Renee Polreis and her adopted son had a miserable life together--until someone put an end to it.
By Karen Bowers
Published: October 10, 1996
In the weeks before her adopted son died, Greeley business owner Renee Polreis told friends she had come to fear David. Where others saw a delightful two-year-old towhead, she saw a monster who was destroying her marriage and making life, in her own words, a living hell.
David's tantrums were horrific, Renee told friends, and he seemed to care for everyone but her. Though the boy, an orphan adopted from Russia, had lived with the family for just six months, Renee confided that she wished desperately to give up custody. The only reason she didn't was that her husband, Dave, a vice president with the ConAgra conglomerate, resisted.
It was with uneasiness, then, that Renee saw her husband off for a trip to Houston on the morning of Friday, February 9. For the first time, she'd be alone with David and the couple's four-year-old son, Isaac, for an entire weekend. Friends offered to lend a hand should she need anything, but the 42-year-old Renee was relieved from some of the burden when her mother invited Isaac to spend Friday night with her.
Less than twelve hours after Renee's mother left the Polreis home with Isaac in tow, David lay dying on the floor of Renee's spacious bathroom. Renee--a woman friends describe as patient, religious and a wonderful mother--had allegedly beat the toddler to death. Police believe that she hit the boy repeatedly with a wooden spoon. When the spoon broke, they believe, she picked up another one and resumed the beating until that one broke, too.
Emergency-room doctors said the boy was cut and bruised over 90 percent of his body. According to the autopsy report, the boy was beaten so badly that he threw up and choked on his own vomit, cutting off oxygen to his brain. A second pathologist, after reviewing the autopsy report, says the boy suffered what amounted to "abject torture."
One of Renee's friends later told police that Renee had been afraid something like this would happen. According to adoption caseworker Kathy Edick, Renee said she'd told her therapist that "if she ever hit David, she wouldn't be able to stop."
David's death and his mother's arrest on a charge of child abuse resulting in death have cracked the complacent facade of Greeley, a quiet agricultural community that has retained a small-town feel despite seeing rapid growth in recent years. The case has created a rift among friends of the Polreis family over Renee's guilt or innocence. And it has added to the debate about an already controversial psychological theory known as attachment disorder.
Renee Polreis declined to be interviewed about her case. But when asked how to best tell her side of the story during a break in a court hearing last month, she told a reporter to "just research attachment disorder."
According to that theory, which was applied to young David Polreis by a Greeley psychologist, children who have been abused or abandoned at an early age--particularly adopted children--are prone to violence and rage. "Attachment disorder" has exploded onto the therapeutic scene in recent years, with significant increases in reported diagnoses and in the number of therapists offering treatment for the condition.
Children who suffer from attachment disorder, say therapists, tend to be superficially charming to outsiders while exhibiting cruelty to their parents, to animals and to other children. Those with the most severe form of the disorder are destructive, assaultive and might act out sexually.
Renee's repeated assertion that David was an "unattached child"--the most severe form of attachment disorder--has generated support for her from across the country from parents of children similarly diagnosed. According to Renee's friend Helen Kunze of Denver, Renee has received more than 100 calls and letters from other adoptive parents, many of whom have offered to testify on her behalf when she goes on trial next month.
Some of Renee's friends, however, believe she was victimized by child therapists who confirmed and then exaggerated her worst fears about her son. Others are angry at Renee and at her Denver attorneys, who they say appear to be building a defense around the psychological disorder as a way to excuse the boy's injuries and death.
"I'm concerned about the whole thing being portrayed as being the victim's fault," complains a business acquaintance of Renee's who asks not to be identified. "I don't care if this child was the devil himself. I don't care if he attacked his mother with a knife. That is no reason to beat him to death.
"Her own mother said to me, 'You know that Renee could not have done this,'" the woman continues. "But I think that's what the family has done to protect its own psyche. They're saying, 'Look what this child did to us.' It's like they believe a devil child came into the family and ruined it.
"And I keep saying, 'Give me something to go on. Give me a reason that will explain why this happened.' And I have yet to hear it."
Like many long-married couples who decide to adopt children, Renee and Dave Polreis arrived at the decision only after enduring years of medical exams and ignominious probings that ended with the same result--a failure to conceive.
