Why did Susan Polk kill her husband?
Here in the quiet, moneyed exurbia of the Oakland Hills, a seemingly perfect family was coming unglued. By the year 2000, Felix and Susan Polk’s 20 year marriage was disintegrating.
And the boys, caught in the middle, witnessed it all, says Eli— the long, slow escalation of the war of the Polks.
Felix, much older than his wife, trying to stay in control and Susan, in her rages, threatening to leave.Felix, in front of the boys would called his wife crazy and delusional. And this went on for years, says Eli.
Eli Polk, Polks' second son: We would confront her. And she would say, “No, no, that’s not how it is.” And we would, you know, get frustrated and start yelling at her and—say, “Well, maybe you are crazy.” And stuff like that.
But outside the walls of the Polk family compound, the facade held.
Susan’s mother, whose own relationship with her daughter was frequently strained, heard nothing about the turmoil inside.
Morrison: Did she ever confide in you the fact that she was in a very bad marriage?
Helen Bolling, Susan Polk's mother: No. No. Somehow, she got it into her head that—you know, you marry, you marry for life.
As far as Helen Bolling knew, her daughter was going to stick it out for life, thanks in part to her Catholic upbringing.
But after nearly 20 years of marriage, Susan had already made a private decision of her own.
Susan Polk: I had approached divorce before, but it was clear to me that I could not live out—I could not continue for the rest of my life with this man.
The tension was miserable— all but unbearable, says Eli. He, the middle son, felt the searing anger, unable to understand it, and felt compelled somehow to keep the peace.
Eli Polk: I’m in middle school, and I don’t know what’s going on. And at that point, I wanted to find out what was going on. I put myself in the middle of that situation.
Morrison: Trying to be a peacemaker.
Eli Polk: Yes.
Morrison: In the war of the Roses.
Eli Polk: Exactly, at first. And I came to find that, you know, they needed a divorce.
Morrison: Pretty hard thing for a 13-year-old to figure out.
Eli Polk: Yeah, well I mean, it took me a few years to come to the realization that “Hey, these people can’t be together.”
But they did stay together. And things got worse. In January 2001, a very troubled Susan Polk attempted suicide.
Morrison: What did you do?
Susan Polk: Well, I took a bottle of aspirin in a moment of despair.
Morrison: I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in that situation and just decide you’re going to drink that bottle of pills.
Susan Polk: You can’t?
Morrison: No, I can’t.
Susan Polk: You can’t imagine? It just felt there was, you know, no way out. And so it seemed like a solution. And then afterwards I was just delighted to be alive.
Susan survived, but the marriage did not. Several months after her suicide attempt, the couple finally separated. It seemed merciful. Susan filed for divorce.
For a while, they tried to occupy the same property— she in the main house, Felix in the pool house. But now there were more issues— Who would get the family compound? Who would have custody of Gabriel, the youngest, then just 14?
Impending divorce didn’t end the war—it ramped it up. As they fought, each threatened, more than once, to kill the other.
Susan Polk: His attitude was that the marriage was forever and I could never leave him. And that if I did, he said he would go after me.
Morrison: Go after you?
Susan Polk: He would go after me.
Morrison: That’s the way he put it?
Susan Polk: He put it that way, he also said he’d kill me.
Gabriel declined our request for an interview— but he did talk to the authorities when the awful business happened. And he told them his mother was the one making threats, once musing aloud whether to drug, drown, or shoot Felix.
And friend Barry Morris says by now, Felix was genuinely worried, claiming Susan was unhinged, dangerous.
Barry Morris, neighbor: He told me she was walking’ around at night with a gun in the house. And he would barricade himself in another room. So, I mean, all the signs were there.
Police were called to intervene. On one occasion Susan was arrested for hitting her husband in front of officers.
Morris: Felix calls me up to tell me what happened and wants to know if he should bail her out. I said, “Felix, this woman just hit you. Do you think that’s a good idea? I don’t.” Then he called a couple of days later. About not wanting to prosecute. And that was that. But that’s a typical example of sort of confusing his own self-interest with his sort of clinical diagnosis of someone who is mentally unbalanced.
Morris says Felix’s academic approach was beginning to worry him.
Morris: As she started getting crazier and crazier, you know, he saw her in psychological terms rather than the danger that she presented to him.
Eventually, Susan moved out of the family compound. So that peace could prevail? Sadly, no. In fact, the last dreadful act was about to begin.
In the fall of 2002, a judge in the divorce case granted custody of the youngest son to Felix. He also said Felix could keep the house, and drastically cut her alimony.
And then, about a week before she was to return to the Orinda house to remove her belongings, Barry Morris says Felix got a disturbing phone call from his wife.
Morris: He said that Susan called him, said she was in Montana, and that she’d bought a shotgun and she was coming back to kill him. And I said, “Have you called the police?” He said, “I told Susan I wouldn’t.” I said, “Felix, you wanna live?” “Yes.” “Then you call the police. This is note a joke.”
Felix did call police, but by the time Susan arrived late at night on October 13th, the officers were long gone. Susan says she did not have a gun when she encountered Felix reading in the guesthouse next to the pool around 11 o’clock.
The tension that had been building for years reached its flash point. What really happened that night? And what secret seeds were about to bloom?