January 2000, Gentleman’s Quarterly, The Man Who Knew Too Much, by Mary A. Fischer,
ERIC OLSON NEVER BOUGHT THE CIA'S OFFICIAL LINE ABOUT ONE OF THE DARKEST STORIES OF THE COLD WAR. NOW, AFTER DECADES OF OBSESSIVE DIGGING, HE IS ON THE VERGE OF PROVING THE TRUTH, THE FULL CRIMINAL TALE OF HIS FATHER'S DEATH
ILLUSTRATION BY DAVID PLUNKERT
PHOTOGRAPH BY MARY ELLEN MARK
On a November morning in 1953, Eric Olson was asleep when the two men came knocking on the front door of his family's home in Frederick, Maryland. Eric, then 9, made his way to the living room, where his mother sat in stony silence on the couch. One of the men was the Olsons’ family doctor; the other Eric recognized as his father’s boss.
Back then, in the early years of the Cold War, Eric knew little about his father's profession except that he was a government scientist whose mysterious work required him to travel frequently. Frank Olson’s Ph.D. in biochemistry made him a particularly valued member of a team of government researchers who, in collaboration with the CIA, were conducting top-secret biological- and chemical-warfare experiments out of the U.S. Army’s Camp Detrick, in Frederick. The work was considered so sensitive and, in time, so shocking that few outside the small group knew of its existence.
In a somber voice, the man from Camp Detrick told Eric, "Your father has died. It seems he fell or jumped from a hotel window."
"He did what?" the boy asked. It didn't add up. His father was usually jovial and good-natured, and when he had telephoned his wife the previous night from New York, he was in good spirits and looking forward to returning home. But there were no more details. It would take two decades before the circumstances surrounding Frank Olson’s bizarre death were exposed by a congressional investigation, and even then it wouldn't be the whole story.
For Eric, what began as a brokenhearted son's confusion over his father's death turned into an all-consuming quest to uncover the truth, one that has taken him into some of the darkest corners of American history. Over the years, he came to think of himself as the "Hamlet of the CIA," a man who would do anything to avenge his father's death. One line from the Play has echoed time and again in his mind, the final words of the ghost of Hamlet's father: "Remember me."
Eric would sacrifice his personal life and a promising career as a clinical psychologist and end up, forty-six years later, when I met him, broke and alone in his run-down childhood home in Frederick, anxiously awaiting the results of the Manhattan district attorney's investigation, which might confirm, once and for all, a shocking government secret and finally bring an end to his life-draining obsession.
HAPPY DAYS: Eric Olson, front left, with his family in the 1950s.
On June 11, 1975, The Washington Post published several front-page articles on the results of the Rockefeller Commission's investigation of the CIA’s covert projects. One story reported that the agency had infiltrated and spied on seventeen antiwar and black political groups, but another article, headlined “SUICIDE REVEALED,” caused the biggest sensation. The story described how “a civilian employee” of the army had jumped to his death from a New York hotel window after being drugged with LSD during a CIA meeting. The dead man was not identified by name, and if the circumstances of the reported suicide had not closely matched what the Olsons already knew, they would never have known that the CIA had been involved.
Eric remembers well the Post’s revelations: "I sat for long hours talking about this with friends. Everybody was shocked at the idea of a deliberate LSD drugging. I mean, LSD? The CIA? The whole thing was so bizarre, and that it came out of the blue was really stunning. But the shock blinded people to the deeper truth. Everybody was saying, 'You got the truth now-now, take it easy. Back off.'"
But he couldn’t. The fact that his family had not been notified of the discovery, and that his father's name had been withheld, convinced Eric that the full story was still being repressed. He had to take some action. A month after the Post story appeared, the Olson family held a press conference in their backyard to demand full disclosure of the facts and to announce their intention of suing the CIA. The backyard swarmed with reporters, including Lesley Stahl of CBS News and Rolling Stone’s Hunter S. Thompson.
Shortly after the news came out, President Ford invited the Olsons to the White House, where he apologized on behalf of the federal government and set in motion a Congress approved compensation of $750,000. CIA director William Colby also felt compelled to offer an apology, and in the summer of 1975 he met the three grown Olson children in his office on the seventh floor of the agency's headquarters.
Eric recalled that Colby's manner was "cold and controlled, and he seemed very tense and awkward." In his memoirs, Colby, a fierce warrior who had parachuted behind enemy lines in World War II and later directed the notorious Phoenix Program that killed 20,000 Vietcong sympathizers, called his meeting with the Olsons "one of the most difficult assignments I have ever had."
During lunch, Eric, then 30, got into a heated argument with Colby over the meaning of the Vietnam War, which had just ended. "The whole war was obscene and immoral," Eric said. Colby became upset. "We could have won it,” the CIA director insisted. “With more weapons, we could have won the war." At the end of lunch, Colby handed Eric a large stack of documents, the complete Frank Olson file, Colby said, which would reveal everything.
