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Why did Susan Polk kill her husband?

A relationship that began with a secret would end decades later in violence.
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. Dan Rosenstrauch / AP

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. 

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?

Fighting continues
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?

The war of the Polks was at its horrifying climax.

By the night of October 13, 2002 it all came to a violent end. In a jailhouse interview, Susan Polk tells her version of the story.

She claims that when she arrived home that night to pick up her things she was unarmed and found Felix in the pool house, he became enraged.

Susan Polk: At a certain point in the conversation, I think that I said some things that triggered rage in him. And at one point, he just said, “I can never let you leave with what you might say about me.” He went after me.

She says she squirted him in the face with pepper spray.

Susan Polk: And it was supposed to be able to stop a grizzly bear, but it didn’t stop him. He dragged me by the hair, threw me on the ground, punched me in the face and he pulled a knife.Morrison: And you grabbed it away from him?Susan Polk: He smeared the pepper spray into my face. What I saw,  through the blur and the burning was him stabbing at me.  And I saw the knife go into my pants and so I thought, “He—he stabbed me.”  I thought, “He’s gonna kill me, I’m gonna die here unless I do something right now.” And I just kicked him as hard as I could with the heel of my foot in his groin, and at the same time, I went for his hand.  And his hand loosened just as I kicked him, and I just grabbed the knife out of his hand and I said, “Stop, I have the knife.”  And he didn’t stop.  He just came over me, grabbing at the knife, punched me in the face, and I stabbed him in the side.  And he was trying to grab it out of my hand.  And so I squeezed my hand as tight as I could, and I stabbed him again.  And—I think I stabbed him five times.  At one point I waved it back and forth like this and I said, “Get off, get off, get off, get off.”  And he stood up, and it was over.Morrison: He said something.Susan Polk: He said, “Oh my God, I think I’m dead.” 

And that was it.  Frank Felix Polk, Holocaust survivor, psychologist, father was no more.

Morrison: Do you remember what you thought?Susan Polk: At that moment?Morrison: Yes?Polk:  (Sighs) I thought about our life together, that’s what I thought about, I did.  I sat down on the stairs next to where he was lying, and I looked at him.  And I thought of our years together and the love that I’d felt for him and our children.  And I thought, “When are the police coming, you know?”Morrison: You didn’t sit there thinking, “Oh my God, I just killed my husband.”Susan Polk: Of course I did.

Over the next few days, Susan’s story would come under intense and negative scrutiny.

But right at that moment, she picked herself up, went back to the house, cleaned off the blood, and went to bed.

Morrison: Why didn’t you call 911?Susan Polk: I thought that if I did, my life was over. They were not gonna listen to me, and they were not gonna care.

All the next day, as the hours ticked by, she says, she lived in a kind of suspended animation. Knowing that the instant she reported what happened, her life would essentially be over.

Then nearly 24 hours after Felix’s gruesome death, the couple’s 15-year-old son, Gabriel, who had been living with Felix, discovered his father’s lifeless body on the floor of the poolside cottage.

Morris: So, okay.  Maybe she was scared.  Maybe that’s why she didn’t call the police right away after it happened.  But then she set it up so Gabe would find the body?  I mean, what kinda mother does that?  Morrison: Why did you let Gabriel find him?Susan Polk: Why did I let Gabriel find him?  I think that’s a quote I’ve heard from Barry Morris, that I let Gabriel find his body. I don’t think I let Gabriel find his body, I wouldn’t put it that way.  I—Morrison: You allowed it to happen.Susan Polk:  I locked the doors.  I first thought I’d call them later, you know, that I’d call the police. And then I thought, “I want to tell Gabriel first what happened, and then I’ll call them.” And then I kept putting off telling Gabriel.

She put it off too long.  Gabriel found Felix in the guest house, and called 911 and told them his mother had just killed his father.

Morris: And then when the police did arrive and they did ask her what was going on, and there’s a two-hour videotape of her denying knowledge of anything, how it happened, that he was dead, how he died, so on and so forth.