It was during this period of alternating hope and despair in the 1980s that Renee befriended Tracy Kimsey, a client at the electrology business that Renee owned just off the main highway through town. Kimsey, who was then struggling with her own inability to carry a child, describes their first meeting as a memorable occasion.
"She came over to me," Kimsey recalls, "and she said, 'Hi! I'm Renee. I'm infertile, too.' We hit it off great."
Renee was "doing difficult tests and all those things [the doctors] make us do," Kimsey says. "I had suffered miscarriages. But for her, the pregnancy thing was just not happening."
By late 1991, both the Kimseys and the Polreises decided to adopt--a process that was not without its own travails. The red tape and home visits ate up time and considerable amounts of money. Tracy and her husband, Richard, had wanted to bring home an infant, she says, but couldn't afford the higher costs associated with such an adoption, which they estimated at tens of thousands of dollars. Instead, the Kimseys adopted two older girls, sisters aged six and eight.
But the Polreises did have the funds to ensure they'd get an infant. Dave had been named a vice president of ConAgra (formerly Monfort) in 1992, and Renee's electrology business was thriving. An old friend of Renee's, Julie Haralson of the Colorado Adoption Center in Fort Collins, helped make the arrangements. Six to eight months after the Kimseys took in their girls, the Polreis's adoption went through.
Renee and Dave named the boy, who was from an American family, Isaac. He was, according to Renee's friends, a good baby. He loved his new parents, and they loved him. When he grew older, his daycare providers described him as friendly and bright.
Renee "absolutely adored" Isaac, says Sandy Bright, owner of the daycare center that both Polreis boys would eventually attend. "It seemed to me that she was a wonderful mother.
"Everything," Bright adds, "took a backseat to the children."
Renee cut back on her work schedule after adopting Isaac, says Bright, and placed the boy at the daycare center on a part-time basis. When she needed a babysitter, Renee's mother, Alice Risk--who lived nearby with Renee's brother Kevin and his family--would sometimes stay with Isaac.
It was a joyful time for Renee and her husband. The Kimseys however, were struggling with their new daughters.
Prior to adopting the girls, the Kimseys had taken part in a three-day training course sponsored by the adoption agency with which they were working. The classes, Tracy Kimsey says, were designed to show the best and worst aspects of adoption. The worst-case scenario in the presentation was the adoption of an unattached child.
"We had a full day on attachment disorder, and it scares the bejeebers out of you," Kimsey recalls. Children with a mild attachment disorder, participants were told, might hold back affection. Others might lie and steal. The completely unattached child was the most severe case. "It's deadly," Kimsey says. "Literally."
Kimsey says the agency told the prospective parents that if they couldn't handle the possibility of receiving an unattached child, they should stop the adoption process. "There was one couple who didn't come back," Kimsey notes.
But the Kimseys decided that they could handle it. They ended up adopting two girls, both of whom had attachment disorder.
Love, the Kimseys reasoned, would conquer all.
Attachment theory has been around for thirty years. It is grounded in the belief that infants who do not receive sufficient care or attention in the first eighteen months of life may end up severely damaged.
Eighty percent of the children who suffer from attachment disorders are adoptive children, says Gail Trenberth, the Boulder-based president of the Attachment Disorder Parents Network. Many of those children, she says, were abandoned or abused by their natural parents.
According to the theory, children afflicted with milder forms of the disorder have difficulty bonding with family members and friends. On the other end of the attachment spectrum are so-called "unattached" children, who may become a danger to themselves and to others. A fascination with gore and fire are reportedly typical of the most severely afflicted. Trenberth cites the case of an eighteen-month-old child who battered an infant to death with a metal truck. Evergreen child psychiatrist Foster Cline, who was a pioneer in the field of attachment therapy, has described these children as future Ted Bundys and Unabombers.
While her own daughter was still quite young, Trenberth says, the toddler did something that Trenberth says she can only describe as a suicide attempt. The girl, she says, began stuffing toilet paper down her throat and did not stop, even though she was turning blue from a lack of oxygen.
Trenberth trotted the child from one type of therapy to another until she found the Attachment Center in Evergreen. There, she says, her daughter was diagnosed as suffering from the worst case of attachment disorder the therapists had ever seen. The girl was sent to live with a "therapeutic foster family" that had been specially trained to deal with unattached children.
