Susan Polk: Colorful Trial of a Killer Soccer Mom

Leaving the Old West and last week’s case behind, this week we travel to modern-day California, where we meet Susan Polk. This California soccer mom killed her much older husband in a case the newspapers called the “May-December Murder.”

Susan Polk

Susan Mae Bolling met her future husband, Frank Felix Polk in 1972. She was a high school student in the suburbs of Oakland. Her school recommended therapy to help Susan deal with her panic attacks and she ended up seeing Dr. Felix Polk. She was 15, he was 40. According to her later testimony, Dr. Polk first hypnotized her then lured her into a sexual relationship. At the time, Dr. Polk had a wife and two children, and Susan was underage.

Dr. Felix and Susan Polk in happier times
Dr. Felix and Susan Polk in happier times

Despite that dicey beginning, Polk divorced his wife and married Susan in 1982. Over they years, they had three sons. From the outside, the Polks seemed to be a happy family. Felix’s career flourished and they moved into a large house in Orinda, an exclusive neighborhood in the Oakland hills.

Trouble in Paradise

Appearances aside, all was not well with the Polk marriage. Over the years, Dr. Polk characterized Susan as unhinged while she accused him of controlling behavior and domestic violence. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt in January 2001, Susan filed for divorce.

Felix Polk as a young man
Felix Polk as a young man

The impending divorce made a bad situation worse. In 2002, while Susan was in Montana, Dr. Polk managed to get a court hearing without notifying Susan. The court granted him full custody of their youngest son, Gabriel, who was 14 at the time. It also drastically reduced Susan’s alimony.

By October 2002, Susan was back in Orinda to have some dental work done and retrieve some of her belongings. On Monday, October 14, Gabriel found his father, 70, dead in the pool house.

Susan Polk on Trial

If the crime was sensational (and when isn’t murder among the well-to-do sensational?), the trial was off the charts. The state charged Susan Polk with first-degree murder, claiming she killed her husband for money. Susan rejected her attorneys’ advice to plead not guilty by reason of insanity and fired them.

Susan Polk at her murder trial
Susan Polk at her murder trial

Her first trial began in 2004. Attorney Daniel Horowitz took her case. But Horowitz’s wife was murdered in an unrelated incident, forcing the judge to declare a mistrial in Susan’s case. Susan then fired Horowitz, accusing him of involvement in his wife’s death (he wasn’t), and decided to represent herself.

As her own attorney, Susan Polk had moments of brilliance woven with the truly bizarre. She claimed Polk died of a heart attack instead of the stab wounds the state said caused his death. She accused her husband of drugging and raping her when she was a teenager. For good measure, she also accused him of Satanism and of brainwashed the couple’s children. And if that weren’t enough, she often clashed with Judge Laurel Brady. (Life tip: if you’re on trial for murder, don’t antagonize the judge!) And she also accused Polk, a Holocaust survivor, of being an Israeli spy who knew about the September 11, 2001 attacks in advance.

Two of the Polks' sons, Adam (C) and Gabriel (R)  at a press conference held after the jury announced its verdict
Two of the Polks’ sons, Adam (C) and Gabriel (R) at a press conference held after the jury announced its verdict

More drama occurred when Susan’s oldest and youngest sons, Adam and Gabriel testified for the prosecution. Adam called her “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs” on the witness stand. Middle son Eli testified on his mother’s behalf.

The jury found Susan Polk guilty of second degree (non-premeditated) murder. Judge Brady sentenced her to prison for 16 years to life.

Epilogue

Susan Polk appealed her conviction, but the court denied her appeal. She had her first parole hearing in May 2019 where she again represented herself. As she had with Judge Brady, she repeatedly ran afoul of the Parole Board. The Board ultimately ejected her from the hearing and denied her parole. She won’t have another shot at parole until May 2029.

Susan Polk in the prisoner holding area in the courtroom of Judge David Flinn speaking
to Contra Costa Sheriff Deputy Mike Dowdle (Chronicle / Eric Luse)
Susan Polk in the prisoner holding area in the courtroom of Judge David Flinn speaking
to Contra Costa Sheriff Deputy Mike Dowdle (Chronicle / Eric Luse)

Three books probe the “May-December Murder” in depth. In Final Analysis: The Untold Story of the Susan Polk Murder Case, Catherine Crier looks at background and motivations of the Polks. she also digs deep into the police investigation. Journalist Carol Pogash also tells the Polks’ story in Seduced by Madness: The True Story of the Susan Polk Murder Case. This book includes a firsthand account of the circus-like trial. Rounding out the list is Carlton Smith’s Mind Games: The True Story of a Psychologist, His Wife, and a Brutal Murder.

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