To police, what happened seemed perfectly obvious: There was evidence of a struggle. Susan had cuts and scratches on her body. Felix had been dead for a while. His body was covered with cuts, 27 wounds, 15 stab wounds, half a dozen of which penetrated his flesh.  On his head evidence of blunt force trauma. And clutched in his hand were strands of her hair.

And yet Susan continued to insist, for two days after the killing that she had nothing to do with the death of her husband.

Morris: Well, she lost a grip on reality as everyone else sees it.  She’s got her own reality, and everything comes from that.

Detectives were no more convinced than was Morris that Susan was telling the truth. She was arrested, taken to jail, and charged with murder. The motives seemed to be many: losing the house, losing the money, losing custody of young Gabriel. All of these things, police believed, pushed an already unstable woman over the edge. But is that really how it was? Maybe not.

Eli Polk: He didn’t have to do what he did to us.  He didn’t have to do that. He didn’t have to hit my mom, hit us.  It was unnecessary.Morrison: And that wound up leading to his death.Eli Polk: Well, it wound up leading to his explosion where he attacked my mom, and she defended herself.  Yes.

Susan pleaded not guilty, claimed it was not murder, but self-defense. Felix attacked her, she claimed. An attack that culminated years of abuse— abuse that began with a shocking story, a family secret that dated back to 1972.

And now trapped, in prison, accused of murder, Susan Polk was about to reveal a scandal locked up for decades behind doors closed tight against the prying eyes of outsiders.  And what a scandal this could turn out to be...

As Susan Polk sat in jail accused of murdering her psychologist husband Felix, allegations about her sanity swirled around her. Was it sane that she rejected the lawyers who wanted her to plead not guilty by reason of insanity?

In fact, she was telling the world that she would represent herself in court. She rejected any suggestion that she was mentally ill.

The secret story she now intended to tell, she believed, would not only convince a jury of her innocence, it would explode myths about her husband, her marriage and how she was treated as a troubled teen back in 1972.

Morrison: Why did you agree to marry him?Susan Polk: I think I was kind of under a spell— you know, like a love potion type of thing.  Morrison: How did you two meet?Susan Polk: Well, that is a question that I wasn’t able to answer—truthfully to people for a very long time, and it was embarrassing—Morrison: Kind of a secret you carried around?Susan Polk: Yes, it was.  My husband was my psychotherapist and I met him when I was 15.Morrison: How old were you?Susan Polk: I was 15.

And thus, said Susan, entered the poison that would destroy everything. 15. A girl with issues about school, her mother sent her to see a therapist she’d heard good things about. His name? Felix Polk. At the time Felix was 40 and married with two children.

Helen Bolling, Susan Polk’s mother: He gave me confidence that he could do the right thing for Susan.

In the early going, it seemed that this therapy was working out just fine.

Bolling: I brought her and she responded—almost instantaneous—very favorably.  And I was overjoyed.

But as their sessions continued, Susan revealed something very disturbing...

Bolling: She said something about sitting on his lap.  And I kind of—Morrison: Sitting on his lap?Bolling: Yes. That’s right.  That’s right.  See, you got it the same way I got it.  I said, “Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound right.”  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.

Why didn’t she intervene?  Now, of course, too late, she would move heaven and earth to go back in time.  But then, then she didn’t feel she could question a psychologist. She couldn’t bring herself to say what she knew that something wasn’t right.

Morrison: How did it turn into something other than just therapy?Susan Polk: Well, that’s a question that kind of is unpleasant.  I think looking back, what I recall is that my husband asked me if I would consent to be hypnotized. I would walk in, he’d give me a cup of tea, next thing I’d know I’d look at the clock and the hour was gone and I couldn’t remember what had happened.  And for many years, I just didn’t think about it.Morrison: This happened for years?Susan Polk: Yes. Well— I started seeing him when I was 15, I never stopped.

She says Felix hypnotized and drugged her during their sessions. She became to the teenager,  therapist and lover at the same time. At least until one particular session of group therapy:

Susan Polk: And I just announced to the group that my— "Felix and I," I said, "are lovers." And that was like pulling off a mask, he was enraged at me.