Trenberth herself was taught how to parent the child. Part of the therapy involved "holding," in which a child is held down forcibly while a therapist incites the child to rage. According to proponents of the therapy, making the child acknowledge his or her rage is key to the healing process.
It took Trenberth's daughter two years to turn her life around. But Trenberth says it was worth it. She says her daughter, now in high school, is a loving, nurturing young woman.
But not everyone is as pleased with the treatment--or the diagnoses.
"One of the problems," says Elise Katch, a clinical social worker in Denver, "is that a lot of people say they are attachment specialists when they really don't have a clear idea of what they're doing. Attachment disorder is a catch-all, like attention deficit disorder, in that kids who do not relate well socially or who act out have a tendency to be diagnosed as having this."
Katch says that what therapists may refer to as symptoms of attachment disorder can instead be a natural response to trauma. "When kids act 'crazy,' what they are doing may be a normal reaction to an abnormal situation," she says. "If a kid is traumatized and doesn't act out, then there's going to be problems down the road, because they're sitting on their feelings."
In addition, Katch says, holding therapy may be precisely what a child in that position can't tolerate. Imagine, she says, a child that has been abused by an adult. How will that child react to being held down? In some cases, Katch says, holding therapy is downright cruel.
Tracy Kimsey, however, doesn't agree.
Her daughters had been taken from their natural mother when the eldest was three years old and the youngest just eighteen months. For the next five years they'd lived in a foster home--and a good one, Kimsey says.
"My oldest daughter," she says, "was a big pleaser. Miss Manipulation. She'd do anything to make us happy. That was the 'honeymoon' period. And then she let loose and began being noncompliant, rude, hateful, mean and lazy. She was pushing everyone away. Her best friend. Even her sister."
There was no honeymoon with the younger girl, Kimsey says. "She didn't like us from day one. She was determined not to put up with us. She'd go into fits where she wouldn't talk. And she'd make herself throw up."
The Kimseys practiced holding therapy with the girls, and a Greeley psychologist helped connect them with a support group for other parents whose children had been diagnosed with attachment disorder. Among other things, those group members take turns providing respite care. "Any time, day or night, you can drop the kids off when you need a break," Kimsey says. "And believe me, you need it bad. It gets depressing and frustrating. You cannot parent these children like you can other children. You can't be lenient. You can't give an inch. You can't let your guard down. Ever."
Despite their misgivings, however, less than two years after adopting the girls, the Kimseys adopted an eight-year-old boy who'd also exhibited problems with bonding.
Renee Polreis wanted another child, too. Says Tracy Kimsey, "She thought she was going to get a regular kid."
Late 1994 and 1995 was a stressful time for Renee Polreis, neighbor Carol Trejo would later tell police. The Polreises had recently moved into a large house in a nice subdivision and had changed churches in the process. Renee had experienced several deaths in her extended family, Trejo said. On top of that, a family friend was awaiting a liver transplant. And the couple's attempt to adopt a second child was not going well.
Renee confided to another friend, Cindy Wilkinson, about her frustration with the adoption agency and the problems she and her husband were experiencing in arranging a placement. Wilkinson put her in touch with Kathy Edick, a Colorado-based caseworker for Rainbow House International Adoptions. Edick then referred Renee to agency director Donna Clauss.
Through her contacts abroad, Clauss found a two-year-old Russian boy who was available for adoption. Staffers at the orphanage where the boy lived sent a video to the Polreises. The tape showed a blue-eyed, blonde-haired toddler romping with other children on a playground.
Renee and her husband were ecstatic about the prospect of adopting the boy. "Renee was so excited, she could hardly stand it," says Sandy Bright.
But at least one woman in Renee's circle was surprised by Renee's decision to adopt a Russian baby.
Renee, who attends St. Paul's Congregational Church in Greeley, is a very religious person, Kathy Brown told police after David's death, adding that Renee didn't like Russians because they are "atheists." She said too that Renee had dreaded going to Russia to pick up the child because she didn't want to set foot in a country filled with non-believers.
But the Polreises decided they wanted to go full speed ahead with the adoption anyway. In July 1995 Renee and her husband flew to Moscow, where they stayed with a host family. It was a three-hour drive from Moscow to the town where the orphanage was located and where their new son waited.
