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

Part I. A DEATH ON MINER ROAD

Chapter 3. THE MORNING AFTER

On Monday October 14, Susan began her morning routine as if it were just another day. The forty-four-year-old mother possessed the rare ability to disguise troubling thoughts, a point reinforced by Gabriel’s later statements that she appeared calm and relaxed when she drove him to school in nearby Walnut Creek that morning. Like his mom, the teen had been ordered to attend a continuation school after he’d stopped attending the ninth grade at the public high school in Orinda.

After dropping him off at Del Oro High School, Susan claimed she went directly home and spent the remainder of the morning chasing down the family’s yellow Labrador, Dusty, who was loose in the neighborhood. In fact, she had the dog in the car with her when she returned to pick up Gabe at school around 12:30 that afternoon. The dog even joined them for lunch at Baja Fresh Mexican Grill in the neighboring town of Lafayette.

As far as Gabe was concerned, his mother was acting “perfectly normal” during their meal at the fast-food grill. They stopped at a local drugstore to buy some acne medication for his teenage complexion. It wasn’t until they returned home, and Susan promptly announced that she needed to run another errand, that the teen grew suspicious.

It didn’t make sense to Gabe. Why didn’t she complete her chores while they were out?

The car keys jingled in her hand as Susan ran back out to the silver Volvo and took off down the driveway. She later told police that she went to Blockbuster Video to return an overdue movie and pick up another film, Scooby Doo, for Gabe. As Susan left for town, Gabe went to the home gym the family had set up in a small outbuilding adjacent to the pool house. He planned to attend a baseball game with his father that night, a date made the night before during their drive back from Los Angeles. Though it was Columbus Day, Felix was going to see a few patients that morning, but he assured Gabe that he would be home by 3 PM, in time to make it to Pac Bell Stadium for the playoff game between the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals.

By late afternoon, Gabe began to worry. Though Susan had returned home just before 3 PM, Felix had not returned or even called to say he was running late. In addition, there was something odd about the way his mother was acting. She was doing housework and preparing dinner as usual, but despite the normality of it all, her behavior just didn’t feel right.

Gabe placed a call to his dad’s office. There was no answer. By seven-thirty, he had made at least a half-dozen calls to his father’s phone numbers with no success. It was time to go downstairs and find his mother.

“Mom, where’s Dad?”

“I don’t know,” Susan replied coolly.

Gabriel didn’t like the way she answered the question. She fluttered her eyelids—something he had seen a million times. This reaction usually accompanied a lie. Gabe repeated the question to see if she would do it again. She did. Now he was certain that something was wrong, but he wasn’t sure what to do, so he decided to go back upstairs and wait one more hour. If his dad didn’t turn up, he would call the police.

Just before 9 PM, Gabriel questioned his mother once again. “Where’s Dad?” he demanded.

“I don’t know,” Susan’s eyelids flickered.

“Where’s my dad?” Gabriel barked at her. “Where is my dad?”

“I don’t know. Have you seen him? Have you talked to him?”

His mother’s odd responses were annoying him. She had been acting strangely for a long while, ever since a family trip to Disneyland five years earlier during which she had an emotional breakdown, Gabriel thought to himself. It had all started at dinner one night, as she cried and told the whole family she suddenly remembered that her father abused her as a child. With everyone seated around the table, she recounted the events in some detail, insisting that her mother and older brother had abused her as well.

That same evening she claimed to recall that her parents had murdered a police officer and buried his body beneath their home. The stuff she was saying sounded crazy, and Gabe had looked to his dad for answers. Felix excused her behavior, explaining to his sons that their mother may have been molested as a child and was experiencing what he termed “repressed memories” of the events. These allegations have never been substantiated and have been denied by all parties.

After the Disney trip, Gabriel was told that a doctor examined his mother and had deemed her “sane.” This seemed to be the case; Susan appeared perfectly normal most of the time. Yet, “20 percent of the time,” to quote Gabe’s older brother, Adam, she was just nonsensical, even scary. Gabriel had seen more of that behavior of late. In fact, just five days earlier she threatened to kill his father if he didn’t transfer $20 million into her bank account, a sum he most certainly did not have. She had promised to blow his brains out if he didn’t give her the money.

Gabe heard these threats by eavesdropping on a call Susan placed to his father during her drive back from Montana on Monday, October 7. She threatened to shoot Felix with a shotgun if he didn’t move into the pool house and let her live in the main house with Gabriel, a warning that sounded real enough to the teen.

