Final Analysis: The Untold Story of the Susan Polk Murder Case - Catherine Crier (2007)
Part II. THE INVESTIGATION BEGINS
Chapter 15. INCITING EVENTS
On Thursday, October 17, a day after Helen spoke to Detective Costa, Susan sat quietly in the holding cell of the Martinez jail, waiting for officers to escort her to the Walnut Creek Courthouse where she would be formally charged with Felix’s murder. She barely looked up when a uniformed guard unlocked the cell door and admitted a conservatively dressed man.
“I am Dr. Paul Berg,” the man smiled, extending a hand to Susan.
Dr. Berg had been sent to the jail by Contra Costa County prosecutors to form an opinion of Susan’s mental state before the scheduled 2 PM arraignment. At first Susan was compliant, listening intently as the Oakland psychologist explained the psychological evaluation. Even when he informed her that their conversation would not be confidential and his findings would be used in court, Susan agreed to cooperate. “However, she very quickly changed her mind, asking a number of relevant questions, before declining to speak further,” Dr. Berg reported without revealing her concerns.
Obviously, Susan had a firm grasp on the magnitude of her situation. Emerging from the room, the psychologist advised Detective Costa that Susan halted the interview. Still, Dr. Berg said he was able to form an opinion on the suspect. He believed Susan was “sane” and asked “appropriate questions” for a “person in her position”—a person under arrest for murder.
In a confidential letter to Assistant District Attorney (ADA) Tom O’Connor four days later, Dr. Berg reiterated his findings, writing “my observations…were that she was calm, composed, mildly withdrawn, and quite serious-minded. She did not show any obvious signs of mental disturbance, particularly none of any loss of contact with reality or other signs of a Thought Disorder.”
That afternoon, Susan was brought before a judge as scheduled. Handcuffs encircled her thin wrists as she was led to the defendant’s table flanked by armed court officers. She possessed an air of elegance, even when wearing the prison-issue gray sweatshirt and baggy blue slacks. Her short hair was neatly combed and a touch of lipstick defined her lips.
Susan’s voice was barely audible as she stood before Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Bruce Mills and announced her need for a public defender. There was a sudden interruption from a well-dressed man standing in the gallery.
“Your honor,” the man addressed the judge.
Recognizing the voice immediately, Susan broke into sobs. It was her father, Theodore Bolling. He had come to court to request an adjournment. He had retained a prominent San Francisco attorney, William Osterhoudt, to defend his daughter and wanted the case postponed until the new lawyer could be present in court. Susan stood speechless, tears rolling down her cheeks, as her father addressed the court. Judge Mills agreed to adjourn the case until 1:30 the following afternoon.
Rising to his feet, the prosecutor in the case, ADA Tom O’Connor asked the judge to raise Susan’s bail from the standard $1,050,000 for murder defendants to upwards of $5 million.
“This was an extremely violent murder,” O’Connor said. “The defendant owns substantial property in Orinda as well as in Berkeley. We also know that prior to the homicide, Mrs. Polk had been living out of state.”
O’Connor argued that Susan had substantial financial assets at her disposal and was a flight risk, as well as a danger to the community—especially to her son, Gabriel, who discovered his father’s body in the guesthouse.
Turning to Theodore Bolling, Judge Mills inquired as to whether his daughter would be able to post bail in the next twenty-four hours.
“There is no chance, your honor,” Susan’s tall, dark-haired father replied.
Mills ordered that a bail hearing be scheduled along with the Friday afternoon arraignment.
The following afternoon, Susan was back in court with defense attorney William Osterhoudt by her side. Helen and David Bolling listened from the gallery as another judge, Merle Eaton, explained his decision to hold Susan without bail. He cited the letter Susan had written to juvenile judge, William Kolin, on behalf of her son Eli, noting that it contained threats to “sell her home” and “leave the state.”
Osterhoudt tried to argue that Felix’s death would make it difficult for his client to borrow money against their real estate holdings, but Judge Eaton was unmoved. He maintained that the letter introduced to the court by ADA O’Connor was convincing and set a hearing for 1:30 PM the following Wednesday to revisit the bail issue.
Ultimately, Susan chose not to keep Osterhoudt as her attorney, reportedly because of his association with her father. Though a public defender, Elizabeth Grossman, was later assigned to Susan’s case, she too would be dismissed by Susan. While Susan claimed that Grossman was not doing enough on her behalf, those close to the case suggested her dismissal occurred after Grossman pushed Susan to present an insanity defense at trial.