Clauss told police that she spoke with Renee by phone while the Polreises were still in Russia and remembered her complaining that the boy had vomited in the car on the ride back to Moscow. Soon after the family's arrival back in the United States, police reports say, Renee told Wilkinson that she had been shocked by the toddler's incessant screaming after he was taken from the orphanage. And Renee allegedly confided to Julie Haralson that she was "already insane" by the time she returned to the United States and that David was driving her crazy with his unruly behavior. (Haralson now tells Westword that the police account of that conversation is "probably not true.")
In Edick's first few conversations with Renee after her return to the United States, Renee told her that things seemed to be working out. David was having some trouble adjusting to a sleeping schedule because of the time difference, Renee said, but things were fine otherwise.
The couple threw a block party for the neighborhood as a way of welcoming David into the fold. Renee took time off from work so that she could be with the boy and help him settle in, Bright says.
By October, however, Renee's attitude had undergone a significant change. Renee, Edick told police, said that she was experiencing difficulties with David and that this adoption "did not feel the same" as Isaac's placement. Renee was concerned by the emergence of sibling rivalry between the two boys, and she was disturbed that she'd had to put them in separate bedrooms because David would spit on his brother during the night, keeping him awake.
While the women visited in the kitchen, Edick told police, Renee asked if the staff at Russian orphanages spank their charges with wooden spoons. The reason she wondered, Renee said, was because one time when she'd pulled a spoon from a drawer, David put his hands and face against the wall and began sobbing as if in fear. Edick told police that she had Clauss check to see if that form of punishment was the practice in Russia; Clauss assured her that it was not.
By November, the situation in the Polreis household had deteriorated even further. Edick said Renee told her that David was manipulative and that, although he had control of his bladder and bowels, he refused to use the toilet when she was around. Renee reportedly believed that it was David's way of controlling her.
According to police reports, Renee also told Edick that the boy's behavior had led her to contact Greeley psychologist Byron Norton and that during a play therapy session, David selected a rubber knife from a group of toys and then pretended to stab his mother with it. Renee said Norton advised her not to take the attack personally. David, he explained, suffered an attachment disorder, and when those children are angry, they act out--particularly toward their mothers.
Edick also told police that Renee was extremely upset over the knife incident, as well as by her husband's apparent lack of concern when she related the incident to him. She related to investigators a later conversation during which Renee described Dave Polreis's reaction. "I hated my own mother," Dave Polreis reportedly told his wife, "and I turned out okay." According to Edick, Renee said Norton responded by telling her that Dave Polreis must have an attachment disorder, too.
Moreover, Edick told police, Renee had said that Norton's prognosis for two-year-old David was bleak. Norton reportedly told Renee that his own son had an attachment disorder. And Norton knew, Renee told Edick, that kids like David grow up to be criminals.
Byron Norton did not return phone calls from Westword. But Edick was concerned enough about her conversation with Renee that she arranged for her friend to meet with another mother whose adoptive child had been diagnosed with an attachment disorder. The meeting, held at Fat Albert's restaurant in Greeley, was an eye-opener for Edick and for Cindy Wilkinson, who also attended.
Edick told police that Renee said she wanted to relinquish custody of David but that if she did so, it would ruin her marriage. Renee reportedly added that her husband didn't share her belief that the boy had serious problems and that she felt he was being unsupportive.
Edick also told police that Renee claimed she'd heard that 90 percent of parents with attachment disordered kids end up abusing their children. Edick said she tried to assure Renee that this was not the case. Her own daughter, whom she'd adopted from Korea, had attachment issues, Edick told Renee. She explained to Renee how she dealt with her anger and with her daughter's anger.
Renee's response, according to Edick, was that she didn't want to raise a child like Edick's.
Renee's problems with David were surprising to many of the people who knew the family and who'd watched Renee interact with the boy.
David appeared to be normal and friendly, neighbor Trejo told police. He seemed happiest, she said, when Renee would pull him around the block as he sat in his red wagon. Neighbor Jack Stoller told the Greeley Tribune that David was "cuter than a bug" and "just a little ball of joy."
But Renee claimed David would pinch her arms until they were black and blue. Outsiders didn't see his temper tantrums, although Alice Risk said she did, according to Weld County social worker Natasha Smreker. The social worker told police she was present at a deposition taken last month where Renee's mother said that David had "fits" during which he would stiffen his arms and fall to the ground, striking either his face or the back of his head. Then he'd start screaming. The fits, Risk allegedly said, lasted anywhere from one minute to half an hour, and sometimes David would have as many as twelve fits in a day.
