Final Analysis: The Untold Story of the Susan Polk Murder Case - Catherine Crier (2007)
Part II. THE INVESTIGATION BEGINS
Chapter 21. SUSAN’S STORY
The temperature had already reached seventy degrees when I arrived at the West County Detention Facility on October 1, 2005, nearly three years to the day after Felix Polk’s murder. I had come to the modern, tidy jail in Richmond, California, at Susan’s invitation for the first in a series of jailhouse interviews for my show, Catherine Crier Live.
Much had happened since Susan’s arrest in the fall of 2002. The most significant was Susan’s about face. For more than two years after Felix’s death, she had publicly maintained her innocence—although she claimed she told her mother and her attorney of her involvement five days after Felix’s death. As the investigation progressed over the years, she eventually changed her story from innocence to self-defense. No one has been able to pinpoint exactly when the change occurred, but Detective Mike Costa later told Court TV’s Lisa Sweetingham that he believed it was sometime in 2003 that he first heard Susan’s new claim.
While Susan had privately detailed the events in the guest cottage to her mother and her then-attorney soon after her arrest in October 2002, the first time she publicly uttered the self-defense argument was in an April 2005 article in the Contra Costa Times. In the article, written by reporter Bruce Gertzman during a time when Susan was not represented by counsel, she insisted that she and her husband were arguing on the night of October 13, 2002, when an enraged Felix came after her with a knife. She fought back vigorously, ultimately killing him in an attempt to save her own life.
A uniformed jail official escorted me to the small interview room where I would meet Susan for the first time. The jangling of keys alerted me to her entrance into the small room on the opposite side of a Plexiglas partition. Her well-groomed appearance surprised me. After nearly three years in jail, she was slender and graceful, even in the baggy prison outfit that hung from her gangly 56 frame. Her once long dark hair was now streaked with gray and cut in a stylish bob. She wore little makeup, just lipstick and white eye-pencil, artfully applied to enhance her beautiful, unblemished skin.
I watched as she slid into a sturdy, metal-framed chair on her side of the cubicle, placing her neatly manicured hands atop the small table we shared. Looking up at me through the divider, she flashed a half smile and then glanced around nervously. Susan and I were about the same age, and during the interview we found several commonalities. Like Susan, I too, had married young. And while I had long since divorced my first husband, Susan had stayed married and raised three children with Felix. She claimed it wasn’t until her fortieth birthday that she realized she could no longer remain in the relationship. Felix was abusive and she wanted out.
I asked Susan what happened that night in the guest cottage. At times, her voice was so soft that I found myself leaning forward to hear her responses through the mesh opening just above the table.
“Well, we had things to talk about, um, and had arranged to meet later that night to have a talk,” Susan began in a quiet monotone. “I got to the door. I knocked. The lights were on, um, around eleven, and it looked like he might have been reading because…he had a book.”
Susan explained that she had a can of pepper spray in her back pocket, which she had purchased at a convenience store in Montana. The clerk told her that one pump would stop a grizzly bear in its tracks, and she was confident the spray would protect her.
I asked Susan about her conversation with Felix. Were they trying to figure out where the two would live? Whether she would stay in the house or return to Montana?
“It was practical,” Susan said. “He [Felix] offered to pay around three thousand dollars a month in spousal support and I wanted to discuss Gabriel, the kids, selling the house or not selling it. I wanted the kids to stay in the house. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money in a battle. I didn’t think it was worth it because I had been offering for months to just sign papers. It degenerated into an argument. He wasn’t being practical and it just became one of those arguments.”
“How did he get the knife?” I asked.
There was a long pause, as if Susan was searching for an answer. “I really don’t know,” she finally said. “What happened is he came over and backhanded me in the face as he’d done before. I pulled out the pepper spray. Sprayed him. He picked up the ottoman and charged at me with it, then grabbed me by the hair, threw me on the floor, punched me in the face again, and smeared pepper spray into my eyes.
“The next thing I knew, I looked up, and I saw a knife coming down, and I saw it go into my leg. I thought the reason I wasn’t feeling it was because, sometimes, I’ve read, people don’t feel it initially when they’ve been stabbed.
“It was like I flashed on ‘I am going to die. He is going to kill me. If I don’t do something right now, I will be dead.’
