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

Part II. THE INVESTIGATION BEGINS

Chapter 11. THE CHILDREN UNRAVEL

Susan’s hands-off parenting style had long been a point of contention with Felix. Whenever there was a problem with one of the boys, Felix was quick to blame Susan, charging either that she was too lenient or that the children were taking after her side of the family. After all, he said, she was the one who dropped out of school in the ninth grade, and it was her household that had been dysfunctional, a comparison that Susan deeply resented. She was upset that Felix would dredge up things she had confided during their therapy sessions at his Berkeley office.

In truth, Susan prided herself on giving the boys space and allowing them their independence. While other mothers were congratulating themselves on how “obedient” their children were, Susan was chuckling at her sons’ displays of strong will. She believed in free will and self-determination and hoped that by giving her children room, they would find that on their own. She wanted her boys to think things over for themselves, and unlike other mothers, she didn’t want to tell them what to do. To Susan, so much control could only lead to “a society of storm troopers or Spartans.” She was about self-expression. The idea of controlling her children went against all that she believed and all that she experienced under the tyrannical Felix Polk.

There was another reason, too. She didn’t want to be like Felix’s mother—completely controlling about everything. According to Susan, Johanna “Joan” Polk was a micromanager, and Susan resented her intrusiveness. Johanna’s approach was quite different from the hands-off style Susan had known with her mother. During her visits to Susan and Felix’s house, Johanna was compelled to comment on things big and small, even on the way Susan washed the dishes. Although he resented his mother’s overbearing nature as a child, now Felix saw no problem with her behavior, hoping that her presence would influence Susan’s parenting. He made no secret of his disapproval of Susan’s skills, constantly insisting that she needed “to train the kids.”

Susan never liked the sound of it. Training was something people did with animals, not people. Nevertheless, the lack of structure and rules in the household continued to be an issue for the family, and Felix was not the only family member to take issue with Susan’s parenting. Adam had problems with her child-rearing abilities as well, going so far as to accuse his mother of fostering a pattern of antisocial behavior by allowing his younger siblings to blame their troubles on others instead of demanding they take responsibility for their part. In a letter to the court dated September 10, 2004, Adam noted that, when called up to school to deal with misconduct on the part of Gabe or Eli, Susan defended her sons—pointing a finger at administrators for their failure to carry out their duties properly. When the boys were arrested for various infractions, she accused the other party or police of “inappropriate” treatment of her and her sons.

The letter went on to point out that, as far as Susan was concerned, it was not her children’s fault when things went awry. When Eli was caught with marijuana, it was only because he was “holding it” for someone else. When he struck a schoolmate with a flashlight, breaking his nose and causing a great deal of bleeding and facial cuts, Susan claimed Eli didn’t even have a flashlight in his possession that night.

The information in the letter was tough medicine, but it contained a number of legitimate complaints. Yet it failed to address other crucial problems, such as Susan’s distaste for authority. Indeed, her openly hostile treatment of authority complicated matters for her and her sons during difficult situations with the police or probation officers. Though she would later deny it, Felix claimed Susan cursed out the principal of Gabriel’s middle school, telling him to “go fuck himself.” She also penned an angry letter to the chief of the Moraga Police Department, complaining about officers who executed a search warrant in February 2002 to collect potential evidence in an assault case against Eli.

In that instance, Susan was furious that officers accused her of interfering. “Officer Harbison announced that I was obstructing the search, twisted my arm painfully behind my back, placed handcuffs on me,” she wrote. “Sergeant Price then led me downstairs and told me to sit down. I was not violent, threatening or getting in the way of the search.”

While Felix and Adam viewed Susan’s parenting and problems with authority as having a negative impact on the family, Susan had her own issues with Felix’s fatherly skills. She detested Felix’s need to single out one son as the “golden” boy, much like his own father had done with his twin brother, John. She observed that in his first marriage, Felix had lavished praise on his firstborn son, Andrew, while his daughter Jennifer received the criticism. Now in his second marriage, the pattern was repeating itself as Felix tended to favor their eldest son, Adam, while being outwardly critical of Eli and simply forgetting Gabriel. In many ways, Adam was more akin to Felix’s twin brother, John. He was smart and athletic, and things came naturally to him—qualities that Felix envied.