If what Susan says is true, Felix had not just broken the law by committing statutory rape on a patient, he had violated one of the most sacred standards of his profession. 

Felix stopped treating Susan as a patient eventually, but the romantic relationship continued.

Then, a few years later, when she was away at college, Susan claims, she tried break it off.

Susan Polk: I said, “I don’t want to be with you anymore.”  And he broke into tears on the phone and threatened suicide.  Bolling: I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced a man crying, but it’s very very touching.  It’s unnerving. She couldn’t leave him.Susan Polk: That really scared me.  And it pulled me back into the relationship.Morrison: He was kind of a puppet master in a way?Susan Polk: I think he imagined himself to be something like that that. He was, with hypnosis, and control and conditioning like behavioral modification, creating his model wife.

By the time Susan was 25 years old, Felix was 50. He left his wife and kids and the two got married. Helen called Felix’s ex-wife to apologize.

Bolling: Somehow she didn’t blame Susan.  And she warned me about Felix.Morrison: What do you mean?Bolling: Yeah.  It was, kind of, she said "Felix always has to appear like the good guy."  And I didn’t quite know, you know, it’s kind of a cryptic. But I listened.  And I remembered it.  Now I know what she means.

Early in the marriage, Susan says she too learned what that message meant— Felix, she says, was decidedly in charge.

Susan Polk: He expected me to be a very feminine person.  And feminine for him meant submissive, that you know—that I wouldn’t oppose his will in virtually anything.  So, for example, if I moved a picture from one wall to another without him being there, he’d be upset about that. He’d be really upset about it.

As time went on, Susan claims Felix became more controlling.

Hypnotizing his sons
Eli says as he and his brothers grew up, a pattern familiar to his mother began to repeat itself— their father, Eli claims, exerted the same kind of control over them and became, says Eli, their therapist, too.

Morrison: He hypnotized you?Eli Polk: Yes he did.Morrison: Why?Eli Polk: I don’t know.Morrison: But what was he trying’ to cure?Eli Polk: I think the question is what was he was trying to instill in us at that point.  Morrison: How can you have a regular session with a psychologist when the psychologist is your father?Eli Polk: I don’t know.  I was 9 or 10 years old. So I don’t know.Morrison: But this was supposedly a session?Eli Polk: Yes.  This was—Morrison: A real session?Eli Polk: And it was all three of my brothers. 

Over the years, say Susan and Eli, Felix’s struggle for control became angrier, more physical.

Eli Polk: I mean my father was crazed.Morrison: Crazed?Eli Polk: Crazed.Morrison: He’d hit you?Eli Polk: Yes.Morrison: Did he hit your brothers?Eli Polk: Yes, he did.Keith Morrison: A lot?Eli Polk: A fair amount.  Keith Morrison: Did he hit your mother?Eli Polk: Yes, he did. I saw him hit her—the black eyes, dragging her by the hair up the stairs to their room. What people need to understand is it was a constant physical threat. He would do something which people call "charging." Where he would walk right up to somebody, whether it’s my mom, me, my little brother, or my older brother.  And say, "This is how it is" and proceed to back that person up against the wall. That was constant. That was every day.  Morrison: Including your mother?Eli Polk: Yes. My mom especially.

When the boys were teenagers, Susan said she’d had enough. She could no longer suppress her feelings about her decades-old secret and told Felix she wanted out.

Susan Polk: And I turned to him and I said, “You hypnotized me.  I can’t live with you anymore.”  And he was like, “Oh boy—he knew I knew.”  And he said, “You better think about the consequences.  You better think about the consequences to the children.”  And that just paralyzed me with fear.Bolling: He was afraid that if they broke up, she would talk about what had happened between him and her.Morrison: The inappropriate relationship—Bolling: Right.Morrison: And that that could cost him his license?Bolling: Exactly.

And after Susan filed for divorce, she claims Felix was the one coming unhinged and lashing out.

Susan Polk: I mean, he would do this constant verbal and physical kind of—you know—intimidation and assault.  And if the kids joined it at all in support of me, like “Dad—you know—we want to live with mom,”  that kind of thing then he would say, “If you line up with your mom, you’re dead.” Morrison: Was that going on in your house? Eli Polk: I think my dad definitely tried to break my mom. I really do.  He did try to break my mom.

