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

Part I. A DEATH ON MINER ROAD

Chapter 5. SUSAN’S DENIAL

As fifteen-year-old Gabriel Polk talked with the officers, his mother was in an adjacent interrogation room, giving a completely different account of the past forty-eight hours to sheriff ’s investigators. Contra Costa Sheriff ’s officer Kenneth Hansen had taken Susan into custody as soon as she answered the front door that night. He had been alerted over the police radio that she had long suffered from mental illness and could be in possession of a weapon. Not about to take any chances, he watched her cross the living room through the home’s expansive windows as he ascended the stone steps to the front of the house with his gun at the ready.

By the time Officer Hansen reached the landing, Susan was already standing in the doorway. Pulling a pair of handcuffs from his belt, he immediately closed them around her thin wrists and sat her down on a small wood bench just outside the front door. Directing his partner, Shannon Kelly, to keep a watch on the suspect while he inspected the property, Hansen left to locate and secure the pool house, where the victim was supposed to be. Flashlight in hand, he climbed the brick steps to the pool and adjacent cottage. After only a few minutes, he returned and apologetically advised Susan that her husband was dead, apparently from “unnatural causes.” He didn’t elaborate or reveal that he had just observed Felix Polk covered in blood on the floor of the pool house. Most of the blood appeared to be dry, an indication that he’d been dead for some time.

He noticed that Susan did not react to his pronouncement. She sat on the bench and said nothing. At one point, he removed her handcuffs and asked that she sign a consent form to search all four buildings on the property, which she did without hesitation.

It was after 11 PM when Officer Kelly escorted Susan Polk to the Field Operations Bureau in Martinez.

“Where is my son?” Susan asked repeatedly during the twenty-minute ride to Martinez. “Is he okay?”

Officer Kelly did not know the answer.

“Are you sure it’s my husband?” Susan prodded. “Did my son identify the body? Because his car isn’t here,” referring to Felix’s 1999 Saab.

Officers securing the Miner Road house had located four cars during their initial search of the property, but the Saab was not among them.

“Are you comfortable?” Officer Kelly inquired, thinking about the patrol car’s temperature, not the handcuffs around Susan’s wrists.

“I’m not too comfortable being in the back of a police car,” Susan responded. “My husband was killed, and I didn’t do anything.”

“Excuse me, do you have a blanket, or a jacket or something?” Susan asked Detective Mike Costa as he entered the sterile interrogation room some time after midnight on October 15. Dressed in shorts and a polo shirt, Susan felt chilled in the small, air-conditioned room, and Costa offered her an official police jacket.

The stocky, mustached detective had introduced himself to Susan earlier in the night at the crime scene, where he had been assigned lead investigator status. He had been on the force for twenty-six years and had responded to more than a hundred homicides since joining the Criminal Investigations Division. Now, having been briefed about Susan’s arrest and her statements to police while in route to the field operations office, he was prepared to question her.

“Okay. Like I said at the house, Susan, my name is Mike,” the investigator began, taking a seat at the room’s small round table. “I’m a detective with the Sheriff ’s Office, okay? We are going to be looking at what happened to your husband tonight. I assume it’s your husband in the…what you guys call the pool house out there.”

“The guesthouse,” Susan corrected, wrapping the jacket with the official police emblem around her shoulders. “I didn’t hear any shots. I don’t own a firearm right now.”

“Okay, because you’re in custody here, and you’re not under arrest. I want you to understand that. But you’re not free to leave, okay. The law says I have to admonish you of your rights, okay.”

“Uh, huh.”

“Do you want to talk to me about what happened?”

“I do, and I am very, very tired,” Susan told the detective, unaware that she was being secretly recorded by a camera hidden in the ceiling.

“So am I. I haven’t been to bed all day either, but we have to do this.”

Susan looked directly at the officer. “What did happen?”

“Well, that’s what I’m hoping you can tell me.”

“I did not hear any gunshots, and I do not own a firearm.”

“Okay, you’ve been occupying the main house.”

“I didn’t see him all day today, so I don’t know.”

“Okay, what time did you wake up today?” the detective inquired.

“I woke up at around seven.”

“Seven AM, this morning?”

“Uh, huh. I took my son to school.”

“Which son?”

“Gabe.” Susan said, as she began retracing her steps during the day. She busied herself with housework and cooking after picking Gabe up from school on Monday afternoon. Around 8:30 that night, she took a bath.

“And during this time, didn’t you wonder where Felix was?”

“Yeah, I did wonder,” she replied dryly. “In fact, Gabe and I talked about it in the morning. Gabe thought they were going to a game together.”

