Verdict: Not Guilty 

Verdict: Not Guilty

Susan Bolling was a troubled fifteen-year-old when a counselor at her high school referred her to Berkeley psychologist Felix Polk, an expert in adolescent behavior. The ninth grader suffered from panic attacks and had been skipping classes, preferring to stay home and read the Russian classics.

In 1973, a year later, Susan now says, she and Felix were having sex.

For a time, they kept the affair secret. Felix, after all, was married with two children. He also was 25 years older than Susan, and could have been arrested for statutory rape. Although a therapist legally could sleep with a patient back then -- California didn't criminalize such behavior until 1990 -- it certainly would have raised ethical red flags. When Felix' other patients found out, they felt betrayed. One former patient, Joel Tepper, recalls that during a group therapy session during the '70s, Susan referred to Felix as her lover. Upon hearing this, Tepper stormed angrily out of the session. "I think it was very unprofessional that he did that -- I still do," he says now. In his view, Felix undermined the therapy group's integrity by conducting his secret affair. Tepper and the other patients already suspected Felix gave Susan preferential treatment, but didn't know why. Now they did. Tepper still liked Felix, though, and started seeing him again about a year later, one-on-one. "He was just a terrific guy and a terrific therapist," he says.

Susan's mother, Helen Bolling, eventually found out about her daughter's affair with the much older psychologist. She became suspicious when Susan reported that she sat on Felix' lap during their sessions. "I said, 'Wait a minute, that doesn't sound right,'" Bolling recalled on NBC's Dateline. "But then I said, 'Well, maybe that's the way they do it now.' See, I had an answer for everything. But I did wonder."

She didn't wonder for long. According to Horowitz, Susan's lawyer, the teen coyly informed her mother that she was dating "a doctor." Helen figured out that the "doctor" was Felix. In court last month, Horowitz said that Helen asked Felix to stop seeing her daughter. After all, he had a wife his own age, a pianist who had studied at the prestigious Juilliard School. But Felix didn't want a wife who was his equal, Horowitz argues. "He needed worship," the lawyer said in his opening statement, "not a wife."

In spite of his promise to Helen, Felix couldn't stay away from her daughter. In this young, impressionable girl he found his worshipper. She was someone he could control and recruit for the "cult of Felix," as Horowitz put it. Susan has often claimed she was "programmed" by her late husband. Felix later divorced his first wife and married Susan, who was then 25.


Felix Polk's defenders say he was a kind man and a good if unconventional therapist. A longtime patient recalled that in the '70s Felix raved about the controversial personal-growth movement known as EST, and recommended the organization's training course. Dr. Polk also socialized with his patients outside the doctor-patient relationship. Even those who loved Felix -- and suspect Susan is guilty -- acknowledge that he had trouble maintaining professional boundaries. Many of his former patients have described Felix as more than their therapist -- they called him a friend. Joel Tepper was one of those people.

Tepper remembers being invited over to the Polks' house one year for Thanksgiving. For about seven years, Tepper says, he gave weekly piano lessons to the three Polk boys in their home. He continued the lessons until Adam, the eldest, was a senior at De La Salle -- in other words, up until a year or two before Felix' death. In that whole time, Tepper says, "I never experienced anything but a normal, loving family."

Susan Polk says this experience couldn't be further from the truth. Behind closed doors, she says, Felix was a volatile control freak. For years he kept his office at their home so he could keep an eye on his wife. He didn't like Susan paying attention to anyone -- or anything -- but him. "My husband was very jealous of the attention I paid to my children and my dogs," Susan wrote the court earlier this year. "He had threatened repeatedly to kill me if I ever left him, and he had threatened to 'destroy' the children when they supported me. My husband had, I believe, killed two of my dogs to intimidate me in the past."

The way Susan tells the couple's story, Felix treated her like a child and pitted their sons against her to keep her in line. There was a particularly ugly incident in October 2000. The two got into an argument and Felix ordered her to go to her room "as if I was an unruly child," she wrote in a divorce-court declaration. When she refused, Susan said, he dragged her up the stairs by her hair. At the top of the stairs, Susan says Felix raised his fist, declaring he felt like hitting her. Instead, their then-fifteen-year-old son Eli, a rugby player, jumped in and punched her in the face, splitting her lip open. "Look what you've done to your son," Felix yelled, according to Susan's declaration.