“I just thought of the one thing I could do and that was to kick him as hard as I could in the groin and hope at the same time I could get the knife from his hand. I kicked, pulled my leg back as far as a I could and kicked with as much force as I could into his groin, and went for the knife at the very same time, and his hand loosened just enough where I could grab the knife. And, um, I grabbed it, and I felt like I had to say something, and I said, ‘Stop, I have a knife.’
“And then, um, he was going after the knife and I stabbed him in the side, and then he was leaning over, and I think at that point he punched me in the face again, and I reached around and I stabbed him in the back, and then he bit into my hand and bit down as hard as he could. There’s actually teeth, tooth marks on both sides [of my hand] and then he went for the knife at the same time.
“And I thought, well, he was doing what I did and if I loosen up now, he’s going to get it and kill me. And so then I stabbed him again.”
At one point, Susan remembered clenching the knife in both hands and repeatedly slashing at her husband. “Stop, stop, stop, stop, stop!” she screamed, waving the blade from side to side to keep him at bay before driving it into his torso. “Get off! Get off! Get off! Get off!”
“I opened my eyes, and I saw blood, and I thought that I had torn open his chest, but I think I would have seen some blood from the previous stabbing.”
Susan described watching as Felix staggered to his feet and mumbled his final words. “I stood up and dropped the knife, and Felix just said, ‘Oh my God. I think I’m dead.’ And he wobbled back and forth like this,” Susan said, rocking back and forth to mimic Felix’s movements. “Like swayed, and then he just fell back and hit his head on the floor.”
Continuing, Susan described how the pounding of her temples was deafening as she worked to catch her breath. She needed to sit down. Striding to the short flight of stairs leading to the single bedroom, she perched on a step near to where Felix lay on the floor. The room was in a shambles. Blood was everywhere. Staring down at her husband, Susan said that scenes of their life together came rushing back. For one brief moment, she remembered the good times and the love they once shared. But those thoughts quickly disappeared.
It is not clear if Felix was dead at that moment. Susan admitted that she did not check for a pulse. Prosecutors would later insist that Felix was, in fact, alive and still breathing for nearly thirty minutes after the attack. They even suggested that Susan left her husband of twenty years to die alone when she returned to the main house some time later that evening.
Susan described how she crossed the room to the bathroom at the top of the landing to wash up. Her hands were covered with blood and she wanted to wash the pepper spray out of her eyes. The pool house had not been updated since it was first built in the 1960s. The tiny bathroom, reminiscent of a ship’s head in size and shape, still had the original wood paneling and pull chain toilet. Turning on the faucet, Susan watched as rivulets of red streamed into the sink. It was clear she was not thinking of the consequences when she pulled the pair of blue towels from the towel bar, dried off her hands, and dropped the towels in a heap on the floor in front of the stall shower.
“When I came back, he was dead,” Susan related.
“Do you remember what you thought at that point?” I asked.
“Yes, I thought a number of things. I thought I should call the police. I thought that I had just written this letter accusing the juvenile judge of taking a bribe and I sent it on the way back from Montana to six or seven judges in our county, and I thought, I’m in big trouble.
“Because even if they believed me, which Felix had said nobody will ever believe me about anything, even if they did, they’re not gonna maybe care. And I’d just seen what had happened to Eli in the juvenile justice system, and I thought, ‘Who’s going to take care of Gabriel? Who’s going to get him to school? Who’s going to pay the mortgage? Oh my God!’
“And I waited, thinking the police would magically appear, that they’d heard me scream, they’d know, they’d come, and then it just became easier to just wait. And I just thought, ‘I need time. I need time to tell Gabriel what happened. I need time to make some financial arrangements for the kids. I should call a lawyer.’
“Just, you know, I just put it off. So I went to the [main] house, and I just took about ten showers and took Gabriel to school in the morning and um, was just too tired to do anything. You know, too tired to make any financial arrangements, any plans, and then just tried to get up enough nerve to tell Gabriel and hinted around and…”
“Do you remember what you said as a hint?” I asked.
“Well, he was asking me, and I was just trying to tell him. I don’t remember exactly. I said he [Felix] was gone. I mean we were always so connected. And then he accused me. Straight up. And um, then it was just, um, he could call the police, and um, the police came and that was that.”
“Was your mind working at the time? Were you thinking about denying? Is that a function of buying time?”
