Final Analysis: The Untold Story of the Susan Polk Murder Case - Catherine Crier (2007)

Part I. A DEATH ON MINER ROAD

Chapter 9. THE HONEYMOON ENDS

From the start, trouble was brewing in the Polk household. Soon after their three-week honeymoon in Europe, Felix promptly laid down the law about “his” household.

They were home only a few days when he stormed into the room and began berating his new bride, calling her a “pig” and a “slob.”

“Let me tell you how I expect my house to be kept,” he yelled until he was red-faced, before firing off a list of things he wanted done.

Susan was stunned at how her new husband was “so transformed and abrupt.” Horrified by how he was treating her, her first reaction was to leave. But as Susan went for the door, Felix stopped her, grabbing her roughly and throwing her to the floor.

According to Susan, he raped her that day.

As she sat on the floor trembling, she thought again about leaving him, but the harsh reality of her situation hit home: she could never try to leave again. With a single act, he had crushed her spirit, which had just begun to blossom. After years of wrestling with her father’s abandonment and mother’s criticism, now Susan had an entirely new trauma to contend with—her husband. The rape that day set the tone for their marriage. The power and control that Felix wielded would only increase, and his role as the dominant force in her life would shape her character for many years.

In the weeks and months that followed, Susan recalled waking in the middle of the night, petrified with fear. Her terror was palpable, yet she couldn’t put her finger on what exactly made her so scared. It wasn’t until her husband started to lecture out of town and travel unaccompanied to the East Coast to visit family that she noticed how her feelings changed in his absence. During these times, the weight she felt in her chest abruptly disappeared, only to return quickly when Felix came home. He was completely controlling about everything, from how she did the dishes to what time the meals would be served. Every time Susan endeavored to do anything as an individual, Felix would squash her efforts.

Part of the problem was that when he wasn’t traveling, Felix was always around. While he worked most days from seven in the morning until ten in the evening, he would come out between patients to see what his new wife was doing or where she was going. To conserve money, he moved his office into the couple’s home shortly after their wedding. Although he worked seventy hours a week for $50 an hour, Felix was $40,000 in debt. According to court documents, he and Susan borrowed $60,000 from Susan’s mother, Helen, for a down payment on their new Berkeley residence, but used some of the loan to fund their lengthy European trip.

News of the extended honeymoon infuriated Felix’s first wife, Sharon Mann. That Felix would embark on such an extravagant vacation, and then return home and claim he had no money to pay her, was stunning. Barely four months had passed since he signed the divorce agreement, but he was already incapable of maintaining his parental duties. Sharon’s outrage continued to fester when she received a handwritten letter from Felix in April of 1982 outlining his financial burden and insisting they renegotiate the terms of the divorce signed in December of 1981.

The never-before published letter, dated April 20, 1982, became part of their official divorce record:

Dear Sharon,

It is hard for me to write this letter to you but there is no choice left for me…. I can no longer afford to send you the monthly amounts that I have given you…our divorce agreement needs to be altered…. The divorce degree [sic] was held up so long and was issued so close to my wedding date that I signed it with great relief and without really reading all the fine print….

The reasons…are as follows:

1.    Each month I borrow at least $1500 in order to meet obligations here and to you. Now, I am borrowed out. I have no savings, no credit left to borrow, nothing to sell other than the cellow [sic] which, if sold, will provide money for the kids education. I bounce checks not only to you but to the man from whom I bought this house and to others.

2.    I work to the point of exhaustion and fear that at the present rate I will in short order become useless to all; patients, children and you….

3.    Susan worked for me half time so that I can see more patients. The money she earns constitutes our upkeep. She will, in addition, now have to take a half time job.

4.    Our life style is lean. The trip to Europe was taken on borrowed money and saved my ass from collapse.

5.    As we can no longer afford to support the house in Piedmont, it has been put on the market for sale as soon as possible.

6.    As I can no longer afford the payments on my office we are looking for a house which will not only be more modest but will also serve as my office.

7.    As I cannot continue (survive) at my present work pace, I have to cut down my work hours to human proportions.

I am aware that I have kept these things from you for a long time…. I did want you to be able to complete your training at Northwestern without feeling under stress…. I need to take care of myself first so that I can take care of all those, including you, who depend on me….

Felix

It is possible Felix was passively retaliating for what he later termed Sharon’s “manipulative” behavior throughout their relationship. “I promised myself many years ago that I would never allow myself to be ‘had’ by her as was true in the past, and I intend to keep that promise,” he once wrote of Sharon Mann in a letter to his daughter, Jennifer. Quite possibly, it was Sharon’s controlling behavior that had first attracted Felix to the pretty brunette. Perhaps he needed someone to take control, or perhaps, her strong personality was familiar to him. After all, his mother had ruled the household and protected her children during wartime.

