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

Part II. THE INVESTIGATION BEGINS

Chapter 16. PIECING IT ALL TOGETHER

In the days after the murder, Susan steadfastly maintained her innocence, even as police accumulated evidence of her complicity. Detective Costa had no doubt about Susan’s guilt. All the elements were there: strands of her hair in Felix’s death grip, a bloody footprint on the floor of the guest cottage that matched Susan’s shoe size and panicked calls to 911 from Felix in the days before the murder.

Susan had the means, the opportunity—and the motive. Her alimony had just been reduced by nearly five thousand dollars a month, and Felix was awarded custody of their minor son and the Orinda residence. Costa had the right suspect in jail, and he was determined to build a solid case. This was not the first homicide he had handled in which a battle over family finances had spurred a spouse to murder.

As part of his investigation, the detective reached out to Janna Kuntz, the realtor that Susan hired to assist in her relocation to Montana. He found a business card for Kuntz during his search of the Miner Road house, and in a telephone interview, Kuntz confirmed that she had shown Susan a number of properties during her two visits to Montana.

According to Kuntz, she met Susan in the late summer of 2001, when Susan came to Bozeman to look at homes. Kuntz took an instant liking to the fortyish woman from San Francisco who was soft-spoken, intelligent, and interesting. The realtor was intrigued by this woman who was tired of city living and wanted to slow down. Susan loved nature and the idea of residing in the country where she could hike and spend lazy afternoons honing her skills as a writer. When they first met, Susan was living with her two sons in a small cabin she rented in Gallatin Gateway, a small farming community about twenty minutes outside Bozeman. Susan liked the country setting, but Eli and Gabe complained bitterly about being so far from town. For them, the location was too remote.

Kuntz had few details about Susan’s first stay in Montana. She and Susan got to know each other better when she returned the following September accompanied by her yellow Labrador puppy, Dusty. After years of abuse, Susan and her husband were splitting up, and she was eager to settle in Montana and “enjoy a quiet life,” the realtor told Detective Costa. Susan had just sold some apartments in California and had $225,000 to put down on a home in the Big Sky area. She wanted to stay in that price range.

While out viewing properties, Susan received a number of calls on her cell phone, mostly from her children. She was proud of her three sons and spoke of them often. In fact, she told Kuntz that she wanted to buy a condo near the ski slopes of Big Sky for them to enjoy. Susan envisioned taking the boys on lengthy treks and spending quiet days reading and discussing literature.

When Costa asked about Susan’s emotional state, Kuntz said she seemed to be taking the bad news in her divorce with a mix of disappointment and frustration. “Can you believe this?” Susan would say, as she related each new development about the couple’s finances and custody battles. Susan appeared calm, seeming more bewildered than angry, Kuntz recounted.

“Did she ever make any statements about wanting to hurt her husband?” Costa asked.

“No. Never, not even after the phone call from her lawyer informing her that she was ‘losing’ the divorce case,” she said. “Susan was upset, but not enraged by the news.”

Kuntz was referring to an in-chambers conference that took place in Contra Costa Superior Court on October 1. Neither party was present at the closed-door meeting that resulted in the temporary reduction of Susan’s support payments, pending a review of the couple’s finances by a court-appointed accountant. Attorneys for the couple appeared on their behalf.

As Costa spoke to Kuntz, it became clear that the timing of that decision couldn’t have been worse. Susan had just plunked down a one thousand dollar deposit on a small two-bedroom condo near Big Sky. Now, she was being forced to make a trip back to California to deal with the fallout. Had Felix left things alone, Susan might have signed the deal and quietly moved out of state, but faced with a reduction in spousal support, Susan would no longer be able to afford such a move. The realtor told Costa that she begged Susan not to return to the West Coast. While Susan never mentioned her husband by name, she had related enough horrific details of alleged abuse that Kuntz feared for her client’s safety. Susan was stoic, assuring the realtor that she intended to pack her belongings and return as soon as she could.

Once en route to Orinda, however, her plans seemed to have changed. Susan called Kuntz from the road. “She phoned to cancel the purchase of the property; a problem had arisen and she needed to take care of some business before she would be ready to buy something in Montana,” the realtor recalled.

Susan promised to call again when she was ready to return.

“Did Susan look at any sporting goods stores while she was there, specifically to purchase a shotgun?” Costa asked.

“I have no knowledge of that. Susan never mentioned wanting to buy a gun of any sort,” Kuntz said.

After speaking with Kuntz, Costa again contacted Justin Simon, Felix’s office landlord, and asked if he was treating Dr. Polk, as Susan alleged. “That is not true,” the psychiatrist replied. “Sometime ago I prescribed some medicine for him so he could sleep better. But as far as I know, Dr. Polk was not receiving any psychotherapy from anyone.”

Dr. Simon said that Felix had been a tenant in the building for about two years. “I would not even describe our relationship as friends, just colleagues,” he said.

Neil Kobrin, president of Argosy University’s Point Richmond campus, claimed to be one of Felix’s closest friends. He had known Felix and Susan for more than twenty years, first as Felix’s student and later as a colleague. A longtime member of the faculty at Argosy, Felix taught classes two days a week and was well regarded by students and faculty members, alike. A number of Polk’s students had acknowledged him in thesis papers and during graduation speeches.

