Who Killed David Polreis?
The toddler was found bloody and bruised. Was his adoptive mother responsible? Or did he, as her lawyers theorize, die of self-inflicted wounds during a tantrum? It's a defense that's moved 'attachment disorder' to the fore.
By LOUIS SAHAGUN and MARLENE CIMONS
REELEY, Colo. — By the time 2 1/2-year-old David Polreis was being airlifted to a hospital, he was brain dead with dark bruises on his chest, lacerations on his legs and swollen, bleeding genitals.
The fact that the Russian-born, adopted boy's mother, Renee Polreis, was out searching for a lawyer while he lay dying on the morning of Feb. 10, 1996, was only one of the reasons investigators believed it was a clear-cut case of severe child abuse.
Police who searched her home in an upscale subdivision here found two broken and bloody wooden spoons--one of them wrapped in a blood-splattered diaper and stuffed in a kitchen trash bag. A coroner's autopsy showed David had choked on vomit, which cut off oxygen to his brain.
Polreis, 43, the wife of an executive at a local meat packing plant and the owner of her own electrolysis business, has pleaded not guilty to charges of child abuse resulting in death.
Even a case this horrific might have garnered scant attention outside Colorado if not for the novel argument Polreis' lawyers want to take to trial on March 31: The towheaded boy may have died of self-inflicted wounds during a tantrum resulting from a condition known as attachment disorder.
That, or investigators are looking into whether his mother was driven to homicide by his antisocial, even sadistic behavior. Weld County District Judge Roger A. Klein is expected to rule as early as today whether to allow this unprecedented defense argument.
Symptoms of the disorder, which can particularly affect adopted or foster children who suffered severe abuse and neglect during their formative years, include an intense inner rage and hatred, an inability to love or trust, and a compulsion to hurt themselves and others without apparent remorse.
Never mind that Polreis once told a friend that if she ever began to hit David she would never be able to stop, according to police reports. Or, the reports said, that her methods of disciplining another adopted son, Isaac, 4, included having him stand beside the toilet and drop his pants before swatting him with a wooden spoon and then saying a prayer.
A growing number of supporters across the nation--including some mental health experts--sympathize with the woman who, if convicted, faces up to 32 years in prison. Those feelings have to do with the fact that while a majority of adopted children coming from Eastern bloc nations have minimal adjustment problems, a disturbing number show symptoms of attachment disorder.
Moreover, sensational cases of the disorder have become familiar on television newsmagazine shows. Some experts even believe that serial killer Ted Bundy and Unabomber suspect Theodore J. Kaczynski may have suffered from attachment disorder.
But critics worry the diagnosis is becoming the "attention deficit hyperactivity disorder of the 1990s," attracting faddish therapies and controversial treatments. That developmental disability affects children's behavior, attention and learning, and is now among the most common diagnoses in childhood.
Weld County Dist. Atty. A.M. Dominguez had other reasons for asking Klein not to allow Polreis to use the disorder as part of her defense. After all, he argued, at 2 1/2 years of age and 23 pounds, the child hardly presented a physical threat to his mother.
Beyond that, he fears that attachment disorder may become an excuse for child abuse. "Such a defense argument would defy common sense," Dominguez said.
But those who have dealt with this complicated disorder say few outsiders understand what it is like to parent such a child. To skeptics who doubt that antisocial behavior could manifest in a child as young as 2, experts say this is not unusual--particularly if there has been a lot of abuse.
"If someone said to me that Renee Polreis was driven to kill her child with a wooden spoon, could that happen with an attachment disorder child--I would say yes," said Thais Tepper, founder of a Pittsburgh group called the Parent Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child. "If somebody asked me whether this 2-year-old attachment disordered child could do something to himself to cause his death, based on what I know . . . I would say, yes."
Neither Polreis, who has posted bond of $80,000, nor her attorney, Jeff Springer, would comment on the case. But Tepper said defense attorneys have questioned her as to whether the boy could have died, not at his mother's hands, but as a result of some self-abusive behavior.
"I sent them a huge packet of stuff about self-destructive / suicidal behavior in young people," she said.
Laurie Holtz, a 39-year-old Seattle medical technologist whose adopted 8-year-old daughter, Tania, suffered from severe attachment disorder, also "feels compassion for Renee Polreis."
