Final Analysis: The Untold Story of the Susan Polk Murder Case - Catherine Crier (2007)
Part II. THE INVESTIGATION BEGINS
Chapter 17. IN HER OWN WORDS
When Detective Costa initially found Susan’s diary, he did not know its value. While many who had been working on the case were hoping that the document would provide enough information to convict her, others remained skeptical. Police believed the file might reveal Susan’s motive, personal thoughts—maybe even the planning of Felix’s murder. Meanwhile Susan had told Detective Costa that the diary contained both “real and imaginary events,” as she tried to downplay the significance of the text.
Despite her attempt to discredit the writings, all of the entries in the document were dated and easy to follow, and they depicted Susan’s thoughts, desires, and frustrations in startling detail during the seventeen months prior to Felix’s murder. Her notations portrayed two very different sides to this bright and complicated woman. On the one hand, some of Susan’s writings were articulate and thoughtful. She had a firm grasp on the couple’s financial picture as she managed the household budget and myriad investment properties they owned. She was well-read and spent a good deal of time perusing a mixed bag of literary works.
Yet sprinkled amid the coherent writings were the ramblings of a woman who regularly suffered from delusions. Susan was convinced that she was a medium, that Felix was a Mossad agent, and that he had been putting 40 percent of his money into an account in the Cayman Islands for the past twenty years.
Susan’s journal began in May 2001, just four months after she attempted suicide at Yellowstone National Park. At the time, she was residing in a rental cottage in Stinson Beach, just over the Golden Gate Bridge via a winding road from San Francisco. According to her writings, she had moved out of the Orinda house the previous month after yet another violent encounter with Felix.
Interestingly, Susan’s inspiration for the diary came from the book Bridget Jones’ Diary. She loved how the book’s protagonist used a journal to poke fun at her trials and tribulations and decided to adopt a similar sense of humor about her own situation. However, after reading a few pages, it quickly became clear that Susan’s diary was not funny. Instead, it represented a series of disjointed ramblings by a woman who clearly harbored deep-seated anger and perhaps hatred for her husband. At one point she even referred to Felix as Dr. Josef Mengele, the ruthless Nazi concentration camp doctor.
In addition to the diary, Costa and his team had also turned up several of Susan’s personal papers during their search of the office in the main house, including a number of letters written by her to various people involved with her divorce. One of the first letters went to Felix’s divorce attorney, Steve Landes, in which she offered to sign over custody of Eli and Gabe in exchange for a speedy resolution to the divorce. Her return address was listed as a post office in Stinson Beach.
“This is to confirm that I will not be pursuing physical custody of my children, Eli and Gabriel,” Susan wrote to Landes on May 12, 2001. “They wish to remain in Orinda, and I intend to relocate out of state…. I am not requesting regular visitation…. If you draw up the custody documents, I will sign them.”
Susan had requested the legal papers be drawn up prior to the couple’s court hearing on June 6. Yet Detective Costa found no such agreement among the written materials he confiscated.
In a second letter written that same month, Susan informed Felix of her intent to leave the Bay Area following the sale of the Orinda residence. She cited “cost of living” and “the damage” he had done to her reputation by “maligning me publicly as ‘psychotic’ and ‘delusional,’” as reasons for moving out of state. She also related her displeasure with Felix’s decision to use monies from their rental income to pay his personal expenses and suggested he refinance the Orinda property to cover real estate taxes until the residence was sold.
Susan also blasted Felix’s request that she undergo a psychological evaluation before gaining custody of their minor children. In her recent letter to Steve Landes, she stated that she was not interested in custody of her children, apparently giving up on the idea of custody because of the court’s continued reliance on his psychological opinion.
“As the court already has demonstrated that it has been and, in all liklihood [sic], will continue to be influenced or swayed by your opinions or recommendations, it seems likely that any professional you hire to do the evaluation will also be swayed. It is clear that you are determined to punish me by taking the kids away from me. You have said repeatedly to me, and them, that you will not let them go. It’s time to move on.”
