It was here in the
Olson family back yard in 1975 that the world first learned the name of
a man who, the story went, had been unwittingly drugged with LSD by the
Central Intelligence Agency 22 years earlier and then jumped to his death
from a 10th-floor hotel room.
The Olsons - among them Eric, the oldest child - called a news conference.
Reporters from throughout the country came to the house that Frank Olson
had built and gathered around the picnic table to listen.
Reporters heard that family patriarch Frank Olson, ostensibly an Army
scientist, had committed suicide in 1953. But that explanation left the
family - Eric Olson in particular - with many questions about Frank Olson's
life and death.
Eight years ago, questions unanswered, Frank Olson's body was exhumed
from the Frederick cemetery where it had lain for more than 40 years.
Forensic experts are hesitant to assert anything with complete certainty,
but they said the death was not a suicide.
Today, Eric Olson and his family will try to put their questions, theories
and suspicions to rest as they rebury what is left of Frank Olson in the
cemetery plot he shared with his wife. Yesterday, from the same picnic
table, Eric Olson, now 57, spoke again to reporters, this time saying
he knows how his father was killed, and why - enough answers to allow
him to move on.
"I feel satisfied," said Olson, a Harvard-educated clinical
psychologist. "We're where we want to be - we know what happened."
What Olson says he knows is this: His father was not a civilian scientist
at nearby Fort Detrick, as the family had been told. Instead, he worked
for the CIA, running the Special Operations Division at Detrick, which
Olson says was the government's "most secret biological weapons laboratory,"
working with materials such as anthrax.
He says the evidence he has gathered over the years shows that Frank Olson
didn't suffer a nervous breakdown, as the family initially was told, and
didn't commit suicide because he had had a negative drug experience, as
they learned in the 1970s. Instead, the son says, his father was killed
by the CIA because officials there feared he would divulge classified
information concerning the United States' use of biological weapons in
"It didn't happen," CIA spokesman Paul F. Novack said yesterday.
"We categorically deny that."
Two weeks after that news conference in 1975, the Olson family was invited
to the White House for a formal apology from President Gerald R. Ford.
"Actually, it was not at all clear exactly what it was that the president
and the CIA director were apologizing for," Olson recalled yesterday.
After the family agreed not to sue the CIA, it was awarded a $750,000
settlement. They had been told theirs was a case they could not win.
Now the family has learned that the Ford administration was keeping information
from the family, concerned that family members would ask questions about
the scientist's work that the government was unprepared to answer. Among
those who advocated keeping quiet were Dick Cheney and Donald H. Rumsfeld,
now the vice president and defense secretary, the Olsons learned from
memos and other papers received last year from the Gerald R. Ford Library.
"Most of it is documented now," said Philadelphia lawyer David
Rudovsky, who was a roommate of Eric Olson's in the 1970s and has assisted
him with the case over the years. "It's more than just some crazy
"It's not an easy theory to wrap your mind around," concedes
Nils Olson, 53, Eric Olson's brother.
Little is left of the body the Olsons exhumed in 1994. When the casket
was opened that day - it had been closed during the funeral years before
because the family had been told Frank Olson's body was too disfigured
from his fall - Eric Olson recognized his father. His face was largely
intact, lacking the cuts that would have resulted if he had broken through
a plate-glass window to jump.
Something else they say they have learned: Information about the murder
of Frank Olson, as the family calls it, is included in the assassination
curriculum of the Israeli Mossad - Israel's intelligence agency - because
it is considered a successful instance of disguising a murder as a suicide.
When Frank Olson is buried again today, only bones will be returned to
the ground - the tissue has been removed for study. The bones have been
sitting for years in a locked file cabinet in the George Washington University
office of James E. Starrs, the professor of law and forensic sciences
who determined that the death was not a suicide.
Yesterday's news conference lasted nearly two hours as members of Eric
Olson's family, including his brother, son and nieces, read through a
statement, more than 20 pages long, before answering questions. Eric Olson
lives in his childhood home, the place he lived when he was 9 years old
and learned of his father's death.
Yesterday, Eric Olson thanked people who have long listened to his story
and helped him work through the details: the filmmaker who made a German
documentary on the subject, the mechanic who has kept his Volvo running,
the friend who catered lunch.
Starrs listened to Eric Olson talk yesterday about putting his father's
death in the past. Starrs is not sure that Olson will be able to do so.
"I think people say these things in the hope they'll have sleep-filled
nights again," Starrs said.
"What I really respect about Eric is the purity of his pursuit,"
brother Nils Olson, a dentist who lives in Frederick, said afterward.
"It hasn't been to pursue a fixed agenda. It's really been the pursuit
of truth." Nils Olson sometimes worried that they might learn something
ugly about their father - for example, that he had been a traitor to his
government. Eric, though, was undeterred, whatever the outcome.
"Eric has given over a large bulk of his life to this," Nils
Olson said. "To be able to now invest energy back into his professional
career - hopefully, it's not too late; he is in his late 50s. He is extremely
bright, and he has a lot to offer the field of psychology.
"I believe he can put it to rest."