Susan repeated that she hadn’t seen her husband at all that day. “And I didn’t see his car this morning.”

“Does he park it in the garage?”

“He parks it in the lower driveway.”

Detective Costa jotted something on a notepad. “How long have you guys been married?”

“It would be twenty-one years in December.”

“How long has the marriage not been going well?”

“Well, there have been times off and on throughout the marriage when I’ve brought up getting a divorce. And particularly five years ago, I said that I couldn’t see living with him any longer.”

“That was five years ago.” The detective pointed out that the couple was still together and had moved to a new house in Orinda just eighteen months earlier.

“Well, he said, you know, that he would never let me go and that kind of thing…. And he was really, it was just very difficult. I don’t have a job, and you know he is my source of income.

“And we do have some apartments, and we get income from those, too. But I just, you know, couldn’t, and I was very attached to him, too…. So, I mean it was like, you know, yeah, I wanted a divorce but then he would say things, and then it would be hard to go through with it.”

“So the past five years, it’s been particularly bad? Is that what you are saying?”

“Five years ago, it was very, very clear that I wanted a divorce.…And I backed off of it…pretty quickly.”

“Where is this marriage, as far as from a legal standpoint right now? The officers out there told me that you both have attorneys.”

“I fired my attorney, I don’t have an attorney right now.”

“How long ago?”

“Just a few days ago…. I had the house, I was given exclusive use of the house and custody of Gabriel…but then there were proceedings in juvenile court,” Susan explained. She claimed that initially she had been granted custody of Gabe and the Miner Road residence. But she said that difficulties arose that past winter when the judge wanted to grant Felix custody of the couple’s middle child, Eli.

Eli had been in trouble with the law. He was arrested in February 2002 for possession of marijuana and for assaulting a fellow student with a weapon. Further complicating matters, Susan had encouraged her son to remove the ankle monitor he wore as part of his sentence, leave his father’s home against court orders, and join her and Gabriel in Montana for an extended holiday that summer.

Even though Susan took full responsibility for her son’s violation, the judge had sentenced Eli earlier in the month to time at the sixty-acre juvenile camp, Byron Boys’ Ranch.

“And it was just really upsetting for me,” Susan continued. “It was just, you know, I couldn’t see living around here anymore. Gabe and I and Eli had lived in Montana for a few months last year in the fall of 2001. And it was just really great. So I decided I would head for Montana and find a place to live.”

Launching into the story of the court order and the reduction of her spousal support payments, Susan made no attempt to hide her dissatisfaction with the court decisions that had been made in her absence, eventually telling her side of the events that had occurred that past Wednesday, which resulted in Felix’s call to 911. Informing Costa of how her trip to Montana had impacted her relationship with Gabriel, Susan tried to demonstrate her son’s bias, telling Costa that Gabriel had “turned loyal to his dad” without her around.

While she was trying her best to appear sympathetic to the officer, Susan was doing little for her case. Her tale was winding and disjointed, laden with tangential stories. On one hand she managed to control her anger when she discussed Felix, but on the other, she did not appear convincingly affected by her husband’s death. As she answered questions, she opened herself to increasing scrutiny, showing the investigators that she had both the motive and opportunity to kill her husband.

The detective continued to take notes, and at some point tried to steer the interview back to the events preceding the murder. “So getting back to this morning, you said you woke up at 7 AM. Never saw Felix the whole day?”

“No. But I mean it was unusual because it’s a holiday, and Gabe said he was going to be around. And usually he makes an appearance at the house. But since I’ve been back in the house, I’ve said not to just walk into the house. To knock at the door.”

“Didn’t you see him yesterday?”

“Oh, yeah, I did. Yesterday was Sunday. He and Adam got up around five to leave for UCLA with Gabe. And he was marching around the house, so I went down and said, ‘You know, you’re not supposed to be in the house.’”

“So, at some point, Adam came back from UCLA?” the detective asked.

“Yeah, Adam flew back on Friday.”

“This past Friday?”

“Uh, huh.”

“And Sunday you’re saying they all left to go back to UCLA?”

“Right. To drive Adam with the dog, ’cause Adam wanted his dog at UCLA.”

“And when did they get back, Gabe and your husband?”

Susan paused. “I’m not sure, I think Gabe walked in around nine or ten or something.”

“So they went down and back in one day?”

“Yeah, pretty miserable, but yeah.”

“Well okay, let me ask you this? When is the last time you saw your husband?”

“Sunday morning around five or five thirty when I came downstairs and chewed him out for just roaming around the house.”

