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

Part I. A DEATH ON MINER ROAD

Chapter 10. THE MIDDLE CHILD

In the days following the discovery of Felix’s bloodied body, it became clear to investigators that the victim’s sons were divided. While Gabriel and Adam believed that their mother was “delusional” and capable of committing the murder, the Polk’s middle son, Eli, described Susan as a woman who tried to hold her family together while living with an “abusive” husband.

On October 15, 2002, the day after Gabriel Polk found his father’s body in the guesthouse, detectives from the Contra Costa Sheriff ’s department interviewed Eli at the Byron Boys’ Ranch. At over six feet tall, Eli towered over the officers as he followed the men to a small, private office to talk. It was unclear to the detectives whether family members had contacted Eli about his father, and Detective Steve Warne thought that he might be the first to deliver the sad news.

Taking a seat across from the strapping teen, Detective Warne motioned his colleague, Roxanne Gruenheid, to join him behind the desk. He observed that Eli’s physical stature and crew cut made him appear older than he really was. Warne was anxious to see the teen’s reaction to news of his father’s murder.

It was soon apparent that Eli had no idea what had transpired at the Miner Road compound that past weekend. He was “appropriately shocked” and “upset” as he struggled to come to grips with the news, Detective Warne wrote in his official report.

“It’s definitely not my mom,” Eli insisted. “She would just never do it. That’s not even a remote possibility. My mom did not do it. That’s a fact.”

Though Eli tried to answer the detectives’ questions, it was clear he was in shock.

His troubled world suddenly collapsed around him. Away from home for just two weeks, now his father was dead and his mother was in jail charged with Felix’s murder. It seemed his parents had gone berserk without him there to keep the peace.

After several minutes of conversation, Eli suddenly halted the interview. “I don’t want to talk to you anymore,” he announced. Rising to his feet, he left the room. The officers made no effort to stop him, giving the teen a chance to pull himself together. Five minutes later, he reappeared in the doorway and slid back into his seat across the table. He was visibly upset but agreed to cooperate as best he could.

In response to questions, Eli told the officers he had been at the Boys’ Ranch for only twelve days, since October 3, 2002, when a judge sentenced him to juvenile hall. He was allowed limited contact with his family—weekend visits and five-minute phone calls. His father had visited him on Sunday, October 6, and Susan had been to see him on October 13, while his father and brothers were driving to Los Angeles.

During her visit, Susan told Eli that his father was staying at a hotel while she was in town visiting from Montana for a few days. He didn’t know which hotel, only that his father was there because his parents were in the process of getting a divorce. Eli believed that Susan was in Montana looking at homes to buy and that she returned to deal with her financial affairs, mostly a “debate” with his father over “checks” and a court date that she missed. His parents had begun having problems the previous September, causing Felix to move to Berkeley. At the time, Susan said the marriage “was not working out.” She had given the house back to Felix then set out for Montana to find a place to relocate.

When asked if he could provide any information as to who might be responsible for his father’s death, Eli pointed to one of his father’s longtime patients, a man named Tom Pyne. “My dad had people, patients, who hated him,” Eli added, claiming some were “disturbed” and “wielded razor blades and hammers” when they came for therapy. Detective Gruenheid jotted the name “Tom Pyne” on a notepad, noting that she would check it out later.

When asked about a court proceeding the previous month in which his mother had been arrested for contempt, Eli said the hearing revolved around a violation of a “time out” while he was on electronic home detention for a probation violation. He was charged with “felony assault with a deadly weapon” in February of 2002 for striking a teenage boy in the face with a mini-flashlight in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant. At the hearing in California Superior Court, he told Judge William Kolin that he had gone to the Jack in the Box that night to “get a look” at the boys who had jumped his friend and stolen the boy’s marijuana. Things got out of hand when the alleged victim and about twenty of his friends came after him. Eli unsuccessfully argued that he was only defending himself when he struck the teen in the face, breaking his nose and causing facial lacerations that required stitches.

Susan was uncooperative when officers came to the Miner Road house and presented her with a search warrant they had obtained after the assault. She refused to put the family dogs away and then blocked the officers from going upstairs to search for evidence that might tie Eli to the assault. Her difficult behavior continued when she would not tell them where the laundry room was located, since it was there that investigators believed they would find the garments Eli was wearing at the time of the assault.

Susan’s repeated attempts to prevent the officers from carrying out their search landed her in handcuffs, and Eli was temporarily placed in the custody of Felix, who at the time was living in the apartment at the couple’s Berkeley property on Arch Street.

