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


Chapter 18. THE REAL FELIX?

“Dear Mom, I’m going to Dad’s funeral this Saturday,” Eli wrote to Susan from juvenile hall on November 5, 2002. “I don’t think I am going to say anything. What would I possibly have to say about him? Nothing good.”

Eli made good on his word. He was granted permission from juvenile officials to attend the November 9 memorial service for his father at Christ the King Parish in Pleasant Hill. With his close-cropped hair and broad shoulders, the teen was easily identifiable in the sanctuary’s front pew, where he sat shoulder to shoulder with his siblings, Adam and Gabriel.

Although Felix was Jewish, his funeral could not be held immediately after his death as is the Jewish custom; police insisted on an autopsy as part of the murder investigation. Once the autopsy was performed, it would be another three weeks before the memorial service was held. Felix was not a practicing Jew and had even gone so far as to tell Adam that he was an agnostic. Still, Susan had felt it was important for her sons to know about their father’s heritage and orchestrated the Jewish holidays at their home in an attempt to honor both her faith and that of her husband’s family. Sometimes the Polks celebrated Christmas and other times they celebrated Hanukah—with no discernible pattern.

After some discussion, it was decided that the funeral would be held at Christ the King Parish, a small Catholic house of worship in San Francisco’s East Bay, and funded, at least in part by Argosy University where Felix taught. Mourners arriving at the church on Brandon Road that autumn day were momentarily taken aback by the psychedelic rock and roll music that filled the sanctuary. Adam had chosen the song, “Wish You Were Here,” the 1975 hit from the British rock band, Pink Floyd, to kick off the service, although it was not clear why Adam selected that track to memorialize his father; perhaps it was because Pink Floyd was a group that Felix counted among his favorites.

As the words of the song droned from overhead speakers, old family photos of Felix flashed onto two large screens set up on either side of the altar: a young Felix embracing his infant son from his first marriage, playing cello accompaniment to his first wife, Sharon Mann, and another of Felix trekking outdoors and carrying a child on his back. The pictures elicited smiles and laughter from those who came to pay their final respects to the slain therapist. There was silent anticipation that one of the photos would contain an image of Felix’s spouse and alleged killer, but the photomontage had been edited to exclude any photos of Susan Polk.

Like the slide presentation, the tender eulogies that followed also failed to mention Felix’s second wife. Instead, friends and colleagues publicly remembered a warm, caring man who loved his work and his children. One of the speakers was Ernst Vaulfer, a fellow Holocaust survivor who had known Felix for more than forty years. Another person who took the pulpit that afternoon was Felix’s former patient, Sheila Burns, the psychologist who Susan suspected of having an affair with her husband.

Susan made no request to attend Felix’s funeral, and his children from his first marriage, Andrew and Jennifer Polk, decided not to fly in for the ceremony, electing instead to hold their own private memorial on the East Coast some days later. Adam and Gabriel told Court TV’s Lisa Sweetingham that Jennifer and Andrew were rarely a presence in their lives. Andrew, who was already in college when Felix left Sharon, did not stay in close contact with his father. Their relationship worsened after Felix declined to pay for his college tuition. Jennifer was in and out of the picture over the years. She had lived with Felix and Susan for a brief time after their marriage but as time passed her visits became infrequent. Nevertheless Adam and Gabriel elected to fly east to share their father’s loss with their half siblings. Eli, still in custody in the juvenile facility, was not permitted to make the cross-country trek.

It is not known if Felix’s first wife, Sharon Mann, attended that service. She was not among the mourners at the November 9 ceremony in California. Sharon had reacted with a mix of surprise and sadness when she learned of Felix’s death from police the day after his body was found in the guest cottage.

“I feel so sorry for him,” she tearfully told a reporter who reached her for a reaction. “It’s such a horrible tragedy.” Though polite, Sharon declined to comment publicly about her relationship with Felix or the circumstances surrounding his death. While many of his friends and colleagues expressed similar remorse over Felix’s death, they also refused to discuss Felix’s relationship with his second wife openly. In addition to their disapproval of his dual relationship with Susan, there was also quiet talk during the subsequent coffee hour in the church meeting room of Felix’s propensity for inappropriate relationships with other patients outside the confines of his office. Felix thought nothing of socializing with them and even soliciting their professional services—be they piano lessons from his music teacher patient or legal advice from an attorney he was counseling.

