The Frank Olson Legacy Project
Frank Olson: The Man Who Fell 13 Stories
(G. P. Putnam’s
Sons, New York, 2005)
Used with permission of the author.
|James E. Starrs is David B. Weaver Research Professor of Law and Professor of Forensic Sciences at The George Washington University, Wahington D.C., and Distinguished Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.|
He was a conflicted man living in conflicted times who died leaving conflicting leads.
What seemed to be at first glance a simple and straight-forward set of events leading to a death turned out to be much more complicated than had been anticipated, including the occurrence of yet more mysterious deaths.
The victim under scrutiny was Frank Olson, Ph.D. who had died sometime after midnight on November 28, 1953, on the Seventh Avenue sidewalk outside New York’s Hotel Statler. Robert Lashbrook, Ph.D. who was with Olson on that fateful night, recounted his version of the events leading up to and occurring at the tragic moment many times: Lashbrook and Olson were together in Room 1018A on the 10th floor, actually the 13th when the first three unnumbered floors are counted, when Dr. Olson suddenly went out the room's only window. In his initial version of the events, Lashbrook insisted that he had been asleep at the time, and that he awoke to the sound of crashing glass. Only then did he realize that Dr. Olson had catapulted through the room's closed window, apparently bent on suicide.
Eric Olson, Dr. Olson's
elder surviving son, was nine years old at the time of his father’s
unexpected death. On the morning after the incident, he learned
from his father’s government boss, Colonel Vincent Ruwet, that his
father had died in a work-related accident that had occurred in a hotel.
He had either “fallen or jumped,” but young Eric could
not understand the full importance of what that meant. Over the
years, as he came to think about the claim that his father’s death
resulted from a “fatal nervous breakdown,” he discovered that
his father had been an employee of the C.I.A. engaged in sinister and
clandestine research activities of a biochemical nature.
The Olson family
was in 1953 living on the verge of Frederick, Maryland, while Frank Olson
was employed as a biochemist at nearby Fort Detrick, the Army’s
premier bacteriological warfare research installation. Since 1943, he
had been part of a team of scientists who were immersed in a top-secret
program aimed toward developing lethal biological and chemical weapons
for America’s defense during the Cold War, a subject considered
to be a matter of utmost secrecy for the protection of national security.
In 1949, Frank Olson
had helped to set up the Special Operations Division (SOD) at Fort Detrick,
where written records were forbidden and only a trusted few were allowed
to know about the more sensitive projects. Olson was tasked to develop
new and secret biological means for effective interrogation and warfare.
Olson soon became the acting head of this division. Among its projects,
according to what Eric’s research taught him, were the development
of assassination materials, collaboration with former Nazi scientists,
LSD mind control research, and the use of biological weapons during the
Korean War. The ominous nature of such mind-control research was
exposed to public view in the Hollywood movie “The Manchurian Candidate,”
starring the late Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey.
Eric remembers that his mother was uncomfortable about the work her husband was doing. He is of a mind that his father had expressed distress over experiments he was conducting and the possible use of the results. While a great deal about his activities remained unknown to his family, apparently during the weekend preceding his death Frank Olson had been uncharacteristically distraught, he being a person of considerable cheerfulness and bonhomie. He had come home early from a meeting at a mountain retreat and he had said something to his wife, Alice, about “a terrible mistake” he had made while presenting a paper at the meeting. He seemed deeply and singularly anxious about it but he would not reveal the nature of his mistake. According to Mrs. Olson, he felt certain that his career was in jeopardy and he had decided to resign.
In New York City,
at 58th Street, Olson reportedly had several sessions with a medical doctor
that lasted most of the day. He and Dr. Lashbrook had Thanksgiving
dinner in New York, but Olson telephoned his wife on Friday and told her
he expected to be home that Saturday. He was contemplating entering
a psychiatric hospital in Washington for treatment. But his plans
were not to be. That night he died in New York City. He was 43,
and left behind a wife and three young children, two sons, Eric and Nils,
and a daughter, Lisa.
His death being ruled a suicide, his body was sent home to Maryland for a burial. His casket was at all times kept closed due, so the family was informed, to the massive injuries he sustained in his fatal fall. Frank Olson was buried in a solemn ceremony on December 1, 1953 in Linden Hills Cemetery n Frederick, Maryland where a stone monument was put in place to his memory.