But then, says Eli, his father tried to break him, too. The year before the killing, Felix, says Eli, pushed authorities to lock him up in a juvenile detention center over a fist fight. He was inside for months and was there when his father was killed.

Eli is 20 years old now. He supported his mother in the divorce. He supports her now. It’s her story he believes.

Eli Polk: I believe he became violent with her.  I believe he exploded that night and attacked my mother.  Morrison: It’s a plausible story to you?  Eli Polk: It’s not just a plausible story, I’m sure it’s what happened.  I mean, he had done so many times before, though this time I believe he wanted to kill her.

That’s why Susan was determined to claim she killed her husband in self defense.

A forensic psychologist examined her and said she was competent to stand trial and she was determined to represent herself in court too, until less than a month before the trial was to begin, she agreed to allow attorney Daniel Horowitz to take over the case. And as he prepared, he says, he discovered a bomb shell.

Daniel Horowitz, lawyer for Susan Polk: She killed him for one reason, he had a knife in his hand and if she didn’t take it from him and defended herself, she would be dead.

But as she sits here calmly telling her story of self-defense, the people in her corner soon will have some very tough questions to answer.

Morrison: Which one of the 27 wounds was not intended to be a killing wound?

Susan Polk has been charged with first degree murder for the stabbing death of her psychologist husband of 20 years— the gruesome end of a long painful family saga.

Just this week, the trial of the people versus Susan Mae Polk got underway in a northern California courthouse.

Bruce Gertsman is a reporter for the Contra Costa times. He’s been covering the Susan Polk case for months.

Bruce Gertsman, reporter for the Contra Costa Times: I think it will be shocking at certain points.  Right now it looks like the jury might have a really hard time. Cause there are both sides: self-defense, premeditated murder.

Exposed will be the family’s embarrassing secrets— its conflicting accounts and polar opposites. Is Susan Polk a delusional murderess or abused wife acting in self defense?

The prosecutor told us he would not comment for this story, choosing instead to make his case before the jury. And in his opening statement Tuesday, the prosecutor said Susan was a cold, calculated, callous murderer, so upset over losing the estate and custody of her youngest son that she killed Felix in a rage and then tried to cover up the crime.

Throughout the week, witnesses took the stand to help bolster the state’s claim that Susan was guilty of murder in the first degree. And in a few weeks it will be the defense’s turn.

Gertsman: Susan Polk’s own story is very compelling. And they’ve also got, possibly, some medical records that are going to show that Felix might not have been psychologically stable.  Those two things put together might be able to really convince the jury that she acted in self-defense.

Remember, Felix, the mental health professional, had claimed his wife was delusional. But was she crazy? Or was it him?

Felix Polk's mental health problems
Susan’s attorney, Daniel Horowitz obtained records which reveal that Felix attempted suicide decades earlier while he was in the Navy, spent months in a psychiatric ward, and was diagnosed as having a psychotic disorder.

Felix, claimed the defense, had been taking anti-anxiety medicine for years. But his autopsy revealed that at his death, he had stopped taking his medication.

Horowitz: There is no question that he was delusional from the 1955, before Susan was born when he was hospitalized for chronic mental illness to when he died when he had psychiatric drugs in his medicine cabinet. There is no question that this man was delusional.Morrison: And yet he was able to have a successful practice.  He had colleagues who believed in him.  He was a respected man in the community.  Now—what you’re describing and that doesn’t jive with those facts.Daniel Horowitz, Susan Polk's lawyer: Well, it does in a way. Because we know that both things were true. He was very, very delusional.  He was rageful.  But he also was a pillar of the community.

Was it really self-defense?
But Susan and her lawyer will have to overcome some troubling evidence: Did she in fact threaten Felix’s life in the weeks leading up to his death?

And after, we know she  didn’t call 911.  She said it herself: She simply cleaned herself up and went to bed. And then why did she lie to police when they first questioned her? How will she respond to an autopsy report showing Felix suffered blunt force trauma to the head and 27 different wounds.

