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



It was just before 7:30 AM on Tuesday, October 15, when Alex Taflya and Song Wicks of the Contra Costa Sheriff ’s Office pulled up the steep driveway at 728 Miner Road. Rays of early morning sun streamed through the branches of the soaring oak trees surrounding the home. The residence felt more like an expansive tree house than a million dollar estate with its hilltop location, tangle of lofty trees and thick foliage. Detectives Jeff Moule and Mike Costa were waiting on the large wood deck between the main house and cottage to brief the criminalists.

When he was first summoned to the scene the previous night, Costa performed a preliminary investigation of the main house where he observed damp washcloths in the shower stall of the master bathroom. It made sense, since Susan told him she had showered around 8 PM that night. During his search, he also located a steak knife with its tip slightly bent and a small piece of unidentified material stuck to it in the dishwasher. Despite these items from the main house, he was convinced that the crime scene did not extend beyond the redwood cottage where the seventy-year-old victim lay in a pool of his own blood.

On this return trip, Costa and his team focused on the cottage in their search for bloody clothing; expended bullet casings; unfired cartridges; trace evidence on the floors, walls, countertops, and drains; any evidence that might be linked to the homicide. Upon arrival, the investigators agreed with the initial assessment that there was no forced entry into the cottage. The door located on the north side of the pool house was open, and the entire house was dark. In fact, the blinds were drawn throughout the cottage, including those on the sliding glass doors on the west side of the living room near the victim’s body and those on the south side of the bedroom in the rear of the house. In the kitchen, the windows were closed but not locked, and the blinds were shut so that only cracks of sunlight were visible.

The kitchen was small, with barely enough room for the small, café-like wood table set beneath the bay window. The cabinetry was worn, with white paint chipping in spots. A delicate set of plates and saucers of blue and white bone china was displayed on one wall. While there was nothing of interest on the linoleum countertops, investigators noticed a partial bloody shoe print on the small, multicolor rug beneath the sink. More bloody shoe prints were observed on the wood floor in the hallway leading to the living area, as well as on the landing to the north of the living room, and again on the terra cotta tile on the living room floor, creating a trail that most likely indicated the killer’s path around the cottage.

A foul smell grew stronger as the officers neared the body that lay face up on the living room floor. More than thirty hours had passed since Susan and her husband had engaged in what would be their final argument, and Felix’s body had been left in the sealed cottage. Standing over the corpse, police carefully documented and photographed its position. Felix Polk was lying on his back, with his legs pointing toward the kitchen and his arms outstretched at a forty-five-degree angle as if he’d fallen backward when he died. His eyes were wide open, and there were rivulets of blood on the front and right side of his face. His head was facing the bedroom at the rear of the cottage, and there was blood on the leather chair directly behind the victim’s head.

The scene was grisly, with “a great deal” of blood on and around the victim’s body, the investigators noted in their report. Blood smears and spatter revealed that a violent struggle had taken place. An ottoman had been turned upside down, and an open book lay next to Felix’s left foot. Police observed that there was blood on one side of the ottoman but not on the top, which led them to conclude that it was knocked over early in the struggle, before any blood was spilled. There was also blood of a “medium velocity” found on the book, indicating that the victim had most likely been stabbed and/or beaten.

While there had been much talk about a shotgun, there was no indication that a gun of any kind had been used in this murder. In fact, all signs pointed to a blunt force trauma and multiple stab wounds. The way Felix’s body was positioned on the floor indicated that he was sitting in a chair reading at the time of the attack and was most likely struck in the head, as indicated by the blood that had flowed from his head and pooled along the south wall of the living room.

Investigators also noted that the blood on Felix’s chest and abdomen had smeared, suggesting he had been on his stomach at some point during the struggle. Police observed apparent stab wounds on the front and sides of his abdomen and chest area, and the rivulets of blood on the right side of his stomach suggested that his heart had still been pumping while he was lying on his back. Blood found on the bottom of Felix’s feet indicated he had been standing at some point during the struggle and had stepped in his own blood. Cuts were also apparent on the index fingers of his left and right hands, as well as the bottoms of his feet, indicating that he had tried to defend himself from attack. Upon closer examination of Felix’s hands, police observed several hairs wrapped around the fingers of his right hand and another hair on the back of his left hand.