His father’s sudden death haunted Eric, who was now the man of the house. He felt certain that his father had not deliberately jumped out the window, but he was at a loss as to how to resolve his suspicions.
Four days later,
an invitation to the White House arrived. In a meeting that lasted
less than twenty minutes, President Gerald Ford offered a complete and
uncompromising apology and urged the government to grant the family 3⁄4
of a million dollars as a monetary settlement. The President also
ordered the C.I.A. Director William Colby to cooperate with them.
When the family, in due course, met with Colby, who later reported that this had been among the most difficult assignments he had ever had, he offered them 150 pages of redacted documents that he claimed amounted to the entire file that was relevant to their concerns. It was the C.I.A.’s investigation into Frank Olson’s death. He believed it would answer any questions they might have. He seemed unaware of the importance of what he was giving them, for the material soon raised more questions than it answered. It became clear to them that there was something darker in this tragic incident than a failed LSD experiment.
The laboratory experiment in which Frank Olson had unwittingly participated had been part of a “truth drug” program, supervised by Sidney Gottlieb and George Hunter White, which involved getting people to disclose all under the influence of a drug clandestinely administered. If the C.I.A. found the right drug, they could use it to extract secrets from enemy agents as well as learn how to protect their own agents against such disclosures. They had started with the active ingredient in marijuana and moved on to more dangerous drugs, like LSD once the program directors decided that informed subjects could not give authentic results, agents had administered LSD in large doses to unsuspecting soldiers at the Edgewood Arsenal and to unconsenting civilians in hospitals. The C.I.A. managers offered emoluments to universities soliciting their involvements. For the purposes of this research, some people were kept in a hallucinogenic state for days at a time.
At the New York Psychiatric Institute in January 1953, less than a year before Olson died, other experiments had been conducted. Harold Blauer, a tennis professional, went there for depression. He became one of the guinea pigs, but his reaction to the LSD spelled disaster for him. After a bad reaction, he succumbed to a coma and in short order died.
After his return
home in a dispirited and depressed state, he went to work and told Ruwet
of his intention to resign. Ruwet indicated to investigators that
he had appeared to be “all mixed up.” He and Lashbrook
then took Olson to New York. Instead of being under the care of
a qualified psychiatrist, Olson was taken to Harold Abramson, an allergist
with a C.I.A. clearance who was a firm believer in the therapeutic value
of LSD for psychiatric patients. At one point he apparently gave Olson
bourbon and the sedative nembutal both central nervous system depressants
whose adjuvant affect could have killed Olson. The sleep they might
have induced in him could have been his last.
By some accounts,
Olson might also have met a magician by the name of John Mulholland, who
may have tried to use hypnosis on him. Ruwet told investigators that Olson
became highly agitated and paranoid while New York. He spent one
night wandering the streets, and at one point he discarded his wallet
and his identification papers asking to be allowed to “disappear.”
Ruwet said that Olson did not want to go home to face his wife.
Yet the next day, he called his wife to assure her that he was better
and expected to see her the following day.
to the police who were investigating Olson’s death that he, Olson,
worked for the Defense Department, and that Olson had been calm that evening,
washing out his socks in the sink before going to bed.
Yet, four hours later,
Olson fell (sic) to his death.
As part of the police
investigation Lashbrook was taken to the 14th Precinct station house,
spending only a brief period there. He told the police that he did
not know why Olson had killed himself, except that he did suffer from
ulcers. The detectives asked him to empty his pockets but did not
keep a record of what they found. However, a Security Office report
indicated that he had airline ticket stubs for the trips that he and Olson
had taken, and a receipt for $115, dated November 25, 1953 and signed
by John Mulholland. Supposedly this was an advance for travel to
Lashbrook also had
hotel bills and papers with phone numbers, including those for Vince Ruwet
and Dr. Abramson. In addition, he had an address for a house on
Bedford Street that was used for Operation Midnight Climax. One
sheet of paper had New York City addresses for people identified only
by the initials G.W., M.H., and J.M. Lashbrook said that for security
reasons, he preferred not to reveal who they were. The detectives
apparently did not press the matter.