Regardless of who represented her, Susan faced twenty-five years to life in prison if convicted of Felix’s murder. Prosecutors would not seek the death penalty, but that decision did not make the defense any easier.
That afternoon, as Susan was being led from court in handcuffs, Detective Costa and his team were in Berkeley executing a search warrant at 3001 Dana Street, Felix Polk’s office. The building’s owner, Justin Simon, used a passkey to gain entry to the tastefully furnished space, complete with a working fireplace on one wall.
Mindful to avoid any patient mental health records, the investigators began their examination. They believed a review of Felix’s private records, documents, writings, and files pertaining to his treatment of his wife might reveal evidence of their marital problems, past abuse by either party, and any prior threats that might offer a motive in the case. Investigators noted a computer connection and computer mouse on the desk indicating that Dr. Polk used a laptop, but there was no machine in the office.
Leafing through a pile of papers on the desk, investigators came upon a fax copy of the court order granting Felix sole occupancy of the Miner Road residence and custody of Gabriel. There was also a copy of the minutes of the telephone conference that occurred on September 27, 2002, that resulted in the court order. Susan mentioned that call to Detective Costa at headquarters, claiming that during the conversation Felix informed her that he intended to hold a custody hearing in her absence.
Costa collected the documents, as well as other legal papers scattered on the desk. Among them was an unsigned contract granting a lien on the Miner Road residence in the sum of thirty thousand dollars from Felix’s portion of the proceeds to Felix’s divorce attorney, Steve Landes. There was also a letter from Landes asking that Felix bring his legal account current. Felix had not made a payment to his attorney in over eighteen months, and Landes was getting anxious. Costa, who had spoken to Landes on the phone earlier in the day, was familiar with the payment problems. According to Landes, Felix first retained him in April of 2001, but payments were always late for one reason or another. The Polks had just sold an apartment building in Piedmont and each had received $226,000 from the sale. While Dr. Polk had immediately invested his share in another property, the lawyer believed Susan still had her portion. Landes wasn’t aware of any physical violence between Felix and Susan. As far as he knew, Felix and Susan had been staying away from each other; although Felix had mentioned one incident that occurred before Landes came on board as counsel in which Susan kicked Felix in the back.
Landes last spoke to Felix by phone on October 11, the Friday before he was murdered. At the time, Felix was upset that Susan was refusing to vacate the Miner Road house. He claimed that police were unwilling to enforce the court order granting him sole occupancy of the residence and full custody of his teenage son. As with the other calls that Felix made in the days before his death, he expressed to Landes his fear that Susan might harm him. Landes advised Felix to “simply get away from there” because he was “so afraid of his wife,” Costa learned.
During the phone call with Costa, Landes made no mention of Felix’s grossly overdue legal bill or the lien he was proposing on the Miner Road residence. Police found two outstanding bills from Landes on Felix’s desk, along with a four-page letter dated September 23, 2002, outlining Landes’ work on the case and demanding payment:
In our last several conversations you have pointedly avoided the question I raised with you of fees. Last week you said something about a line of credit…and then nothing else. I simply can not run an account of this magnitude which, because of Susan’s unwillingness to settle on any issue, even the time of day, will probably become larger….
I will reiterate. You need to refresh your retainer immediately, within the week, by at least $10,000. This is a very reasonable request. You have not made a payment on your account for a year and a half. You have been billed. I know of no professional, whether therapist, attorney, dentist or doctor, who would run such a tab…. You made arrangements to refinance Miner Road without any consultation with me, paying off credit card bills for Susan without including my fees. I don’t feel that this is being unreasonable.
At Felix’s office, there were other indications that the Polks were in financial straits. Credit card statements found on the desk showed balances in excess of thirty-five thousand dollars. Landes’ letter to Felix indicated that Polk had used a portion of the money from a refinance of the Miner Road property to pay off those debts. However, there were no documents to substantiate that claim.
There was also a property assessment for the Arch Street apartment complex that the Polks co-owned with Susan’s mother, Helen Bolling, showing a value of $675,000 as of May 17, 1999. A typewritten letter found on the fireplace mantel from Susan to her mother, dated May 21, 2002, indicated that Helen had recently requested that Susan and Felix sign the property over to her:
…You seem to be claiming that your share has increased from 50% to 100% because you did not receive your share of the income for the last few years and proceeds from the refinance. In addition, you have written me out of your will.
It is not worth my while to waste any more time on this property when it does not benefit me….
Please have your attorney contact me…with a proposal for buying me out if you think that I am entitled to any share of the equity.