Susan closed by reiterating her willingness to forgo physical custody of them, but demanded prompt payment of her monthly support checks—$6,500 in spousal support and $2,853 for her share of Social Security. She suggested Felix set up automatic payments directly from his checking account.
While she was writing letters, Susan continued to fill her diary with entries that shed light on events and her mental state in the days leading up to her suicide attempt on January 16, 2001. “Felix had thrown all of my clothes on the floor and gone on one of his tirades, and I got very upset and left and went to Yosemite. It just seemed hopeless. I love my children so much and it felt like he was changing the character of my children and that he was turning them into people like himself. I had this moment of despair and I took a bottle of aspirin and Scotch. And then I realized I had made a mistake. I didn’t want to die.”
Susan wrote that she phoned Felix for help and was admitted to a local hospital where a doctor found her to be depressed but sane. When the psychiatrist asked her what was going on, Susan was momentarily silent. Oddly enough, she was concerned about Felix’s reputation and wanted to protect him. What she didn’t know was that Felix was in an adjoining room insisting that she be committed for treatment.
“Here he is saying these stupid things about me, and I’ve got his power of attorney,” Susan noted. “It was bizarre. Here I am managing all of our assets and Felix was trying to insinuate that I was crazy.”
In late May 2001, Susan and Eli boarded a plane for Paris. Her diary entries made it clear that Susan had high hopes for the European jaunt. She planned to use the vacation as an opportunity to “bond with her middle son” and to show Eli the proper way to treat a woman. She felt her teenage sons were becoming abusive just like their father and wanted to intervene before it was too late. It did not take long for reality to hit home, and it was on the plane to Paris that her fragile psychological state became apparent.
“Half way through [the flight], I started feeling sick to my stomach…and go to the bathroom…. One of the stewardesses was coming down the aisle…and told me that I was going to get ‘trapped in the bathroom by the carts.’…Went ahead to the bathroom and was inside…for at least twenty minutes. Came out, and was jumped on by her partner for not wearing shoes on the plane….
“Ordered by rude fellow to put shoes on immediately and go back to my seat. Told him he was very rude. Started up aisle only to run into (rude attendant with cart)…. Told me to get out of her way…. I couldn’t because other attendant was blocking me….
“She ordered me to go back to my seat, raising her voice, and grabbing my arm several times. I told her not to touch me and to stop shouting.”
Upon arrival, her hopes for the trip quickly receded as Eli quickly lost interest in the European holiday. On the second day after their arrival, Eli slept a lot, and Susan speculated he was getting sick. The following day proved no better as Eli informed her that he missed his friends and wanted to go home. The conflict climaxed while Eli and Susan were on their way to eat dinner.
“Taxi driver does not seem to know where restaurant is. Drops us off on street corner in Montparnasse…. Eli launches into diatribe about how stupid I am. Don’t know where I’m going. Don’t do anything right. Certainly not knowledgeable like Dad…. Mean while, I am trying to consult map but having considerable difficulty as am being bombarded by Eli in an all too familiar way about my numerous inadequacies.”
Susan described in some detail the foods she and Eli enjoyed during their two-hour meal, and the “delicious bottle of wine” the two “polished off.” Despite these indulgences, the meal did little to quell the rising fury between them.
“We stagger into a cab, stagger home, and Eli promptly gets on the phone and dutifully tells dad he’s coming home,” Susan recorded. “I don’t get it…. Asks dad to get him on flight ASAP…. Have uncomfortable feeling that Felix is somehow behind all this…. It is strange to hear Elisay now that the thought of my returning home is intolerable because nothing has changed. ‘Be nice to Dad,’ he says, ‘you have to be nice to Dad.’ He says that I have spent Dad’s money today and now I must be nice to him. He doesn’t seem to understand that it is also my money. ‘Dad’s worked for that money, you don’t work,’ Eli says. ‘Dad works every day of his life.’ Whatever I’ve done is completely unacknowledged…. Now, feel like failure.”