Since John Mulholland
had died in 1970, there was no way for the Olsons to interview him about
his possible involvement in this tragedy. However, he had been under
contract to prepare a manual, “Some Operational Applications of
the Art of Deception,” that applied the magician’s art to
covert activities, such as slipping drugs into drinks. There was
no record of the actual manual having been produced.
Right after Olson’s
death, the C.I.A. sent five investigators to New York, without explaining
why they would send so many in the case of an outright, uncontested suicide.
An internal memo the following week refers to Olson’s “suicide”
in quotation marks, as if the memo’s author was aware that it had
not been a suicide. And one of the phone numbers that Lashbrook
carried that fateful night was for George White, the man in charge of
the program, whose alias was Morgan Hall. Lashbrook’s immediate
boss was Sidney Gottlieb. Although George White operated a CIA safe
house in Greenwich Village, only minutes from the Hotel Statler, where
Olson and Lashbrook had taken lodging, they apparently did not visit it.
team recommended disciplinary action against Lashbrook and Gottlieb, but
while Lashbrook left the agency, Gottlieb remained in power for the next
two decades. (He can be said to have dismissed Olson’s death
during hearings in 1977 as one of the risks of running such experiments.)
The Olson family
was disturbed by what they had learned. Although the men who were investigated
had claimed that Frank Olson was in a suicidal frame of mind, they had
roomed him on a high floor. He had even managed to slip away from
them one night, a good indication that they were not really watching him.
On Thanksgiving Day, they had found him in a shell-shocked state
in the hotel lobby. Dr. Abramson had diagnosed him as psychotic
and recommended hospitalization. Yet he remained in the hotel for
two more nights.
Piecing these facts together, Eric Olson thought that Lashbrook’s account was implausible. He decided to investigate on his own. So in 1984, he went to the Hotel Statler (now the Hotel Pennsylvania) to see the room for himself. It was a basic hotel room with two double beds, small and rather spare in its furnishings. He could not imagine how anyone could have gotten a running start in such a room without awakening the person in the next bed—the man who was posted there to watch Eric’s supposedly delusional and suicidal father. The sill was high and there was a radiator right in front of it. The shade had also been pulled down. He wondered if it was in the realm of possibility to break through the window with so little space allowed to gain momentum and so many obstructions at the window.
To Eric, the newly
revealed facts painted a grim picture of his father’s death having
been a C.I.A. staged suicide. The C.I.A. operatives may have slipped
the LSD into his father’s drink to get him talking, and once they
saw his reaction, decided to get him to New York where the suicide could
be faked convincingly.
That was the hypothesis
he felt was cementing itself into place.
Yet even before this
new angle could be explored more thoroughly the Olson family was visited
by yet another tragedy—one that was indirectly instrumental in bringing
me into this steamy John Carre-like brew. To tell that story, I
ask the reader’s indulgence in my turning the clock back a few years.
Gregg was readying himself for a run for Congress. I have no doubt his likeable and knowledgeable personality would have carried the day for him. Lisa was active as a teacher for the deaf. They were a wonderful, much-loved couple with a young son, Jonathan. It was a joy to know them.
The first step involved a word by word examination of the New York City medical examiner's report, rendered in 1953, on the death of Dr. Olson. With the necessary consent of Eric Olson, I secured a copy which revealed its author to be Dr. Dominick Di Maio later to become the New York City medical examiner. His report was most abbreviated since the death had been “no posted,” (reported out based only on an external examination of Olson’s dead body). The accompanying toxicological report only assayed the presence of methyl and ethyl alcohol in the liver, with negative results, and included no drug scan of any kind. Those were strong indicia that a thorough autopsy could potentially accomplish something more than previously-contingent on the condition of Olson’s remains. That condition, for good or for ill, was the most uncertain and the most significant aspect of this as it is in any exhumation, especially where the time elapsed since burial is prolonged.