“And then Gabe and your husband came back that night, Sunday night.”

“Yeah, Gabe walked in around ten probably and said, ‘Hi, Mom.’ I was in my bed.”

“Okay. Do you own any firearms?”

“Well, a number of years ago, probably sixteen, seventeen years…my husband had a patient who was an ATF agent and he took me out and helped me purchase a revolver…. I don’t remember, I think it’s like Smith and Wesson, something revolver.”

“Okay, so you bought a revolver?”

“Yes…. But I have not had that gun for a long time. He has had it. Since we separated, at least.”

“Where is the gun now?”

“He took it to his office, I don’t know.”

“Your husband took it?”

“Yeah.”

“How long ago did he take it?”

“A few years…maybe two years. I said I didn’t want to have a gun around the house.”

“So what’s all this about a shotgun that I heard about?” Detective Costa asked. “You supposedly said you were gonna get a shotgun.”

“No,” Susan replied, closing the shiny black police jacket tightly around her.

“You never had a shotgun?” the officer asked emphatically.

While Susan’s son, Gabriel, was in the adjacent room telling officers that he was certain his mother had a shotgun, and had used it to kill his father, Susan was insisting that it was Gabriel who had inquired about obtaining a gun.

“In fact, my son was talking to me today about how he wanted to have…have some gun that he had his heart set on,” Susan claimed. “And I was like, no, because it’s just not a good idea. And he was asking me what the gun laws were, and whether he could….

“So I said, ‘If you want a gun, go into the military and then you can, you know, get into all of that,’” Susan rambled on. “But no, you know, I don’t think you should.”

“Did he indicate that he already had one?” Detective Costa asked.

“Oh, God, no…. He’s a good boy. He’s going to continuation school, not because he’s been in, you know, trouble or anything. It’s mainly the divorce, divorce issues.”

It was then that Costa returned his attention to Susan’s actions after Gabriel found the body, asking Susan to recount the sequence of events once Gabriel made his gruesome discovery. Telling the detective of Gabriel’s assertion that she had murdered his father, Susan did not appear the least bit distraught that her son would make such a painful accusation. As she walked him through her activities leading up to the police officers’ arrival, Susan finished by telling him about how the officer that handcuffed her was the one to tell her that it appeared her husband had been killed.

“And what did you say to that?”

“I don’t remember exactly.”

“Okay, I mean if somebody gets told her husband was killed, I would expect some reaction, some sort of response.”

For nearly an hour, he had listened as the forty-four-year-old housewife rambled on about her life, her financial arrangements, and the details of her crumbling marriage. Her husband was dead, and yet she had not exhibited one iota of grief. How could she remain so stoic, or was she just cold? The detective was incredulous.

Trying to better understand the situation, Costa dug into Felix’s personal life, soliciting answers about whether Felix engaged in extra marital affairs or gambling that might generate enemies. While she said that Felix had had affairs in the past, he was not a man to owe money to loan sharks, and both of these questions led nowhere.

Costa began to explore the nature of the family dynamic, questioning Susan about Felix’s deceased parents and the whereabouts of Felix’s twin brother and his sister who both lived on the East Coast. Probing the relationship with her own parents, Costa found Susan unhelpful as she repeatedly described her father as a “pedophile” and her mother as “perverted,” while informing Costa that neither had any contact with the family in years.

As the questioning continued, it became apparent to Costa that Susan was the only immediate person with motive and opportunity, and he tried to convince her that the evidence was mounting against her.

“You have the motive, you know, the marital problems going on,” he said. “I’m sure tempers are not good between you, you know, as in any divorce.”

“He’s my sole source of income…. There is no life insurance. He makes—he grosses about $18,000 a month from his practice—and his teaching. I would not kill my husband. I can’t pay the bills.”

Costa wasn’t convinced, and the detective pressed the idea that Susan was the only person other than Gabriel who had the opportunity to kill Felix. Stepping back, he tried a different tactic.

“It only takes a split moment to get angry enough to do something like that. It happens all the time.”

“That’s why I don’t own firearms,” Susan replied coolly.

“Maybe, you know, like I said, maybe there’s a self-defense issue here. We’re not gonna know about it.”

“I didn’t do it,” Susan insisted. “I did not kill my husband!”

Despite her remonstrations, Costa remained skeptical. It wasn’t just her words that didn’t ring true, it was her unflinchingly stoic reaction. Only once, when the detective said definitively that the body in the cottage was that of her husband, did she display any emotion.