In a letter to Eli, Susan confided that Felix’s need to pick one of his children to be an example for the rest of the family members

is a way of maintaining control over the family members. When Dad went to graduate school in England, he studied under a psychiatrist, R. D. Laing, who wrote a book about how “crazy making” families do this: they pick one of their children to be an example for the rest of the family members, to express for the family what they are afraid of, what could happen to them…. The “example nigger” also expresses for the leader of the family…characteristics in his own nature that are not tolerable: for example violence, suicide, impulsivity, feelings of failure, craziness, homosexuality, whatever it is the leader is anxious about or driven by. In a sense, this child is selected as a sacrifice.

Of the three Polk boys, Susan viewed Eli as the most sensitive and emotional. In his teens, Eli displayed anxiety and separation issues similar to those Felix battled as a young man. In a diary, Susan noted that her middle son found it difficult to be apart from his dad. During grammar school, Eli had come home early from a hockey camp in Canada, and on a trip to Paris with Susan in 2001, he became so anxious he boarded a plane for home after just three days abroad. To Susan, it was clear that Eli’s issues were directly connected to his father’s poor treatment of him.

“You have systematically treated Eli as if he had something wrong with him, just as you did Jennifer in your first family,” Susan wrote of Felix in her computer diary. “You seem to have a need to scapegoat somebody.

“According to you, Sharon was to blame for Jennifer’s poor self-esteem. You forget that while Jennifer lived with us, I had time to observe how you treated her. Consistently, you behaved as if her intelligence was subnormal, when in fact it appeared to me there was nothing at all the matter with her except for her poor self-esteem…. I can’t pretend to understand this family dynamic: how a family selects a child for success (in your first family, it was Andy, in ours, Adam), and a sibling or siblings for failure…. It has broken my heart, and I can no longer live with your sadistic parenting.”

In addition to his favoritism toward Adam, Felix, like Susan, suffered from an inability to properly discipline and control the boys. Such was the case on the night of May 25, 2001, when police were called to investigate a “rowdy” party at the Miner Road compound where underage drinking was supposedly occurring. Responding officers found more than twenty-five underage partygoers around the pool, and Felix was the adult in charge. “Throughout the area, I saw empty cans of Budweiser and Coors Light, cans of Budweiser beer full or partially full and still cold, unopened cans of beer still cold, a glass filled with an alcoholic beverage resembling red wine, and a half-full bottle of Smirnoff Vodka,” Officer K. Mooney of the Orinda Police Department documented in the official report.

Officer Mooney was familiar with the location, having been summoned to the residence numerous times for loud, juvenile parties. “All of the alcoholic beverage containers were located in and around groups of persons who I separately identified as being in age from 16 to 18.”

Mooney noted that Frank [Felix] Polk, was in the kitchen, which overlooked the pool and the pool house, when he and his partner arrived at 10:20 that night. “Both the alcoholic beverages and the large group of juveniles were in plain view,” Mooney wrote. “Shortly after my arrival, Frank came outside, and asked what I was doing on his property. I told him that we had a complaint of a loud party. Frank said that it was just a graduation party and that it wasn’t loud.

“I told Frank that there were minors on his property while alcoholic beverages were being consumed and reminded him of my previous warning on 5/5/01. Frank replied that it was a graduation party.

“Frank’s son, Adam, approached as I was speaking with Frank. Adam told me that he was 18 years old and that it was his party and that he was responsible for the party.”

It was then that the officers placed Felix and his son under arrest and charged them with “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” and “un-lawful juvenile gathering on private property.” Though both men were later released at the scene and got off with mere citations, the episode was a disturbing example of Felix’s double standards. This hypocrisy would only worsen over the course of the next year; the Orinda police were regularly summoned to the Polk house in response to complaints of loud parties with underage drinking and fistfights. During one such call, in May of 2002, police arrived to find nearly one hundred teens, the majority of them minors, holding red plastic cups filled with beer. While there, a fight erupted in the crowd near the guesthouse and officers worked to break it up. Police found Felix Polk at home and admonished him for allowing alcohol to be served to minors.

Despite his claims of Susan’s negligence when it came to disciplining the boys, it became increasingly clear that Felix suffered from a similar inability to set boundaries for their teenage sons. While he would routinely belittle Susan’s ability to parent her children, his own attitudes proved just as dangerously nonchalant. Furthermore by allowing these unsupervised parties, he risked not just the well-being of his sons but of other teens as well.