That contact, by
phone and mail, was cordial and cooperative in the sense that no court
order approving the exhumation was deemed necessary. Of course,
it is fair to say that if the full details of the exhumation had been
demanded of me a different attitude and result might have ensued. The
autopsy and its sequelae which were to intervene between the exhumation
and the reburial were not featured in my approaches to the legal authorities
in Maryland. Whether the investigation would have been stymied or side-tracked
if all had been told I cannot say, but it is probable that Frank Olson’s
remains would not have been housed above ground under lock and key in
my office and in that of Dr. Jack Levisky at York College, Pennsylvania
over the nearly ten year span that transpired until his reburial.
With these preliminaries
accomplished by October 1993, I proceeded to assemble a team of qualified
and eminent specialists in the multiple scientific disciplines that would
be put to the task in this investigation.
The total came to
fifteen. Dr. “Jack” (James) Frost, a West Virginia Medical
Examiner, agreed to perform the autopsy at the Hagerstown (Md) Community
College, arranged through the contacts made by Jeff Kercheval, a criminalist
with the Hagerstown police lab, who served on the team. Geologist
George Stevens, Ph.D. of The George Washington University was in charge
of any geological assessments. Yale Caplan Ph.D., a former President
of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, would perform the toxicological
analyses. Michael Calhoun, a radiolographer with Shady Grove (Md) Adventist
Hospital would do the x-raying. Jean Gardner Esq., stood by for
her legal insights, along with three photographers, including Gerry Richards,
a retired chief of the photography section at the FBI and a former student
of mine in the MFS curriculum at George Washington University.
Last to mention but
always in the forefront throughout the project was Dr. “Jack”
John Levisky, a forensic anthropologist and department chairman at York
College, PA. A scientific consultant, and an assortment of support
staff were also used. Some of these people would become regulars
with me in my future exhumations.
While the above ground
investigations proceeded, the exhumation was given the go-ahead.
Some victims are asphyxiated, which results from cutting off oxygen to the brain. Hanging, obstruction of airways with some object, smothering, or strangulation can cause asphyxia and each has specific manifestations. Carbon monoxide poisoning can also be a cause of death.
While I didn’t find it entirely unlikely that someone would want to see what was about to happen to him, I did think it unlikely that such a suicidally-minded person would have his arms at his sides, as Jack Frost’s opinion suggested, with his head taking the brunt of the collision with the window. It was improbable that Olson’s exit was as Jack Frost hypothesized especially with the shade drawn and the window closed. Not even Superman has been pictured soaring off into the blue in that fashion.
Yet even supposing that this trace of silicon demonstrated the presence of glass, the question remained whether it was glass from the window of Room 1018A or from some other source. And if it were determined to be glass from the window of Room 1018A, there remained a question whether it came to adhere in this laceration when Dr. Olson’s head struck the window of Room 1018A in exiting it or whether it was the broken window glass of Room 1018A already lying on the sidewalk of 7th Avenue when Dr. Olson’s head hit there. Of course it bears mention that it could be random broken glass on the sidewalk having no connection to Dr. Olson’s death.
But whether that
glass was the window glass of room 1018A or some foreign piece of glass
of infinitesimally minute size that had been lying about on the 7th Avenue
sidewalk of the Hotel Statler are equally possible, and that issue is
a conundrum not answerable by scientific means. We can only infer
that the laceration had glass in it and that it came from glass from the
sidewalk. Further than this we dare not even hazard a guess.
Our next port of call for identification purposes lay in the teeth. Not having ante-mortem dental X-rays of Frank Olson, how were we to make an acceptable identification? Photographs of Olson showing his teeth through a smiling face were assembled and forwarded to the team’s forensic odontologist, Dr. John McDowell, at the University of Colorado Medical School in Denver. At the same time the actual skull from our exhumation was forwarded to Dr. McDowell. His report of his dental comparisons was thorough and constituted additional strong support for the remains being those of Frank Olson, even though it lacked the element of surprise that his dental expertise revealed from the exhumed teeth of Jesse Woodson James.
While we had no reasonable doubt about the identity of these remains, we decided to go one long stride forward with new technology still on the scientific cusp to attempt a computerized superimposition of the skull to known photographs of Frank Olson. Calling upon the combined services of Dr. Vernon Spitzer, also of the University of Colorado in Denver, and Michael Sellbert of Engineering Animation, Inc, we were able to use computer wizardry to see how the ante-mortem photographs of Olson matched the skull from the grave. These telling results left no further doubt that the remains we had autopsied were those of Dr. Frank Olson to the exclusion of anyone else.