The warning also sounded real enough to Felix. Eventually he became so frightened that he called the police, arranging to have them come to the house for Susan’s return, but after hours of waiting, the officers left the property, instructing Felix to call if trouble arose.

It was after 11 PM when Susan pulled into the driveway in Eli’s Dodge Ram truck. Gabe and his dad were on the couch watching TV when his mother strode into the living room.

After a brief discussion with Felix, Susan slept in the master bedroom, and Felix stayed in the spare bedroom/office on the first floor. Things seemed okay until Wednesday, October 9, when Felix returned home to find that Susan had enlisted Gabriel to help her move all of Felix’s belongings to the redwood guest cottage. The first few minutes after Felix entered the house were riddled with tension, and Gabe had no idea what would happen. He began to relax when his parents sat down and engaged in a reasonably civilized conversation. Susan told his father that she did not want him to stay in the main house, and shortly thereafter their discussion turned to the recent court hearing while she was in Montana in which his father had won custody of him and control over the Orinda house. A Superior Court judge signed the order on September 27, 2002.

Not surprising, things quickly heated up, and at one point, Susan asked that Gabe leave the room. He didn’t move; he just stayed on the couch watching a program on the giant-screen TV his mom had bought when his dad had first moved out in November 2001. It was one of the first big purchases she made on her own without Felix’s approval, since he had long opposed the idea of an entertainment center in the living room. Still, Felix enjoyed it in Susan’s absence.

Gabe grew worried as his parents’ voices began to rise. He heard his father tell Susan that if she threatened him, he would call the police. Suddenly, his dad began yelling, then grabbed the phone. But he returned the handset to its receiver and tried to speak calmly to Susan. Still, the threats continued. When Susan whispered something in Felix’s ear, he jumped up and dialed for help. Gabe was too far away to hear what she said, but it was clear from the look on his father’s face that it was serious.

Gabe watched his father enter 9-1-1 on the phone.

“Can I talk to somebody about a domestic dispute, please?” Felix said.

“Okay, what’s going on?” the dispatcher on the other end of the line inquired.

“I’ve been residing at 728 Miner Road with my son. And my wife came and kicked me out of the house, and I am not interested in being kicked out of the house.”

“Okay sir, is your wife there at the house with you?”

“She’s right here.”

“Okay, is it physical?”

“No, it’s not physical but it’s…”

The dispatcher jumped in, “but she’s kicked you out the house.”

“Well I’m standing in the house, but she says I have to leave, which I’m not going to do.”

“Was there a reason that she gave why you have to leave?”

Felix responded curtly. There was annoyance in his voice, as if he expected the dispatcher to know the problem and understand the urgency. The mere fact that he was dialing 911 was sufficient. “She was living away, she decided to come back,” he blurted. “I have custody of the kids, I have legal custody of the kids and…”

“Okay, do you live there?” the dispatcher didn’t need the particulars, just the reason why this man felt he needed emergency personnel at his home. “Are you guys still married or are you separated?”

“We’re still married.”

“So you both live there?”

“No, she vacated, and I took over the house, and take care of Gabriel the kid here, and we’ve been living here.”

“Have either of you been drinking? Using drugs?”

“No.”

“Are there any weapons in the house?”

“I don’t know. You’d have to ask my wife. She has a shotgun,” Felix replied matter-of-factly.

The dispatcher’s tone took on a new urgency. “Your wife has a shotgun—as in she’s holding a shotgun?”

“No.” Felix replied with no further explanation.

“She’s got one in the house?” the dispatcher pressed on for information.

“I don’t know where it is. Probably in the car.”

“You don’t know if it’s locked up or not then?”

“I don’t know anything about it. You’ll have to ask her. But I feel at risk.”

As patrol units were dispatched to the scene, the operator continued to question Felix about what seemed to be a potentially threatening situation at 728 Miner Road. “So you said she vacated? Now did she move back in?”

Felix’s responses were brief, perhaps because Susan was standing beside him. “She moved to Montana, and she came back, actually to pick up her things and move back to Montana, and while I was at work, she moved me out of the house.”

When police arrived, they found Felix and Susan seated at the granite breakfast bar in the main house having a quiet conversation. Both parties appeared calm, yet Felix was annoyed that his wife had moved him out of the house. He insisted the officers ask Susan to leave and provided a copy of the signed order giving him sole custody of the Orinda residence. At one point, he told the officers that his wife had a shotgun, a claim that she immediately denied. In response to the officers’ questions, she explained she had been in Montana and recently returned to be with her sons, Gabriel and Eli. But after an argument with her husband, she had moved his belongings to the pool house, where she insisted he remain.