Inside a yellow folder, marked “Divorce—Landes,” was a typewritten letter from Susan to Felix dated May 21, 2002. In the four-page, single-spaced document, Susan coherently made recommendations on what the divorcing couple should do with various properties, pets, and tax returns, as well as accounting and spousal support issues. Susan also used the letter to alert Felix that Gabriel’s “excessive absences” from Miramonte High School had resulted in his being “dropped from classes.”
“Miramonte has a unique policy of dropping students when their absences exceed fifteen…. In Gabe’s case, all of his absences were related to illness and were excused,” Susan wrote, claiming that the teen “appears to have mononucleosis.”
“As you well know, Gabe does not cut school or get into trouble…so all of Gabe’s excellent and hard work this semester has been un-credited [sic].”
As to Gabe’s custody, Susan wrote, “Judge Berkow, at your request, ordered me to undergo a psychological evaluation as a precondition.
“In your declaration filed in February, you described me as ‘healthy.’ Now, you are taking the position that I need to be evaluated. You are a psychologist. You have known me for some twenty-five years. Surely, no one would know better than you whether I am fit or not to parent my children…. It is clear that you are determined to punish me by taking the kids away from me. You have said repeatedly…that you will not let them go. It’s time to move on.”
Pulling open the desk drawer, Costa discovered more letters that were written and signed by Felix Polk. One was his appeal to the vice provost at UCLA to keep Adam from being dismissed. Another, dated Saturday, June 15, was addressed to Gabriel, and detailed Felix’s belief that his teenage son had vandalized his Saab several months earlier:
“I know that you are very, very mad at me and won’t talk on the phone,” the one-page single-spaced letter began. “I do want you to know that I think about you all the time and miss you terribly and have some deep concerns about what the future holds for us…in spite of the way you have rejected me and turned on me, I am not angry at you. Frustrated yes!
“Both you and Eli seem to have bought into mom’s horror stories about me. They are for the most part not true stories, but I don’t really have a chance to speak up for myself. I am faced with a closed system in which mom says what she says so hatefully about me, and I have no chance to point out what is true and what is not…. I have some real flaws and yet I am not the monster she portrays me to be.
“What you did to my car was uncalled for, destructive and senseless. You must really have been worked up into a lather to have done that. I am holding you responsible for the damage.”
There were also typewritten letters from Felix to Peter Weiss, an attorney, asking for a five thousand dollar disbursement from the “children’s trust” to cover legal fees in connection with Eli’s assault and subsequent probation violation, as well as several requests for monies for Adam’s UCLA tuition. During the course of the investigation, Costa learned that Weiss was Felix’s cousin and was serving as executor of a trust fund the Polks had set up for their children.
Detective Costa perched himself on the desktop and listened to the thirty voice mails on Felix Polk’s answering machine as investigators marked the mounds of paper into evidence. Most of the calls were from patients wanting to schedule appointments. Two were from a “Tom Pyne” also requesting an appointment.
“I recognize that name!” Detective Roxanne Gruenheid announced. Gruenheid was among those executing the search warrant that day. She explained that Eli Polk had offered his father’s patient, Tom Pyne, as a possible suspect during the interview that she and Detective Steve Warne had conducted at Byron Boys’ Ranch several days after Felix’s murder.
In another drawer, investigators found an envelope with Pyne’s return address in El Sobrante, a small East Bay city north of the Richmond Bridge. They would pay him a visit later that week.
Moving their search to the office closet, police discovered a manila envelope containing the blue .38-caliber revolver that Susan had mentioned in her first interview and a red plastic ammo container, along with the keys for the trigger lock. The gun was loaded with the trigger lock in place, and a quick check of the weapon confirmed that it was registered to Susan Polk. The detective noted it hadn’t been fired in some time. Unloading the weapon, Costa booked it into evidence for safekeeping.
Also in the closet was a rambling six-page letter Susan had faxed from the T-4 Bucks Motel on Highway 191 in Big Sky, Montana, on October 3, 2002. The letter appeared to be a portion of Susan’s personal diary. In it, she wrote about Felix being a member of the Israeli “Mossad” and knowing about the September 11 terrorist attacks, Costa noted.
“Susan mentions the recent divorce court rulings in which she claims that Felix got his spousal support reduced,” the detective wrote in his report. “Susan writes about being a medium and how Felix used to put her into trances. Most of the letter is talking about the Israeli army and the Mossad and how Susan believes they were involved in the 9/11 attacks.”