In the days after Susan’s arrest, the questionable parenting of both Felix and Susan was examined as police reviewed their files and learned a lot more about this dysfunctional family. Officers were summoned to the Polk house frequently to deal with situations involving Adam, Eli, or Gabriel. Indeed, problems of one sort or another with the Polk family went way back—particularly with regard to Eli who had been in and out of trouble since 1998, when he and several friends allegedly entered another schoolmate’s house without permission and stole one hundred fifty dollars worth of alcohol. He was twelve at the time.

The following January, Eli was stopped for driving without a license. The officer who flashed him over intended to cite him for a broken headlight until he discovered the driver was just thirteen years old—far too young for even a learner’s permit.

Even worse, he had three female passengers in the car with him.

Susan and Felix took custody of Eli and his three young passengers, and Eli was fined one hundred twenty-five dollars for the violation.

In addition to his recklessness, Eli also displayed severe problems with aggression and harassment. It was no secret that he loved to fight, but he ran into problems when he brought this inclination to school with him. In April of 2000, he was expelled from Piedmont High School for harassing a classmate, calling the teen a “fucking fag,” and speaking derogatorily about homosexuals. He further inflamed the situation by yelling back “I say we kill all homosexuals” as he was ordered from his fourth-period classroom and directed to the principal’s office. Eli was ultimately suspended for his comments and for passing a note that read “u r gay” to the classmate. In addition, his teenage victim filed a police report alleging that Eli was so threatening, he “feared for his life.”

Unfortunately, Eli was not the only son with a tendency toward violence. In April of 1998, Adam was accused of battery for allegedly punching a classmate of Eli’s in the face at a middle-school dance. At the time, he was attending De La Salle High School, a Catholic all-boys school in Concord. Adam told officers who came to the family’s Piedmont home to investigate that he was simply “preventing Eli from getting a beating.” Adam claimed he went to the school that night to make sure Eli was “protected,” after hearing rumors that the kid had threatened to “jump” his brother and carried a knife. According to Adam, he approached the teen, who was standing with friends in the schoolyard, and asked if he was “talking” about Eli. Words were exchanged and, at one point, Adam hauled off and punched the kid in the nose, fleeing the school grounds in the aftermath.

Not surprisingly, the victim’s recollection of the night’s events differed significantly from Adam’s. In the ensuing police report, the boy said Adam punched him twice, once in the nose and once on the cheek, while he was outside on the street in front of the school waiting for his father to pick him up that night. He didn’t even know who Adam was when he walked up and announced that Eli said the kid had been “talking about him [Adam].”

“If I were to punch you, would you block it?” Adam reportedly asked the teen.

“No, I don’t want to start nothing,” the boy replied.

The victim claimed that Adam hit him in the face two times without provocation, and then walked away. When it was all over, Adam was issued a ticket and released to the custody of his mother. He was also ordered to receive counseling from a member of the Contra Costa Sheriff ’s Office on the dangers of taking situations into his own hands, agreeing that in the future he would call police for help.

In the summer of 2002, people attending a party at a nearby home in Alamo charged that Adam stole silver dishes and a Sony Play Station, worth in excess of five hundred dollars. Officers were dispatched to the Miner Road house to interview Adam but learned that he had already left for UCLA. Gabriel answered the door that day and insisted the accusations were false. He said Adam told him that the girl who hosted the party “wanted to sleep with Adam” but Adam “didn’t want to sleep with her.” It was for this reason that she named him as the culprit, he said.

When police reached Adam by phone, he denied any involvement in the theft and pointed a finger at another area teen.

Despite being the youngest, Gabriel was not immune to the problems that his brothers faced. On March 24, 2000, Gabriel and five of his friends burglarized a neighbor’s home, stealing six speakers, DVDs, and one hundred dollars from the homeowner’s wallet, which they took from a pocketbook in the kitchen. Police found all six boys in the backyard of the Polk’s house in Piedmont. The homeowner declined to press charges, asking that the boys be counseled and released to the custody of their parents. A police report indicated that the stolen property was returned.