Several of his colleagues even suggested they knew of his affair with Susan around the time it began and quietly denounced his involvement with the fragile teen. While it is true that in the late 1960s there was no California law against a therapist having intercourse with a patient, most viewed it as an ethical violation of patient/doctor privilege. In Susan’s case, the violation was even more serious because she was allegedly underage when the sexual relationship began.

Sexual contact between a patient and therapist is now a crime in California that is punishable by six months in jail. The law, however, permits sexual relations between therapist and patient two years after the termination of therapy. The stipulation stems from the theory that transference will have worn off after two years, however, many in the field assert that transference is everlasting. Experts have even suggested that Felix’s inappropriate sexual relationship with his teenage patient might have caused him to misdiagnose Susan. It’s possible that he failed to recognize that she might very well have been a borderline personality, a diagnosis that brings with it lifelong symptoms of depression, rage, and hostility.

And while there were no other accusations of inappropriate sexual relationships with patients over the years, Felix had a widespread reputation for regularly violating protocol. One such incident occurred in October 1997, when Felix was accused of providing insufficient care for a child because of his close relationship to the boy and his father.

During the ongoing investigation into Felix’s murder, we obtained access to the family court file that involved the custody of this ten-year-old boy who was in therapy with Felix. In a five-page letter to the judge presiding over the case, the family, and the child counselor asked to render an evaluation, accused Dr. Polk of “limiting the effectiveness of his therapy because of his dual and inappropriate social relationships with the boy and his father.” The counselor wrote: “These dual relationships have resulted in unorthodox treatment protocols (doing treatment at the father’s home, picking the boy up from school, and taking him home after the therapy, not attending treatment on his mother’s custodial time) that can make it difficult for the child to experience the treatment as emotionally safe and neutral.

“Additionally, Dr. Polk has involved himself in the current litigation between the parents by speaking to the father’s attorney about the boy’s treatment and relationships with his parents without notice or consent from the mother. These behaviors on the part of Dr. Polk are in contrast to current ethical standards and practices.”

Psychotherapist Karen Saeger, a colleague of Dr. Polk’s at the California Graduate School of Professional Psychology in Berkeley from 1979 to 1986, claimed that Felix had a “widespread reputation” on the campus for his twofold relationship with Susan. Saeger portrayed his actions as “disturbing and improper.”

“There were two Felixes,” she said of Polk. “One was tightly coiled like he could spring at you; the other was charming and charismatic.”

Kathy Lucia, a former patient of Polk’s, had a similar reaction. Lucia, who, along with Susan, had participated in the group sessions that Felix led during the 1970s, said that she recalled Felix “was trying to control” Susan during the meetings.


Susan and her brother, David Bolling

Susan at age 15. Around the time this photo was taken, she began seeing Felix Polk for therapy.

Susan and Felix on their wedding day. Though she had reservations about the wedding, she went through with the ceremony. Not long after, tensions between them began to grow.

Felix and Susan in a happy moment with their children

Felix enjoying the company of his son. Although he and Susan disagreed over parenting techniques, Adam and Gabe felt that he was a good father.

Susan in a calm moment with her son. Though situations with Felix were tense during the boys’ youth, it was not until they were older that the tempers began to escalate.

Felix takes over the feeding duties

Susan and Eli during their ill-fated trip to Paris. Eli’s decision to leave Paris early and return home would later be used against him at the trial when the prosecutor attempted to portray his parental loyalties as fickle.

Susan and Adam before their relationship soured. Until his father’s death, Adam was close to his mother, but all that changed on October 13, 2002.

Together the boys of the Polk family would prove difficult for their parents to handle, as each one struggled with authority in his own way.