On May 27, Susan dropped Eli at the airport and stayed in Paris to complete her holiday. The goodbye was hard on both mother and son, as the expectations for the trip crumbled before their eyes. “Hugged him goodbye, and hurried away to hide my tears…. Eli in obvious guilt conflict…. Seems to feel he is betraying dad with me…. What has Felix done to him?…If it’s like what he did with me, Eli has a tremendous amount of suffering ahead of him…. Felix has all of the children brainwashed into believing that they have to stay with him.
“Eli has always had panic attacks when away from home…. Re-minds me of me when I was too anxious to leave my room as a teenager. Couldn’t imagine living without Felix…. Felix has a way of instilling these feelings—it’s part of his controlling persona…. None of us will have any peace of mind as long as Felix is living with us.”
Once Eli left, things improved for Susan, who wrote enthusiastically about her Parisian museum romp on May 28. Susan’s entries remained upbeat and positive for the remainder of the vacation. “Tomorrow, leave for home, which am not looking forward to at all,” she wrote on her final night in Paris. “Must still find resolution. Cannot live with crazy, immoral, morally sick man. Also, destructive, sadistic, cruel, twisted, profligate, disturbed, criminal. Need I continue?”
Susan arrived back at the house in Orinda on June 3. By June 7, she had had enough. “How can I describe how horrible it is? No, Felix doesn’t hit me anymore. Nor does Eli. So far, no more violent scenes. But I detest every minute in his presence. All day long, all I do is clean up after Felix, the children, the dogs, and the bird….
“I hate being in this country. I hate the smug, indifferent faces of Americans. They have turned something off inside. Maybe it is their humanity. They pretend to care about the poor, about children, about the environment, about violence, when inside they are indifferent. They are obedient. They are good Germans….
“I don’t see how I can stay here until Gabe graduates. Friday, he is having a Toga Party to celebrate his graduation from eighth grade. Gabriel is flunking math. He is not allowed to participate in his graduation ceremony. He has invited an unknown number of children to his party…. It is going to be another mess to handle.”
On June 13, after detailing an entry about a “very strange dream” involving Felix and the boys, Susan wrote the letter she would send to Felix’s first wife, Sharon Mann, if she had the courage:
I am so sorry for any pain I ever caused you. But really, you should be grateful to me for having spared you the last twenty years with this monster. I wish he would let me go as readily as he let you. I want to thank you for having warned me…. How I wish that I had listened to you….
All these years, I have heard from him how terrible you were, how crazy, bitchy…. I know you must have been a very good mother to have offset Felix’s deadly parenting…. I hope that life has compensated you in some way for what you must have suffered living with such a malevolent person.
In mid-June 2001, Susan signed a Power of Attorney granting Felix permission to refinance the Miner Road house. She was departing in two days for Thailand with Gabriel and was determined to pursue a divorce upon her return on July 6.
Before her departure, Susan penned a letter to Felix: “I have resolved to proceed with the divorce despite your objections that you don’t want a divorce. [The children] have reported to me the belief that they cannot survive without you because you make all of the money…. Should you persist in claiming custody of the children, I will not deplete our financial resources in fruitlessly contesting your claim….”
According to the diary, Susan’s trip was filled with confusion over accommodations and confrontations with Gabriel. While her trip to Paris was salvaged once Eli flew back home, the Thailand vacation offered no such relief.
Asked Felix to book reservations at Club Med…on Phuket…. After hour long drive to Club Med, informed by management no record of reservation. Club Med full of overweight Americans hanging out in packs at the bar and doing calisthenics together in the pool. Finally offered single room with one bed. Declined. Offered two rooms next to each other. Declined. Reservation was for adjoining rooms. Argued with concierge who had adjoining rooms available but refused to give them to me at same price. Departed Club Med in a huff and returned to Bangkok….