Despite Felix’s disdain for his ex-wife, Sharon was not about to agree to a reduction in her support payments—not after she’d spent three long years fighting over the terms of the divorce. She had enjoyed a certain financial status during their marriage; she had worked to put Felix through graduate school and had raised their two children. As far as Sharon was concerned, there was no reason to agree to his demands.

On May 25, 1982, Sharon filed a complaint with the Superior Court of the State of California, detailing Felix’s failure to fulfill their financial agreement and disclosing the contents of his letter in which he insisted the settlement needed to be altered. The complaint would be the first of many that Sharon would file. Nevertheless Sharon’s repeated requests to the court for assistance were ignored. In a personal statement to the court, written in April of 1983, she detailed how Felix’s pleas of poverty, and the court’s indulgence, had drastically affected her lifestyle.

“When my 23-year-marriage ended, I sought legal counsel and came away with certain assumptions: after a lengthy marriage in a comfortable financial bracket, it was assumed I would retain my station; I would be awarded the family home and have adequate support and protection into my old age; I would have enough financial peace of mind to pursue a doctorate and reconstruct an interrupted professional life,” Sharon wrote. “Within 16 months, support would be reduced three times, I would be living at an income level 18% of my former life, forced to sell my settlement property and a court of law would rule that a portion of the proceeds of that house sale be consigned to generate income.

“In the first of four court appearances, I was awarded the family home as settlement in the division of assets and a monthly income of $2500. Support was reduced within 6 months to $2150 and I was unable to keep up the house payments of $1425.

“I was forced to sell the family home….

“I considered buying another house, a small one, and paying for it in full. But my situation seemed too perilous to put all my assets into the comfort of walls. I began to consider it of utmost importance to provide for myself after age 65,” she concluded.

For nearly two decades, Sharon Mann had enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle. Now, in her mid-forties, Sharon was almost destitute and worrying about a future she once believed was secure.

Meanwhile, her fifty-year-old ex-husband was starting a whole new life with a woman half his age.

Susan and Felix had been married for two years when their first child, Adam Eric Polk, was born on January 3, 1983. The delivery was difficult for Susan.

In a letter to Adam in June of 2002, Susan explained that she had planned to experience natural childbirth, going so far as to read books, attend classes, and hire a midwife in preparation for his arrival. Everything was moving along smoothly until the last month of the pregnancy when she was told the baby was in the breach position. Things worsened when her water broke three weeks before her due date. She was having no contractions, and doctors were facing the prospect of a risky, dry breach birth.

According to Susan, the doctors decided to proceed with the delivery. All they needed was her signature on a consent form. “I asked a few questions, creating complications,” Susan wrote in the letter:

They were eager to try out this natural delivery. I was being a problem. Then something welled up inside of me, it was a colossal no. I said, “Why am I not having a C-section? Why am I not having it now? The longer we wait, the greater the danger of infection to my baby, right? Didn’t you just tell me that? What are we waiting for? I want a C-section, and I want it now!”…Afterwards the doctors were angry at me. They were annoyed by my willfulness. I was there for a few days. The nurses were running off with you against my instructions to the incubators where they stuck enormous needles, IVs, in your little hand. I hobbled after you with my cart containing my IVs, ticking off the nurses. You developed asthma in the incubators, possibly a drug reaction.

The doctors blamed it on your premature birth.

It is clear from Susan’s writing that she felt a need to control her world—a symptom often seen in people whose lives are out of control. This was her child, and she wanted to make sure that he was okay.

More than two years later on June 2, 1985, Susan gave birth to Eli, while Gabriel arrived on January 10, 1987. Though Susan was a stay-at-home mom who felt comfortable with her boys, she and Felix enrolled Adam in day care shortly after Gabriel was born. It seemed the right time for Adam to get out and enjoy the company of children his age, so the couple placed him in a private day care program in the home of an upper-middle-class family. There was only one other child in the program, the caretaker’s own child, who was anxious for a companion.

After a diligent check of references, Adam attended the program about eighteen hours per week, in six-hour intervals. One morning, while standing in the kitchen getting ready for breakfast, Adam told his mother he didn’t want to go to “school” that day.

“Why don’t you want to go to school today?” Susan reportedly asked him.

“I don’t know, I’m tired,” Adam told her, playfully pulling open a drawer in the kitchen.