Also in 2000, Gabriel got into a fight with a fellow student in the hallway of Miramonte Middle School. He claimed the boy was a “snitch” and accused the kid of “acting gay.” Gabe claimed the boy got in his face, provoking a fight. There were indications that friction had existed between the two boys dating back to the sixth grade. At first, Gabriel sought to avoid a fight with the boy. But when the boy struck him in the back of the head with a set of keys, Gabriel turned to confront the youth. Gabe was later taken to the hospital, where he was treated for a gash that required staples to close it up. A subsequent investigation revealed that Gabe had been struck with a T-shaped weapon, a two-inch steel rod with a flat metal base, however this did little to quell the ongoing feud. School authorities accused Gabe of bringing “manufactured” weapons such as a roll of taped quarters, a brass card holder made into brass knuckles, and an eight-inch weighted blackjack to school to seek revenge. Police confiscated the materials and later learned the homemade weapons were brought to school by several of Gabe’s friends. The boys were arrested on charges of “possession of a deadly weapon” and ordered to attend an anger management course.

While the dangerous behavior of the three boys had been going on for years, in the summer of 2002 the situation went from bad to worse. On July 29, 2002, Adam was arrested for drunk driving. He was ordered to participate in a two-day, county-sponsored Alcohol Offense Program in Contra Costa County. The first session was set for October 12—the weekend of his father’s murder, which could explain why Adam was home in Orinda for the weekend.

Adam was already facing dismissal at UCLA. Authorities were poised to expel the teen because he hadn’t completed enough coursework in his freshman year. He had dropped several classes without authorization, intending to make up the work in his sophomore year. School officials advised him that they could only reverse their decision under “extraordinary” circumstances. In August, Felix wrote a letter of explanation to the vice provost of undergraduate education at UCLA on Adam’s behalf, blaming “problems at home” for his son’s decision to reduce his course load without first obtaining permission. Adam thought lightening his load would make the spring semester “manageable for him because of the stress he was experiencing in relation to his family situation.”

“During this past year, Adam’s family, as he has known it, has fallen apart,” Felix wrote in the letter dated August 17. “In the fall of 2001, my wife and I separated under extremely tense and difficult circumstances. The stable family and security he had known for most of his life was dramatically altered. It was under these difficult circumstances that Adam began his freshman year at UCLA.

“Adam has always been a winner academically, socially, and athletically,” Felix wrote. “At De La Salle High School in Northern California, he was class president for three years and graduated near the top of his class in grades. He was a starting footballer for two years for the highest ranked football team in the country. He received public recognition and honors for his athleticism. He has known only success and achievement. And at UCLA, he was the only freshman on the Varsity Rugby Team and became a starter. He is also now an enthusiastic member of a fraternity.”

Ultimately, Felix’s efforts on behalf of Adam proved successful, as UCLA officials agreed to allow Adam to return for his sophomore year, but just as soon as he’d extinguished one fire, another one spread, only this time Felix proved unable to help. The son in question this time was Eli, who violated the terms of his probation and was now trying to avoid juvenile hall.

In a letter to the court, Felix defended his middle son, pointing to his varied accomplishments in the sporting arena as proof of his potential.

“At De La Salle, he was the only freshman on the junior varsity team,” Felix wrote in the three-page letter. “At Miramonte High School, Eli was the only sophomore on the varsity football team. At the University of California basketball camp, [the coach] selected Eli out publicly as the kid who was ‘most likely to make it’ because of his skills and discipline. Currently, Eli is the youngest starting player on the Lamorinda rugby team.

“For many reasons, Eli has tremendous potential,” Felix stated. “I am deeply concerned that if Eli now becomes more involved in the correctional system that it will permanently deflect him away from leading the constructive and successful life which he is capable of doing…. In my view, my son Eli is very much a salvageable young man who can make it in the world. In my view, steering him away from the correctional, institutional system is imperative. In light of this, I respectfully and urgently request that the court consider…that he be placed in my custody in Berkeley, where I have secured a spacious two bedroom apartment…that he continue to receive psychological counseling in which I will participate with him, if he prefers that…and that he be involved immediately in a drug program.”

While Felix’s plea appeared heartfelt, it failed to convince the judge to ignore the recommendations of the confidential probation report to the Juvenile Court of Contra Costa County.

“It seems like the minor [Eli] could use a respite from his parents’ bitter dispute and conflicts so that he can separate himself and work on his own individual issues and make rehabilitation a true priority,” the confidential report cited.