After learning of Dr. Kobrin’s close relationship with Felix, Costa set out to interview him. The conversation provided several interesting bits of information. Dr. Kobrin, who was well into his seventies and still holding a full-time post at the university, told Costa that over the years Felix claimed that Susan “was becoming more and more erratic, paranoid and delusional,” Kobrin related. Kobrin said he knew about Susan’s belief that Felix had poisoned one of the family dogs.

Costa heard that allegation from Susan. Apparently, Susan believed that Felix fed their German Shepard, Tucky, a lethal dose of Ex-Lax. She claimed to have saved the animal by administering the antidote, Pepto Bismol. The incident did not seem likely, but Costa noted it for the record.

In response to questions, Kobrin said he last spoke to Felix on Thursday, October 10. Felix phoned his office to say he wouldn’t be able to make the afternoon faculty meeting or his teaching session later that day. Things with Susan were so bad that he was “barricading” himself in the bedroom at night to prevent her from gaining entry. He would be staying at a local hotel in Lafayette.

“Susan has a gun and is going to kill me,” Felix said during the call.

Korbrin acknowledged there were marital problems, but he had not seen or heard of any abuse, physical or emotional, during his decades-long friendship with the couple. In his opinion, Felix really didn’t want the divorce.

“He was trying to keep the marriage together, if for anything, for the boys,” he said.

As they spoke about the complicated relationship, Costa was surprised to discover that Korbrin, Felix’s close friend, had no idea how the couple met. He was unaware that Susan had been under Felix’s care as a teenager, and that their romance had stemmed from that unethical relationship. Apparently, there was truth to Susan’s claim that Felix hadn’t wanted people to know those details, Costa noted.

On Friday, October 25, detectives knocked on the door of Felix’s longtime patient, Thomas Pyne. Pyne was the name Eli Polk had thrown out as a possible suspect in his father’s murder.

It was just past noon when Detectives Costa and Moule pulled up to the sprawling house in the hills of El Sobrante. Over the past four decades, the small town had undergone a transformation similar to that of Orinda, evolving from a farming village to a busy suburban center. Pyne lived on a rambling property several miles from the commercial district. He was at home and quickly answered the detectives’ knock.

From behind dark sunglasses, Costa introduced himself to the sixty-something male who appeared in the doorway. Soft-spoken and friendly, the man introduced himself as Thomas Pyne.

Pyne was “devastated” by news of Dr. Polk’s death. He had been a patient for thirty-five years and was still seeing the psychologist on a regular basis, at least two times a week. His voice cracking, he affirmed that Felix was having marital problems, but he had no idea they were so serious. He first met Susan and the boys while a patient at Polk’s home/office in Piedmont. Susan was friendly and usually greeted him with a wave, Pyne recalled. Costa learned that Pyne had never been to the couple’s home in Orinda. As a patient, Pyne saw Felix at his office in Berkeley.

“Did you have an appointment with Dr. Polk on Monday the 14th?” Costa asked. “Because I’m trying to determine if he missed appointments that day.”

“No. But during the past couple of weeks he’s missed some appointments. Not shown up, you know.”

Pyne said he phoned the office on Tuesday, October 15, and left a message on Felix’s machine. When he received no response, he inquired about Felix at the office and the landlord, Justin Simon, informed him of the murder. Polk’s patient was surprised when told his name had been mentioned in connection with Felix’s death. “Did the person say that I was the one who killed Dr. Polk?” he asked.

“That was never said,” Costa replied. “It was more inferred. I have no reason to believe that you are involved, but anytime we have a name given to us under any circumstances, it is our job to talk to that person.”

Pyne was silent. “I’m at a loss,” he blurted out. “I will greatly miss having Dr. Polk as a therapist.”

A warm breeze blew through the house as the men discussed Pyne’s decades-long relationship with the slain psychologist. While Costa already had his primary suspect in custody, protocol required that he pursue all avenues of investigation. Pyne did not strike Costa as a threat, but he still needed to rule him out as a suspect.

“Did you ever have an argument with Dr. Polk or give the doctor a reason to be concerned about you hurting him?” he asked.

“No. Felix and I got along fine.” There was a long pause, as if Pyne was silently reliving his sessions with the doctor. His responses were slow and deliberate, his tone measured. “There were times over the years that during our sessions he might say something that angered me and I would simply tell him that and we would move on. And I guess there were times I would say something that would anger him and we would talk about it for a few minutes and move on with the session.”

In a subsequent interview, Pyne related that Felix was not himself during their last session together on Friday, October 11. While Felix never wore suits to work, he was always neatly put together in tennis shorts and a pullover or slacks and a sport jacket. That Friday, Felix looked a wreck, Pyne recalled. Polk was not only physically unkempt, he was also distant and remote. Felix had always been an active participant in the therapy sessions. In fact, the two often practiced role-playing to help Pyne work through his relationship with his stern, detached father.

Felix agreed to treat Pyne even though he often had no money to pay his fees. Tom was grateful, promising to make good on his debt when he inherited his parents’ estate. Pyne recalled that over the years Felix kept a running tab that he presented to him upon his father’s death. It was a sum that Tom happily paid.

The detectives questioned the man until they were satisfied with the responses. Listening to Pyne discuss the positive impact that Felix had on his life, it was obvious that this man had no motive or desire to see Felix dead. If anything, his death would have an adverse effect on the patient. As their conversation wrapped up, Costa had to wonder why Eli had mentioned Pyne’s name as a possible suspect. It seemed odd that the boy would suspect someone, who as far as Costa could tell, had no desire to see Felix dead.