Adam said that his mother asked if anybody at the preschool had “touched” him.

He simply said, “Yeah, that’s it.”

Then only four and still in diapers, he later claimed he was not even aware of what it was she was asking him. But his response set off a chain reaction that landed Adam in therapy. According to Adam’s sworn testimony, his desire to stay home from day care that morning led to his mother’s belief that he had been sexually abused there. The Polks took Adam to see a therapist who reportedly confirmed that the youngster had been the victim of ritualistic sexual abuse during his four months at the day care program.

The unfortunate reality was that the fears that the Polks were experiencing were nothing new. At that time, allegations of ritualistic sexual abuse of children were making headlines. Newspapers in California were reporting charges of sexual abuse at a preschool in Manhattan Beach. The mother of a male student there had complained to police that a part-time aide at the McMartin Preschool had molested her son. Police found no physical evidence to support the claim, and the district attorney declined to prosecute. However, the allegations sparked a panic in the community when the chief of the Manhattan Beach Police Department circulated a confidential letter to parents whose children had attended the preschool. The letter speculated that the part-time aide, the son of the school’s owner, might have forced students “to engage in oral sex, fondling of genitals, buttocks or chest area and sodomy,” and it urged parents to question their children. The letter included no proper way to do this, and interviewing techniques employed by parents and local therapists led to hundreds of false complaints.

A local TV station took the story one step further, proposing that the preschool might be linked to child porn rings in nearby Los Angeles. Only later did it surface that the mother of the alleged victim was an alleged alcoholic and had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.

During that same period, allegations of ritualistic abuse were lodged against employees of the Presidio Child Development Center, a day care center run by the U.S. Army in San Francisco. Parents charged that a satanic cult was operating out of the center and systematically victimizing the young student body. Reports that children had been transported to private homes, where they were forced to engage in satanic and sadistic sexual acts, led to a police investigation.

With these allegations rampant, Susan and Felix began to subscribe to the hysteria, believing the worst about the people who cared for Adam. Felix, perhaps because of his personal and professional backgrounds, was acutely vulnerable to the spreading paranoia. Taking matters into his own hands, Felix authored a report entitled Reflections on Psychology, describing these cults as “very sophisticated” and claiming that “some were set up by the CIA as a way to learn/teach mind control.” In Adam’s case, Felix alleged that the perpetrators were “homosexual cultists” who had “sodomized and filmed” the boy during his hours in day care.

Using the paper as a catalyst, he took his views to the Fourth Annual Two-Day Conference of the California Consortium of Child Abuse Counsels in Berkeley in 1988, where he outlined the alleged abuse. Felix was one of two speakers to address the audience that day. The first was a woman who claimed to have been a survivor of ritualistic child abuse at the hands of cultists, some of whom she described as family members. Interestingly, she was also a patient of Dr. Polk’s who was treating her for the trauma.

Felix asked that he be introduced not as a therapist but as a “parent of a ritualistically abused child,” although he provided the audience with an overview of his credentials during the twenty-five minute address. Displaying a piece of paper he held in his hand, Felix explained that he was going to read aloud a letter that his not-quite five-year-old son had written to the governor of California.

“I want you to get the bad people because I hate them,” Felix began in a deliberate monotone. “I want to punch them and my daddy wants to punch them…. And my mommy can bite them, and that’s all she can do…. And my brother Eli can throw a truck at them.”

To shock the audience, he detailed the abuse his son had allegedly suffered during his time at the day care center. “He was taken from the house in what he called a school bus,” he recited. “Other children were picked up along the way.” They were taken to what “sounds like a warehouse, with a cement floor…. It had cages, and a stage, people dressed in red triangular masks, professional cameras like on TV sets. There were performers. He and other children were raped on stage in every form. Children were killed.”

Felix said that Adam’s most troubling recollection was that of a “baby put in a plastic bag and hammered to death.”

According to Felix, the youngster also claimed to have witnessed “other ceremonies” in which adults and children drank blood and urine and ate feces and a “bloody substance” that he believed was flesh from bowls. Some of the children were black, and others might have been mentally retarded, he contended.

He next insisted that his young son “is now a multiple personality” with three clear identities: “a girl because he was professionally made up and raped on stage; a killer because he has the eyes of a killer because he was looked at by people who were killers and he has their glance; and he’s himself…a wonderful little boy.”