June 24, 2001…. So here we are at the Kiahuna and having a horrible time. Gabe is convinced I am a misanthrope. He makes one remark after another about how I hate everybody. Why is it so difficult to explain that I don’t hate everybody? I’m selective.
On June 26, 2001, Eli arrived in Hawaii, where Susan and Gabe eventually ended up after their situation in Thailand continued to sour. Upon Eli’s arrival, he claimed that he “came on a mission to save our vacation.” Much to everyone’s surprise, he actually did help quite a bit. Susan recalled that they “had a lovely day…. The only thing to mar it was to discover that I was over my limit on my credit card, and to hear from Felix. He said he needed certain documents to obtain the loan, which as far as I knew had already been approved…. When I objected to his bothering me when I’m on vacation, he sounded amused. Felix has so much fun disturbing others. How disturbed he must be.”
While the trio appeared to avoid major confrontation for the remainder of the journey, returning home proved no easy task. “Came home to tension and messes left by Felix for me to clean up,” Susan’s entry of July 9 began. “The man seems to thrive on it. Have resolved to go through with divorce. Can’t stand lifestyle with him. Too depressing. F. oozes depression out of every pore. Adam’s comment: ‘Dad is depressed. He’s always been depressed.’ Little by little, it eats away at us all.”
On July 12, Susan recorded the details of her meeting with a divorce attorney, Dan Ryan, whom she described as “a self styled ‘tough Irishman.’” She had been without legal representation since May 1, 2001, when she fired her divorce lawyer because she was dissatisfied with his representation. At the meeting, Ryan informed Susan that she would have to go through a custody evaluation if she intended to fight for the kids.
In addition to meeting with Ryan, Susan also met with a therapist named Heidi Leslie on that July day. “I had lots to talk about by the time I got inside…. The therapist was kept very busy ahhhing, yesssssing, andmmmmming, by the virtually incessant stream of descriptive prose, which issued from me as if the plug had been pulled…. Why is it that at the oddest moments, the phrase ‘butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth,’ just seems to pop into my head? Well, butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. How is it that human beings become so inhuman?”
Moving on, Susan wrote, “Last night, Felix was in fine fettle. How did he put it? ‘Someone should do you a favor and just kill you.’ And Leslie [the therapist] wanted to know if I was afraid; if I believed I was in danger.”
One week later, on July 18, Susan informed Felix of her intention to take the children to live out of state. “F. went crazy…. Yelled at G. and E. that if they chose to live with me, they were not his sons. Threatened he wouldn’t support me, and then that he wouldn’t support them.” Susan explained that she wanted to get away from the congestion in the Bay Area and purchase or rent a ski house in Wyoming or Idaho “in order to live a more relaxed peaceful lifestyle, ski, hike, and just enjoy the outdoors.”
Later on, she discussed the issue of physical custody of the children. She was sure Felix would insist on joint custody whether the boys wanted to live with him or not. It would be his way of preventing her from moving the boys out of state.
“F. yelled I had brainwashed the boys, and that if we left, we would get no support from him.” She described how Felix tried to divide the boys, first attacking Eli, telling his middle son that he didn’t care what he thought, was more interested in Gabriel’s feelings, and was not convinced that Gabe was really all that enthused about moving to Montana.
Susan pointed out that Felix had allowed his first wife to take their daughter, Jennifer, to live in Illinois when she was sixteen. “He said that was different because I’m crazy and Sharon wasn’t. The boys then pointed out that F. had told them that Sharon was crazy many times….
“F. finally blew his stack and threw things at me and Gabe (a bowl of maccaroni [sic] and cheese, spoons, cups), then walked over and kicked the big screen T.V. which cost $5,000 after overturning an antique mission oak chair valued at over $2,500….
