As Susan Polk moved her husband's belongings from the main house to the cottage by the pool in the fall of 2002, she told her fifteen-year-old son Gabriel how she planned to handle the old man. "She said that she was going to sit him in a chair and point a shotgun at him and tell him to wire-transfer like, ten, twenty million dollars into her account or she would shoot," Gabe told the grand jury that indicted his mother for murder two years ago.
Susan believed that Felix, a prominent East Bay psychologist, had hidden millions of dollars in offshore accounts. She also believed that her husband, who as a child fled Vienna with his family to escape the Nazis, was a member of Mossad, Israel's spy agency.
Gabe tried to persuade his mom to stop moving his dad's bed into the guest cottage, but she wouldn't listen. "She basically moved my dad's things, even though, like, she wasn't supposed to be there," Gabe testified.
She wasn't supposed to be there because a divorce-court judge had just issued an order giving Felix, who had been living in Berkeley, custody of Gabe and exclusive use of the Orinda house. The judge also slashed Susan's alimony from $6,500 a month to $1,721. In brash defiance of the court order, Susan not only moved Felix' furniture out of the main house -- she had the locks changed.
The court had issued its order while Susan was away in Montana looking for a new place to live. According to papers Felix filed with the court asking for the emergency custody change, Susan, who was 44 at the time, had suddenly skipped town and told Felix at the last minute that he needed to take care of Gabe and the Orinda house. When Susan learned of her husband's power move, she drove back in a panic. She'd received the "shocking" news from Felix over the phone. "I shocked him a bit too, accusing him of misusing his position as a Mossad agent to influence the court," she wrote in her diary on October 2, 2002, less than two weeks before she killed him. "It doesn't help that the judge is Jewish."
Upon her return to Orinda in the days before the killing, this skinny, 115-pound mother of three hardly acted like a woman who feared -- as she later claimed -- what her seventy-year-old husband might do when challenged. Gabe told police that when his mom first arrived at the house, he and Felix were watching television. She told Gabe to leave the room so she could speak to his dad privately. Still, the boy said he overheard what she whispered to Felix: "I'm going to kill you."
Felix and Susan Polk hardly had what could be described as a fairy-tale marriage, but it wasn't always this bad. They'd stayed married for nearly twenty years and raised three rambunctious sons, who grew up big, handsome, and athletic -- the eldest, Adam, played linebacker on the record-setting De La Salle football team. But all three boys also had run-ins with police and school authorities. According to divorce-court papers, Adam, an honor student, was put on juvenile probation for assault; Eli got sent to the Byron Boys Ranch following a fistfight; and Gabe was expelled from Piedmont Middle School, although Felix blamed that on a confrontation Susan had with the principal in which she told him to "go fuck himself," according to Felix' court declarations.
Felix told a court-appointed mediator that his marriage to Susan began to collapse in the mid-to-late '90s under the weight of her increasingly bizarre and delusional behavior. Susan says it was around this time she began having flashbacks to traumatic events from her life: She recalled being molested by an older relative, and claimed she also remembered, for the first time, Felix drugging and raping her when she saw him for therapy as a teenager.
Around the time she filed for divorce in 2001, Susan became totally unpredictable and violent, Felix contended in divorce court. On March 27 of that year, Felix told the judge, he came home from work late and Susan immediately picked a fight with him. Felix claimed he made the mistake of turning his back to her, at which point she kicked him. When sheriff's deputies arrived, Susan demanded that Felix leave the house -- if he didn't, she told the officers, she wanted them to take her to jail. According to the incident report, she then slapped Felix right there in front of the cops. "Now," she growled at the deputies, "take me to jail." They complied, but Felix ultimately refused to press charges.
Felix told the divorce-court judge in April 2001 that he was so scared of his wife he had taken to sleeping in a separate room with the door barricaded. Although Susan alleged that Felix abused her throughout their marriage, Felix' friend Barry Morris, a former neighbor when the Polks had lived in Piedmont, says he saw no signs of this. If anything, he says, Felix was the one who lived in fear. "He was loath to have any confrontation with her," Morris says. "There was never a hint in anything he said that he would resort to any kind of physical violence. If anything, he was too gentle and wouldn't stand up for his own rights."
During this period, Gabe recalled his parents' arguments escalating in intensity. He also remembered that during the final year of his dad's life, his mom would openly fantasize about the manner in which she'd kill Felix. In "casual conversation," Gabe told the grand jury, Susan would talk about running her husband over, messing with his car, or drowning him in the pool. In a July interview with the Express, Susan denied her son's accusations. She said she suspected Gabe was just repeating lies his father had told him. "I certainly didn't threaten his father or fantasize about killing him," Susan said.
But that's not what Felix Polk was saying in the days before his death. In October 2002, as Susan made her way back to Orinda from Montana, Felix became especially nervous about his wife's state of mind and his own safety. During that week, Felix called his two grown children from his first marriage and friends, including Barry Morris, to report that Susan had threatened to kill him. He even called Orinda's police chief about the alleged death threats. Around the same time, Gabe told the grand jury, he had secretly listened in on a phone call between his parents. "She just threatened my dad's life," the young man testified. "She didn't say in what way she was going to ... kill him off, whatever, but she did -- she just said 'I'd kill him,' pretty much."
Susan allegedly repeated her threat to Felix' face upon her return from Montana, so Felix took Gabe and spent two nights at the nearby Lafayette Park Hotel. Then he decided to come back to Orinda and stay in the guest cottage. That decision would cost Felix his life.
The morning of October 14, 2002 began like any other day for Gabe Polk. His mom woke him up, made him breakfast, and took him to school. His dad wasn't around, but that was normal -- Felix worked long days at his Berkeley office. After school, Susan picked him up and the two did errands, picked up a bite at Baja Fresh, and rented the movie Scooby-Doo from Blockbuster.
After he and his mother ate dinner, Gabe began to wonder where his dad was. Father and son had tickets to see a Giants-Cardinals playoff game that night and it was getting late. He called Felix' office and left a message. He said he asked his mom where his dad was five or six times; each time, she said she didn't know. She suggested maybe they should call the CHP to see if Felix had been in an accident.
Gabe became suspicious. He decided to go out to the guest cottage and look for his dad. The main door was locked. Gabe didn't check the other entrance, he told the grand jury, because he was afraid of what he might find: "In the conversation I had with my mom where I was asking where he was, I pretty much knew that there was something wrong at that point just by -- just, I don't know, talking to her and just everything that was happening, and I was afraid that he was dead."
Gabe went back to the kitchen and again asked Susan where Felix was. This time, he told the jurors, she didn't profess ignorance.
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