Saturday, 24 February 2007

Why did Susan Polk kill her husband?

Why did Susan Polk kill her husband?

A relationship that began with a secret would end decades later in violence

Dan Rosenstrauch / AP
Susan Polk walks into court on the first day of her murder trial Tuesday morning, Oct. 11, 2005, in Martinez, Calif. Polk is accused of murder in the death of her 70-year-old husband.
OAKLAND HILLS, Ca. - Susan Polk is an elegant woman, notwithstanding the prison shirt she usually wears. She's articulate, and there are no hints of the delusions she’s accused of.

As for the other thing… well, everybody agrees that that happened.

Susan Polk: I thought— "Oh my God, he’s dead, I’ve killed him. I’ve got his blood on my hands, how am I gonna tell my children what happened? They will never see me the same again." In fact, almost no one sees Susan Polk in quite the same light anymore, now that she stands accused of murdering her husband, Felix, on October 13, 2002.

Barry Morris, neighbor: If you had told me five years ago that I’d be sitting here, and Susan would be in jail and Felix would be dead, I wouldn’t have believed it.

By now, Barry Morris is more than just a former neighbor of the Polks. If Felix Polk can be said to speak from beyond the grave, it is through his old friend Barry.

Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: What kind of a man was he?

Morris: Very urbane, worldly. He liked classical music and very bright, good sense of humor.

Felix Polk was apparently kind and an accomplished psychologist, therapist and a counselor. Why would his own wife, the mother of his three children, kill him?

The answer’s not so simple of course, it never is. But it lies somewhere here in the shadows of these bucolic hills just east of the San Francisco bay. Behind the facade of a privileged, seemingly perfect life is the disturbing tale of a dysfunctional family with dark and ultimately violent secrets.

That one of them is dead, we know. But still the question: Exactly what happened here... and why?

Seeds were planted long ago
Back in the 1970s, a young Susan Polk, then Susan Bolling, was growing up in suburbs of Oakland, California. Her parents were divorcing, and her mother Helen said Susan found comfort in books.

Morrison: As she grew up did she read a lot?

Helen Bolling, Susan Polk’s mother: Oh man, she said that books were her friends. By the time she was fourteen she’d read Turgenev, Chekhov, Tolstoy— you name it.

Morrison: Gave herself a classical education?

Bolling: Yes, yes.

But where it came to Susan’s assigned school work, it was a different matter. Her teachers worried. She was troubled somehow.

Helen wondered if Susan was trying to shut out the emotional turmoil of her parents divorce. She had no idea, of course, that the question would come back to haunt her in time.

As time progressed, Susan matured into a beautiful young woman. She graduated college, and at 25, got married to Frank Felix Polk. It seemed an odd pairing: He was double her age, a Holocaust survivor from an affluent Austrian family who had left a wife and grown children for Susan.

But they were, apparently, deliriously happy. And almost no one knew that they were already hiding a secret.

Susan Polk: I remember at the time on my wedding night, thinking, “Do I really want to do this? No, I really don’t.” And I just didn’t have the guts to be a runaway bride. You know, I simply didn’t have the guts.

And, as you will soon discover, there was a disturbing reason for her uncertainty.

A good family to the outside world
At the time, as far as the outside world knew, the couple seemed to be doing just fine. Felix’s career flourished. He was a respected child psychologist with an active private practice and by the late 1980s, he was teaching and lecturing.

Susan meantime, was busy at home, raising three boys.

Bolling: She was a devoted mother, she loved her children.

Adam was the eldest, Gabriel, the youngest. And in the middle, Eli, spoke to “Dateline” as a young man.

Morrison: How did you boys get along?

Eli Polk, Polks' second son: We got along great. I mean, loving brothers you know. We all had a really perfect relationship together.

Over the years, the family took trips around the world. They drove fancy cars and the boys went to private schools.

Eli Polk: Me and Gabriel were best friends in the truest sense of the phrase.

In the fall of 2000, they moved into an expensive compound in the Oakland Hills, into a big house with a pool-side cottage. It was more house than they could afford, really, on Felix’s income.

But Orinda, as the leafy hamlet was called, had been a place to aspire to. And the Polk family blended in.

Morris: They seemed like a happy couple. They were the normal, ferrying the kids around and going to kids’ basketball and football and baseball, soccer games, that kind of stuff.

But behind closed doors, said Eli, things weren’t what they seemed. His mom and dad were not getting along— and his dad, a mental health professional, was accusing his mom of being kind of crazy.

Eli Polk: He also used to say things like, “You’re a sick puppy, Susan. And someone should put you away.”

By the time the boys were teenagers, the family was coming unglued, spiraling dangerously out of control. Yet no one on the outside, it seemed, had a clue.

Morrison: Is it possible he was an abusive husband secretly?

Morris: Look, anything’s possible. I saw no evidence of that. I mean, I—

Morrison: Over years and years?

Morris: Right. You know, what happens behind closed doors can stay behind closed doors, but usually stuff leaks out. And I never saw any kind of leakage of that kind of conduct.

But it was only a matter of time before the doors of this family would burst wide open.

Morrison: You were living in a war zone.

Eli Polk: Yes, I was.

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