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

Part II. THE INVESTIGATION BEGINS

Chapter 12. CHASING DOWN LEADS

As local news channels were airing details of the gruesome Orinda murder, Detective Costa and his team were chasing down leads. Their first stop was Felix’s Berkeley office. It was late morning on October 16 when Costa and his colleague, Jeff Moule, climbed the steps to 3001 Dana Avenue. The two men looked almost like father and son as they strode into the office building. Costa was in his fifties, with jet-black hair parted to one side. His mustache was short and neatly trimmed, just like Moule’s.

Moule was fair-haired, twenty years younger and forty pounds thinner than his superior officer. But still, the two men were of similar height and possessed the authoritative demeanor of law enforcement officers. Once inside, they found the office door locked and an “out” sign posted on it. There was no receptionist; it wasn’t that kind of complex.

Costa knocked on the door of an adjacent office. A psychiatrist named Justin Simon poked his head out the door. He told the detectives he was the building’s owner and that he leased space to Felix Polk, but theirs was strictly a tenant/landlord relationship. Still, Dr. Simon indicated that he was aware of marital difficulties between Felix and his wife. Detective Costa elected not to inform Simon of Felix’s murder given the vague nature of his relationship with Felix. He was certain Susan had mentioned Dr. Simon during their interview at headquarters as the psychiatrist who supposedly prescribed medications for her husband. Costa would check into it.

Before leaving Berkeley, he and Moule conducted a sweep of area streets in search of Felix’s missing vehicle. The Saab was not there. Grabbing the radio, Costa contacted the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police to request that they check their stations for the black Saab. A short time later, an officer radioed back to report that he had located the sedan at the Orinda station in the upper west lot, in space number 1268. Orinda police were directed to secure the vehicle and have it towed to an impound yard to be examined. The officer assigned to move the car told Costa there were no visible signs of blood, weapons, or other evidence that might link the vehicle to the crime. He noted there was a coat in the back seat, along with a collar and dog bed.

Their next lead took them back to Orinda not far from the BART station. Costa and Moule had heard that Susan’s mother, Helen Bolling, had once lived in the town. They wanted to check out the address. A call to headquarters yielded a listing for a Bolling at 52 Barbara Road.

The modest residence was across the train tracks from the ritzy country club section, where Susan and Felix lived. While the landscape was mainly farmland and orchards when Helen first purchased the house on Barbara Road in the 1970s, the city of Orinda had grown substantially over the years. The north end, where Susan and Felix bought their home two years earlier, was now sprinkled with million-dollar residences.

A dark-haired man in his late-forties answered the door. He was not very tall, about eye level with the detectives.

“Do you know a Susan Polk?” Detective Moule asked.

“She’s my sister,” the man answered, identifying himself as David Bolling. He told police that his mother still owned the property, and another in San Diego, where she was currently residing and that he and his mother had had little contact with Susan over the years.

It soon became clear to the officers that in spite of the strained relationship with his sister, David Bolling was aware of the “incident” and that she had been arrested on suspicion of killing her husband.

“I have a hard time believing that Susan could kill someone,” David told the officers. “But she does have an attitude towards authority.”

Detective Costa took notes. He told David about his interview with Susan at headquarters the day before. She claimed their father had abused her when she was a young girl. “Do you know anything about that?” Costa asked.

“I know she’s been telling people that,” David replied. “It’s just bullshit.”

David said that as far as he knew, his father had never done anything like that. He said he last spoke with his sister about two or three months earlier.

She had been avoiding family members lately, David told the detectives.

It was late in the afternoon of October 16 when Detective Moule went to the detention center in Martinez to interview Susan again. Detective Jeffrey Hebel would participate in the interrogation. The two had been paired up on Monday night when they questioned Susan’s son Gabe about the murder.

This would be the third time in thirty-six hours that Susan was interrogated by police. She was being held at the Contra Costa detention facility on suspicion of murder in lieu of one million dollars bail. Two days had passed since her incarceration and she continued to maintain her innocence. Hebel and Moule decided to take a forceful approach, in an attempt to scare her into admitting her role in the crime.

