 20/20 would also ask for documents, which were trickier. I had to run every request through Eddie and D.A. Greg Jacobs. Ultimately they decided not to share any federal documents with 20/20, and said that any police reports had to be released by the originating agency. Petaluma PD denied 20/20 requests. I had what they needed, but they were not “mine” to give away — I was only the temporary custodian. Telling 20/20 “no” was stressful but I had to protect my sources.
This book will be written for readers of meticulously reported narrative nonfiction—the same readers who loved titles such as Columbine, Under the Banner of Heaven, Killers of the Flower Moon, and Stranger Beside Me. It will appeal particularly to those with an interest in forensics, behavioral science and profiling, and FBI investigations, but it will be accessible to readers who may not be true crime obsessives, but who enjoy a well-crafted story with the elements of good fiction. I’m very impressed by this whole audience section. It really effectively hammers home the commercialization potential of your book. The sum and substance of a proposal adds up to this: Will this book sell? Who will buy it? How big is the potential audience? These are not the reasons I write books. But these are the reasons publishers buy them.
The story’s mass market potential is suggested by the number of podcast episodes about Polly Klass (more than 30 at last count) as well as the TV treatment of the story, then and now. Polly Klaas was featured in the premier episode of the Discovery Channel’s FBI Files (Season one, Episode one, 1998). Investigation Discovery revisited the case again for a 2014 episode of Motives and Murders: Cracking the Case (Season four, Episode four). The national audience includes viewers who liked The Forensic Files, Blood, Lies, and Alibis, 48 Hours, The Cold Case Files, Kidnapped, and America’s Most Wanted. As previously mentioned, Netflix is filming a new series called “Crimes That Changed America,” (expected to air in 2022 or 2023) and Polly Klass will be one of the featured cases.
Because the Polly Klaas investigation has been a case study taught internationally for nearly three decades, the book should have a strong niche market among people who work in law enforcement and other fields that protect children. It is very possible that this book could become a text used in training classes (Freyer remembers being assigned Helter Skelter as required reading at the FBI Academy in Quantico). The Crimes Against Children Conference is an annual 5-day conference held by the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center, which provides training to government and nonprofit employees fighting crimes against children and helping them heal. Attended by law enforcement officials, social workers, child protective services agents, therapists, and medical workers, the conference drew 6,900 attendees in 2020.
Clearly, it will also appeal to true crime fans, an audience that has grown exponentially in the past few years, as shown by the proliferation of podcasts, TV shows, and other narrative treatments, such as Unbelievable, American Murder: The Family Next Door, and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. True crime fans are voracious consumers of the genre, and Polly Klaas is one of the cases that most fascinates them.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara.
Based on deep and detailed research, this well-paced narrative takes readers inside an investigation, and inside the minds of investigators trying to solve it.
HarperCollins Hardcover Feb 2018 352 pp $27.99
HarperCollins Paperback Feb 2019 368 pp $17.99
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
This story about the 1920s organized killings of the oil-rich Osage Indians reveals that this case was a catalyst for the growth of the FBI.
Doubleday Hardcover April 2017 352 pp $32.50
Vintage Paperback Jan 2018 400 pp $17.00
Columbine by Dave Cullen
Written with cinematic scenes and novelistic drama, this book alternately recounts the pivotal moments of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and shows the impact of the tragedy on survivors and America.
Twelve Hardcover April 2009 432 pp $37.00
Riverrun Paperback Feb 2019 496 pp $22.15
Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John E. Douglas
Now a Netflix original series, this book takes readers behind the scenes of some of the most fascinating and challenging FBI cases, delving into the criminal profiling techniques used to catch the country’s most notorious criminals and serial killers.
Scribner Hardcover Jan 1995 384 pp $24.00
Gallery Books Paperback Oct 2017 448 pp $18.00
MULTI-MEDIA STORYTELLING & MARKETING
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamara’s search for the Golden State Killer, proves that the true crime audience is hungry to engage with the same story across multiple media, including a book, a podcast, and a documentary. These products do not tell the same story in different media but were designed to be complementary and interconnected, and complete enough that each could also stand alone. Many true crime fans consumed all three. The Polly Klaas story has such a following among true crime obsessives that it begs a similar treatment.