“Adam came home and suggested F. go out for a drink. Said it was time for our marriage to end as some marriages do…. Asked me if he could visit me in Wyoming or Idaho. I said of course. F. accused Adam of making fun of him and stormed off. Sounded very paranoid himself after having accused Eli of being delusional and paranoid earlier.
“Adam said he was worried about me and Gabe, felt we were not safe with F. while he was so angry.”
The incidents on July 18 set off a chain reaction in Susan as she began researching life in Wyoming and Montana and becoming increasingly serious about leaving the marriage and the state. On July 31 she wrote that it was “as if I had been hypnotized into seeing in F. my ideal man. Now that I have awakened from the hypnotic state, which lasted most of our twenty eight year relationship, have stripped off the suave, urbane image of a gentleman pasted onto Felix, can see him as the crude, weak, mean spirited little bastard that he is…obsessed with power and control and proving his potency.”
As the fall approached, Susan’s diary entries reflected a growing debate between Susan and Felix about her plan to take Eli and Gabe out of state. They argued repeatedly over schools for the boys and the practical aspects of Susan raising Eli and Gabe in Montana. During this time, Susan often wrote about Felix’s verbal and physical abuse, saying that he “seems to still have a lot of angry feelings about my moving him out of the bedroom. Said he felt like slugging me in the face. Called me a criminal and a swine for the umpteenth time.
“My criminality, according to F., lies in my having turned him out of my room and brainwashed the children against him…. He lost control of himself again and struck me in the face with a roll of papers. I suggested he get some help. Chased me out of his room. Then kicked the T.V. screen, much to Eli’s dismay who was watching it.”
On September 1, Susan informed Felix that she was leaving California on September 7, and revoked “any powers of attorney” she had given him. “If you get a court order, as you have threatened to do, forbidding me from taking Eli and Gabe out of California, I will not take them with me,” she wrote in a letter.
Still she persisted with the idea that they would accompany her, outlining a plan for Eli to enroll in a public school in Bozeman until the spring term. “The move would benefit Gabriel, as well,” Susan insisted. He failed several of his eighth grade classes at Orinda Intermediate and was beginning to “hate” school. “A change of scene will do him good,” Susan noted.
“I don’t want the children to lose you…,” Susan noted at the end of the letter. “I do want the children to have a father as a resource: a reasonable, mature, unselfish father who is primarily concerned with his children’s best interests rather than with using his children as leverage.
“You have stated that you will obtain a court order restricting me from removing the children from California. You have also threatened to kill me, to stop working to support the family, and to kill yourself. I don’t take any one of these threats more seriously than the other, and intend to proceed with planning as if you will come to your senses.”
While Susan made much of Felix’s determination to thwart her move with the two boys, it appears he did nothing to stop her when she actually departed. On Friday, September 7, the three set off for Montana without incident in Susan’s Volvo wagon, which was packed with personal belongings and pieces of furniture “important to the boys.”
Several days later, she sent Felix an update.
“We all miss our home in California,” she wrote in a letter dated September 13. “Montana will take some getting used to. It gets very cold here in the winter. Main Street in Bozeman is like stepping back in time…. The good news: the drug scene is very small here; the kids are focussing [sic] on their home work; both are eligible for their driver’s licenses…. Best regards.”
After nearly a month of living in a cabin outside of Bozeman, Susan wrote this entry in her diary: “I feel incredibly sad about Adam, who is gone in more ways than one. He has started school at UCLA. Just before we left, he threatened to kill me, provoked by Felix to a great extent. But I am still stunned by it. Not even Eli ever threatened to kill me. Adam hates me.”
Though Adam and Susan remained at odds, by late November 2001, it was clear that the change of venue did nothing to help Eli. Once again, he was involved with drugs. By month’s end, the teen was on his way back to Orinda. “After talking to us both, he [Eli] got into his car and drove to California,” Susan wrote in a letter to Felix on November 26. “On the way, he received a speeding ticket for going over 90 mph. This is the second speeding ticket he has gotten in the two months since I purchased his car….
