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The True Story of a Psychologist, his Wife, and a Brutal Murder
By Carlton Smith
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2007 Carlton Smith
All rights reserved.
THE HOUSE OF DREAMS AND NIGHTMARES
From the outside, it was a House of Dreams, a sanctuary at the top of the world.
Far above the buzz of the freeway that tied east to west in the burgeoning, oak-flocked hills of the east San Francisco Bay Area, it was a Shangri-la for a man who often said that as a child, he'd seen the face of pure evil, and had been lucky enough to survive.
He was, Frank Felix Polk said, a refugee from the Holocaust, and the wooded, peaceful compound at the top of the world was just the sort of place a terrorized child from the 1930s might only have dreamed of, back in those days of unmitigated horror. The two-million-dollar house said it all: F. Felix Polk, psychologist, had not only survived "the bad people" — he had made it. The house was his legacy, if not his legend.
But if it was a dream house, it was also a palace of delusion.
Capping a small knoll, surrounded with shady trees, the sprawling property was really more of a compound. There was a trilevel main house, an interior courtyard with a deck and a pool, and an outlying "pool house." One could swim up to the pool house and sip piña coladas while still in the water. There was yet another outbuilding with a mini-gymnasium. The whole place had been fashioned by a master builder, who'd produced a "Craftsman" house unique in design, extensively remodeled, and one that had been very appealing to Polk and his much younger wife, Susan.
With its unusual layout, large windows, rare woods and tile floorings — surfaces and lintels carefully crafted for every room — and the outbuildings, the property at 728 Miner Road, Orinda, was exactly where Felix Polk wanted to spend the rest of his life.
He just didn't think the rest of that life would be quite so short.
Or that his wife of more than two decades, Susan Polk, would end it so suddenly, and with a very angry knife.
In October of 2002, Felix Polk was 70 years old. He had been married twice, and was the father of two adult children from his first marriage, and three teenaged boys from the second. At five feet, ten inches in height, and weighing about 170 pounds, Felix — as almost everyone called him — seemed fit for his age. He liked to hike, and loved sports. He encouraged his younger children to be tough, hard-nosed, smart and aggressive; otherwise they would be overpowered by "the bad people," Felix had advised them.
He was an intense man, given to passionate argument, if not anger. Those who knew him readily agreed that he did not easily make allowances for those he differed with; often, in his view, his opponents were fools, or worse — liars. His friends in turn willingly explained his often abrupt, abrasive behavior: one had to understand what Felix had gone through as a boy to understand the way he was as a man.
Almost everyone who knew him agreed that Felix harbored a barely articulated rage that, it seemed, no one could ever assuage; and even when he wasn't overtly angry, he could be imperious, demanding, accusatory, and certainly manipulative. Some thought he had a habit, or perhaps it was a ploy, of invading the physical space of those with whom he disputed, forcing them to back up — a form of psychological domination that could intimidate. His personality dominated, even when it claimed victimhood. In fact, the years had taught Felix how to be a master at making others feel guilty.
Yet, beneath all this, even his closest friends sensed there was something hidden about Felix, something secret, occluded by the anger or cynicism or sorrow that seemed at his core. Whatever it was beneath his persona, it was the most powerful part of his personality, but Felix kept this part of himself well obscured. Nevertheless, acknowledging that Felix had a horrific past, even if one wasn't exactly sure of the awful details, gave him professional cachet, at least when he tried to sort out others' psychic woes.
After all, surviving genocide had to render a psychological practitioner like Felix Polk absolutely unchallengeable insight as to the scale of true evil.
It was, by definition, indisputable. Having been there, having suffered that, having barely escaped it, he had to know what evil really was. And that meant, if he said you were wrong, you probably were. He had the suffering to prove it.
But Dr. Polk's claimed personal history served yet another purpose — in one way, he used this suppressed anger to drive others away. To keep his inner, secret heart closed to almost everyone, including his second family. It might have been a survival technique adopted very early in life by a child at risk of abandonment, loss and death, never quite overcome — even after the immediate threat had receded. At the bottom line, there was little give in Frank Felix Polk, and almost no forgiveness. As a psychologist, Frank Felix Polk was as personally indefinitive as he was professionally dominating.
For the previous two years, Felix and his wife, Susan, had been locked in a vitriolic dispute over their own lives, and the lives of their three teenaged boys. A divorce case had been sputtering through the courts of Contra Costa County, California, for more than a year, with each partner in the marriage escalating and re-escalating in a Gordian knot of money, memory, property and power. If it hadn't yet reached the level of the movie The War of the Roses, it was getting very close.
Susan Polk was five feet, four inches tall, and weighed about 125 pounds. At 43 she was almost twenty-six years younger than her husband. In fact, she had first met Felix when she was a 14-year-old schoolgirl, his patient — Felix was her court-assigned, 40-year-old psychotherapist.