Detective Costa sighed aloud. “I got to tell you, the other thing, you’re sitting here, you know, we’ve been together for an hour now or so, and you don’t seem really choked up. You don’t seem really upset that he’s gone. I find that kind of, I mean granted…”

Susan interjected. “I’m very, very, very upset.”

“You do well at not showing it.”

“Well, you know, I can’t defend myself against an accusation like that,” she huffed.

“Well,” the detective shrugged, “It’s an observation that I’m making.”

“I’m not in love with my husband anymore,” Susan offered. “But I’m horrified. Particularly for my son that he found his body…but as for tears, you know.”

Detective Costa decided to take the questioning in another direction. “Was Felix under any professional care himself?”

“Yes,” Susan said.

“Was he seeing anybody?”

“He was seeing Justin Simon,” she said, referring to the psychiatrist who owned the Berkeley complex where Felix leased office space. According to Susan, Simon also prescribed Felix with antianxiety drugs. Though she was uncertain of the precise name, she indicated that it was a “valium derivative.” Susan was quick to point out the hypocrisy of it all—that Felix pointed the finger at her for being crazy, while never considering his own pharmaceutical dependency.

As the detective looked over his notes, he restated his theory yet again. “I’ve got to tell you, you know, something happened between you and Felix today that got out of hand.”

“No way!” Susan insisted.

“Well, that’s my feeling.”

“Did not!” Susan sniped back like a child in a tiff with a fellow classmate.

“I guess we just have to disagree, because something happened obviously. And I think it was between you and him. And you’re sitting over there, and you’re probably just dying to spill out what happened. And you can’t, for whatever reason. I don’t know, afraid of going to jail or…”

Susan jumped in. “No!”

“You know, we’ve had quite a few of these in this county recently, where wives have killed their husbands. One got off with manslaughter because of his past.”

“I did not kill my husband. I’m not that kind of person…. I don’t know what kind of a crime it was. You know, I wasn’t there. I don’t know what happened.”

“Well, they call it murder,” the detective replied before rising to his feet. He informed Susan that he needed to check on the status of the crime scene investigation and exited the room, returning a few minutes later with a second detective in tow. “This is Detective Jeff Moule, my partner.”

“How are you doing?” the second investigator said, nodding at Susan.

Outside the interrogation room, Detective Moule had updated Costa on the crime scene findings and the information gathered from Susan’s youngest son. Moule had been on the force for eight years, and during that time, he had worked ten homicides, four of them as lead investigator.

Susan looked up at the other detective, but before she could reply to his question, Detective Costa jumped in. “What’s this about you believed your husband was with the Mossad, he had like millions stashed in a Cayman Islands account somewhere? Why would your son think that?”

As with many of her previous responses, Susan’s explanation was long-winded and contradictory. It appeared she truly believed her husband was an Israeli agent, and she explained how this belief was based on the fact that Felix had insisted she sign a prenuptial agreement when they married in 1972.

“And usually when people sign a prenup it’s because there’s something to protect, right?” she insisted. “And over the years, I mean he sort of had a way of talking about things that was kind of like, not straight out, but it was kind of like hinting around and under the surface and, you know, a lot of just, it was double talk. And he sort of would talk about having assets, it seemed like to me, that I would always be provided for and the kids would. But now that we’re getting divorced, I’ve asked him, you know, about that. He’s like, ‘no.’”

Susan spoke in circles for nearly twenty minutes, citing various reasons why she believed her husband was a member of the Israeli Intelligence Agency. Another central component to her theory were statements allegedly made by Felix at the time of his ex-wife’s wedding that raised suspicions in Susan that Sharon’s new husband was a Mossad agent, too. Though Susan repeated them on many occasions, these allegations are unfounded.

“We like to keep it in the family,” Felix had allegedly joked to her.

Susan claimed that her husband’s offhanded comments were meant to telegraph certain information that he could not divulge for security reasons. Another clue was that Felix had treated CIA, ATF, and IRS agents in his practice, as well as several judges. She argued that he had to have some sort of high-level security clearance in order to care for such individuals, claiming he had hinted his affiliation with the Mossad enabled him to be “connected,” she said.

“And I went and told someone, and he was like, ‘Oh, my God,’ that I had a ‘big mouth.’ And so I just speculated that his real loyalties, even if he is, or was, a government employee, are really with Israel because of statements that he’s made. So yeah, I did think…”

Detective Costa pointed out that Felix had no family in Israel. “Has he ever traveled there?” he asked.

“No, but his cousin who’s older goes back and forth quite a bit. And a lot of his, you know, clients do, and close family, friends type of thing.”