To the officers, the situation appeared to be under control. Even the teenage boy who had witnessed his parents’ fight assured them that there had been no physical contact or threats made. It was almost midnight when police advised Felix to find another place to sleep that night. He didn’t have the right paperwork to force his wife to leave, and it would be best for him to stay elsewhere until he and his wife could sort things out with the court.

Shortly thereafter, Gabriel and Felix left for the nearby Lafayette Park Hotel. Gabriel insisted on joining his father, who had been a frequent guest of the hotel, visits which led to rumors—albeit unsubstantiated—that he entertained women friends there while married to Susan.

The following morning, Felix drove Gabriel to school in the family’s beat-up blue Volvo sedan. That afternoon he called police from his hotel room, determined to regain control of the house.

“I was living there, and the officer [who’d come to the house the previous night] said that unless I had a court order indicating that I had use of the house, I couldn’t continue to live in the house,” he calmly explained to the operator. “I do have that court order now and I want to talk about implementing that court order.”

It was after 7 PM Thursday evening when Felix phoned police for a second time, requesting an officer be present while he and Gabriel went inside the Miner Road residence to fetch some of their belongings. Questions over Felix’s paperwork remained and it appeared he and his son would be spending a second night in Room 304 of the posh, hillside hotel, a standard room with two queen-size beds, French furnishings, and ample books on the shelves.

When officers met Felix at the base of the driveway after 7:30 PM, they informed him that he would need to be prepared to make a “citizen’s arrest” if his wife refused to leave the premises. Felix was visibly hesitant and asked if they would be able to speak to his wife first, but, in the end, it didn’t matter. As it turned out, Susan was not at home when Felix went to the front door with the police. Instead, he found a note posted there. It read:

Dear Felix,

You do not have a signed court order. By law, I have 10 days to respond from date of receipt of proposed order. I received it today. Adam and I are at the movies.

Susan

PS You are welcome to stay in cottage tonight.

The police watched as Felix tried to enter the residence only to find that Susan had changed the locks, leading them to advise Felix to follow up with his attorney in the morning. In the meantime, Felix returned to the Lafayette Park where he spent the remainder of the night.

While he should have remained at the hotel until things with Susan were resolved, he opted for the cottage. Despite his fears and the repeated advice of his attorney, Felix moved back into the pool house that Friday morning. Meanwhile Adam and Gabriel stayed in the main house with their mother. Though it was a risk that could lead to confrontation, Felix felt it was necessary so that he could spend time with Adam who was home from UCLA for the weekend.

It was yet another decision he would regret. In fact, in a letter dated September 23, 2002, his attorney, Steve Landes, had expressed frustration with Felix’s inability to protect himself. For more than a year, he fought to get Felix to proceed with the divorce. “Getting actual financial information out of you is like pulling teeth,” Landes wrote in the letter. “I don’t know why you call me and tell me you need to be protected and yet you ignore the most basic stuff I need to give you this protection.

“You give me the impression that you feel I’m harassing you when I ask for this stuff, but I can’t really proceed without it. How well we do in this case depends on both our efforts. I won’t even raise the issue of how often you have ignored my advice.”

On the evening of Saturday October 12, Felix took his sons to a horror film, The Ring, and afterward, he spent a second night in the Miner Road guesthouse. At the crack of dawn the next morning, Felix drove Adam back to UCLA and Gabe went along for the ride.

Felix and Gabe stayed to watch the Sunday afternoon Oakland Raiders football game on TV before beginning the four-hundred-mile drive back to Orinda sometime after 3 PM. During the trip, Gabriel sensed his dad was worried about his mother’s repeated threats, but these concerns were not strong enough to entice Felix to find alternate accommodations. Distracting each other with idle talk about sports, they decided to attend the Giants’ playoff game the following night.

It was almost 8 PM on Monday, October 14, and still, there had been no word from his dad. As Gabriel climbed the steps to the guesthouse, the darkness enveloped him. There were three entrances to the cottage, but he was hesitant to go in, scared of what he might find. The door he tried—the one everyone used—was locked, and he didn’t check the other doors. Besides, there were too many light switches and he could never figure out which switch worked which light. He returned to the main house and went back upstairs to his room where he stayed for about an hour, trying to figure out what to do; he was beginning to think that he would need the police if his dad didn’t turn up in the next hour.

It was exactly 9 PM when Gabriel dialed 911 to get the number of the Orinda police department’s nonemergency line. Even though his gut told him something was wrong, he didn’t want to make a fool of himself by calling authorities if there was nothing to report. He would try to locate the officer who had come to the house several days earlier to see if he’d heard anything. Perhaps his dad had been in a car crash, he thought.

