Since 1953, Eric Olson has heard more than one explanation for
his father's mysterious death. Now he believes it was murder.
He was 9 years old when his mother woke him before dawn half a century ago
in Cold War America. Eric Olson came blinking into the living room of their
Frederick home, where his father's boss and friend, Col. Vincent Ruwet,
sat with the family doctor.
"Everybody had this stony-faced expression," Olson recalls. "I
remember Ruwet saying, 'Your father was in New York and he had an accident.
He either fell out the window or jumped.'"
After decades of dogged inquiry, Eric Olson now has a new verb for what
happened to his father, Frank Olson, who worked for the Army's top-secret
Special Operations Division at Fort Detrick, where he developed bioweapons
and experimented with mind-control drugs.
Eric Olson found the verb in a 1950s CIA manual that was declassified in
1997 - one more clue in a quest that has consumed his adult life.
The verb is "dropped." And the manual is a how-to guide for assassins.
"The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of
75 feet or more onto a hard surface," the manual says, adding helpfully:
"It will usually be necessary to stun or drug the subject before dropping
Eric Olson believes his father - who developed misgivings about his work
and tried to resign - was murdered by government agents to protect dark
To find out what happened in the Statler Hotel on the night of Nov. 28,
1953, Eric once spent a sleepless night in the room from which his father
fell. He confronted his father's close-mouthed colleagues. He had his father's
mummified body exhumed. And he built a circumstantial case that Frank Olson
was the victim of what he calls a "national security homicide."
The government has long denied the charge of murder. But it has admitted
what might be called negligent manslaughter. Its version: that Frank Olson
crashed through the window in a suicidal depression nine days after he was
given LSD without his knowledge in a CIA mind-control experiment.
Eric never bought that argument. His devotion to the case derailed a promising
career as a clinical psychologist that began with a doctorate from Harvard.
In some Frederick circles, you'll hear disapproving murmurs about Eric's
obsession - contrasted with the success of his younger brother, Nils, a
dentist. But Nils Olson, 55, says he admires his brother's tenacity and
agrees with his conclusion.
"At every point there seems to be a convergence of the evidence,"
Nils Olson says. "It all points to my father's being murdered."
The patriotic community surrounding Fort Detrick has long been reluctant
to believe such a possibility. Once, Eric Olson says, he was, too.
"I'm not essentially conspiratorial in my worldview," says the
lanky psychologist, who seems almost boyish at 59. "In my father's
case, I just started turning over stones, and there was a snake under every
It may well be that Olson is wrong - that the government merely drugged
his father with LSD, treated him thoughtlessly when he fell into madness
and covered it up for 22 years. But if Frank Olson was murdered, then part
of the plan would naturally be a cover-up.
"No assassination instructions should ever be written or recorded,"
says the CIA assassination manual. "Decision and instructions should
be confined to an absolute minimum of persons."
It adds: "For secret assassination ... the contrived accident is the
most effective technique. When successfully executed, it causes little excitement
and is only casually investigated."
Whether the truth is homicide or suicide induced by a reckless drug experiment,
the Olson saga is a cautionary tale in an era that echoes the early days
of the Cold War. In the war on terror, America again appears tempted to
use extreme measures.
In Olson's case, it took the government until 1975 to admit to the LSD experiment.
When an investigation of CIA abuses exposed the facts in 1975, two White
House aides named Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld helped set up a meeting
at which President Gerald Ford apologized to the Olson family.
The goal, according to a declassified White House memo, was to avert a lawsuit
in which it "may become apparent that we are concealing evidence for
national security reasons."
What evidence was concealed, the memo does not reveal. But people who are
far from wild-eyed conspiracy theorists accept the plausibility of Frank
Olson's death as an execution.
Among them is Army intelligence veteran Norman G. Cournoyer, 85, who worked
with Olson at Detrick and became one of his closest friends.
"If the question is, did Frank commit suicide, my answer is absolutely,
positively not," says Cournoyer, now frail and wheelchair-bound, living
in Amherst, Mass.
Why would he have been killed?
"To shut him up," Cournoyer says. "Frank was a talker ...
. His concept of being a real American had changed. He wasn't sure we should
be in germ warfare, at the end."
William P. Walter, 78, who supervised anthrax production at Detrick, says
Olson's colleagues were divided about his death. "Some say he jumped.
Some say he had help," Walter says. "I'm one of the 'had-help'
So is James Starrs, a George Washington University forensic pathologist
who examined Olson's exhumed corpse in 1994 and called the evidence "rankly
and starkly suggestive of homicide."