Several days after searching Felix’s office, Detective Costa received an interoffice envelope from a deputy sheriff employed at the county’s Court Services Division. It was addressed to a Judge Rivera at 725 Court Street in Martinez and had a return address of Jackson, Wyoming. The postmark indicated it had been mailed in 2002.
Costa immediately recognized the envelope’s contents as a duplicate of the six-page letter Susan had faxed to Felix from the T-4 Bucks Motel in Montana on October 3—only this copy was one paragraph longer than the faxed copy. It began, “thought you might be interested in the journal excerpt about a Mossad agent’s failure to provide a warning to U.S. Intel. Re. Terrorist attacks on U.S.” Looking over the letter, Costa speculated that Susan had mailed a portion of her private diary to Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Maria Rivera in hopes of proving that her husband was a double agent working for the Israeli government and that he had used his influence as a spy to derail her custody efforts. It is not clear why Susan chose to send the correspondence to Judge Rivera. Although she hoped the letter would strengthen her argument, after reading it, it was clear that this wouldn’t help at all. The letter was a shocking window into Susan’s confused world, one in which her paranoia and delusions were abundantly clear:
I called F last night and found out this piece of information straight from the horses [sic] mouth as it were. “Brace yourself, Susan,” he said. “You’re in for a shock.” Yes, I was shocked. I shocked him too, accusing him of misusing his position as a Mossad agent to influence the court. It doesn’t help that the judge is Jewish. At first he tried the “poor Susan you really do need help” routine. But when I persisted, objecting that I had no idea that I was marrying into a Mossad cell when I married him, that I never would have wanted to do that, that all of his friends and family members are Mossad like M. who is stationed in Germany and B the lawyer who trots off to Pakistan on field trips and that I would tell my story on the Internet, F responded “No one will ever believe you Susan.” I said, “The Arabs will.” And he said, “Are you going to go to the Arabs then, Susan?” And I said, “No, I don’t like them any better than the Jews.” I asked him, “How could he betray his own country?” Doesn’t he think of Americans as his countrymen? Or does he think of himself as part of the Greater Jewish Nations that exists without borders?
“You’d better think about your children,” he insinuated. “You better think about the consequences for your children.”
“What are you going to do that you haven’t already done?” I asked. Eli is in juvenile hall, and Gabe, well Gabe is in a continuation school. “Eli will get six months,” F said. “How’d you arrange that?” I asked. “Did you pay off the judge or did you just have something on him?” And F just grunted.
I don’t know how to get out of the dilemma I am in. Joining is impossible. I will not become an actress like the members of F’s disgusting family, pretending all the time, shaming kindness and humanity when underneath there is nothing but betrayal, sadism, and in the best of them, a kind of robotic obedience. F is evil and he is a traitor.
The letter then spoke about the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Susan claimed to be a medium and that she had advised Felix on world events related to Israel through visions she experienced while in a trance:
I am not happy about being a medium,
the letter concluded:
First of all, I am only partly conscious of what is happening when I do what I do, and sometimes, I am not conscious at all until later when I get flashbacks. I don’t know whether this is because F hypnotized me so frequently when I saw him as a patient. (It was under hypnosis that this ability was discovered by F and instructed me not to remember, or whether it is a function of being a medium.)
Later that evening, a canine search and rescue unit was dispatched to the Miner Road crime scene. Investigators were hopeful that dog handler Eloise Andersen and her scent dog Trimble could sniff out some clues. It was after dark when Anderson and Trimble set off from the driveway at 728 Miner Road as investigators recorded the dog’s movements. But it was soon obvious that the direction the dog tracked “was consistent with the way any occupants of Miner Road would go if proceeding to the Lafayette area” and the search was called off.
Interviews with the Polks’ neighbors yielded no witnesses to the murder. Indeed, the neighbors knew very little about the Polk family. One Miner Road resident told police she had met Susan Polk twice since moving onto the block that past June. In response to questions, she said that both she and her husband were at home on October 14, but didn’t see or hear anything suspicious. In fact, she hadn’t seen Dr. Polk in months. Because of the age difference between Felix and Susan, she assumed that he was Susan’s father.
Another woman on the block recalled that the Polks moved onto the street about two years ago, but she thought that Felix Polk had moved out of the residence. Eli Polk had once backed his car into their retaining wall; Felix had paid for the repair.
The woman assured officers she never saw or heard any domestic abuse occurring at the Polk house, although on Monday, the fourteenth, at about 8:30 PM, she did hear “some yelling.” She described the yelling, “as not being out of anger but just in the background” and attributed it to the Giants baseball game on TV.