We had a triad of possibilities to consider: that someone in the room had hit Olson and pushed or dropped him out; that he had hit something on the way out or down; and that he had received his injury on the sidewalk. We would use the injury and the information to make this determination.
And still the possibility could not be discounted that someone in the room had inflicted a blow to Dr. Olson in the process of stunning him into submission, preparatory to ejecting him from the window, especially if the window was open at the time and broken thereafter to coincide with Lashbrook’s contemporaneous statements.
More searching and additional questing lay before me.
Dr. Margaret Ferguson was not the only one who refused to be interviewed. Vincent Ruwet, both a supervisor of Olson and his supposed friend, also adamantly refused to enter into a dialogue on the death of Dr. Olson. His reiterated one-liner to me during my telephone call was “I have nothing to say on the matter.”
With a mike concealed in my pocket connected to the CBS camera crew across the street, I knocked imploringly on Gustafeste’s door. “Who’s there?” came a gruff and uninviting male voice. “A professor investigating the death of Dr. Frank Olson,” I gently responded. Suddenly a female voice interjected “I knew they’d find you some day. Don’t let him in.”
I cannot comment on that, except to say that his memory was obviously very selective, sometimes showing crystal clarity and sometimes mired in opacity. His failure to recall whether he kept a record of the event in his patrolman’s notebook was a challenge to his credibility as was his memory lapse on whether this was the one and only jumper he had investigated. Inexplicable silence during an interview comes in many tones and hues. A failure to recall is but one dubious kind.
Probably the most unsettling, even unnerving moment in my conversation with Dr. Gottlieb occurred toward its close when he spontaneously sought to enlighten me on a matter of which I might not take due notice---so he thought. He pointedly explained that in 1953 the Russian menace was quite palpable and that it was potentially worsened by the Russians’ having cached many kilograms of LSD from the Sandoz laboratory in Switzerland.
The original plan was to rebury Frank Olson at Mount Olivet Cemetery beside his wife, Alice, in July 1994, but instead his remains were stored for possible re-examination. The bones lay in pieces in boxes under lock and key in my office at GW, and the soft flesh was placed in a vault in storage at York College. These are the places where Olson’s remains were deposited for eight years while Eric pursued further avenues of investigation. Not even the presentation of my team’s scientific and investigative findings at the National Press Club on November 28, 1994, closed the door to the emergence of new eye-opening details. It was the day following the National Press Club’s public disclosure of our work and findings that I received a telephone call from Dr. Robert Gibson, a retired psychiatrist, who indicated that his memory had been jogged by his reading the newspaper accounts of my Olson labors.
Dr. Gibson informed me that he had been the psychiatrist on duty at the Chestnut Lodge hospital in Rockville, Maryland when Lashbrook, without identifying himself, had called from New York City just hours before Dr. Olson died. He told me he could never forget that call although so many years had passed because he was also the recipient of a second phone call the next morning from Dr. Lashbrook stating that Dr. Olson had died in New York City and, therefore, he would not be coming to Chestnut Lodge Hospital.
Dr. Gibson explained that the affair was still vivid in his memory because he grieved over the fact that he had dissuaded Dr. Lashbrook from journeying with Dr. Olson to the hospital on the night of the first phone call. His recommendations against hospitalization had been voiced when Dr. Lashbrook had insisted that Olson was then no danger to himself or to others.
Upon my inquiring
about the conversation between him and Dr. Lashbrook on the morning of
Olson’s death, I was stunned to hear yet another conflicting account
from Lashbrook of the occurrence. Dr. Gibson affirmed that Lashbrook
had said he awakened to find Olson standing in the middle of the hotel
room. He had tried to speak to Olson, but Olson had run straight
toward the window, through it and to his death. But Lashbrook had
not said a word about whether the window was closed, whether the shade
was drawn or otherwise. However, I now had another conflicting view
of the last moments in the life of Frank Olson. And this latest
account came from the recollections of an unimpeachable reporter, a psychiatrist
of impeccable credentials who had gone on to become the director of the
esteemed Sheppard, Enoch and Pratt Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. This
telephone call was memorialized by me in a subsequent taped interview
with Dr. Gibson at the Sheppard, Enoch and Pratt Hospital.