But the detectives’ efforts failed. Susan remained detached and composed during the lengthy interrogation. Even as the detectives worked to trip her up, she didn’t break a sweat. It was as if she was disconnected from the entire incident. In response to questions, she again recounted her movements during the past week. While some details differed slightly from her original version, her basic story remained the same. Susan claimed she didn’t see Felix’s Saab at the house that Monday morning when she returned from dropping Gabe at school. She spent much of the morning watering the small garden she tended in the terraced area near the home’s front entrance.

“I am clear about that time line,” Hebel said. “I want to go back and talk about some other stuff about your background. I understand several years ago you kind of had some recollection about some abuse from your childhood and that caused some tough times for you. Is that correct or am I getting bad info on you?”

“Well, you are hearing it from my children.”

“If you tell me something, I am not going to them and say this is what your mom said,” Hebel assured Susan.

“Partly, it’s a story that my husband cooked up for the kids as to what was happening,” Susan said. From there, she went on to recount how the story of uncovering past trauma was how Felix manipulated the truth in order to avoid informing the boys of Felix and Susan’s marital difficulties. As the detectives hung on her words, Susan once again offered her version of the last twenty years, explaining that she threatened a divorce several times over the course of their marriage. Sitting in the room, Susan coolly told the detectives how her threats to leave him were often met with death threats from Felix, who had even gone so far as telling Gabriel that he would kill Susan if she left. On another occasion, one that Susan later documented in their divorce papers, Felix made another threat on her life, this time in front of Adam and Eli. Coming in 2000, during a time when Eli’s allegiance was to his father, the threat was in response to an ongoing quarrel Susan and Felix were having over his office. Like so many of their fights, this one ended with Susan telling Felix that she wanted a divorce. His response was quick.

“He [Felix] backed me up all the way across my room,” Susan explained to the detectives, “and he said, ‘You make me so mad, I could kill you. I feel like punching you in the face or punching you.’”

But unlike past occasions where Felix had hit Susan, this time he did not get the chance. As he raised his fist to strike her, Eli stepped in first, punching his mother hard on her lip. The reaction was instantaneous as blood began to pour from Susan’s nose and mouth, dripping off of her face and onto the floor. Later, in addition to her eyes severely swelling and the side of her face bruising, Susan received several stitches on her lip that would leave a scar.

Having witnessed the entire drama unfold, Adam excitedly told his father and brother that this constituted abuse and called 911, a move that made Eli fearful of going to jail. Susan was also worried that Eli’s punch would land him in police custody, so in order to avoid seeing Eli in jail again, the family concocted a story in which Susan had hit her face on the bed. Like so many of their lies, this one covered up the painful realities of the family’s life, but still it worked. Eli was never reprimanded for the attack on his mother.

According to Susan, while her repeated attempts to exit the marriage were rebuffed, at one point, she even went so far as to try and obtain a restraining order against Felix. But her efforts stalled in March 2001 after Felix allegedly incited a physical altercation with her and later claimed, with Eli as a witness, that she kicked him in the back. Once again the police were summoned to the house on Miner Road and while there, Susan apparently attacked Felix again, this time in front of the officers. The incident landed her in handcuffs and promptly ended her attempts at getting a restraining order. Though Felix didn’t press charges, the damage had been done.

As Susan told her side of events, the detectives continued to remind her of the evidence that was rapidly mounting against her and the fact that she was their number one suspect.

“We were at your house all day today and the scientists, they’re still there,” Moule said. “They call themselves CSI, crime scene investigators…. We collected all of your shoes…and there’s a shoe present. It’s not the same shoe, I’m not going to say it’s the same shoe…but it’s the same size shoe, it’s your size in the blood, okay?”

“There is no way that I went in there,” Susan said, referring to the guest cottage where Felix’s body was found.

“I’m not saying you had some big grand plan and you thought about it for a year. Things happen for different reasons…you had a struggle with him. There’s DNA in his hand. You have injuries on your face consistent with injuries on his body. You were in a struggle with him.”

“No, I was not.”

Hebel jumped in. “Your DNA is in that room.”

“You’re done,” Moule announced. “Your footprint, your DNA. It’s not about an interest, it’s about what happened and about your future right now…. Be honest.”

“I was not in there,” Susan maintained.

“Susan, this isn’t going away, you’re not getting out of jail. You need to give your side of this so that we can tell the court. Our job is just fact finders.”