Somehow the adult-teen counseling sessions of the 1970s had mutated into an illicit man-child affair, which was one of the proximate causes of Felix's divorce from his first wife. Felix had then married Susan, there were the three sons, and then Susan, after two decades of marriage, wanted out.
In October of 2002, just a month after telling the divorce court that she was through with Felix forever, that she was moving to Montana, that she was never coming back — Susan was back. In her view, Felix had pulled one last fast one on her, and she wasn't about to let him get away with it. By now, almost thirty years after their initial encounter, Susan Polk utterly despised her husband as a manipulative, drug-dispensing child molester. Susan believed she was his primary victim.
In several telephone calls from Montana, Susan allegedly told Felix she would kill him if he didn't do what she wanted him to do. She told Felix, in a telephone call that the couple's 15-year-old son, Gabriel, at one point claimed to have listened in on, that she'd just bought a shotgun in Montana and intended to use it — on Felix — if he didn't transfer $20 million from a secret bank account in the Caribbean that she believed he controlled.
Felix told her she was out of her mind — the money did not exist.
Susan didn't believe him, and said that she was on her way back to California to take care of business.
Susan Polk returned to the dream house on the evening of October 9, 2002. The following day, she moved her estranged husband's personal effects, including his clothes and his bed, from the trilevel main house to the pool house — a silent statement of Susan's intent to resume full occupancy of the main house, and a direct challenge to Felix's claim to control of the property. It was yet another escalation of the War Between the Polks that had been raging since early 2001.
"I told her not to do it," Gabriel said later. He knew Susan's unilateral action could only cause trouble, of which he had seen far too much over the previous few years. Three times in the next few days, police came to the house at Felix's request, but each time they refused to arrest Susan, or make her leave.
While Susan seemed adamant about her rights, Felix was intermittently angry, resigned, then stubborn himself. As far as Felix could see, he was once again torn between two unpalatable choices, as he had been, ever since the trouble with Susan had started, at least in his mind, four years before — he didn't want Susan to leave, but he couldn't cope with her the way she was.
The atmosphere over the weekend of Friday, October 11, to Saturday, October 12, 2002, settled into a tense wariness on both sides, each marital partner doing his or her best to ignore the other. Each had court orders affecting the other — principally giving each control over the dream house — and each had plans to get control of the three to four million dollars in the Polk family estate.
Later, when asked to reconstruct the events of the fateful day, Monday, October 14 — Columbus Day — 15-year-old Gabriel Polk could point to nothing that was unusual, at least at first.
He recalled that his mother Susan had driven him to school in Walnut Creek about eight that morning. He assumed that his father had already left for work. Felix had told his son the day before that he had a few patients to see, then would take the rest of the day off. Father and son planned to attend a San Francisco Giants baseball game that evening. Felix was a rabid Giants fan, and the team was headed for the World Series that year. Felix, at 70, was diligently trying to repair his previously unhappy relations with his youngest child.
At 12:30 that afternoon, Susan picked up Gabriel at school. Mother and son had lunch together at a restaurant in the East Bay town of Lafayette, then ran a few errands, arriving back at the dream house around two in the afternoon. Shortly after they arrived, Susan told Gabe that she had something else to do, and left him alone in the house. Gabe later thought that was the first sign that something was wrong: it was out of character for his mother to leave him by himself, when they could have gone together, he said.
It was only later that Gabe wondered whether his mother actually wanted him to discover, while she was out, what she had already done, as a way of punishing him for his supposed disloyalty to her side in the War Between the Polks.
Gabe spent the afternoon watching television, playing computer games and lifting weights. He did not go into the pool house. He expected his father to come home any time. But by 6, Felix still had not arrived. Gabe was getting worried — time was running short if they hoped to get to the baseball game.
As 7 approached, Gabe became more and more certain that something bad had happened to his father — if Felix had been delayed for some reason, Gabe was sure, he would have called. Gabe began to worry that his mother had actually done something to his father, just as she had previously threatened. Hadn't she at least twice said she'd bought a shotgun in Montana, and planned to use it on Felix —"to blow his head off "— if he didn't cooperate? Or so his father had told him.
And hadn't there been various statements Susan had made over the previous summer to Gabe, musing about the best way to get rid of Felix: maybe poisoning him, running him over with the car, drowning him in the pool? Gabe had always believed that his mother wishing her husband, his father, dead was just her venting — she'd been waxing wroth about Felix for years, and to him, it was nothing new.
But now there was this unaccounted-for absence. Gabe had to think that maybe his mother had been serious about getting rid of his father. In fact, maybe she had blown his head off with a shotgun.