“I’d just been accused by Gabriel, it was just, um, I wanted to tell him what had happened, you know, and then all of a sudden he’s accusing me, you know, he’s jumping ahead. He’s making these accusations. And I just didn’t want to be seen in his eyes that way, and I just began to lie, and then there was the whole thing, seeing him, I still wasn’t sure that I was going to lie until I was in the car, and I saw him in custody—he was in the car behind me, and I was told he was being detained.
“I had this thought that I had to do everything I could to keep him and me out of custody so I could protect him. And then I thought, well if they accused him, then I’d have to step forward immediately and say I did it, and so I had to keep track of what’s going on here, and I mean, I think a person who is that fatigued and in shock and that terrified is just not logical.”
It was then that Susan went on to describe how she first admitted her role in Felix’s death five days after the struggle in the guest cottage to the lawyer who came to see her at the West County Detention Facility. She also insisted that in the months after Felix’s death, she repeatedly tried to turn over the knife used in the attack to her defense lawyers but they had declined to give it to police.
“Listen, I tried to turn it over to every single attorney I had from day one,” she said. “As soon as I found myself charged with murder I was like ‘oh my God.’ So I told them what happened. Nobody wanted to hear, nobody wanted to handle it.
“Seven months later, I was offered a deal—I said, ‘No, I’m innocent.’”
Finally, in April 2005, while out on bail, Susan said she went back to the house with Peter Coleridge, who at that point was still her defense attorney. While there, she pulled out the knife and told him that she wanted to place it into evidence.
“And he’s like, ‘oh, you shouldn’t have done that,’ and I’m like, ‘why not?’ and he was like, ‘well now I’ve got to turn it in.’”
Despite this dramatic recounting replete with extraordinary detail, elements of Susan’s version of events that night would later prove doubtful—particularly those pertaining to the ottoman. Because Susan had waited until late 2004 to inform the authorities about the pepper spray, there was no longer sufficient evidence to verify her claim that any chemical residue should be on the ottoman. According to an official lab report, tests for traces of mace or pepper spray performed on the ottoman in March 2005 proved inconclusive. “Due to the length of time elapsed before sampling, it cannot be determined if they were ever present or if they have changed to become undetectable.” In addition, “the ottoman was not packaged in an airtight container” and “some experimentation in the laboratory suggested it was unlikely to be able to recover spray residues after long-term storage.”
Susan’s tale of that night was not the only thing that she had in store for me that afternoon. With help from Dan Horowitz and Ivan Golde, Susan had obtained a startling medical report from the U.S. Navy that detailed the psychological evaluations of Felix in the days after his suicide attempt in 1955. Sitting across from me and staring through an inch and a half of Plexiglas, I asked her: “Why was Felix hospitalized for a whole year after his suicide attempt?”
Susan paused, and looked directly at me before answering. Breathing in deeply, she began to explain how the naval records revealed that Felix had received treatment for a “schizophrenic reaction,” following his suicide attempt in the fall of 1955. This psychologist who had been treating patients over the course of more than twenty years had, in fact, been hospitalized himself for serious emotional troubles. Felix, who had accused Susan of being crazy for years, had his own set of psychological problems, problems that he never attempted to address.
“Well, what the naval records say is that he was unable to give a rational explanation for what he’d done.” She grew animated as she recounted her findings. First, she pointed to her own suicide attempt in January 2001. “I was asked by the psychiatrist, ‘Why’d you do it?’ And I said, ‘Well, in this moment of despair, I thought my husband would do the things he was saying he was going to do: destroy my life, take my children away, all these things. And I just had this moment of complete despair, and I’m very glad I’m alive and realize that I have options.
“My husband was very different. The records show he was unable to give a rational explanation for what he did. He talked about supernatural forces having been at work. He talked about hearing an echo when he spoke. He couldn’t remember what had happened. He had amnesia. And his suicide note made it sound like he had other periods of amnesia.”
Susan said that Felix mentioned his suicide attempt during their early therapy sessions in Berkeley but claimed that he was in despair over the breakup of a relationship when he tried to take his life. As far as Susan knew, this was the reason that Felix was overly sensitive to being abandoned. At least, that is what she says he told her each time she threatened to leave the marriage.
However, after closer inspection of his suicide attempt, Susan learned that Felix’s claim was untrue. Horowitz had located Felix’s old girlfriend and gleaned from their conversation that there had been no break up. Felix, it seemed, had lied to his wife about the circumstances surrounding his suicide attempt. Worse, he had failed to mention his serious medical diagnosis or that this suicide attempt was the result of a “schizophrenic reaction.”