In April 2002, Eli was ordered to meet with officers from the county probation department to determine an appropriate punishment. A confidential report to the court noted that Eli had adjusted well to juvenile hall. Yet when placed in his father’s custody on Juvenile Electronic Monitoring, he had violations for being “out of range” and “not complying with reporting on time to home supervision.”

Shortly after he was released into his father’s custody, Eli violated the court order by removing the ankle monitor at Susan’s urging. He subsequently disappeared, and Susan assumed full blame for her son’s actions. In a letter to Superior Court Judge William Kolin, she begged for leniency, but she refused to apologize for convincing her son to break the rules.

“I have nothing to put forth in my defense other than I felt Judge Kolin’s order served to provide my husband with custody and to divide our family, I mean me and my children,” Susan wrote in the four-page handwritten note to the Superior Court judge. “I do not consider Felix to be a member of my family, nor myself a member of his.

“I do feel responsible for Eli’s violation of probation,” she continued. “I worked hard to persuade him to do so. He was obeying his mother.”

Susan alleged that she had convinced her son to “hide” with her in Orinda for the summer. Her letter did little to change the judge’s opinion. To the contrary, Susan infuriated Judge Kolin with her defiant behavior at the disposition hearing, where the judge sentenced Eli for two counts of felony assault. Her outburst, and her refusal to remain in the courtroom until the hearing was over, promptly landed her in jail, but not before she was handcuffed and dragged away.

Judge Kolin called a break. When the family returned for the afternoon session, Felix Polk asked to address the court.

“Thank you,” Felix said, rising from his chair. “My son Eli will have a problem with some of this. My perspective is the truth; over the four years we lived in an environment of paranoia at home.”

“With mother?” the judge asked.

“Yes, and she in so many ways is wonderful, and that’s also true. It’s just the way it is. The kids have all been affected by that. The kids, Eli maybe especially, is loyal and protective of his mother, which is one of the things that you just saw represented. My youngest son, Gabriel, is also like that. They both protect her, and they love her and protect her. So there’s been a lot of stress in the family,” Felix continued.

“My son Eli has great values. He’s a good kid and has, like the rest of us, been affected by that. Each of the three boys have [sic] been affected in that way. Eli is. And so that’s just a background to the kind of behavior I think, from my perspective, in terms of what Eli needs.

“Ideally, he would get counseling. He is in counseling right now. He needs more of that. And ideally, his mother and I both should be involved in that as well,” Felix said. “And he acts out when he just has had it. It’s too much stress for him. It’s been going on for four years. That’s a long time. All of this has been a long time. So I respectfully request that that be a consideration in his disposition.”

Susan was certain that Felix pulled strings to get Eli sentenced to the Boys’ Ranch. She felt he was hard on their middle son; however, a review of the official court record indicated that Judge Kolin simply followed the recommendations of the probation report when he sentenced Eli to time at Byron.

“Will I be able to attend my father’s funeral?” Eli asked Detective Gruenheid.

“You’ll have to work that out with the staff at Byron,” one of the officers replied. The detectives pressed on with the interview. “What about previous domestic violence in the house?” Gruenheid asked.

“There have been a couple of physical altercations,” Eli replied. He described them as “mutual combat,” claiming that both parents had been responsible for instigating the fights and recalling one argument in which his mother was actually arrested. Eli told the detectives that he hadn’t seen what transpired during that fight. A subsequent check of the police report indicated that, in fact, he was witness to the incident, labeling his mother as “the aggressor” at the time of the arrest.

“My mom did not murder my dad,” Eli told the officers. “It’s very important that you know that my mom is a very mellow person. She wouldn’t do it. She would just never do it, that’s a fact.”

Eli’s willingness to cooperate ended when the female detective pushed him to respond to a question that might portray his mother in a bad light.

“I don’t feel right answering any more of these questions,” he asserted. “I would never do anything to put my mom in jail and that is where this is leading.”

Springing from his chair, Eli terminated the interview for the second, and final, time. “I think it’s rude and extremely stressful,” he mumbled under his breath as he exited the room and returned to his dorm at the Boys’ Ranch.

Later, officials at the juvenile hall told Detectives Warne and Gruenheid that Eli had asked to call his mother in Montana on October 10. Eli’s probation officer at the facility said he was nearby when Eli placed the call. After ten minutes, the officer asked Eli if he could speak with Susan.

Taking the receiver, he introduced himself as Eli’s probation officer and asked if she had any questions regarding her son’s program at the ranch.

“No,” Susan replied, and hung up on him.