The fact that no one outside the immediate family saw David exhibit abnormal, unruly behavior is not inconsistent with attachment theory. Such children, experts say, are generally well-behaved around strangers.
But David did not act out in other ways that might be expected from an unattached child. Edick told police that she happened to be at the Polreis home one day when David's father returned from work. David called out, "Papa, Papa," and held out his arms to be picked up, Edick said. On another occasion, David appeared delighted to see his grandmother and ran to greet her at the door. "She'll want to pick him up," Renee allegedly told Edick. But Renee wouldn't allow it--purportedly because psychologist Byron Norton told her that hugging was not good for the boy unless the child himself initiated it.
Edick told police that it appeared to her that David was attached to his father and grandmother. He may not have bonded as closely with Renee, Edick said.
David's teachers noticed much the same things.
The first time Renee left David at Bright's daycare center, Bright tells Westword, David exhibited signs of severe separation anxiety. "When she went out the door, he threw a huge fit," she says. "When we tried to comfort him and hold him, he said, 'Nyet, nyet,'" reverting to his mother tongue.
Bright and Renee were extremely pleased by David's emotional and noisy display, taking it to mean he was bonding with his mother. "[Renee] had been warned not to get too anxious about his attachment to her and to not expect too much too soon," Bright says. "She'd been told that when she left, there was a real possibility he wouldn't miss her."
David also seemed upset by the fact that in daycare he was separated from Isaac, who was placed in a room with other four-year-olds, says Bright. But it wasn't long before David showed true delight at coming to daycare. According to his primary daycare worker, Pamela Smith, when David arrived, he would yell out her name and come running to give her a hug. David got along well with the other kids in his group, Smith told police, and though she'd occasionally seen David whack his brother Isaac, David never really hurt the older boy.
However, Smith told police that Renee told her David could be violent. Shortly before the boy died, Smith said, Renee showed her a restraining technique that she'd learned in therapy and that Smith was to use on David whenever he flew into a rage. But, Smith said, David had never gotten out of control at the center--she'd never even seen him angry. For that matter, Smith told police, she'd never seen Renee angry or out of control, either, and had never detected any sign that he was being abused.
Once when Renee came to pick David up from daycare, Smith told police, David fell and bumped his head. Renee knelt beside the boy, put her hand on his forehead and prayed. "I saw no signs of hostility or rage in Renee or [her husband]," says Bright. "They are the most calm, peaceful, Christian people that you'd ever want to meet."
Bright does recall seeing David exhibit some inappropriate behavior toward his father. "I'd seen David slap [his father] in the face," she says. "He didn't seem to know the difference between a slap and a kiss. He'd slap hard and then laugh. He thought he was being cute--he was only two and a half.
"He was so new to them, he didn't know better," Bright adds. "We were teaching him appropriate ways to show affection."
And Bright says she believes David felt true affection for the Polreises. "When his parents would come to pick him up," Bright says, "[David] would get all excited, and he and Isaac would run up and down the hall."
Whenever Renee lingered at the center to talk with Bright, Dave Polreis would keep his boys occupied with a boisterous round of hide-and-seek or some manner of chasing game. During those conversations with Renee, Bright says, her friend sometimes shared with her things she'd heard or come to believe about attachment disorder. "She'd talk about counseling and play therapy and support groups and about all the discouraging information," Bright says.
According to Bright, Renee told her that Norton had warned that David might never bond with the family and that he could eventually pose a danger to Renee, her husband and Isaac.
"[Renee] told me about this one well-to-do family in Greeley that had adopted a boy," Bright recalls. "They told her that they'd put locks on the inside of their bedroom door because they were afraid that he would come into their room at night and kill them. They said they'd lived in fear for years and years and that as the boy got older and stronger, they became more afraid. He finally ended up in a juvenile facility.
"I think that all that negative information didn't help," Bright adds. "I just wonder...would she have been so afraid of him at the end if she hadn't been told all this?"
Bright wasn't the only one of Renee's friends who expressed alarm at Renee's growing cynicism toward David--or about her rush to embrace any and all disciplinary methods offered by friends or therapists.