“Well, then find the facts. Find out who did it.”

“We found the facts,” Moule said.

“We’re done,” Hebel added.

“We have to know why,” Moule said.

The detectives kept after her, but even under the intense questioning, Susan maintained her innocence. When they brought up the possibility of using a polygraph test, Susan adamantly refused, claiming that if it’s not reliable in a courtroom, then it’s simply not reliable.

As Susan sat there denying any involvement, it was unclear what, if anything, was her strategy. Susan was a very intelligent woman, and as such, her continued profession of innocence in the face of the evidence against her was baffling. While Moule and Hebel were trying to elicit a confession, the other investigators were in the process of building a substantial case against her. Still, she maintained her innocence, almost as if, in her mind, she really had not been involved. As Susan had on so many occasions, she seemed to be shaping her own version of reality, a version that had removed her involvement in Felix’s death. It was a harmful proposition in any situation, but in Susan’s case it had a profoundly negative impact. Eventually investigators and prosecutors would use these denials and lies to demonstrate the cold-blooded nature of her killing, arguing that her attempt to cover up denoted premeditation, making this a case of first-degree murder.

Now apparent to Detective Hebel that his current strategy was ineffective, he changed tactics, insinuating that the scratches on her eyes were a result of the deadly fight she had with Felix in the guesthouse that night. Susan said she’d been roughhousing with the family dog when he bit her.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” the detective smirked. “That’s not a dog bite.”

Detective Moule jumped in. “Susan, how did you sustain this mark right here on your right eye?” he asked, pulling at his moustache. “Do you want me to get a mirror and you can look at it yourself, and maybe it will jar your memory?”

Susan didn’t crack a smile. “I fool around with the dog all the time,” she insisted. “The dog jumped in my face.”

“Okay,” Moule grinned. “You have a little bit of darkness under your left eye, your left eye right here, a little bit of darkness. Did you also sustain that from the dog?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you mind putting your hands out again?” Detective Hebel instructed. “Can you stretch them all the way out.”

Susan complied.

“On your left hand there’s some scratches right in here and some redness right here,” Hebel noted, pointing a finger at Susan’s hand. “And on your right hand near your right index knuckle, there’s…it almost looks like bruising or redness. It’s light bruising.”

“Uh-huh,” Susan acknowledged.

“Can you roll them over,” Hebel directed. “You have some cuts on your left hand near the pad under your small finger.”

“Under the left thumb,” Moule added. “And then right here. Has that redness been there for a while?”

“There’s also, it looks like a scratch right there under her left arm, a little red mark,” Detective Hebel added.

“I was gardening barehanded and I played rough with the dog,” Susan persisted.

“Okay. Will you look at me and close your eyes, please,” Detective Moule commanded. “That’s quite a mark,” he said, referring to the scratch on her eyelid.

“He hit you,” Hebel announced, referring to Felix. “That’s why you got into this altercation with him.”

Moule jumped in, lunging forward at Susan’s face. “He was violent with you. He abused you and he had been doing it for a long time. Detective Hebel and I have been involved for years in domestic violence.”

“You know what…it didn’t happen,” Susan declared.

Later, looking back on the transcripts, it was hard to believe that a smart woman, who was so blatantly associated with a crime, would profess her innocence with so much passion. Most suspects, when faced with such insurmountable evidence would, at the very least, have come clean that they played a role in the crime. However, this was not the case with Susan, who continued to steadfastly maintain her innocence for more than a year after Felix’s body was discovered.

Back at headquarters, Detective Costa was juggling calls. Adam Polk phoned that morning. The eldest of the Polk boys wanted Costa to contact a man named Barry Morris, an attorney who represented the family in the past.

It was midafternoon when Costa got the lawyer on the line. During the call, Morris said he had known Felix and the Polk family for twelve years. Felix counseled his son in the past, and Barry, in turn, represented Adam, Eli, and Gabriel in different criminal cases. Morris was aware of the ongoing tension between Susan and Felix. After Susan’s March 2001 arrest ended her entreaties to get a restraining order, Morris had encouraged Felix to file charges against Susan. Despite Morris’s efforts, Felix declined.