Moving to the cottage’s tiny bathroom, police collected blood from the counter near the sink and from the linoleum tile floor. They also observed a substance that looked like diluted blood on the cabinet door handle in front of the sink. A hairbrush, toothbrush, toothpaste, and three bottles of prescriptive medication for “Felix Polk” were among the items on the windowsill above the sink, investigators wrote in their report. Lorazepam and Clonazepam, two drugs widely prescribed for the treatment of panic disorder, were among the medications that police collected from the bathroom.

Police also removed a hair from the right faucet handle of the sink and two blue towels on the floor in front of the shower stall, which had apparent bloodstains. Additional forensic testing performed on the bloody shoeprints leading from the kitchen to the living room showed that “all of the shoeprints appeared to have the same sole pattern consisting of various multiple geometric shapes.”

Once they had finished examining the cottage, the investigators went on to the main house for a more in-depth exploration that yielded additional evidence for the forensic team. Inside the small office on the first floor were handwritten letters to family members from the couple’s middle son, Eli, mailed from the Byron Boys’ Ranch, the 100-bed minimum-security facility, where he was currently serving time for his probation violation.

It appeared from Gabriel’s interview with detectives earlier that morning that he had a good relationship with his father, yet Eli’s letters seemed to indicate another side to Felix Polk. “He basically writes how he hates it there in Byron Boys’ Ranch,” police noted in the report. “It’s apparent from these writings that Eli distrusts his father and even warns Gabe at one point to be careful of what he eats at home, especially if given to him by dad.

“Nothing indicating that Eli had any prior knowledge that this incident would occur,” the report stated.

On a desk in the office was an Apple Macintosh laptop computer, and a check of the hard drive revealed some lengthy documents apparently created by Susan Polk that showed she agreed with her middle son’s views of his father. One document, dated March 16, 2001, which was submitted as evidence at her trial, outlined what Susan believed was Felix’s “unethical conduct” and spoke of abuse “throughout their marriage.”

“She claims that her husband has drugged her in the past and has even struck her,” investigators noted.

The purpose of this letter is to document the unethical conduct of Felix Polk, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in private practice in Berkeley. I was referred to Felix Polk in 1972 when I was a student at Clayton Valley High School in Concord. During the course of therapy, I was drugged by Felix and coerced into having a sexual relationship with him. We married in 1982. We have three children together, Adam, Eli, and Gabriel, aged 18, 15, and 14.

Throughout our marriage, Felix has been psychologically and physically abusive. He has punched me on numerous occasions, and threat ened to kill me if I ever left him. He has also hit the children. On one occasion, he punched Eli who was twelve years old at the time in the face with a closed fist, knocking him to the floor where he lay stunned and unable to stand up. The violence, psychological and physical, has escalated as I have become more and more convinced that a separation was necessary.

The psychological abuse has taken several forms. Felix has threatened to withdraw financial support from me as well as the children…. When I have stated that I would be willing to leave without receiving a division of our property, he has threatened to kill me or, in his words, drive me crazy. Felix has throughout our marriage told me that I am crazy and told our children that I am crazy. He states that I come from a crazy family and that the dynamics in our family reflect my family dynamic rather than his…. Felix tells me that I am bad, ugly, evil, and destructive. At these times, I cannot help but being reminded of the family scene in which I was raised. As Felix knows, my mother subjected me to harsh criticism. The adjectives Felix chooses to employ are identical to those employed by my mother.

In October of last year, in order to avoid another violent scene, I informed Felix that I was going to spend the day at the beach. Felix responded by hitting me in the face. When I burst into tears, he told me to leave the house and not come back. Felix told the children that I was crazy and destroying the family. He then ordered me: “go to your room.” He dragged me up the stairs and shoved me into our room. He said that he felt like hitting me because I was so provocative. One of my sons then stepped forward and punched me in the face…. These family scenes do indeed remind me of the way in which I was brought up. As Felix knew, there were constant violent confrontations in which my mother goaded my older brother into beating me up. It was part of my motivation to escape from my family that I submitted to Felix and agreed to marry him. While the despair that I feel in response to Felix’s violence is reminiscent of the despair I felt growing up in an abusive family, it is not just transference as Felix states. When Felix threatens to destroy me, to kill me, to leave me with nothing if I leave him, I do feel hopeless. After the last violent scene, I attempted suicide despite the fact that apart from my marriage, I love life.