The statements were remarkable—and outrageously unbelievable. Perhaps Felix was trying to “right” his own childhood trauma when he took up Adam’s alleged cause. It is possible that Susan had made up the elaborate tales of abuse or that she simply borrowed them from the headlines and “transferred” them onto her young son. As a Holocaust survivor with his own mental issues, it may be that Felix indulged in a “shared delusion” with his wife. Perhaps his crusade to “get the bad people” was a way to right what had been so wrong when he was a small boy. It is not impossible that Felix Polk truly believed that something bad had happened to his son. After all, he purportedly witnessed men in black helmets wearing swastikas systematically round up men, women, and children for extermination. In Felix’s mind, the two incidents may have been fused; his own childhood trauma and the one he believed happened to his son. Indeed, he spoke of his family’s ordeal at the hands of the Nazis during his presentation in Berkeley.

“I am an older father,” he told those attending the workshop that day. “I am a survivor of the Holocaust. My family and I were in hiding in Europe unable to talk for one year. I have a built-in sense of survival. I have a commitment to not let anything happen to my children. It was a horror what happened to us.”

It was after this recollection that Felix vowed to keep up the fight on his son’s behalf. “I’ve alienated some people, some police and FBI. But I don’t care…. My rage is omni present. I wake up with it every morning. My fantasy, of course, is to kill them,” he said of his son’s alleged abusers. “I am a rather moral person. But I won’t stop, not now. People are not in a place to protect our children,” Felix asserted. “My son cannot be protected.”

The supposed inability of authorities to prosecute those allegedly responsible for harming his son prompted Felix and Susan to establish a new organization, “ENOUGH!” to help victims of ritualistic and other forms of child abuse. Its main goal was to change legislation so that children could testify against their alleged attackers in a public court of law.

While Felix denied charges from some in the psychological community that he was using his son as a way to gain publicity for his practice, his behavior with Adam was certainly not that of a trained therapist. He clearly exhibited poor judgment when he paraded the youngster before an audience during one presentation and detailed the abuse he supposedly suffered while in day care. Even Felix’s daughter from his first marriage had raised questions about her father’s conduct and motives in a letter to him in early 1988. Though the twenty-six-year-old Jennifer Polk had recently joined her father and his new family on a vacation in Hawaii, in the letter she made it clear that she was now estranged from her dad, expressing her frustration that during the trip she was unable to live up to either her father’s expectations or Susan’s. She expressed distaste for Felix’s crusade in Adam’s name and accused her father of always needing a cause to cling onto.

Her accusation evoked a response from Felix, who responded venomously in a return letter: “It is a lie that I need to hang onto a cause, that I need something to be upset about,” Felix replied in a four-page typewritten response on March 4, 1988. “However, I note that is true of you…. Your latest cause to refer to Adam enrages me,” he continued. “I want to shove those words down your throat. My son Adam was brutalized, and I, his father, have not been able to protect him or see that something happens to the people that raped him.”

Felix’s response was ironic and telling. Was he really disappointed in Jennifer’s comments or in himself for what he perceived as another “failure” to protect a loved one from harm? Now he was facing the prospect that he delivered his son to a cult, proving once again that he was unable to protect his charge from evildoers. Worse yet, his own daughter was condemning him for trumping up false accusations in order to satisfy a need to be needed.

In the letter, Felix denied being judgmental of his daughter, yet went on to voice disapproval of Jennifer’s recent weight gain and assertive behavior, which he described as “lacking femininity.”

“It is a lie that I have not recognized your changes or that I haven’t liked them,” he wrote. “It is true that I haven’t liked some of them such as your putting on tons of weight, your increased rigidity and pseudo-feminism.”

Was he now projecting his negative feelings about his own mother, whom he once described as the “power” in the family, onto his daughter? Or did Jennifer represent someone else? Jennifer Polk had just turned sixteen when Felix and Sharon legally separated in October of 1978. Perhaps Felix was not leaving Sharon when he left the couple’s comfortable Berkeley home that year, but the temptation of his pretty teenage daughter.

Notably, it was around the time that Jennifer was maturing that Felix began his affair with young Susan.

“I have examined by looking inside myself and by talking with others what the basis may be for my reaction to your irresponsible and hurtful behavior,” Felix wrote in a second letter to Jennifer in March of 1988:

What I will take responsibility for is that I have a particularly strong sensitivity to loss, to having somebody I love dearly taken away from me….

You have ripped yourself away from me, and to me that feels like a deep and familiar loss…. I tried to meet your needs in growing up…while I well may have been overly protective of you at times (to balance out your attacking and critical mother)…. You need to work on the tendency to project and to have good and bad people in your life.

Mom [Sharon Mann] is in now, and I am out.

Interestingly, the theme of “good parent,” “bad parent” would reemerge in Felix’s second marriage to Susan Bolling.