The main house of the Polk’s Miner Road estate. The sprawling property would be the site of numerous police visits, as the Polk sons and their parents found themselves in trouble with the law.

The Miner Road pool house where Felix was living when Susan killed him. Due to his fear of Susan, Felix claimed to have “barricaded” himself inside the pool house in the days before his death.

Eli relaxing on the deck during happier times

Susan’s dogs were of particular importance to her and the subject of contention between her and Felix.

Though Susan’s relationship with Felix could at times seem normal, the years of conflict eventually became too much.

One of the controversial bloody footprints found at the crime scene

While at first she would claim that her injuries were the result of her dog’s overaggressive behavior, Susan later revealed that the bruising around her eye and the small cuts to her fingers stemmed from her struggle with Felix.

A police department sketch of the Polk’s Miner Road estate

My 2005 interview with Susan on Catherine Crier Live. It was during this discussion that she revealed Felix’s naval records and told her side of that fateful evening.

Taken in the Polk’s pool house, this sequence of photos shows Susan’s attorneys, Dan Horowitz (with glasses) and Ivan Golde, reenacting the struggle between Felix and Susan on the night of Felix’s death.

Helen Bolling speaking with reporters outside the courthouse

Prosecutor Paul Sequeira preparing to address the media

Valerie Harris making a statement to reporters in front of the courthouse. While her professional relationship with Susan was strained by Susan’s erratic behavior, ultimately Valerie’s presence was a big help to Susan as she maneuvered through one legal minefield after another.

Adam and Gabriel on the set of Catherine Crier Live

Eli after learning of his mother’s verdict

After the verdict: (From left to right) Prosecutor Sequeira, Gabriel Polk, Majorie Briner, Adam Polk, Dan Briner

Susan was “dependent on him [Felix] in a lot of ways,” Lucia said.

It is not uncommon for at-risk patients such as Susan to form attachments to their therapists. Professionals are trained to anticipate these feelings of transference and take steps to avoid vulnerability on the part of patients, as well as themselves. In Felix’s case, it seems he threw caution to the wind in acting out his own personal fantasy with his teenage patient.

Despite his professional recklessness, he had to have known the emotional danger that existed when a therapist disappointed or violated his patient in some way. According to the famous 1966 study conducted by William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the damage a woman can suffer as a result of a sexual relationship with her therapist is tantamount to rape. (Not surprisingly, Susan often described her sexual relationship with Felix as “rape.”)

Nevertheless Felix ignored all of the studies, judgment, and professional common sense when he crossed the line from therapist to lover with Susan, and in the end the realities of her psychological state overwhelmed him. Indeed to become someone’s doctor and husband is always too much, but in Felix’s case the combination proved deadly. Instead of improving, her problems seemed to worsen over the years and Felix couldn’t possibly absorb all of her love, trust, and paranoia.

Long before his murder, Felix had become the ultimate authority figure in Susan’s life, the embodiment of her years spent listening to others. While once she obeyed his every word, during the final years of their marriage it was clear that her subservience was a thing of the past, and there was nothing he could do to regain his lost ground. Unlike the police or a judge, he could not hold her in contempt or arrest her; he had no rebuttal for the fear she instilled. He was incapable of taking the steps necessary to protect himself—not because he didn’t know what was right—but because the very fact that he needed help was an outward sign of his failure.

It shouldn’t have been this way. In his mind, he believed he had “fixed” her at age sixteen and to think that her persistent problems stemmed from those residual issues was to admit his failings. For Felix to obtain a restraining order against his wife, for him to abandon his home for a hotel, would have been to admit the truth: Dr. Polk had lost his patient long ago. He’d lost her back in his office on Ashby Avenue. He’d lost her when he should have been helping her the most. He’d lost her the moment he laid a hand on her.

It was a reality too intimidating to confront, a failure too grand to realize. And so when all of his friends insisted that he move out, when all of his logic told him to leave the house, he could not, choosing instead to remain in the confines of the guest cottage with the door unlocked, waiting—perhaps even hoping—to find a way that he could heal Susan before it was too late.