Based on that finding, the Manhattan district attorney's office opened a
homicide investigation in 1996. Two cold-case prosecutors, Steve Saracco
and Daniel Bibb, conducted dozens of interviews, hunted records at the CIA
and went to California with a court order to question CIA retiree Robert
V. Lashbrook, who shared Olson's room the night he died. (Like everyone
known to be directly involved, Lashbrook is now dead.)
In 2001, they gave up.
"We could never prove it was murder," says Saracco.
But Saracco, now retired, found plenty to fuel his suspicions: a hotel room
so cramped it was hard to imagine Olson vaulting through the closed window;
motives to shut Olson up; the ambiguous autopsy; and the CIA assassination
"Whether the manual is a complete coincidence, I don't know,"
Saracco says. "But it was very disturbing to see that a CIA manual
suggested the exact method of Frank Olson's death."
For 20 years after its creation in 1949, Detrick's Special
Operations Division developed covert germ weapons - dart guns and aerosol
sprayers to assassinate foreign enemies.
There is no evidence they were ever used. In fact, the only death that
clearly resulted from the program was that of Frank Olson, one of its
The son of Swedish immigrants, Frank Rudolph Olson earned a doctorate
in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin and joined the World War II
bioweapons program at what was then Camp Detrick.
In 1949, Olson was recruited by Detrick's Special Operations Division.
Within months, the Korean War was raging, Sen. Joseph McCarthy was launching
his hunt for Communist agents, and pressure was on to build new U.S. germ
By 1951, the Special Operations Division had won praise from a Pentagon
committee for the "the originality, imagination and aggressiveness
it has displayed in devising means and mechanisms for the covert dissemination
of bacteriological warfare agents."
In October 1952, Olson was promoted to acting director of the division.
Although his family didn't know it, he had also been recruited by the
CIA for a program code-named Artichoke, part of a decades-long hunt for
drugs to make enemy prisoners spill their secrets.
As his career prospered, Olson and his wife, Alice, built a dream house
on a hillside above Frederick. They became regulars at Detrick's officers'
"He and his wife were both fun people," recalls Curtis B. Thorne,
a Detrick veteran who pioneered anthrax studies at the University of Massachusetts.
But promotions and parties concealed Olson's qualms about his work. Suffering
from ulcers, he left the Army and stayed on at Detrick as a civilian -
though he bridled at the Army's strict oversight. A 1949 security document
reported: "Olson is violently opposed to control of scientific research,
either military or otherwise, and opposes supervision of his work."
The same year, colleagues recall, Olson was influenced by a new book by
a mentor. In Peace or Pestilence: Biological Warfare and How To Avoid
It, Theodor Rosebury said science should combat disease, not find devious
ways to spread it.
Cournoyer, the Army intelligence veteran, says Olson began to raise ethical
issues the friends had discussed during night courses in philosophy at
the Catholic University of America. Colleagues were astonished to spot
Olson chatting with the pacifists who protested outside Detrick's gates.
"He was turning, no doubt about it," Cournoyer says.
By the fall of 1953, according to Cournoyer, Olson was approaching a crisis
of conscience. He had witnessed "special interrogations" of
prisoners under the Artichoke program during a secret trip to Europe in
After returning, Cournoyer recalls, Olson asked, "Have you ever seen
a man die?"
"He actually called it torture," Cournoyer recalls. "He
said they went so far as to take a life - lives, definitely more than
one. Whatever they got out of them, he didn't consider it worth a life."
One colleague, who spoke on condition of anonymity, thinks Olson was upset
because he believed the U.S. had used biological weapons against North
Korea. Two Canadian researchers, Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman,
wrote a 1998 book arguing that such attacks occurred.
But the U.S. government has long denied using bioweapons, and most U.S.
experts reject the charge. The issue may not be resolved until all the
relevant documents are declassified, if ever.
Whatever its source, Olson's disillusionment came to a head after the
LSD experiment on Nov. 19, 1953, at a rented cabin on Deep Creek Lake
in Western Maryland. Olson - who had stepped down to deputy chief of Special
Operations - joined six Army colleagues and three CIA men led by Sidney
Gottlieb, the eccentric and powerful CIA liaison to Detrick.
By his own account, Gottlieb served Cointreau to seven of the men without
telling them he had laced it with LSD, ostensibly to study the drug's
A 'terrible mistake'
Alice Olson would recall that her husband returned home
deeply depressed. He told her he had made a "terrible mistake"
but wouldn't elaborate. He said he planned to leave the Army and retrain
as a dentist.
According to the official CIA version of events, made public in 1975,
Olson became increasingly despondent and paranoid. On Nov. 24, concerned
colleagues took him to New York to see a doctor, Harold Abramson, who
had experimented with LSD.
Three days later, Olson agreed to be admitted to a Rockville psychiatric
hospital. He and CIA officer Robert Lashbrook decided to spend the night
at the Statler and head south the next morning.