In addition, it was
at least odd that C.I.A. Director William Colby had produced documents
about Olson’s projects that Gottlieb had testified before Congress
in 1977 were destroyed. At that time he had asked for immunity,
but Saracco was not sure why he would do so, nor why so much material
had been redacted from the Olson files. They looked more closely
at several aides-de-memoirs that the Olson’s had not accessed believing
they held the key to why Frank Olson had been considered a security hazard.One
of these memos indicated that Olson had been associated with what it dubbed
“un-American” groups. The message was cryptic, but it characterized
Frank Olson as having “no inhibitions.”
Saracco and Bibb decided to interview William Colby, Vincent Ruwet, Robert Lashbrook, and Sidney Gottlieb. They mailed letters to Ruwet and Colby. Within days, Colby suddenly turned up missing. He left a computer running in his home, a glass of wine on the table, and the lights and radio on. It was a mystery, solved a week later when searchers found his decomposing remains on a Chesapeake Bay island. His death was ruled an accidental drowning when water swamped his canoe.
Saracco and Bibb did manage to meet with Ruwet in Frederick, Maryland, as reported by H.P. Albarelli, and they found him skillfully evasive. They decided to set up a second meeting to explore further what he had said, but on November 16, Vincent Ruwet suffered a fatal heart attack.
Lashbrook, now 80, refused to respond to the request for an interview, so the DA’s office issued a subpoena. Lashbrook refused it. Saracco and Bibb flew to meet him in California, but he would only talk in the presence of an attorney, which resulted in his stone walling all the questions asked.
Gottlieb was another matter. Even as they were seeking an interview, they learned that he was being sued in civil court by the family of an aspiring artist whom he had allegedly drugged with LSD in Paris in 1952. The incident had made this man unstable and had ruined his life, so it was alleged, possibly precipitating his early death. The situation was consistent with the CIA’s surreptitious drugging of hundreds of unwitting American citizens as part of their Cold War experiments. At Senate hearings on the matter in 1977, Gottlieb had stated that these were risks worth taking for the sake of national security, the same position he had expressed to me at our one and only meeting.
With this information in hand, Saracco and Bibb prepared to see him. He had told reporters in the past that he was not going to discuss Frank Olson any further. Nevertheless, the attorneys prepared a draft of a letter to him. On that same day, Gottlieb died from a heart attack.
A bit befuddled and bemused, the prosecutors turned their attention to David Berlin, who had investigated the C.I.A. in 1975 and had brought Frank Olson’s LSD dosing to public attention. They wanted to know the wherewithal of those details. Prophetically enough, before they could make contact with him, Berlin fell in a hotel room and died from head injuries.
Eric Olson, always on the qui vive for new information, discovered that in the assassination training unit of the Israeli Mossad, the Olson case was used as an example of the perfect murder. Eventually investigative essayist H.P. Albarelli came to Olson in his research into the case. He had contacts among C.I.A. agents in Florida, he said, and some of them had told him they knew who had killed Frank Olson in Room 1018A that night. It was his belief that the perpetrators were contract killers associated with a mob family and the C.I.A. had hired them to do their dirty work. However, these agents refused to spill the details without the C.I.A.’s releasing them from their confidentiality agreements, and that never happened.
Then in 1997, Eric obtained a copy of the C.I.A.’s 1953 assassination manual, now declassified. In it, the scenario promoted for “contrived accident” murder precisely fit like the key that would unlock the door the mystery of Frank Olson is death — so much so that the only question remaining was whether his murder was the paradigm for the manual or whether the manual offered the blueprint for his death. That manual clearly suggested disguising a murder as a suicide by dropping the subject from a high window or roof. It also suggested that the perpetrator then play the “horrified witness,” and that drugs be used for the subject’s preparation. If the subject had to be controlled, blows to the temple or behind the ear were said to be effective means of silencing him.
That manual certainly might explain why the C.I.A. had taken an allegedly psychotic man to a hotel room situated on a high floor rather than to a safe house or hospital. It would also explain the low exit velocity that allowed Olson to hit the wooden impediment on the sidewalk below. That is exactly what would have transpired if he had been dropped rather than propelled through the window.