Renee had allegedly begun disciplining her sons in a way taught to her by Lynn Roche, a woman who sometimes babysat for the Polreis boys. According to what social worker Smreker told police, Roche said during a deposition last month that when her own children were bad, she'd take the child into the bathroom and explain his offense to him. She said she'd then make the child bare his behind before spanking him one or two times with a wooden spoon. Then, she said, she'd say a prayer over the child.
Smreker also told police that Renee's brother, Kevin Risk, said that he'd seen Renee use that same method on Isaac.
Renee's friend Kathy Brown told police that Renee told her it was important to show David who was the boss, even in matters like potty training. According to Brown, Renee said David had been manipulating her through his toilet habits and that as a result, she was making David get up in the middle of the night and stand in front of the toilet until he urinated. Renee told Brown it seemed to work.
Edick recommended to Renee several times that she take David to another therapist, one who specialized in attachment disorder. She urged Renee to meet with Lloyd Boggs, a licensed clinical social worker from Fort Collins who was trained at the Evergreen Attachment Center.
By the time Renee did call Boggs, in late January 1996, she was clearly desperate. According to Edick's statement to police, Renee said she'd told Boggs that she and her husband were planning a short trip to Mexico without the children and that if he could not see her before she left the country, she was never going to come back home.
Bright says Renee was extremely upset at the time over an incident in which David had bitten her finger and refused to let go. Renee told friends that the boy chomped down hard on her finger and that when she screamed, he got a look on his face that suggested he was enjoying her pain. The situation terrified her, a teary Renee allegedly told Bright.
Renee did see Boggs before leaving on the trip, Edick told police, and the session left her feeling more optimistic. According to Edick, Renee said she thought Boggs was "wonderful."
However, Renee was less enthusiastic when she and her husband returned from their trip. Edick told police of a comment she heard Renee make--that Mexico was heaven and she had come back to hell.
Renee and Dave Polreis returned from Mexico in early February. Less than a week later, on Friday, February 9, Renee drove her husband to the Greeley airport for a flight to Houston, where Dave Polreis planned to visit an old friend. Renee then spent part of her day at home, catching up with her mother and her mother's friend, Kathy Teal.
Smreker told police that in a deposition taken last month, Teal said that David sat on the floor and did not interact with any of the three women. The boy, Teal reportedly added, was still wearing his pajamas, even though it was after 3 p.m.
Alice Risk confirmed, Smreker said, that David spent the afternoon sitting by himself and "acting as though he didn't wish to be a part of the family." Although Risk offered to spend the night with her daughter, she instead wound up taking Isaac home with her, leaving Renee with David.
According to Smreker, Risk added in her deposition that she spoke with David by phone later that evening and that he told her he did, in fact, want to be part of the family.
Dave Polreis also called home that night, he told police. When he spoke to Renee sometime between 8 and 9 p.m., he told officers, Renee said nothing to indicate there was a problem.
Kevin Risk's night's sleep ended abruptly at 4 a.m. Saturday when the phone jangled him awake. His sister Renee was on the other end. David, she told him, was choking, and she needed him to come over right away and help her. Risk woke his mother, and the two made the short drive to his sister's house.
When the Risks arrived at the Polreis home, Kevin told a police detective, they ran to an upstairs bathroom where they found David lying on his back. Renee was giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to her son, Kevin Risk said, and he could see a brown fluid flowing from the boy's nose.
According to Kevin, Renee hurriedly explained to him that David had been sleeping with her in her bed when he began to choke. Kevin could not find a pulse on the stricken boy and told his sister to call 911. She didn't. In a court hearing last month, Alice Risk was asked about the delay in calling for help. She explained that she was not terribly worried about the boy's condition because she'd seen David have fits before. In fact, Smreker told police that in her deposition last month, Alice Risk said David "looked better than I'd ever seen him." Alice reportedly added that she called Kathy Teal and asked her to come over and that she told Renee to phone her therapists.
Nobody had yet called for an ambulance.
Renee took her mother's advice and phoned Byron Norton and Lloyd Boggs. Both of those men have thus far declined to speak with authorities about those conversations. But they apparently did speak with Isaac's court-appointed guardian ad litem. The guardian, Gayla Lindquist, later told police that Boggs said Renee admitted that she'd hurt David.