“His decision to leave was based on the restrictions I placed on his truancy and marijuana usage…limiting his access to money: I purchased a safe to keep my wallet in, and refused to provide him with his usual allowance while he was binging on marijuana and until the stolen money was paid back.”
Susan demanded the keys to Eli’s car until he got clean. “Eli decided, against my wishes, to drop out of school and return to California.”
Once home, Eli was continuing with his “out of control drug binging.” Susan noted that her son had a car accident during the Thanksgiving holiday.
“I suggest that his car not be returned to him until he has completed a drug treatment program and either enrolls in school or gets a job,” she advised Felix in the letter. “I also do not believe that he should have access to large sums of cash on weekends for the time being.”
Susan, too, would return to the East Bay by month’s end, and she alerted Felix of her plan. Pointing to their “difficulty agreeing on disciplinary measures” Susan instructed Felix to find a home “elsewhere.” “Eli…is living unsupervised in the cottage in Orinda…which he uses as a ‘party pad’…a gathering place for teenagers to drink and drug,” she wrote. “It seems to me that you attempt to garner sympathy with the children by reversing my decisions. For example, when Adam ran up a $2,000 phone bill in June, and then followed with a $250 phone bill for his cell phone in September, disciplining him was left to me. When he ran up a $540 phone bill for his cell phone for the past month, I finally said enough and confiscated his cell phone OVER YOUR OBJECTIONS.
“You demanded repeatedly that I return it to him. You felt I was being too hard on the boy, which made you very popular with Adam and made me look very bitchy…. When Adam stole $100 out of my wallet…then lied and said Eli or Gabe took it, adding that I was ‘paranoid,’ a term for me he got from you, you supported Adam. You did ask me to tell my side of the story as if I were one of the kids as you have been used to doing….
“You are going to have to set selfish concerns aside and do what is best for the boys.”
On November 27, Gabriel was on a flight for San Francisco and Susan followed by car the next day. Susan was returning to Orinda and to Felix, the man she held responsible for her lifelong misery. Diary entries revealed that the fighting between the couple escalated once she returned to California, and by the end of 2001, Felix had moved out of the house and into a one bedroom apartment.
Nevertheless, the two continued to squabble over money and the payments he owed her. “Meetings with you tend to end badly with threats from you,” she wrote on February 18, 2002. “Your attorney has my phone number. We can communicate through attorneys…. With respect to financial support: your continued support of this family is not contingent upon my persuading the children to see you, my talking to you, or being ‘nice’ to you, or the children’s being ‘nice’ to you.
“You are responsible for supporting the children through college.…I am reducing expenses as much as possible. I have let my cleaning lady go. The boys and I are taking care of the home together. I cannot afford to give Adam an allowance of $100 per week, which I have been doing while he is at college. Adam has gotten a job, as you know. You are legally and ethically responsible for this payment…. Should you continue to shirk your responsibilities, I intend to take legal action against you.”
The scenario was familiar. Felix’s first wife, Sharon Mann, had written similar letters during their divorce, especially in regard to his supposed inability to pay tuition for their son, Andrew, then a freshman at Tufts University. It is interesting that, like his first divorce, Felix’s marriage to Susan was ending after exactly twenty years of marriage, the very year his eldest child, Adam, was a freshman at UCLA.
On February 26, Susan typed what appeared to be a suicide note to her sons that seemed more an introductory lesson in how to invest in real estate—counseling them to consult an attorney before taking any major steps and urging them not to have any rental properties in low-income areas:
I want to leave you with an explanation for my actions so that you do not make the mistake of blaming yourselves for what has happened.
In the letter, Susan reiterated the abuse she suffered as a child and the abuse she suffered by their father when she was a girl:
I married your father believing that I was in love with him. From time to time, it seemed as if I had forgotten something, and I would begin to remember what he had done, as well as the horror of my childhood that I had put away….