Through an unnamed
source, the DA’s office learned that at the Deep Creek meeting,
Olson had been given LSD mixed with Meretran, a drug that made people
talk more freely. This confirmed the document from Dr. Abramson,
written a few weeks after Olson’s death, that the drug had been
used to set a trap. He had also told Army researchers that Olson’s
death had been in the wake of security breaches by him following his 1953
trip overseas, and that only two people knew the complete story about
it. One of them had received a substantial sum of money in the month
of Olson’s death for “services rendered.” So had
It was learned that an agent who had gone to New York immediately after Olson’s death had listened to a conversation between Lashbrook and Abramson that clearly concerned their conspiring to devise a report to the effect that Olson’s mental state had been deteriorating. But that was not all. Even more frightful discoveries were aborning.
The Olsons discovered documents in Michigan’s Gerald Ford Library that indicated that the government had been extremely concerned upon learning that Frank Olson’s family was questioning the official explanation of his death. The government feared that highly classified information was at stake and that a court might grant full discovery, including information on the nature of Olson’s work. That had to be avoided at any cost. As Eric Olson surmised, “In the wake of the Nuremburg trials in the late 1940s, the United States could not afford to be exposed as a sponsor of the sort of research it had prosecuted the Nazis for undertaking.”
While these myriad investigations were occurring around me, I was not quiescent. At the urging of Eric and Harry Huge I took a train to New York City accompanied by Olson’s boxed skull. Traveling with human skeletal remains in tow always leaves me, as Albert Camus said on another subject, “strangely aching.” I cannot leave the skull out of sight but at the same time I cannot treat it in away to generate suspicions. After all, what would the prying eyes say to my explanation that I was carrying it to the New York City Medical Examiner for his inspection.
Upon arriving in New York City I had my usual professional difficulty of finding my way successfully from Point A, Grand Central Station, to Point B, the District Attorney office where I was to meet a member of the Medical Examiner’s staff. Finding myself lost in the warrens of lower Manhattan I happened by chance upon a police station where I asked for directions. The directions were forthcoming and very accommodating, even to the point of a uniformed officer’s volunteering to show me the way even to the extent of carrying the box with the skull for me. The police officer was most courteous and pointed to my being somewhat over burdened, as he said, for a man of my years with the items I was lugging about with me. Needless to say I declined his offer, not wanting to be exposed as a possible follower of Milwaukee’s cannibalistic killer Jeffrey Dahmer who collected the skulls of his victims.
I made my way unescorted to the District Attorney’s office, where by happenstance I met Patricia Cornwall who said she was there researching material for a book. “What brought you here?” she asked.
“Oh,” I said, “just a skull session with an assistant medical examiner.”
She inquired no further nor did I volunteer anything more.
My meeting with the assistant medical examiner was most unsatisfactory. He entered the meeting with a negative frame of mind, wondering aloud why such a “cold case” would be deserving of his or anyone’s attention. It was, therefore, not unexpected that he would down-play the significance of the sizeable blood stain on the skull over Olson’s left eye. As he put it, the staining could have come about post-mortem. When I asked for his experiential evidence that such a thing had happened in some reported case or cases involving an exhumation many years after the fact, the answer was one that no true scientist would tender. “Everyone knows that to be the case,” he said. I could have asked, but, getting the drift of the position he had taken, I pretermitted asking whether he was telling me that bleeding continued after death even for thirty-six years after the fact.
Here was a pathologist who wanted a smoking gun, not a skull with a massively blood-stained frontal bone, to induce him to declare the manner of death a homicide. I wondered, to myself, with that attitude controlling his decision-making, how many murderers had escaped their just deserts in New York City on his watch.
Foiled and frustrated I made a quick but courteous departure and in my abstracted frame of mind took a taxi back to Grand Central Station.
Early in 2001, Harry Huge reportedly expected the DA’s office to declare Olson’s death a murder, which would free the Olsons to file a substantial lawsuit. However, things began to crumble and by the end of the year, Eric discerned that the DA’s office had retrenched on their efforts. Notwithstanding, the DA’s men had learned that two men had gone into Olson’s room the night of his death. Unfortunately, these men were untraceable at this late date. The C.I.A. denied any knowledge of them, but one man appeared to be related to several assassination cases, and therefore no one was going to talk.