Renee finally called for medical assistance at 4:19 a.m. Shortly afterward, a man identifying himself as a psychologist called 911 and asked if Renee Polreis had just called for an ambulance. According to the 911 tapes, the psychologist went on to say that he'd had a call from a client who told him she had just beaten her son.
When firefighters got to the house, they found Kevin Risk in the driveway talking on a cellular phone. He told them to go up to the bathroom, where they found David alone with Teal. According to a firefighter's report, when asked if David had any medical problems, Teal responded that David was an unattached child who'd been adopted from Russia and was undergoing therapy. As a matter of fact, Teal informed them, David had seen a counselor just the day before, and as part of his therapy, he'd had to sit in a chair and face the wall all day long.
As soon as the firefighters unzipped David's red sleeper pajamas, they told police, they suspected the boy had been abused. His chest and stomach were mottled with bruises. When asked how David could have gotten the injuries, Teal reportedly again launched into a discussion of David's psychological disorder.
Firefighter Curt Walter told investigators that whenever he'd try to ask a question of Teal, Renee or her mother and brother, they would all look at each other before answering. When they finally did answer, Walter said, they gave no specifics. Walter also told police that he felt the four adults were unusually calm given the situation. He wrote in his report that the family members didn't seem to be upset or agitated at David's condition, nor did they seem overly concerned when the firefighters began performing CPR on the boy.
In a court hearing last month, Teal, who has been uncooperative with authorities, denied making the comments about attachment disorder to the firefighters.
Officers who arrived at Greeley's North Colorado Medical Center in time to see David wheeled into the emergency room reported seeing severe purple bruises covering most of David's chest and stomach and continuing down to his thighs. They also observed cuts on his leg. When doctors removed David's diaper, they found the boy's testicles red and swollen and the tip of his penis bleeding.
Kevin Risk had followed the ambulance to the hospital. His sister, however, never showed up at the emergency room. Police reports say that when asked where Renee was, Kevin Risk told officers that he expected her to come by later but that she was trying to locate an attorney first. Another officer testified in court last month that Renee told him the same thing--and added that another reason she didn't visit her son was that she was afraid of hospitals. Renee's defense attorneys are attempting to have Renee's statement declared inadmissible at trial.
One of the people Renee phoned that morning in her search for an attorney was Julie Haralson, who'd helped with the adoption of Isaac. Haralson says Renee told her an ambulance had just taken David away. Renee was calm, Haralson adds, and told her that when David was released from the hospital, she did not want him back, but instead wanted him placed in foster care.
Emergency-room doctors were unsure at first if David had been beaten or if he had blood poisoning, which might also have accounted for the severe bruising. They took samples of David's blood and performed other tests, but by 6 a.m. they determined that David's condition was so grave he should be flown by helicopter to Children's Hospital in Denver.
The physicians at Children's weren't as shy about stating the cause of David's condition. Dr. Emily Dobyns told Greeley police that when the boy arrived at Children's, he had no brain-stem function and was placed on life support. She added that David had received one of the worst beatings she'd ever seen on a child.
Dobyns showed the officers marks on the boy's arms that appeared to have been made by fingers. David's buttocks were blistered. She also pointed out some long, linear cuts on the boy's abdomen, as if he'd been struck with a straight-edged object. She told officers that the assault had to have occurred within the past fourteen hours.
David was pronounced dead at 11:20 that same morning, but doctors kept his heart beating until approximately 1:30 p.m., after Dave Polreis flew in from Texas.
Police asked Dave Polreis if he'd seen any marks on David before leaving for Texas. He told them he hadn't and added that this had come as a shock to him, because Renee would not even beat an animal.
Dave Polreis, the officer noted in a report, was very emotional during the course of the conversation. When the officer left the room, Dave Polreis began to cry uncontrollably.
Investigators were sidetracked in their suspicions later that day when Dr. Thomas Harms, from the Greeley hospital, informed them that David's blood had showed positive for a condition known as disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC). Harms told investigators that the condition could account for David's bruising.
The doctors at Children's, however, disagreed with Harms. David, the Children's physicians told police, did not have an infection--an opinion later backed up by the autopsy report. And if his blood was positive for DIC, the doctors said, the condition had been caused by the beating.