I have created a successful model for multi-media storytelling with my forthcoming book, The Stahl House: Case Study House #22: The Making of a Modernist Icon (Chronicle/Chroma, November 2021). The book publication will be followed by a documentary in 2022, co-produced as complementary products. The book blends reportage, historical research, and storytelling in a deeply reported narrative with a visually stunning layout: full-color photographs and historical documents from private archives. The book tells a broader story, weaving in the historical context of the Case Study House Program. The hour-long documentary focuses on the little-known family story of Case Study House #22, supported by never-before-seen family footage of the family who called the Stahl House “home.”
I am marketing the book and building an audience for the documentary through strategic live and online events that feature a multi-media slide show, a live talk, and a screening of the 2-minute film trailer. It’s super helpful that you have a robust track record you can point to, and that you can replicate the marketing efforts and approaches that have worked well for you with previous books. How would you instruct writers working on their debut book? Think creatively about ways to engage your audience in a way that adds value beyond a book-launch party. For “In Light of All Darkness,” I envisioned a series of ticketed events to raise money for non-profit organizations that support victims and to encourage social discourse in some meaningful way. In Boise, my hometown, I planned a moderated talk called “Making Sense of the Senseless: Exploring the Ethical Quandaries of True Crime.” It was a conversation with J. Reuben Appelman, author of “While Idaho Slept,” the first book about the 2022 University of Idaho murders. We talked about all the ethical dilemmas we faced in the reporting and writing of our books, from the risk of re-traumatizing sources to the fact-checking of memories distorted by trauma. By design, we made no money from the event, but sold tickets to raise around $1,000 for Faces of Hope, a local nonprofit that helps victims of violent crimes. In Petaluma, where Polly was kidnapped, I curated a 2.5-hour symposium about the legacy of the case. I wanted the audience to hear directly from 20 primary sources—FBI agents, forensic technicians, detectives, witnesses and leaders of the volunteer search center—what happened 30 years ago and how it changed their lives. I had a budget of zero from my publisher, so putting on the event was like making Stone Soup. The panelists flew in (on their own dime) from New Mexico, Virginia, Montana and Oregon. The Polly Klaas Foundation rented the venue. Copperfield’s Books (a local book shop housed in the very downtown storefront that served as the Polly Klaas Volunteer Search Center in 1993) planned and promoted the event. Michela O’Connor Abrams, my former boss, donated a case of wine for the VIP reception. We raised around $12,000 for the Polly Klaas Foundation, including a generous donation from the family of a late FBI agent who participated in the case and the book. At the end of the event, everyone got to meet a woman who was kidnapped as a 12-year-old girl, by a stranger, six months after Polly Klaas was found. She spoke alongside the police chief who saved her life by applying the lessons he had learned directly from Polly Klaas investigators. Afterward, people who had been traumatized by the kidnapping in 1993 said that learning about the legacy had facilitated some healing. The first live event was hosted by the Palm Springs Art Museum in May 2021. A two-hour program will be held in Boise in mid-September. All ticket buyers will receive a copy of the book when it comes out in November.
I’ve leveraged my personal journalistic network to seek publicity. An 8-page story on the book appeared online and in the July/August 2021 issue of Vanity Fair (https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2021/07/inside-la-ultimate-mid-century-modern-home). An excerpt will be published in the January 2022 issue of Veranda. I’ve invited key media to VIP events at the Stahl House in Hollywood and at other venues in other cities with the same book-selling model. I will be promoting the book as a speaker at live events at the Palm Springs Art Museum in October 2021 and February 2022, which will build a market for the documentary, which will premier in 2022. At documentary screenings, the book will be promoted.