Indeed, the May 22, 2002, report painted a disturbing picture of the Polk family dynamic. “The minor [Eli] is currently caught in the middle of a bitter custody dispute between the mother and the father, both who have heaved a barrage of insults and allegations against each other, even in an open court setting,” it stated. “The mother has been problematic with authority figures, including the arresting police officers, the probation department, home supervision staff, and was arrested in court for contempt and failure to follow court orders. When the judge ordered that the mother receive a psychological assessment, the mother flat-out refused and said she would remove herself from the case rather than to comply with those orders.

“The father who has housed this minor in the last few months has also had problems due to the fact that the minor has accused the father of child abuse resulting in a report to CPS [Child Protective Services] and the minor being put back in custody. It is unclear whether the minor really felt threatened by the father or was fabricating the abuse in hopes that he would get moved back with the mother, the minor was eventually released back to the father and has continued to attend Berkeley High.”

Included in the lengthy report was an evaluation from a deputy of the probation department who met with both parents regarding Eli’s situation. “The father denies all the allegations of abuse saying when the minor was younger and had hyperactivity from hypoglycemia, the father would ‘swat him’ but that was approximately eight years ago,” the deputy wrote. “The father says he’s a nonviolent person and believes the minor lives in a paranoid environment due to the intensive conflict between the mother and father and their impending divorce. The father said under the current conditions, he wasn’t sure if he wants to live with Eli because of his present hostility, paranoia, and aggressiveness….

“Mother felt Eli did something very wrong, but felt there was mitigating circumstances to cause him to do it,” the deputy continued, referring to an interview he had with Susan Polk. “The mother says the minor hadn’t been in a fight since reaching physical maturity and felt he wasn’t sure of his own strength. The mother’s concerns are that the minor grew up in a violent household and that he needs anger management. The mother felt Eli was the target of the father’s anger, and so is expressing his anger that he has kept inside. The mother felt the minor could benefit from drug and alcohol counseling, as well as family counseling.”

The deputy noted that during the interview with Susan, she contradicted Felix’s assertion that Eli had suffered from hypoglycemia as a youth, claiming her son had never been diagnosed with the illness. Also in the report were claims by members of the probation department that Eli had been self-medicating with drugs and alcohol in an attempt to deal with the turmoil at home. Eli told officers that he smoked marijuana on a daily basis and drank alcohol three to four times a month, occasionally experimenting with drugs such as Ecstasy and mushrooms. Denying suggestions that he might be “depressed,” Eli did admit that he suffered from chronic “stomach problems,” which officials attributed to stress.

During his visit to the probation department on May 22, Eli charged in private that his father was physically and emotionally abusive. Felix had accompanied his middle son to the evaluation that day, but when they arrived, Eli announced that he wanted to speak with a deputy alone. Only then did Eli present the officer with a four-page handwritten letter about “physical and mental abuse” he claimed Felix was inflicting upon him.

“The minor was periodically shaken and emotional as he talked about wanting to move back with his mother and how he felt he couldn’t live in such close confined space with his father,” the deputy wrote in his report to the court. “The minor described the father as having in the past ‘beaten the crap’ out of him and his brothers and been mentally abusive with continual putdowns, mental mind games, and intimidation.”

Attached to the report was a psychological evaluation of Eli conducted on May 13, “one where the parents present in a compelling, provocative manner,” the psychologist wrote in a three-page letter to the Court, also dated May 22, 2002. “The father is a mental health professional who appears depressed, ineffective, and passive. [The] mother is aggressive, emotionally labile, and often contradictory in her behaviors and statements,” the psychologist continued.

Both parents care for Eli but have not been able to address his psychological needs. The greatest “risk” for Eli lies not with each individual parent but within the dynamics of the family.

The family system is marked by conflict and turmoil. Role reversal is common with Eli, often given more power and recognition than is warranted for any child of his age. Authority issues are flagrant and pervasive for both parents. When one adult tries to be in charge, even in a healthy manner, the other sabotages the process by name calling and undermining. While his mother’s participation in this sabotage is obvious, the father also undermines the mother with his passivity and reluctance to be in charge.

Eli is very identified with his mother who is viewed by Eli as a victim in the dynamic. Part of this identification is based on the natural fact that his mother has been his primary caregiver with his father, by his admission, over involved at work. Part of this identification is also a defense against maternal anger and feared abandonment. It is not surprising that according to Eli and police records, his involvement in the crime was as a protector—looking out for his friend, the underdog in this case.