Horowitz: Those wounds that she inflicted on him were not intended to be killing wounds.  Morrison: Which one of the 27 wounds was not intended to be a killing wound?Horowitz: That 27 wound myth has to be put to rest right away in that courtroom. There were five and only five significant stab wounds.Morrison: Let me see, she just stabbed him once, twice, three times, four times, five times.Horowitz: Yes.Morrison: Fatal stab wounds.  Five of them.Horowitz: Well, don’t say fatal until you’ve seen the medical evidence.  And it’s not like she stabbed him in a passive sense.  Meaning that he was passive, and she was stabbing him.  He’s coming at her.  She has the knife.  And she’s saying, “Get away.  Get away.”

One more heartbreak for the family
But if for a family such a trial sounds as tough as things could get, there is one more disaster.

At the courthouse, the boys, once so close, are pitted against one another. And the youngest son Gabriel, the baby of the family, is his mother’s chief accuser.

Gertsman: When the jury sees one son testifying against his mother, that’s going to be pretty powerful. 

It was then 15-year-old Gabriel, remember, who found his dead father, who told a 911 dispatcher his mother had just killed his father. He was the boy who told police he’d heard Susan Polk talk openly about killing his father.

Morrison: How does that feel for a mother?Susan Polk: To have one’s own child, you know, supporting the prosecution, that’s an awful experience. 

But it’s not just Gabriel, now 18 years old, who stands against her, it’s his 22-year-old brother Adam as well. In fact the two of them have filed a wrongful death suit against her, their own mom. Gabriel is living with a friend of the family in the area and Adam is finishing college in Los Angeles. And Adam, like Gabriel, declined to be interviewed for this story. Only Eli spoke. Eli was holding fort in the family compound, his mother’s lone defender.

They were close once, as close as brothers could be. And now they’re on opposite sides of an ocean of hurt. His own baby brother Gabriel was an estranged opponent.

Morrison: He’s prepared to see your mother go and spend the rest of her life in jail. Eli Polk: Yes, that’s where Gabriel’s at right now. Unfortunately, yes. 

Keith Morrison: How does it make you feel to see them taking one side or the other like that?Helen Bolling, mother of Susan Polk: Well, I’m afraid I have a very negative feeling about that.  Morrison: You’re pretty angry at those boys, aren’t you?Bolling: Yes, I am.  Yes, I am, because they’ve forgotten about—how much time and love, and storytelling, and all of the good things, but it’s—because they’re young, and it will come back to them.

For now, Susan Polk sits in a courtroom and listens as a prosecutor builds his case against her. She says she will take the stand in her own defense.

Her husband, of course, can’t present his own opinion, though his friend Barry Morris has been chipping away on his behalf.

Barry Morris, neighbor: There’s no way in God’s green earth that this was self-defense, not a chance.

In the end, a jury will decide who’s story to believe. And these young men, collateral damage of a poisoned marriage, will have to learn to live with the consequences.

Morrison: You told me earlier that you love your father, that you’ve always loved your father.  Do you hate him too? Eli Polk: No. I think it’s sad. I think it’s really sad what happened and who my father was, and how he got to be that way. I think it’s very sad.  But, no, I don’t hate him.

With his father is gone, his brother’s estranged, Eli Polk is looking at the very real possibility of losing his mother too.

Morrison: Are you prepared to see her spend the rest of her life in jail? Eli Polk: No, I’m not.  Morrison: She might, you know.  Eli Polk: It’s a possibility. I believe she’ll be acquitted. I have to believe she’ll be acquitted, but I’m preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.

But it’s broken now... they’re all broken, no matter what happens. They were broken on that awful night at the pool house, when Susan Polk saw with that sickening clarity that life as she knew it was over.

Not just for her husband, but for her. The last question was for all her boys. But she was thinking, just that moment, about her baby, her accuser her Gabriel.

Susan Polk:  It’s my job as a mother and my duty to love him forever.  As long as I’m alive, I will love him.  And there’s other kinds of closeness.  (crying) You know, there’s an emotional closeness and I think there’s a mental closeness that— I’ll never desert him.