“Psych records describe him as being hostile, as being in the lock-down ward.” Susan explained. “They describe when he got transported to the hospital he got bruises along the way because apparently he got restrained. That’s a picture of someone who was extremely disturbed, who was apparently almost mute. He didn’t talk, you know.”
Susan told me of the journals that Felix kept. And for a moment, she considered my request to turn them over to Court TV. But in the end, she shared little of their content. “He [Felix] described himself in words that he used to describe me and projected all of it because I wasn’t really like that. I didn’t feel that way.”
After our interview, I reviewed the naval records carefully. According to the reports, Felix was taken to a military hospital after his suicide attempt. He was “confused” and “depressed” and claimed “amnesia” for the events prior to his arrival, medical records stated. He grew “excited” upon awakening. In response to questions, he told doctors he had no recollection of his suicide attempt, or of writing the note that police found in a typewriter inside the family home.
Felix was transferred to the U.S. Naval Hospital at St. Alban’s, New York. Records show that he had to be restrained during the transport. Doctors at St. Albans diagnosed Felix’s condition as “Psychotic Depressive Reaction with Suicidal Tendencies.” Further studies revealed evidence of “a schizophrenic process with much philosophical, abstract preoccupation with his lack of accomplishment, his emotional distance from people, and some concomitant disturbance in the psycho-sexual area.”
Under observation at the hospital, Felix talked of feeling apart in “all relationships with others” and having the sensation that he was “standing apart listening to an echo” when he spoke. “His speech was at all times coherent and relevant, and no actual delusions or hallucinations were elicited during his hospitalization at the naval hospital,” the records stated.
By all indications from the doctors there, Felix showed little sign of change or improvement during his lengthy stay at St. Alban’s, where he was confined to a locked ward because of his “depression” and “hostility.” In fact, he remained depressed and talked of his confusion for much of the time he was confined. While doctors noted that Felix was not experiencing hallucinations or delusions during his hospitalization, Felix described his thoughts as “abstract” and spoke of “dreams of glory.” He complained that he felt in a “daze” and did things “mechanically.”
On January 18, 1956, Felix was transferred to an open ward of the hospital on “restricted” status, the records stated. The change had no appreciable effect on his condition. Three months later, he was placed on the Temporary Disability Retired list by reason of “schizophrenic reaction,” and later released from the hospital with a diagnosis of “in remission.”
According to the naval records, Felix reported to the Naval Command at St. Alban’s Hospital on July 25, 1957 for a “trial visit” from the Montrose Veteran’s Administration Hospital. Based on the visit, a three-man counsel listed its findings as a schizophrenic reaction. “In remission.” The Clinical Board’s findings noted that Felix was “unfit to perform the duties of his rank—schizophrenic reaction.”
It was decided that the physical disability “was not due to misconduct or willful neglect,” and that it was the proximate result of “dementia, mixed type, in partial remission, slight impairment of social and industrial adaptability.”
At my request, several well-known psychiatrists reviewed the U.S. Naval records and medical reports on Felix Polk. They reported back that if Felix had presented with the symptoms described in the reports today he would not be considered schizophrenic, but more likely a man who suffered from severe depression.
Nevertheless, this intimate look at his fragile emotional state was a key revelation, one that, if true, had dramatic implications—as a judge and a jury would eventually be examining his psychological state as well as Susan’s. For years, Felix had openly questioned his wife’s mental status, while shying away from his own problems. This report was yet another example of the psychological double standard that he employed. To Felix, his own mental issues were never significant enough to interfere with his ability to parent his sons; only Susan’s problems were severe enough for that. In truth his psychological conflicts ran as deep as hers, and yet he refused to take the steps necessary to heal his wounds.
During another interview with Susan, she described for me the sexual abuse she allegedly suffered as Felix’s teenage patient. “What I remember is that he became extremely interested in me.”
Susan claimed that Felix made it clear right from the start that he was “violating some sort of protocol” by seeing her as a patient. “I think he was referring to a sexual interest in me and I think I was just blocking out as much of that as I could.
“What happened was he started giving me a cup of tea when I came in. I’m sure there was a drug in it because what I recall next is counting backward and then no memory of what took place, but just looking at the clock, and the times, and saying ‘What happened? What did we talk about?’