After years of being blamed for every mishap in our lives, after threats to take you away from me and have me confined to a mental hospital, I attempted suicide last year believing that perhaps your dad could do what he threatened to do….
Susan reassured her sons that she loved and admired them, noting their many talents and attributes:
The series of misfortunes that have dogged our lives just leaves me tired…. It is through no fault of yours that I have decided to give up. I just need to rest.
In wanting to leave her children with some guidance after her death, Susan outlined some advice they could follow:
1. Marry wisely.
2. Don’t spend all the money I leave you. Money is freedom to a certain degree although it also brings responsibilities.
3. Never relax your guard.
4. If anyone offers to include you in any get rich quick or quicker schemes, say NO….
5. Do not invest in real estate partnerships…
6. …but choose carefully. Avoid low-income areas for rental property.
7. Hold onto the rental properties, which you have.
8. Consult an attorney about rent laws….
9. Be extra careful in Berkeley….
11.Do not follow your father’s example, or anyone else’s for that matter.
12.Drugs and alcohol cloud your good judgment.
13.So do your emotions. Make your decisions when you have calmed down, but be flexible….
14.DO NOT BE SUGGESTIBLE….
15.You are inheriting enough to last you the rest of your lives if you don’t spend it all when you get it…. Don’t touch your investments….
I leave you all of my love. Find good homes for the dogs. You can’t take them with you, and they won’t want to go where I’m going.
Despite the letter’s pessimistic tone, Susan was aggressively pursuing the divorce. She contacted Felix’s lawyer with solutions to their divorce settlement. While there is no indication that Felix agreed to her terms, Susan’s entries remained upbeat as she wrote of the vast improvements to their lives since they returned from Montana and Felix moved out of the house.
“So much has changed in the last few months…we returned to Orinda, booted Felix out, and began having the time of our lives. Eli got off of drugs. Gabe worked hard in school. And we all had fun together. Then Dad happened. He filed for custody.”
Detailing the unfortunate turn of events, Susan discussed Eli’s arrest in late February for hitting a boy, an action which landed him in juvenile hall. “He [Eli] was placed under a program called ‘home supervision.’ He wears an electronic monitoring device on his ankle. He has to get permission from ‘peace officers’ at juvenile hall to leave his dad’s cottage.”
Susan noted that Eli was sleeping on the couch of Felix’s one-bedroom apartment in downtown Berkeley. But the arrangement was not working out.
Susan acknowledged that she was accused of being in contempt of court with regard to Eli’s court case, and, sentenced to five days in jail, “The judge gave me a few days to think about it. I did, and still I refused. Eli continued to come over, and finally just began to live at home again.”
Her diary continued, “When Eli was arrested, I made an offer to F’s attorney to settle our differences by leaving the country and relinquishing custody of the children…. I would not return or have any contact with the children until after F’s death. In exchange, he would not bother me. I would inherit my share of the property at his death, the kids would inherit their share, F’s kids would not inherit from what we had acquired during the course of our marriage. F has salted away millions. They could inherit from that.”
When Felix declined, Susan said she offered to compromise. She would still move away. “They just ignored my offer. F. expects me to struggle…to negotiate over the children…. F. expects the children to accept his version of reality: mom is sick, mom is crazy…. He has offered to live in our cottage so that I can see Eli….
“At first, I pretended I would trade places with them and live in their cottage. But…I can’t live there…. Berkeley is such a cynical community of smug, self-satisfied university people. I would suffocate…. It was a mecca for people like F. who saw themselves as the cleverest, lightest, fittest in the fifties and the sixties….”
Susan noted that in the same week Eli was sentenced, she learned that her mother had cut her out of the will. “I lost my home, my children. I am looking forward to never setting foot in this country again.”