Just after 7, Gabe decided he had to get into the pool house to see if there was some explanation for his father's mysterious nonappearance — perhaps there was a note or something. He made his way over the tiled deck to the front door of the pool house, just outside the cool blue of the water, but found it locked. He went back to the main house and confronted his mother.
"Where's Dad?" he asked.
"I don't know," Susan said. "Maybe he's left."
This was another gibe by Susan at Felix's parenting skills. Over the previous two years, each parent had been disparaging the other as unreliable and selfish when it came to their three boys. But Gabe thought his mother knew more than she was saying.
"I could tell she was lying," he said later. She always did something with her eyes that Gabe recognized when Susan was not telling the truth. His mother seemed oblivious to these suspicions, though.
"Why don't you call the CHP [California Highway Patrol]?" Susan told him.
"Why should I call the CHP?" Gabe asked, now thinking that his mother seemed strangely indifferent to Felix's safety.
"Maybe he's had an accident," Susan said, without seeming to care very much one way or the other if Felix had been plastered all over the freeway. Or, on second thought, was she trying to prepare him for his father being dead?
His mother was calm — too calm, Gabe thought.
Then she said something that really alarmed him.
"Aren't you glad he's gone?"
Susan now said something about not using a shotgun, as Gabriel later recalled: either it was, "Aren't you glad I didn't use a shotgun?" or possibly, "Aren't you glad I didn't have to use a shotgun?"
The difference of meaning is considerable in the various interpretations; but based on his mother's demeanor, Gabe feared the worst.
What was this? Was his mother telling him that she'd simply convinced Felix to walk away from the dream house, and his claim of custody of their youngest child, two of the three main issues at the core of their long-running divorce dispute, without her having to actually shoot him — that Felix had effectually surrendered, in the long-running War Between the Polks? Or was she really saying that she'd done something deadly to Felix — just not with a shotgun?
Susan's attitude of indifference, Gabe's perception of her calm deceptiveness, convinced him that something bad had in fact happened to his father, and that his mother knew what it was. He had to get into the pool house to make sure. But first he had to think of what to do if he wasn't only imagining things, if the worst had really happened.
About 9 in the evening on October 14, 2002, Gabe called 911, and asked for a direct, nonemergency number for the police — just in case.
"I didn't want to look like an idiot," he said later, if it turned out nothing was wrong. The operator wouldn't give it to him, and pressed him to say what was bothering him.
"Never mind," he said. He hung up the telephone.
It was well past dark by now, so Gabe got a heavy flashlight. He went out the back door of the main house and crossed the patio to the pool house, determined to find a way inside. He went to the rear entrance of the pool house, the one that led into the kitchen from the north side, and found it unlocked. He couldn't remember which of the light switches were operable — some were not — so he turned on his large flashlight to illuminate his path. In the darkness he made his way through the kitchen, down the hallway to the living area.
There, on the other side of a banister that separated the hallway from the lowered floor of the living room, he saw his father, nearly naked, face up, arms to his side. There was blood on Felix, there was blood all over the floor, and Felix wasn't moving.
Gabe knew his father was dead.
He backed out of the pool house, closing the kitchen door behind him. He returned to the main house and picked up the telephone. Before he could dial, Susan confronted him.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"Nothing," Gabe said, and put the telephone back in its cradle. When she wasn't looking, he palmed the cordless phone and made his way to the parking area in front of the carport, outside the main house. He punched in 911.
"Nine one one, police or fire?" the operator asked.
"Uh, murder?" Gabe responded.
"Okay, where at?"
"Seven two eight Miner Road."
"Okay, what happened?"
"Uh, I think my dad — my mom shot my dad."
"You think your mom shot your dad?"
The 911 operator patched in the fire department, and told the emergency people to head for Miner Road and "stage" — that is, assemble at the address, but do nothing until the police could arrive.
"What's going on there?" the dispatcher for the fire department asked.
"It's a possible shooting," the 911 operator told her.
For the next two minutes, the operator tried to keep Gabe on the line, asking him questions about his mother, especially whether she still had a gun, and where she was at that moment. Gabe identified himself and his age, and said once more that his father was dead, "in my cottage," as the Polk family called the pool house.
"What's your mom's name?"
"What's her last name?"
"She has a mental illness," Gabe said. "Her last name is Polk."
"How old is Susan?" But Gabe did not answer. He could hear his mother calling to him.
"Gabe!" Susan called from the darkness a few feet away. He could hear her opening and then closing the front door to the pool house. He knew that she knew that he knew.
"Where are you? Where are you, Gabe?" Susan called out.
Gabe pulled deeper into the shadows behind the trash bins by the garage, concealing himself from his mother. The 911 operator was still asking questions, but Gabe was keeping quiet.
"Do you know how old your mom is?"
"Gabe, are you still there?" the operator asked.
Excerpted from Mind Games by Carlton Smith. Copyright © 2007 Carlton Smith. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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