I had thought all along of the possibility of the presence of a third person in room 1018A when Olson exited it. Such a third person could have been positioned to enter from the room next door through a door from that room to room 1018A. The hotel management had refused my request to disclose the identity of any person resident on November 27, 1953 in the adjoining room. It was said not to be the hotel’s policy to reveal the names of its guests since they might be temporarily resident there, shall we say, under circumstances possibly compromising their marital vows or otherwise.
More was yet in the offing.
In the spring of 2001, Norman Cournoyer, who had been a close friend of Olson’s and a colleague at Detrick, contacted the Olson brothers. He had seen the published accounts of the investigations and believed that something was missing. He pointed out that Olson had witnessed harsh interrogations of former Nazis and Soviet spies, and that sometimes these persons had died as a result of those procedures. Olson had heard it said that, despite official denials, the American government had used biological weapons in Korea during the Korean “Conflict.” Alice Olson had said that Frank, her husband, had expressed distress over this possibility, but she had not known if he actually knew anything.
On September 12, 2001, Harry Huge suddenly bowed out. He was swamped with too many other cases, he said. Disappointed, Eric found it difficult acquiring another attorney to take the lead. He decided the time had come to close the case and to rebury his father. He called me in mid-July 2002 to obtain the return of his father’s remains. After eight years of his presence in my office I parted with them with mixed emotions.
On the day before the funeral, Eric and his family held a press conference to call finis to everything he had learned to anyone who was interested. The Olson family had written a twenty-three-page statement for the media, reminding everyone that it had been forty-one years since their father’s death, twenty-seven years since the government had offered what they said was the truth, and eight years since the exhumation.
It was their belief, although they had no smoking gun, that their father had been murdered to keep him from disclosing information about a secret C.I.A. program, and that the story of a “bad trip” on LSD had been concocted either as a cover-up for his murder or as a cloak that concealed the dagger they had figuratively used to kill him.
On August 9, 2002,
I went in the company of team members Jack Frost and Jack Levisky to Mount
Olivet Cemetery on Market Street in Frederick, Maryland, for Dr. Olson’s
reburial beside his wife Alice. It had been eight years since we
had exhumed his remains and more than time had passed since that time.
Nils and Eric had discussed with me the possibility of cremating
the remains of their father. I prevailed on them not to do so for
the sake of Alice, their mother, and for the solace they would take in
knowing the investigation was not ended, only interrupted by the reburial.
In Mount Olivet Cemetery, which dates its first interment to 1854, lay hundreds of soldiers from both sides of the Civil War, as well as veterans from the past century’s world wars. Eight miles of paved roads run past more than 34,000 graves. Also the impressive monument to Francis Scott Key, who wrote “The Star Spangled Banner,” stood tall and erect there.
At the funeral, attended
by several dozen relatives, friends of the family, and members of my team,
the remains were lowered into the ground for what could be their final
From my view and that of the clear majority of my team members, with all the other investigative details, as well as what we found scientifically, Dr. Olson's death was not a suicide. The probabilities, taken together, strongly and relentlessly suggest that it was a homicide.
In the present state of our factual knowledge about the death of Dr. Olson, I would venture to say that the sub-galeal hematoma is singular evidence of the possibility that Dr. Olson was struck a stunning blow to the head by some person or instrument prior to his exiting through the window of Room 1018A, a person or persons with a homicidal frame of mind The convergence of this physical evidence from our scientific investigations with the results of our non-scientific inquiries raises this possibility from the merely possible to the realm of real and incontestable probability.
The documentary evidence from 1953 demonstrates a concerted pattern of concealment and deception on the part of those persons and agencies most closely associated with--and most likely to be accountable for--a homicide most foul in the death of Dr. Olson. And the steeled reluctance to be honest, forthright and candid by persons with knowledge of the occurrence on matters pivotal to the question of homicide or suicide bespeaks an involvement more sinister than mere unconcern, arrogance or even negligence. The confluence of scientific fact and investigative fact points unerringly to the death of Frank Olson as being a homicide, deft, deliberate and diabolical.