“Nine-one-one,” said the female dispatcher who answered the call.

“Hi, can I get the nonemergency number for the police department?”

“What is it that you’re reporting?”

“Um, I just need to talk to an officer there,” Gabe said.

“Okay, about what, sir,” the dispatcher asked.

“Do I need to tell you?”

“Yes, you do. You called me on 911. We don’t give out numbers on 911. It’s for emergencies only, and I can maybe help you on this line depending on what you need to report.”

“Fine, I’ll just call the police department,” Gabe said.

“Okay, thank you.”

Grabbing a flashlight, the teen went back downstairs with the phone number for the Orinda police department tucked in his dark-colored shorts. On his way out the door, his mother stopped him.

“Why did you call the police?” she asked.

“I didn’t call the police!” Gabriel snapped, and continued outside to the upper carport where his mom kept her car. The house had two driveways; Susan preferred the one at the top of the property that was reached by a neighboring street, while Eli and Felix used the lower one that was accessible from Miner Road. Gabe wanted to check Susan’s Volvo wagon for any traces of his father. A grisly thought had crossed his mind: maybe his mother had used the car to transport his dad’s dead body somewhere. But upon inspection, the car yielded nothing out of the ordinary.

“What are you doing?” his mother yelled out to him.

“Nothing,” he called back. Gabriel was barefoot and shirtless as he walked down the steps to the cottage in an attempt to hide from his mother. With the main door locked, he went to another door that faced the house, entering through the galley kitchen and proceeding down the narrow darkened hallway to the balcony area that overlooked the living room. Shining his flashlight into the blackened space, he saw his father lying on the ground with blood covering his near naked body.

The sight was too much for the fifteen-year-old boy, who quickly left the cottage and shut the door behind him.

Gabriel’s heart raced as he returned to the main house. Without saying a word to his mother, he rushed to the bedroom, grabbed the cordless phone and ran back outside, sprinting up the path that led to a hidden area of the property where the family kept the trashcans. He could hear his mother calling as he ducked behind the wooden carport that housed her Volvo. He dialed 911.

Barely seven minutes had passed since he first called that number. He recognized the female dispatcher’s voice when she answered.

“Uh, murder,” he blurted out.

There was a moment’s hesitation, as if the dispatcher was processing the declaration. “Where at?”

“At 728 Miner Road.”

“Okay, what happened?” she asked, switching on the police radio to alert units in the field. Orinda is one of five unincorporated cities in the county that contracts patrol services from the Contra Costa Sheriff ’s Department.

“Um, I think my mom…my mom shot my dad.”

“You think your mom shot your dad?” the dispatcher repeated.

“Yeah.”

“Okay, stay on the phone, I’m going to connect you to the fire department. Do not hang up,” the officer instructed.

There were several beeps, and then ringing, as the call was transferred to the fire department’s emergency line.

“It’s a possible shooting,” the sheriff ’s dispatcher said, briefing her counterpart at the Contra Costa Fire Department.

“Okay, what’s your name, sir?” the fire dispatcher asked Gabe.

The teen spelled it twice.

“Where’s your mom at now?”

“She’s still in the house,” the teen responded breathlessly.

“Does she still have the gun?”

“I believe so.”

“Where is your dad at?”

“He’s dead,” Gabe shot back.

“Where is he at, do you know?”

“He’s in my cottage.”

“In your cottage?”

“Yeah.”

“Does your mom still have the gun?”

“I believe so.”

“Do you know when this happened?”

“No, no idea.”

“Do you know where your mom is in the house?”

“No, I don’t.”

“How do you know she’s still in the house?”

“Because I was just in the fuckin’ house,” the teen’s voice was beginning to waver, as though he was fighting back tears.

“Okay, where are you now?”

“I’m outside,” Gabe’s voice grew softer.

“Okay, what’s your mom’s name?”

“Susan. She’s got a mental illness.”

“What’s her last name?”

“Polk.”

“How old is your mom?”

There was no response.

“Gabe. Gabe? Are you still there?” The dispatcher asked.

The line went dead.

Gabriel’s attention had shifted to the sound of a door opening. He could tell it wasn’t coming from the main house. Peering around the carport, he was certain that it was his mother opening then closing the door to the guesthouse.

“Hey, did you see that?” she yelled up to him.

Gabe didn’t respond. He wanted to get as far away as possible. Bolting down the hill and onto Miner Road, he flagged down an arriving fire truck. Panting furiously, he remained with the firemen until police units arrived just after 10:15 PM.