During the course of our marriage, Felix has at times drugged me. Almost four years ago, when I talked of getting a divorce, Felix employed hallucinogens. Felix then hired a psychiatrist to evaluate me for antipsychotic medication while I was experiencing flashbacks. He refers to this period of my life as a psychotic episode. He denies the use of drugs in therapy, and would most certainly deny using hallucinogens. I know of no other way to account for the flashbacks, which I experienced during that time period. I have never willingly used LSD or hallucinogens. I do not drink excessively or use drugs.

Also on the computer’s desktop was a document “My diary.” During her interview at headquarters, Susan had mentioned that she kept a diary, and suspecting this was it, investigators confiscated the laptop for further examination. Continuing their search of the office, police recovered a receipt from the Best Western Hotel in Bozeman, Montana, for the dates that Susan had given during her interview with Detective Costa, and a Blockbuster Video rental receipt dated October 12, 2002, at 2:34 PM. There was also a piece of paper listing the residence at 1530 Arch Street, Berkeley, the five-unit apartment complex jointly owned by Felix and Susan Polk. According to the paper, Felix occupied Unit 1532. Gabriel claimed that his father vacated the unit prior to his murder, and the apartment was currently empty.

Other paperwork showed that the couple had nearly $5 million in real estate assets, including the Miner Road home, the Arch Street apartment complex, and a third building with four units on Linda Avenue in nearby Piedmont. The papers indicated that their debts totaled just under $1 million, and it seemed there was substantial money at stake in the divorce proceedings.

Officers observed an unusual number of books throughout the house. On the mantel in the living room above the stone fireplace were collections of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. Biographies of Europe’s master painters sat on a coffee table near the room’s enormous flat-screen TV. The glossy red and white cover of The Joy of Cooking stood out among the myriad cookbooks stacked on a counter in the kitchen.

On the second level of the home was a small laundry room. Inside the washing machine, police found a wet area rug, and the dryer held several towels, but a check of all the items revealed no visible bloodstains. No blood was detected on any of the clothing in the hamper near the appliances.

The master bedroom suite was up one more flight of stairs. The expansive room was tastefully decorated in soft earth tones and bathed in natural light from oversized windows. A queen-size bed with a wood headboard jutted out from one wall. Soft carpeting, an ample master bath, and an enormous walk-in closet gave the space a luxurious feel. In the bathroom, police collected the three blue hand towels that Costa had seen the night before and then searched the walk-in closet for bloody shoes. None were found.

Across the hall from the master suite on the north side of the staircase, there was a second bedroom and bathroom used by Gabriel. Between the two bedrooms, there was a third door that led out to the covered carport where Gabriel had hidden the previous night while he called the police. That carport, used mostly by Susan, was reached from the higher of the two driveways and provided access to the uppermost living quarters. Susan’s silver Volvo station wagon was still there, along with two additional cars parked farther down the driveway—another Volvo and Eli’s Dodge Ram 1500 pick-up truck that Susan had driven to Montana. The guesthouse where police were collecting fingerprints was south of the main residence and west of the small structure that contained a bathroom and the family’s home gym.

At 5 PM on Tuesday, October 15, the coroner’s van made its way to the cottage to remove Felix’s dead body, clearing the way for additional examination of the immediate crime scene. The forensic team remained there for several more hours to gather fingerprints and collect other potential evidence.

It was after 9 PM when Detective Costa and the others wrapped up their work at the Polk house, now encircled in bright yellow police tape. They returned to the Main Detention Facility at 1000 Ward Street in Martinez, where Susan Polk had been transported during the early morning hours after her interrogation. After being processed at the jail, Susan had been booked for the murder of her husband, Felix Polk. She knew both the routine and the facility, since she was processed at the same location eighteen months earlier on charges of “battery” after an argument with her husband had turned physical.

Once she was secure at the jail, the investigators conducted a second interview with Susan during which they observed several injuries on her body, prompting officials to undertake a full forensic examination of Susan’s hands, face, and body. Among other things, the examination uncovered bruising and redness on her right eye, and small red cuts on her hands and upper arms. “The injuries were consistent with someone who was involved in a physical confrontation in the recent past,” one of the detectives jotted in his report. “I asked Susan if she would consent to providing hair samples and photos of her injuries. Susan permitted the hair samples, but denied consent to the photos due to modesty.”

Her refusal prompted police to obtain a search warrant.

Detective Costa was on hand that night to supervise the photographing of the slight reddish discolorations around Susan’s eyes and the small healing wounds on her hands. He also stood by as an officer plucked a dark brown hair sample from her scalp. He was certain it would be a positive match to the strands found clenched in Felix Polk’s bloody right fist.