At some point, Susan did an about face. She explained that while she once believed her husband’s connections to be real, her pronouncements of late had been more a tool to enrage him. Felix, she said, hated it when she accused him of such an association.

Regardless, it was becoming clear that Susan’s diatribe was not advancing the investigation.

“This is your time to tell us what happened and why,” Detective Costa directed.

“But I didn’t see him today. I’ve told you what I know.”

“Mrs. Polk, we know otherwise,” Detective Moule jumped in, and with an air of annoyance, he laid out the facts, as he saw them. “I’ve been talking to your son, Gabe, for a long time. And I know about the background and some problems that started about five years ago with memories about your father and all that. I know it’s personal. I’m not trying to embarrass you, but I know about that, know problems with, you know, keeping the boys out of school and taking the anklet off your son, he had to go to Byron and all that.

“You know, you’ve had some problems around the house. We know about that. You probably saw all the people standing around, there’s a whole bunch of detectives with Detective Costa and I. And there’s other detectives, and we all have little jobs. And one of our jobs here is to interview you and interview Gabe. There’s other people processing the scene. There’s judges that are being contacted. And there’s scientists that are arriving at your house right now and they’re gonna go through that entire house. They vacuum every little particle.”

“Well, that’s good,” Susan agreed.

“Yeah. And there’s some evidence found that you’re probably aware of, there’s evidence that’s already been found that is putting you right up there,” Detective Moule offered.

“Susan, your boys know that you did it,” he continued. “There’s not a doubt in their minds. They know. They go, ‘My mom did this, I know she did it.’”

“I love my children,” Susan insisted.

“They know you did it. You know what, I think you can do them a favor and let them know why, this is why it happened.”

“I love my children even though you’re…”

Detective Moule did not permit Susan to complete her thought. “A lie,” he interjected, his voice rising. “You might as well be spitting in their faces right now.”

“I didn’t do it, no way, that’s ridiculous.”

“You think they’re gonna think that you didn’t do this? They know you did it. Explain why. Tell Detective Costa why and he can document, this is why, this is what’s going on, this is the background, these are the problems.

“You’re going, ‘I didn’t do that.’ They’re going, ‘Bull shit, my mom just killed my father.’”

Detective Costa cut in. “Susan, you’re obviously a smart woman. You have a nice background and everything. Think this through. You’re not gonna get away with this. It’s a done deal.

“We know about how you went up and cleaned up. It’s all figured out. There’s scientists collecting that stuff. You’re not gonna beat this. You’re done. You’re caught up.”

“I didn’t kill my husband. And I would think that nowadays, you know, that you would rely on more than guesswork or, you know, what children in the middle of a divorce would say. I mean you do have technological expertise and I’m sure you’ll figure it out. But I didn’t do it.”

“Well, we’ve already figured out enough to know that you were involved.”

“I was not involved.”

“Your family is a lot more involved than just an argument here and there.”

“Pardon me?” Susan was indignant.

“There’s a lot more going on in your family than just an argument here and there between a couple,” Detective Moule repeated.

“My husband really loved me and the kids, you know, I know that, and he just, you know, I was very fond…”

“I’m sure he did,” Moule interjected. “Did you love him?”

Susan hesitated. “I was very fond…”

The detective looked directly at Susan and demanded, “Did you love him?”

“I did for many years.”

“But not lately.”

“No, I didn’t love him anymore.”

“Did you hate him?” Detective Moule asked.

“No.”

With the progression of the questions, it became clear that the detectives were not going to obtain a confession. Though the evidence was mounting, investigators could not convince Susan to confess to the crime. Costa insisted that she free herself from the “dream world” in which she was living.

“I’ve been living in a dream world for many years,” Susan replied.

“Well, it’s time to get out of that world, and let’s face reality here.”

“No, I didn’t kill him,” Susan insisted.

“Yeah, you did.”

“No, I didn’t.”

Detective Costa continued to push. “This is how you want to leave it, just deny, deny, deny, lie, lie, lie, let me live in my little fantasy world and say I wasn’t involved, when everything is going to certainly tell us you were. I’m confident of that. I have no doubts about that.”

Susan looked up. “Well, apparently you seem pretty sure that I did it, so there’s nothing that I can really say that’s gonna dissuade you, it seems like.”

“The truth is always good.”

“So maybe the scientific evidence will help,” Susan said.

“I’m sure it will,” Detective Costa nodded. “That’s how you want to leave it, huh?”

“I didn’t do it…. I’m very, very tired,” Susan declared. “If you’re gonna put me in jail, put me in jail, so I can go to sleep, okay?”

Detective Costa smirked. “We’re taking care of that.”