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

Part II. THE INVESTIGATION BEGINS

Chapter 19. BROKEN BONDS

On October 23, 2002, Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Merle Eaton honored the prosecutor’s no-bail request and ordered Susan remanded to the West County Detention Facility in Richmond. In court, Judge Eaton agreed with Contra Costa County Assistant District Attorney Tom O’Connor’s claim that Susan was a flight risk. He pointed to statements she had made in the letter she wrote to Superior Court Judge William Kolin in September 2002, regarding Eli’s probation violation.

“In one part of the letter, the defendant clearly indicates she would sell her home and leave the area,” Judge Eaton stated in his ruling. “It was those statements that caused Eaton ‘great concern’ and prompted him to make the no-bail ruling,” he wrote.

Susan’s no-bail status meant that Gabriel would need to find another place to live. He was released to the custody of his eldest brother, Adam, after spending the night of October 14 speaking with detectives at the Martinez headquarters. While Adam was technically old enough to care for his minor sibling, he wanted to complete his college education. There was brief talk of Gabriel joining Adam at the frat house at UCLA in Los Angeles, but the authorities immediately rejected that plan.

Since leaving police headquarters, Gabriel had been staying at the home of a Lafayette couple, Marjorie and Dan Briner, who were the parents of Adam Polk’s close friend, Andy. When the couple learned of Gabriel’s situation, they immediately opened their home to the teen. The Briners had never actually met Gabriel or his parents, but they thought highly of Adam and wanted to help. Marjorie was a middle-school teacher and Dan worked in commercial real estate, and the pair lived in nearby Lafayette.

Gabriel’s stay was intended to be temporary, but as time passed, the Briners invited him to remain on a permanent basis. He fit in well with the family and was flourishing in their care. When he arrived, Marjorie noted that he was “the most angry boy I’ve ever met.” He wanted nothing to do with his mother, tearing up some of her letters and leaving them in shreds in the trash. At first, Marjorie taped them back together. But after Gabe threatened to leave if she continued to repair them, she just left the remaining letters in a pile unopened for him to read when he was ready.

Despite the initial setbacks, Gabriel was soon able to form a bond with the family, and the Briners were among the few family friends invited a few days after the funeral to accompany Gabe and his siblings—Adam, Eli, Andrew, and Jennifer—to their father’s cremation and the somber hike that followed. Felix once told Adam that he wanted to be cremated, like his father. Eric and the other children intended to honor that wish, deciding to pay homage to Felix’s love of the outdoors by releasing his ashes at the end of a lengthy trek to the top of Mount Tamalpais. Located just north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, it was one of Felix’s favorite hiking spots with more than fifty miles of trails, towering redwoods and oaks, and a serpentine road to the top of the park’s summit. After the long walk, the siblings and the Briners released his ashes into the breeze as the dust of Felix hovered in the air, drifting down on the San Francisco Bay.

Initially, Susan had no objections to her son’s placement with the Briners and even seemed to be fairing well in jail. She sent out homemade holiday cards at Christmas time 2002, and in the months after her incarceration, she wrote furiously to her sons, receiving responses from Eli and Adam, but not from Gabriel. Instead, she learned how he was doing through letters from Dan and Marjorie.

In one letter, dated March 12, 2003, Dan praised Gabriel’s progress. “His studies are really quite good,” Dan wrote. “He is improving on his study skills, reluctantly, like most teenagers that I know and he is beginning to be willing to recognize those areas that he needs to work on.”

Keeping the imprisoned mother apprised of every detail, Dan informed Susan that her son was now a member of the De La Salle rugby team and the junior varsity football team and that he “was getting along well with our family.”

“We have had no problem with him breaking primary rules such as smoking, drinking, or significant defiance,” Dan noted. “And we communicate openly and frankly so that he knows he has both commitment and support. He continues to work with his counselor twice a week…. He is still not reading your letters. We always tell him when they arrive and we keep them unopened for him for a later time. We recognize that they are very important to him…. Gabe sees more and more that he has a lot of opportunity and a lot of potential and Marjorie and I think he will excel.”

These letters to Susan continued until July or August of 2003, when Susan and Marjorie Briner had a verbal confrontation over the telephone. The altercation, which came after months of angry letters and phone calls from Susan, prompted Marjorie to cut off all communication with Gabe’s mother. At first, the couple obliged Susan’s myriad requests, including shopping for Christmas and birthday gifts for her sons for which she promised to reimburse the couple. However, this arrangement soured after Susan raged at Marjorie for refusing to buy Adam a DVD that he insisted he didn’t want.