“And this feeling, this sense of loss. This gap. It was a very, very disturbing experience, to not be able to recall what had happened.”
I asked Susan if she’d ever raised the issue with Felix.
“I brought it up, and he looked nervous,” she said.
Susan’s recollections of her early sessions with Dr. Polk seemed fuzzy at best; her words often became twisted when I asked her to clarify the abuse she allegedly suffered as a patient, and she failed to answer my question as to whether there was physical evidence to confirm her fears. After all, if she were a virgin when she first went to see Felix, then she would have most likely noticed some blood in her undergarments that first time.
“I recall the content of some of those hypnotic sessions, bits and pieces,” Susan answered in a soft voice. “And I recall being told not to look.
“I guess at that time I didn’t really think it was great that he basically had sex with me. And put me down…it just made me, you know, I was doing what I was told, but he was so overwhelming. So just, physical. It was just awful. And I really didn’t remember that for years.”
Susan claimed that she completely blocked out the sessions in which she was “raped” by Felix until she was in her forties. She described their sexual relationship as husband and wife as “unpleasant” and alluded to years of “rough” sex during their marriage. She said Felix enjoyed physically restraining her during intercourse, even as she lay crying.
“So what happened?” I asked.
“He essentially, what he told me was that if I ever left him he would kill himself, or he would kill me.”
“So even when you were seventeen he was telling you this?”
Susan could not really answer my question. In many ways, her responses were childlike, and she appeared at times to be no more than a teenage girl trapped in a woman’s body.
“Felix wanted someone to dominate,” Susan maintained. “He wanted a doll. There was no individuality left, there was none of me.”
From all the evidence that I had seen and what she told me in this conversation, I had little doubt that Susan was abused during the marriage, at least emotionally. Felix had misused his power and position as a therapist to wield control over his vulnerable patient. His selfish decision to begin a relationship with the teen had probably prevented Susan from getting the help she so desperately needed.
“My husband was a professional,” Susan explained. “He was, I think, careful about what he did.…I think it is hard for someone who hasn’t been in a coercive relationship to understand how it is that a person stays in it.
“Because I kept hoping that it wasn’t as bad as I thought. That he wasn’t really as crazy as maybe he seemed to be. That when he said, ‘I’ll kill you’ with a smile, he didn’t really mean it. And that’s a huge hurdle to overcome…explaining to the jury that even though he didn’t beat me with a crowbar, it was enough to scare me to death, that I was afraid for my life, but I was also afraid to leave.”
Going on to explain how she managed the finances for both the family and Felix’s practice, Susan brought up Felix’s questionable relationships. She tried to ignore her husband’s inappropriate friendships with female patients over the years, but she detailed one incident specifically. “I just chose to interpret them as not affairs, but as just friendships…. But, in time, I guess the veil kind of fell from my eyes around when I turned forty, which is kind of a seminal period in a woman’s life, anyway, right?
“It’s like all of a sudden I’m like, ‘Whoa, this is what’s really going on, you know, I really actually turned forty and I said to myself, ‘Now, I should be prepared to face reality.’” Susan laughed aloud. “I just started to not lie to myself about certain things, including the relationship with one of his clients, another psychologist,” Susan said in reference to the woman whom Susan had seen her husband romantically embrace five years before his death.
Talking to her about Felix’s alleged indiscretions, I couldn’t help but wonder if this could have been the motive when she killed him. Whether or not Felix actually did cheat, it was clear that he had maintained relationships with some of his patients that were eerily reminiscent of his inappropriate relationship with Susan. In Susan’s situation, a revelation of infidelity might have pushed her over the edge, as this replayed her father’s betrayal of her mother. This possible motive deserved some serious attention, as adultery touched at the very root of Susan’s psychological issues.
Susan claimed that once she announced her intention to leave the marriage, Felix made all sorts of threats.
“‘I’ll drive you crazy.’ ‘I’ll kill you if you leave me.’ ‘I’ll destroy you.’ ‘I’ll throttle you.’ ‘Pull you down the drain.’ ‘You’ll wind up in an institution.’ ‘You are a bad mother.’ ‘You are so ugly.’…
“I think he was very crazy, a little more than I realized…. He was very, very split, you know, it was like night and day, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There were two sides to his personality. And he was extremely impulsive and malicious….
“It takes a certain kind of person to kill somebody’s dogs or to threaten their children…he would sabotage their progress in school. He was just a very dangerous, damaged person.”