But at 2:45 a.m., Lashbrook told investigators, he awoke to the sound
of breaking glass. Olson had thrown himself through the closed shade and
closed window, falling 170 feet to his death on the sidewalk below.
From 1953 to 1975, as Alice Olson descended into alcoholism and fought
back to sobriety, she and her children were told nothing about LSD. When
the story finally surfaced in the Rockefeller Commission report on CIA
abuses, they got official apologies from President Ford and from CIA Director
William Colby, who handed over CIA documents on the case. They later received
$750,000 in compensation.
But 22 years of deception made it difficult to persuade the family that
the new official story was the whole truth.
The betrayal was deeply personal. The LSD cover-up had involved Frank
Olson's colleagues, particularly his boss, the late Col. Vincent Ruwet
- who had consoled Eric with the gift of a darkroom set and a jigsaw after
his father's death.
"Whenever suspicions came up, the family would say: 'This can't be
correct, because Ruwet would have known, and Ruwet wouldn't deceive us.'
Our relationship to Ruwet was symbolic of our relationship to the whole
Detrick community," Eric said.
As a teenager, Eric was a patriotic member of that community, where he
became an Eagle Scout in the base-sponsored troop. But in college and
graduate school, he grew skeptical.
If his mother shared his doubts, Eric said, she never acted on them: "My
mother's mantra was: 'You are never going to know what happened in that
hotel room.' It's an injunction, a kind of threat, a taboo and a prediction."
Eric's younger sister, Lisa, was killed in a 1978 plane crash along with
her husband and 2-year-old son. Ironically, she died on the way to inspect
a lumber mill as a place to invest her share of the government's compensation
for Frank's death.
His brother, Nils, who was only 5 in 1953, consciously chose dentistry,
the alternate career his father had considered.
But Eric, the eldest, couldn't settle down. He moved to Sweden, his father's
ancestral home, and had a son, Stephan, with a Swedish woman. Then he
returned to the family home, determined to explain his father's death.
One clue came from Armand Pastore, the assistant night manager at the
Statler in 1953. He approached the family in 1975 to report what he'd
heard from the hotel switchboard operator that night. Immediately after
Olson's fall, CIA officer Lashbrook phoned Abramson, the physician. Instead
of shocked and emotional voices, the operator had told Pastore, there
was a brief and seemingly expected exchange.
"He's gone," Lashbrook said.
"That's too bad," Abramson reportedly answered.
A similar impression came from a CIA investigator's report in Colby's
documents. Dispatched to New York immediately after Olson's death, the
investigator listened through a closed door as Abramson told Lashbrook
he was "worried as to whether or not the deal was in jeopardy"
and thought "the whole operation was dangerous and the whole deal
should be reanalyzed."
In a report to the CIA on the death, Abramson wrote that the LSD experiment
was designed "especially to trap [Olson]." This conflicted with
Gottlieb's story and raised a troubling possibility: that the LSD experiment
was actually designed to see whether Olson could still be trusted to keep
the agency's dark secrets.
And there was Frank Olson's mummified body, exhumed in 1994, the year
after Alice Olson died. Starrs, the pathologist, found none of the facial
cuts the original autopsy described, but he did find a contusion to the
head that he thought was caused by a blow struck before the fall.
All these anomalies Eric Olson has duly recorded on a Web site devoted
to his father's memory: www.frankolsonproject.org.
A half-century after his father's death, Eric Olson seems to be struggling
to put it behind him. He says he believes he knows what happened, even
if he doesn't know details of perpetrators and motives. "You can
see the truth through the fog," he says. "But you can't quite
make out what it is."
Sometimes, in moments of frustration - which come often because he's struggling
to earn a living - he says he's sorry he ever looked into his father's
"I've ruined my life," he says in one interview. "I regret
everything. I regret digging my father's body up ... . For me, the end
has come with facing a hard truth, confronting my own naivete. I thought
I wanted knowledge. I didn't think that if knowledge is knowledge of murder,
then it's not enough - because then you want justice. And you don't get
justice with a secret state murder."
At other times, he seems eager for any new scrap of information. He explains
the contradiction by citing the Shakespearean son who pursues the truth
about his father's murder.
"Read Hamlet," he says. "Hamlet has become like a friend
to me. Once you start looking into your father's death, you go to the
Buried secrets of biowarfare
By Scott Shane.
(Aug. 1, 2001)
During the Cold War, top Army scientists toiled stealthily in rural
Maryland to make covert weapons coveted by new enemies.
harvested victims' blood to boost anthrax: Ex-scientists detail Detrick
By Scott Shane.
(Dec. 23, 2001)