In addition to her diary, Susan’s writings included a number of postcards and letters that she mailed to Eli at Juvenile Hall while en route to Montana in the fall of 2002. These would be her last correspondences until after Felix’s death.
“Sun Valley is pristine (undeveloped) and like a Hollywood set—picture perfect,” Susan wrote in a postcard dated September 22 from Salmon, Idaho. “But there are too many Hollywood people there. Am moving on.”
Another postcard to Eli read: “I hope to find a place I feel comfortable in. I can see it in my imagination. No crowds. Lots of trees. Animals. Empty roads. Rivers. Clear skys [sic]. Privacy. You will come to see me there when you are free to do so.”
Susan wrote to her divorce attorney, Dan Ryan, as well. In the letter, she reacted to news of the September 27 telephone conference in which the Contra Costa Superior Court judge awarded Felix “legal and physical custody of Gabriel” and “exclusive use and occupancy of the family residence located at 728 Minor Road.”
“I object to holding the hearing scheduled for Wednesday in my absence,” Susan said of the judge’s decision to schedule a follow-up hearing for October 3. “Please request that the hearing be postponed until I can return. The issues to be addressed might reasonably be resolved outside of court, those issues being spousal support, custody, and family support…. I left Gabe with Felix while I was looking for a home.
“Meanwhile, it is impossible for me to bid on a family residence when I have lost physical custody of Gabe and when my support award is subject to Felix’s whimsy. Whether or not I have physical custody of Gabe will determine whether or not I buy a residence. The amount of support I can expect to receive reliably will have bearing on where I choose to settle as well as what kind of home I will buy.”
Susan asked that the attorney make a motion on her behalf to have the physical custody order rendered that Friday vacated.
“I have not abandoned Gabe,” she noted.
Susan went on to explain that she had identified several affordable properties and was arranging to have Gabe fly out to Montana to see them. She noted that it would be impossible for her to proceed with negotiations for the purchase of a home until she learned for certain that she could have her children with her.
In a follow-up letter dated October 3, Susan fired Dan Ryan and then set off for California. Angry that the scheduled hearing occurred despite her objections, Susan blamed Ryan for his role in the events.
In subsequent entries made upon her return to Orinda, Susan claimed that she and Felix had reached “some verbal agreements”; they were $170,000 in debt and couldn’t afford to have one of them occupying the apartment in Berkeley, as that would be a loss of $2,400 a month in rental income, she wrote. They agreed that one of them should stay in the guesthouse, but the question remained: which one? Susan felt that it should be Felix, while her husband felt he had won the right to reside in the sprawling estate and was unwilling to compromise.
These discussions of their tentative oral agreement proved to be the last of the rambling, often confused entries in Susan Polk’s diary. While Susan’s writings chronicled events as she viewed them, as well as her growing dislike of her husband, they contained no evidence that she was plotting his murder. The diary merely revealed page after page of motive, providing insight into Susan in the months and years predating Felix’s murder. The lengthy memoir failed to provide the “smoking gun” police had anticipated when they listed it as part of the October 15 search warrant of the Miner Road residence.
Despite the inherent bias in the pages, the reality that they detailed was unsettling. The years of abuse and emotional scarring were apparent on both sides, and regardless of their history, it was clear that both Felix and Susan were growing tired of the status quo. And yet, Susan did not seem like a person on the edge of murder—particularly in her last entries where there is little to suggest that she was a woman who was about to be pushed too far. In the end, the diary created more questions than answers, and chief among them was—why had all this happened now? While Susan was still irate over the actions that took place in her absence, her final entries show a woman whose divorce was on the path to settlement. Her pragmatic, conciliatory tone when discussing Felix’s financial situation didn’t show a woman who was sharpening her knives; they showed a woman who had finally come to the table.
But in spite of their progress, many sticking points remained, including the role that the cottage would play in their lives. One of them had to give up claim to the main home and move to the guesthouse. It was a dispute that would last until the very end.