"Few people really understand the difficulties of parenting these children," said Holtz, whose daughter was adopted in Russia. "For several weeks I was afraid of Tania. She wanted to kill me and tried to."
Holtz recalled that at age 6, Tania "would sit in her room with a large object in her hand and pretend to throw it at me, then laugh if I flinched." She was fond of "telling me long, detailed stories of her birth parents in Russia setting fire to animals and laughing as they died, cutting up kittens and leaving them staked out in the yard."
Tania related these stories, Holtz said, "with a cold, calm, nonchalant attitude that made me feel sick to my stomach." Today, Tania is doing much better after the family received specialized therapy.
Given her experiences, Holtz added, "I do feel badly for the little boy who died. But I also feel badly for his adoptive mom. Renee was a victim too--of a lack of good help in time."
It didn't take much time for trouble to surface between Polreis and the toddler. Even before she left to pick David up in July 1995, Polreis complained to friends that she dreaded setting foot in a former communist country populated with "a bunch of atheists," police reports said.
It did not help the situation that David vomited in the car on the way from an orphanage near Moscow and cried continuously on the plane to the United States.
In Greeley, Polreis had to give her boys separate bedrooms because David would spit on Isaac during the night.
Invariably, David would do the opposite of what Polreis demanded, according to police interviews with friends and acquaintances. When she gave him juice, he would deliberately spill it. He threw about a dozen uncontrollable fits a day that lasted up to 30 minutes--heaving himself onto the ground face-first or banging his head against furniture.
Polreis told a friend that during play therapy one day, David picked up a rubber knife and pretended to stab her with it.
About three weeks before he died, David bit Polreis' finger "very deep and would not let go," Sandy Bright, the owner of a child-care center where David had been enrolled, told police.
Polreis told Bright that "the look on [David's] face terrified her because he seemed to be enjoying what he was doing while biting her."
Not long before David's death, Polreis complained to friends that she did not want to keep the child, who was most violent when his father was at work. But her husband, David, a vice president for the ConAgra Red Meat Cos., was reportedly refusing to give him up.
On Feb. 10, 1996, Polreis' husband was in Houston on a business trip. She had left Isaac with her mother that evening and was alone with David.
About 4 a.m., she called her brother--and two therapists--and told them David had stopped breathing.
Paramedics were not called to the house for another 20 minutes. When they arrived, they found a female neighbor sitting beside the boy, who was dressed in his red and blue pajamas and lying on his back on a step leading into a bathroom.
One of the paramedics told police that he felt something "was wrong" because when he spoke with Polreis, her brother and her mother at the house, they seemed unusually calm and "would not go into specifics about what happened to David."
Among dozens of people interviewed by police was Julie Haralson, a family friend who helped arrange Isaac's adoption. In one conversation with investigators, Haralson referred to David as "that unattached, crazy kid" at least 30 times.
"When asked to describe what she meant by 'crazy kid,' she said a child who was unattached would act out, go into rages and show no love toward its parent," Greeley homicide investigator Bradley Goldschmidt said.
Byron Norton, a Greeley therapist who treated David for a time, said Polreis deserves sympathy--regardless of what happened.
"Renee is a good person who was desperate, who had done every responsible thing and was stressed out," Norton said. "She was blatantly asking for help, but she was not heard in time.
"There is no justification for child abuse, and I think she should pay some kind of social consequence [if convicted]," he added. "But putting her in jail would accomplish nothing."
Pending trial, Polreis and her family are relying on St. Paul's Congregational Church for solace.
"We have a prayer team of 20 people who have Renee's name on their list," said Ruby Vogel, assistant administrator for the church. "Our belief is that the child was young and innocent enough to have been free of sin, so there's no need to pray for him."
Polreis' relationship with Isaac, Vogel said, "is beautiful. . . . She had a terrible struggle with David."
Nonetheless, said St. Paul's Pastor Steven Oeffling, "I'm glad I'm not judge and jury on this case.
"Little David was a cute little guy. It was tough to see him in a casket. But he's in heaven with the Lord, doing fine," Oeffling said. "In the meantime, our job is to provide support for Renee, her husband and Isaac.
"The judicial system will do its work in the near future."
* Sahagun reported from Greeley and Cimons from Washington, D.C.