Morris told Detective Costa there had been other instances in which Felix declined to involve the authorities. Just over a week earlier on Sunday, October 6, he received a call from Felix, alerting him that Susan had just phoned from Montana. During the conversation with Morris, Felix claimed that Susan had purchased a gun and intended to kill him with it. The information got Morris’s attention and he encouraged his friend to call police immediately to report the threat. But Felix didn’t want to, afraid that the move would further infuriate Susan.

A few days later, Felix called Morris back, informing his friend that he spoke to an Orinda police officer about Susan. Costa learned it was Chief Dan Lawrence who took the call. Lawrence confirmed that Felix phoned headquarters on October 10—just three days before his murder—seeking advice concerning Susan’s impending return from Montana. Felix was concerned because she told their son “she was going to blow his head off” with a gun she’d purchased in Montana, while threatening Felix that she would kill him if he went to the police.

Despite Felix’s terrified voice on the other end of the line, the call was nothing that Lawrence hadn’t heard before. He advised Felix to obtain a temporary restraining order, leave the house immediately, and avoid any contact with his wife. Costa noted that Felix did not heed the chief ’s advice. It was as if he wanted people to know that he was in danger but was unwilling to protect himself.

It was almost noon when Costa received a call from Gabe Polk, who said he had just remembered something about the night he discovered his father in the guest cottage. After he found the guesthouse door locked, he returned to the house and asked Susan if she had seen his dad. She said she hadn’t—and then asked if Gabe wasn’t happy that his father was gone, to which Gabe responded that he wasn’t happy about the situation. But Susan then said that she was. Looking back, Gabe said he now believed that his mother was implying that she had done something to Felix.

Susan then said something else that struck Gabe as odd.

“I guess I didn’t have a shotgun, did I?” she told her son.

It would have been an odd statement at any time, but under the circumstances it was downright worrisome.

“Did you ever actually see her with one?” the detective asked.

“No,” Gabe said, although he felt that she had definitely researched some firearms. She was using terminology that indicated she had been shopping around for the right weapon. A subsequent check of the records revealed that Susan did, indeed, own a gun. She was the registered owner of a Smith and Wesson .38-caliber revolver. She told Costa about that gun during their interview at headquarters on Monday night and said that Felix had removed it from the house at her request. There was no indication that a shotgun had ever been purchased, and a search of the Miner Road residence yielded no firearms.

In addition to Gabriel and Morris, several more calls came in to Costa that afternoon. One was from Andrew Polk, Felix’s forty-year-old son from his first marriage, who was currently living in lower Manhattan and working as an actor. It was the first time that Andrew had spoken to Costa, and he reported a call he received from Felix that past weekend after Susan had threatened to shoot him with a shotgun. It was a call similar to the one Felix had placed to Morris and Chief Lawrence around the same time, with Felix expressing concern that Susan “was going to do something to him” upon her return from Montana.

That same afternoon, Felix’s daughter from his first marriage also contacted Costa. Jennifer Polk was also residing on the East Coast in a quiet suburb of Boston. Her father had left a voice mail on her cell phone that past Friday, stating that “things were getting critical” and “Susan had threatened to kill him.” He also stated that Gabe told him “Susan had a gun.” Jennifer said she never got back to her father; that was the last she ever heard from him.

In subsequent interviews, additional friends and patients of Felix reiterated Felix’s fears of Susan, adding that he had begun barricading himself into the bedroom at night. Upon closer inspection of the Miner Road guesthouse, investigators found no evidence of such barricades. It did not appear that new locks or safety latches had been installed on the three exterior doors, and there was no lumber or heavy furniture strategically placed as a makeshift obstacle.

To Costa, it seemed clear that Felix Polk had contacted a number of people to alert them to his wife’s threats, yet he did nothing to protect himself, ignoring everyone’s advice—including suggestions from the Orinda police. While his inability to take the precautions necessary to protect himself seemed strange to the investigating officers, it was quickly becoming clear that this inability was part of a larger, systemic problem that Felix had when it came to stemming Susan’s threat of physical violence. All he had to do was press charges against her on one of the numerous occasions that he dialed 911, or use past events to obtain a restraining order against her, and then avoid the house.

Instead he opted to stay in the guest cottage, just yards away from the main house, even as Susan allegedly issued her threats. It was a costly decision—one that Felix paid for with his life.