Susan’s pattern was to blow up, rant and rave, and then follow up with a kind letter as if the angry incident never took place. It was a difficult routine for a family that was just trying to help a young teenager get back on his feet, and by August of 2003, Marjorie Briner could not bear any more confrontations. In addition to her verbal abuse, Susan was now claiming the Briners were conspiring with others to rob the Polk estate, accusing the family of brainwashing her sons against her in order to get their hands on the family money.

This conspiracy theory was further complicated by the fact that Susan was convinced the Briners were in cahoots with Felix’s twin brother, John, and John’s attorney, Bud Mackenzie, who was representing John in the Polk estate proceedings. She even went so far as to blame the couple for pocketing Gabriel’s monthly social security check of twelve hundred dollars to spend on personal indulgences, a check that Gabe’s half sister, Jennifer, had arranged for him to receive after their father’s death.

In reality, Gabriel was turning over his check each month to help offset the couple’s expenses. Although they both held good jobs, the Briners were not rich. Dan Briner was hoping to teach Gabriel how to manage his finances, and in the early days, he was giving the teen a four hundred dollar monthly allowance, which he increased as the boy showed he could handle his own financial affairs.

The success that the family experienced with Gabriel eventually led them to take responsibility for Eli after he was released from Byron Boys’ Ranch in the summer of 2003. The arrangement did not last long, and Eli stayed just two weeks, claiming the couple tried to sour him on his mother.

“He was essentially living out of his car, but sleeping at the house,” Dan Briner said of Eli’s brief stay. “He had his girlfriend downstairs. We were trying to help him. The plan was to send him out to a school in Colorado that would take him. He liked rugby and we thought that the estate would cover the tickets.

“His Aunt Evelyn helped with the planning,” Dan said of Felix’s older sister, who had gone on to become a concert pianist. She was also one of Eli’s biggest supporters, offering to help in any way she could, but there didn’t seem to be anything that Evelyn could do.

“It was all set up and then Susan called [Eli] and said ‘It’s a trap, they’re manipulating you.’ Then, just like that, it stopped,” Dan Briner said. “Then there was this falling out with Marjorie and I asked him [Eli] to leave because he wasn’t following directions. Once you put any pressure on Eli, Susan just goes off.”

After the situation at the Briners eroded, Eli moved to Los Angeles to live in the university frat house with Adam, but that arrangement, too, quickly turned unmanageable. Susan grew furious when she learned that Eli was burning through his trust fund, spending in excess of twenty thousand dollars in just a few months on food and entertainment. Eli explained that he had no choice: he had to eat out because the frat house had no kitchen.

Eventually, Eli ended up back at the Orinda house. He was living there only a short time when he was arrested and charged with reckless driving after leading police on a high-speed chase, reaching speeds as high as 130 mph on Interstate 680.

It was around midnight on October 14, 2003—the one-year anniversary of Felix’s death—that a sheriff ’s deputy from the City of San Ramon Police Department initially spotted Eli’s Camaro passing by with expired registration tags. After radioing his dispatcher, Sheriff ’s Deputy Mark Johnson flicked on his red and blue police lights to make a traffic stop, causing the Camaro to accelerate to speeds of between 40 to 50 mph in the 35 mph zone. Johnson turned on his siren and sped after the Camaro.

As the car approached I-680, Johnson watched it fishtail before entering the highway. Flooring his accelerator, the trooper muttered under his breath as the Camaro pulled away. At one point, he glanced down at his odometer and noted that he was traveling at 130 mph—twice the legal limit—and quickly terminated the pursuit because of the danger to himself and other motorists.

He watched in frustration as the Camaro sped off, weaving through traffic before exiting the Interstate on Bollinger Canyon Road, where a second trooper, Deputy Sheriff Jeffrey Schraeder, picked up the chase. Shraeder observed the Camaro skid sideways with tires screeching across three lanes of traffic before its driver regained control of the vehicle. Seconds later, he saw the car turn off the road into an empty parking lot and come to a stop, its engine smoking and right front tire flat. Shraeder followed the Camaro into the darkened lot, with Trooper Johnson pulling in a short time later to make the arrest.

