By Jill Smolowe
November 1, 1993

When children disappear, a fate that has befallen 4,500 American kids in the past year, their faces usually turn up as blurry black-and-white snapshots tacked plaintively on poles around their neighborhood. But the crisp likeness of Polly Klaas, the 12-year-old girl who was kidnapped Oct. 1 from her home in Petaluma, California, has shown up everywhere: on television, on computer networks and on flyers in supermarkets, libraries and hospitals. The explanation for the ubiquity of the girl’s image extends beyond a fascination with the brazen nature of the abduction: a knife-wielding bearded stranger intruded on Polly’s slumber party. It even transcends the reward offered by actress Winona Ryder, a former Petaluma resident, who pledged $200,000 for information leading to the girl’s return.

. The reason is that the search for Polly is being conducted along America’s rapidly emerging information superhighway. By generating an electronic poster bearing a photo of Polly and an FBI sketch of her kidnapper, the people of Petaluma have been able to disseminate the images to computer screens and fax machines across the country. That information, in turn, has been converted into 7 million high-quality hard copies — the posters now on bulletin boards and lampposts everywhere.

The novel use of the superhighway was engineered largely by three California men. The day after the 45,000 residents of Petaluma awoke to news of Polly’s kidnapping, Gary French, an unemployed computer-systems salesman, rushed to the police station to offer his help. As he watched a fax machine slowly churn out poor reproductions of a suspect sketch, he thought, “We can do this all electronically.” When Bill Rhodes, who owns a local printshop, and Larry Magid, a syndicated computer columnist, had the same idea, the police put them in touch.

Three days later, when the FBI completed a more detailed composite sketch of the suspect, French had two graphics experts scan the drawing and a photo of Polly into a computer. By then, Magid had contacted several computer networks, among them Internet, which has a worldwide clientele of 20 million users. Those services quickly transmitted the images to 250 computer bulletin boards. “This is like a good virus: it proliferated,” says Magid.

Over the next several days, French and Rhodes called on computer companies in Petaluma and nearby Silicon Valley to seek donations of equipment. The result was eight computers, which were put to use faxing 1,000 posters a minute to grocery chains and transportation hubs around the U.S. Two nationwide printshop chains, PIP and Kinko’s, pitched in to convert the electronic images into high-quality hard copies at all their outlets. Local volunteers distributed the posters.

The three high-tech heroes wish they had moved even faster, because so far the trail has been cold. “It took us a week or so to really get started,” French says. “All of this should have happened in the first few hours.” Even so, the three have laid the groundwork for lightning-fast searches in the future. At some point, ordinary citizens linked by nothing but goodwill and a keyboard will be able to check nationwide bulletin boards devoted to cases of missing children. Toward that end, French is feeding a national directory of & fax numbers into a permanent database and is seeking donated computers for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Arlington, Virginia. Magid would like to see the computer networks set up the equivalent of a 911 number for missing-persons emergencies. When that kind of system is in place, girls like Polly may have millions of searchers looking for them