PLATFORM AND PUBLICITY
Eddie Freyer and I are willing to make appearances, independently or together, to promote the book. Whenever a child abduction or human trafficking case hits the national news, Eddie Freyer is interviewed by the media as an expert. One of the world’s leading experts on kidnapping, he has made live TV appearances on Fox News, the Bill O’Reilly Show, and many regional and local stations. Well-known in law enforcement circles nationwide, Freyer teaches classes for the Institute of Criminal Investigation as well as training courses for the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), the institution responsible for training California’s 80,000 police officers.
I have a solid network within the media, with friends and contacts at newspapers, magazines, and radio stations across the country. I’ve been a speaker at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, the American Society of Journalists and Authors conference, and at book festivals and literary events. I’ve been interviewed by NPR member stations in Dallas, Atlanta, Birmingham, and Tuscaloosa. My work has been featured by Nieman Storyboard, Longreads, Longform, Apple News, Apple News Audio, Yahoo News, the Creative Nonfiction Podcast, and Gangrey: the Podcast. Through my author website—kimhcross.com—and newsletter mailing list, I regularly engage with readers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (@kimhcross). I personally answer reader emails and social media messages and regularly speak to book clubs in person or by Skype.
Tony Maxwell, Frank Doyle, and other members of the central “cast” may also be available to participate and speak, depending on their schedule. Public relations professional Jay Silverberg, founder of Petaluma-based Silverberg Communications, LLC, has offered to help with promotion pro bono.
Polly Klaas Foundation has helped more than 10,000 families and hundreds of law enforcement teams across the country. The foundation will benefit from the book, which tells the story that inspired its mission and inception. Several characters in the book, including Eddie, Danny Fish, and Jay Silverberg, are either on the foundation’s board of directors or still actively involved with the Foundation. The Foundation supports the book.
One of my editors has agreed to introduce me to the founder of CrimeCon, a true crime conference that draws an audience of 4,000 true crime fans in a typical year and also conducts themed cruises for lovers of the genre. Eddie and I would be willing to speak and give a multimedia presentation at this and other such gatherings, including Crimes Against Children, the annual conference in Dallas that drew nearly 7,000 attendees in 2020.
Kim Cross is a New York Times best-selling author and journalist known for meticulously reported narrative nonfiction. Her work has been recognized in “Best of” lists by The New York Times, the Columbia Journalism Review, The Sunday Longread, Longform, and Apple News Audio. Three of her stories have been anthologized in Best American Sports Writing and The Year’s Best Sports Writing and have received three gold Lowell Thomas Awards. Her 2020 narrative, “Noel + Leon: What Happens When Two Strangers Trust the Rides of Their Lives to the Magic of the Universe,” was analyzed on Harvard’s Nieman Storyboard and noted in The New York Times Sidney Awards. The story is a finalist for the Jenkins Medal for Excellence in Sports Writing.
Kim’s first book, What Stands in a Storm (Atria, 2015), a New York Times bestseller, chronicles the biggest tornado outbreak in history, the April 2011 storm that unleashed 349 tornadoes on 21 states, killing at least 324 people. The book won the Fitzgerald Museum Literary Prize for Excellence in Writing and the American Society of Journalists and Authors nonfiction book award. A Barnes & Noble Discover pick, it was named one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2015 and was a finalist in the GoodReads Choice Awards. A starred review in Publisher’s Weekly noted its “detail-oriented reporting anchors a novelist’s flair for drama.” It has been selected for by two community-wide reading programs and is taught in high schools and colleges in at least four states.
Kim’s forthcoming book, The Stahl House: Case Study House #22—The Making of a Modernist Icon (Chroma Chronicle, November 2021) tells the inside family story of the most famous home in the Case Study House Program, with never-before-published photographs and historical documents. The book is featured in the July/August issue of Vanity Fair and will be excerpted in the January issue of Veranda.
A lifelong athlete, Kim has competed in at least ten sports, three nationally and one internationally. She lives in Idaho.
Read news and stories at kimhcross.com and sign up for her monthly author newsletter.
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Carly Stern is a freelance reporter based in San Francisco who covers housing, disability policy, urban life and economic inequality.