It's because of incidents such as this that Eli, now twenty, believes his mother acted in self-defense: "He would tell me, 'Over my dead body will your mother leave me.'" Eli says Felix regularly hit Susan as well as the children -- one time his father punched him and knocked him to the ground. He also says his father heaped psychological abuse on his mom, constantly accusing her of being crazy: "He said, 'You're a sick puppy, Susan, and someone should put you out of your misery. '"

Of course, during the final years Susan was sounding like a sick puppy, making wild accusations against her husband. She claims she began having disturbing "flashbacks" in which she remembered for the first time what really went on during her first visits to Felix. She recalled that the sessions would begin with him giving her tea, which was drugged. Then he'd hypnotize her and force her to have sex with him. In a July interview, Susan Polk told the Express, "Did I fall in love with my husband? No. He doped me up and hypnotized me."

This sounds weird, Horowitz conceded in court last month. Then again, the psychologist's past behavior, and medical records from his military service, suggest he indeed may have been crazy enough to rationalize such a stunt.

During the mid-to-late '80s, a national hysteria erupted over the dubious phenomenon of ritualistic child abuse by satanic cults. The panic had been set off earlier in the decade when parents with children at a Southern California preschool run by the McMartin family accused the clan of not just molesting their kids, but conducting animal sacrifices and Satanic rituals.

None of the McMartins was ever convicted, and critics have likened the frenzy over satanic ritual abuse to a modern-day witchhunt. In the McMartin case, it later surfaced that the first parent to make child-abuse allegations was a paranoid schizophrenic. But it wasn't only mentally ill mothers accusing daycare workers around the country of engaging in child sacrifice and forcing kids to eat feces (a common allegation). Lending the movement credibility was the supportive presence of respectable professionals, particularly psychologists -- including Felix Polk.

During a 1988 Bay Area conference on ritualistic child abuse, Felix Polk publicly shared horrifying stories about what "Satanists" supposedly had done to his oldest child. Adam had been in daycare for four months, and the boy, not even two yet, had started acting strangely, Felix said -- for instance, the toddler bit the family dog. Eventually, Felix told his audience, Adam began revealing what happened after he was dropped off at daycare. Felix recounted these horrors for the conference attendees:

"He [Adam] was, and other children, were raped onstage, raped in every form imaginable. But there were other performances too. Children were killed. He describes the one that has been hardest for me -- was his description of a baby put in a plastic bag and hammered to death. He remembers the blood. There were other ceremonies -- if that's what they're called -- there were blood-drinking ceremonies, urine, feces eating, eating of throw-up, he says."

As with other cases alleging ritualistic abuse, police were never able to substantiate any of the Polks' incredible allegations. During the question-and-answer session at the 1988 conference -- which was audiotaped by the Berkeley-based Conference Recording Service -- Polk was asked to address why so little physical evidence had been turned up in such cases. He responded that Satanists had infiltrated law enforcement and the judiciary. "Cases are mysteriously closed down, evidence disappears," he explained. "That is not a random matter."

At the time, Susan Polk backed up her husband in his denouncing of Satanists. Together, they formed Enough!, a support group for ritualistic-abuse victims and parents. Horowitz now says the whole satanic-abuse episode was a fiction, the product of a paranoid and delusional mind -- that of Susan's late husband.

According to the defense lawyer, Felix' mental illness was first documented following a failed suicide attempt in 1955 while he was in the Navy. Military records show that Felix, then 23 and on leave, was found unconscious in his parents' enclosed garage, where he'd been sitting with a car motor running. His suicide note said: "My mind is so heavy with wretchedness, with utter loneliness, with an unknown past, a frightening future, and an intolerable present that no choice remains. I don't fear death at all. What it is [sic] but non-life and what is life but a continuous torture?"

Felix later told a military investigator that he couldn't remember the moments leading up to starting the car or even writing the suicide note. He was hospitalized for more than a year and diagnosed as schizophrenic. The military medical records also mention that Felix was burdened by sexual problems and had been preoccupied by incest fantasies about his older sister since his adolescence. Susan's lawyer argues that Felix' mental illness was a chronic, lifelong affliction -- one that made him prone to delusions and bouts of rage, especially when things didn't go his way.

Felix took anti-anxiety medication to control his illness, but Horowitz told the jury in October that toxicology reports from the autopsy show that Felix wasn't taking his meds around the time of his death. Without his pills to chill him out on the evening in question, Felix got into an argument with his wife and snapped.


During the psychologist's final weeks of life, friends and patients noticed that he was agitated and preoccupied. They knew his marriage was on the rocks. Felix didn't want to get divorced, and he admitted as much to a court mediator. Susan Polk says her husband could never accept the idea of her breaking away and leaving him. By early October 2002, however, it was getting harder to deny that their twenty-year marriage was finished. Susan had been in Big Sky, Montana, looking for a condo where she could start her life over. She cut her trip short after she learned Felix had gone behind her back and obtained a court order that gave him custody of Gabe and exclusive use of their home. The judge also slashed her alimony, so she drove back to Orinda to get things straightened out.

