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.