Investigators sought and received a search warrant for the Polreis house and executed it the evening of David's death. In their search, officers noted in their reports, they found a broken wooden spoon wrapped inside a bloodied diaper in the kitchen trash. At the bottom of the trash bag was another bloody, broken spoon.
Officers also seized a wooden-handled mirror and wooden brush from the master bathroom. They noted, but did not take, a large wooden spoon they found in a drawer of a downstairs bathroom.
By Sunday, February 11, police had obtained an arrest warrant for Renee. She surrendered at police headquarters that evening, accompanied by her husband and two men she identified as pastors.
When Renee appeared in court the following day, the courtroom and hall were jammed with friends and well-wishers--in part, says an acquaintance, because Alice Risk had phoned Renee's friends and asked them to come. Renee was released from jail after posting an $80,000 cash bond.
David's funeral was held February 19 at St. Paul's. According to Ken Fulton, who runs the church's family-ministries program, friends of the Polreises passed out an information sheet about attachment disorder after the service. The family asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to the Attachment Center in Evergreen.
But as more facts of the case became known, some of Renee's friends pulled away from her.
Edick told police she wanted nothing more to do with Renee after David died, but she had run into her on a couple of occasions. The first time, Edick said, Renee told her she hoped Edick didn't believe what she'd read about the case in the papers. On their second chance meeting, Edick said, Renee repeated that wish and then added that she hoped Edick didn't feel guilty about how things had worked out, because she herself did not. Edick described Renee's attitude as "flippant."
A business acquaintance of Renee's says she has been appalled by the Polreises' attitude about the case and that she was pleased when Renee's attorney, Harvey Steinberg, announced in court earlier this summer that Renee might plead not guilty by reason of insanity. (Instead, Steinberg has stuck with a straight not-guilty plea to the charges.)
"Had they gone for temporary insanity," the woman says, "that, I could understand. I have children of my own, and I can imagine what it's like in the middle of the night with an angry two-year-old. You're alone, you're completely tired, at wits' end, and you go over the edge.
"But," she continues, "that kind of abuse happens to people with no support system, people who are isolated. And Renee has a great support system. She has lots of friends, and her mother and brother are here."
People who know Renee, the woman continues, are grasping at attachment disorder as an excuse for David's death in the same way a drowning person clutches for a straw. "No one can believe that this could happen in our safe little middle-class world," she says. "No one can believe that someone we know could do this."
Exactly how Steinberg plans to frame a defense for Renee is not yet clear. Weld County District Attorney Al Dominguez Jr., who's prosecuting the case himself, told a judge last month that he's puzzled by exactly how issues of attachment disorder and holding therapy will play into the case. In the meantime, prosecutors are trying hard to obtain information from Boggs and Norton about the therapists' discussions with Renee and David. The issue of whether doctor-patient privilege applies will be argued at a pretrial hearing scheduled for October 21.
Cindy Wilkinson told police that Renee told her she didn't kill David and that he had a medical condition known as DIC. Tracy Kimsey says that, given the tendency of unattached children to hurt themselves, she thinks David might have inflicted the fatal injuries on himself.
For now, things are quiet in the Polreis case. Isaac, who was temporarily forbidden to live with Renee after his brother's death, is now back with his mother. However, a juvenile court judge has ordered that Alice Risk move in with the Polreises and monitor her daughter's interactions with Isaac.
Renee still works at her electrology business and is trying to remain upbeat, says her friend Helen Kunze. "She said it's in God's hands now," says Kunze.
And though Renee remains mum about what happened that night, some of her supporters aren't as reticent.
Renee's friend Kathy Brown told police she thinks Renee's therapists should be held partially accountable for David's death. They reinforced Renee's worst beliefs about her son, Brown said, by telling Renee that little David was doomed to lead a life of crime and would never be a normal person.
Haralson told police in an interview last month that she does not believe Renee killed David. "Sometimes these crazy kids just up and die," Haralson said, according to the investigator's report. "Sometimes they have an emotional overload and just lose the will to live, and they just die."
During the course of the conversation, investigators noted, Haralson referred to David as "that unattached, crazy kid" approximately 30 to 35 times.
"Haralson told me that she still thinks Renee Polreis is a good, loving mother," the officer wrote, "and she would turn another child over to Renee this day if she were able to.