The evening of October 13 Susan went out to the guest cottage, where Felix was exiled, to discuss their divorce, according to her version of events. All too predictably, their discussion became heated. Susan says she believes it finally dawned upon Felix that she was leaving him for good. Felix, she says, also feared she might ruin him by disclosing their relationship's scandalous origin. After all, he still had a thriving private practice that had earned $170,000 the previous year.

According to Susan's statements to reporters and Horowitz' opening statement, here's what happened next: Felix "became enraged" and said she couldn't leave. He charged at her and she sprayed him in the eyes with pepper spray. But that only enraged him more, and he got on top of her, revealing that he had a paring knife.

Even at seventy, Felix was in good shape: A friend notes that Felix could still hike Mount Tamalpais, and Eli says his dad jogged regularly. At five foot nine and 165 pounds, he outweighed his wife by 50 pounds. Nevertheless, she told reporters, she managed to jar the knife loose from his hand by kicking him in the testicles. She grabbed it away from him and stabbed him five times. Bloodied and defeated, Felix stood up and said, "Oh my God, I think I'm dead." Then he collapsed.

What Susan Polk did next -- or, more precisely, didn't do -- is one of the most incriminating bits of evidence in her murder trial. As her husband lay dead in a pool of blood, she washed herself, returned to the main house, and went to bed. She didn't call police to report that she'd stabbed her husband in self-defense. When the cops did arrive the next night, Polk insisted she had no idea what had happened to her husband, or who had killed him. Horowitz explains that Susan, now 47, didn't think the police would believe she acted in self-defense against a respected psychologist, a pillar of the community.

Of course, the police aren't the only ones who don't believe Susan's story. Gabe, who found his father's body and called the police, and Adam, a student at UCLA when his father was killed, are both expected to testify for the prosecution. Gabe and Adam also have filed a wrongful death suit against their mother, and Horowitz has suggested that they therefore have a financial incentive. According to Horowitz, Susan was asked to settle for $300,000 prior to her first jury trial. There's some evidence suggesting Adam may be more equivocal than previously reported. In a January 25, 2004 e-mail to Eli, he wrote: "I don't believe my mother killed my father in cold blood but in self defense."


Epilogue

It's been more than three years since Susan Polk was arrested and charged with the murder of her husband -- the wheels of justice turn slowly in California. But Polk deserves some of the blame for the trial's glacial pace. She has fired at least two of her attorneys, and she says another one quit when she refused to make a deal with the DA. For the moment, she's represented by criminal lawyer Dan Horowitz, whose wife was slain shortly after his opening argument in the aborted first trial.

Before Horowitz came on board, though, the Orinda stay-at-home mom had planned to act as her own lawyer -- a high-risk proposition, especially for someone with no legal expertise. It also meant she would have to cross-examine the prosecution's star witness -- her own son, Gabe. The judge had questions about whether she was fit to act on her own behalf, but ultimately decided she was mentally competent.

In July, when she was still planning to represent herself, the Express asked Polk about her legal strategy. Her answers hinted that a delusional mind was at work. She said she planned to demonstrate that local law enforcement was biased against her. As proof, she cited a letter -- included in her criminal and divorce-case files -- in which she criticized a Contra Costa judge who presided over her son Eli's juvenile case. She also cryptically referred to another letter to the courts in which she accused the judge of taking a bribe from Felix to make sure Eli wouldn't have to serve time in juvenile hall.

At the time, she was evasive about the details of the second letter -- for good reason, it turned out: The bribe allegation was contained in a bizarre diary entry prosectors believe Susan had penned and sent to another Contra Costa judge. In it, she claimed Felix was an Israeli spy, among other things, and boasted that she was a medium who predicted the 9/11 attacks before they happened. During his opening argument, Horowitz wisely toned down his client's conspiracy theories about local law enforcement.

The prosecution has a strong case: Several people will testify that in the days before his death, Felix told them that Susan had threatened to kill him. Most damaging will be the testimony from Gabe, who is expected to say his mom openly fantasized about killing Felix. The district attorney's camp will argue that Susan made good on her violent promises.

The case has its flaws, however, particularly when it comes to motive. The DA's theory basically says that Susan flipped out after the divorce-court judge slashed her alimony and gave Felix control of their $2 million house and custody of Gabe. But Susan has reasonably pointed out that Felix was her only means of financial support, and it would make no sense for her to sever that. Complicating matters, of course, was the manipulative way Felix seduced Susan as a teenager, and the fact that he was a diagnosed schizophrenic.

Susan Polk's fate now lies in the hands of strangers. But no matter what the jury decides, this much is for sure: It's time for you to go back and read the other half of this story.

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