Striding to the car, Johnson observed that the driver had “red eyes” and “smelled strongly of marijuana.” He demanded that Eli open his mouth and stick out his tongue. Using a flashlight, Johnson observed that the back of Eli’s mouth was “green,” suggesting he had swallowed some marijuana. Eli was arrested and charged with reckless evasion of a police officer and several other traffic infractions. During cross-examination at his trial, he later admitted that he had a bag of marijuana in his possession and had smoked marijuana earlier that day.

In the end, Eli was found guilty of reckless endangerment of a police officer and in February of 2005 was placed on three years probation, conditioned on ninety days in the county jail or electronic home monitoring.

Susan, meanwhile, was behind bars in August of 2003 when a Grand Jury was convened to determine whether to indict her on charges of first-degree murder. Panelists heard from police officers, investigators, and forensic experts during three closed-door sessions. One criminalist testified that hairs found in Felix’s clenched fist were “consistent” with those of his wife, Susan, and that several of the hairs had roots, indicating they had been ripped from her scalp, probably during a violent struggle. Meanwhile, another forensic expert presented evidence that a bloody footprint found near the body was a match to Susan’s right foot.

“I think there seems to be a reasonable conference [agreement] here that the crime was committed, that there was some clean-up within the pool house bathroom, and that for whatever reason, Susan Polk came around the back side of the crime scene, perhaps Felix was still struggling, and then exits the house,” the expert told the Grand Jurors. “I make that argument because of the evidence at the scene, as well as that pool house bathroom, the towels on the ground that are bloody, the blood on the counter, and for the simple fact, no bloody shoes are found, no bloody female clothing is recovered.”

With regard to the lack of injuries found on Susan’s body, ADA Tom O’Connor pointed to the testimony of Brian Peterson, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Felix Polk.

“It wouldn’t be unusual that the attacker in this situation wouldn’t have significant injuries,” Dr. Peterson told jurors.

In late August, the panel indicted Susan Polk on charges of first-degree murder in the stabbing death of her husband.

Eli was furious when he learned that the judge presiding over the case of the People v. Susan Mae Polk continued his mother’s no bail status, and in January 2004 he sent a letter to the court objecting to the ruling.

“What has happened to my mom is unbelievable,” the teen wrote in a letter, dated January 27, to the judge presiding over his mother’s case:

My mom has been charged with a crime she didn’t commit. And now she has been unjustly incarcerated for over 15 months with no sign of the court’s undoing the injustice that has been done.

From what I see, the prosecutor’s theory of what occurred is impossible. I know without question that if there were a physical struggle between my mom and dad, my father would be the instigator, as he always was….

As I began to grow in my mind and body, I consciously and unconsciously searched for ways to figure out who was telling the truth and who was telling lies…. I studied everything about both my mom and my dad…to seek what a normal kid my age could never even begin to imagine…. My father’s façade was well created…and if you’re around it long enough…you start to break through it as you mature. So when I was roughly around the age of 15, I finally began to no longer see the poor, weak, aging man who was losing his family to a crazy, troubled wife.

If there was one thing my dad had never acted like, it was weak. My father definitely wasn’t weak when he was beating me up or slapping my mom. He never acted powerless when he used to take my two brothers and I into the office, one at a time, and hypnotize us.

One of the few documents to provide a window into Eli’s thoughts, the letter demonstrated the close connection between Eli and his mother. In the months ahead, Eli remained the only son to defend her account of his father’s death. To many, his vows of support bordered on obsessive, and there was speculation that Eli and Susan’s relationship was odd. Not only was Eli taking her side, but often he even used the same language that she did, and his letters to her were filled with professions of undying love—even expressing his willingness to take his own life for her. “I love you enough to burn all I am and meet you in the after life,” he wrote to Susan while she was incarcerated at the West County Detention Facility. There was also speculation among members of the media that Eli and Susan could have entered into a suicide pact—in the event that Susan was sentenced to life in prison for Felix’s murder, the two would kill themselves.

“You are everything to me,” Eli wrote in one letter to his mother. “I will be there for you for the rest of your life. You are the strongest, smartest and most loving person I know. I will always be proud to have you as my mom. Most importantly, don’t ever forget, or force out, the perfect person you are. Never again will I be as happy as I could with you in jail…. You dying is a part of me dead as well.”