At first the Olson family welcomed the official apologies and the compensation as closure to the case, and they signed a waiver releasing the CIA from any further liability. However, after closely reading the CIA file, Eric realized his quest to uncover the deeper truths was not over. Although the file laid out more of the details of what had happened, it contained so many discrepancies that he concluded Colby had given him a false "cover" file.
According to the documents, Frank Olson and eight other scientists met at Deep Creek Lodge, in the western Maryland mountains, and shared after-dinner drinks of Cointreau that Sidney Gottlieb had secretly spiked with heavy doses of LSD. For Olson it was the proverbial bad trip. He became troubled and agitated, almost “psychotic,” a colleague said later. When his state of mind didn't improve four days later, his immediate boss at Camp Detrick and Robert Lashbrook, Gottlieb's deputy, flew him to New York, where he was placed under the care of an allergist (not a psychiatrist) who had close ties with the CIA. Olson told the doctor that the CIA was “out to get”him and was spiking his coffee with Benzedrine in its efforts to pacify him.
Lashbrook checked Olson in to the Hotel Starlet on November 25, and the two men shared a small room, 1018A, with two beds. The CIA file goes on to create the impression of an unstable persona, stating that on that same night, Olson became delusional and staggered around the city's streets till dawn. Two nights later, according to Lashbrook, he was awakened shortly after midnight by the sound of crashing glass and the window shade flapping. Olson was lying faceup on the sidewalk. Lashbrook did not immediately telephone a hospital or the police. He placed his first call to his boss, Sidney Gottlieb.
From 1975 on, waves of revelations raised more suspicions about the circumstances of Olson's death. In time Eric went to New York and spent a night in room 1018A of the old hotel. He was so “restless and agitated” that he hardly slept, but he saw how “completely ridiculous the whole scenario was.” For one thing, Eric reasoned, if his father had truly been mentally deranged, why did Lashbrook take him to a room thirteen floors up? Then, too, the way the window was positioned —blocked by a radiator—it seemed unlikely his father could have “crashed” through it, as the CIA claimed. Olson would have had to dive out the window after picking up a running momentum. But the room was too small to do that.
Armond Pastore, the night manager of the hotel in 1953, wrote to the Olson family twentyfive years later on stationery from the Diplomat hotel in Ocean City, Maryland, where he was working, and told them he was convinced the CIA was lying about what had happened. He said that moments after Olson plunged to his death, the hotel operator connected a call through the switchboard from a man in room 10 1 8A. The operator overheard him say, “Well, he’s gone.”
The man on the other end replied, “That’s too bad.”
FATHERS AND SONS: Stephan Olson, right, doesn't want to relive Eric’s fate.
Though Eric's research was going well, showing that he "wasn't a conspiracy lunatic," the rest of his life started to deteriorate. He developed ulcers, and once, in terrible pain, he had to be rushed to the hospital. His relationships with women were usually short-lived, and friction with his brother, Nils, who Financed much of the operation, intensified. Nils didn't buy the government's version of events, either, but he kept more of a distance from the case and worried about his brother's "level of perspective." To learn what really happened to their father, Nils told me, "You had to go into a black hole and leave the known universe, and I wasn't willing to do that."
Gradually, Eric abandoned his work as a clinical psychologist to focus, he said, "like a laser beam" on his father's case, which by the early 1990s had become a full-blown industry involving scholarship, media relations, travel, investigation and the management of a network of witnesses. It was a full-time operation, but he wasn't being paid for any of it, which meant Eric soon had to add "fund-raising" to his areas of expertise. He solicited nearly everyone he came in contact with and shrewdly, through the Fund for Constitutional Government, in Washington, set up a tax-exempt account to receive contributions.
Year by year, though, he sank deeper into debt, borrowing money from friends and from Nils and juggling high balances on half a dozen credit cards. By the mid-1980s, he had used up his share of the government's settlement money (some of which he had used to start up a psychology research clinic in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1978).
For the Olson family, everything associated with the CIA, it seemed, even the settlement money, was tainted with tragedy. Nils used part of his money to buy a house and build a dental clinic; Lisa, then married and pregnant with her second child, intended to invest in a logging business, but she never got the chance. In 1978, en route to upstate New York in a small plane to see the mill, Lisa, her husband and their 2-year-old son crashed into a mountain and died.
Devastated by the deaths of his sister and her family, Eric coped by escaping to Europe, making repeated trips to Sweden, the home of his father's parents, where he eventually met a woman with whom he had a son. But even when he was 7,500 miles from home, the unresolved questions about his father's case tortured him, and with his sister's death, Eric said, "things got to be too much, because then the tragedy went into the next generation. That's when I really became determined to find the truth." He returned to the States six years after Lisa's death to interview the men he believed knew what had actually happened in the hotel room the night his father died.
When Eric, Nils and their mother met Sidney Gottlieb in 1984, they were already aware from Senate investigations that he not only had drugged Frank Olson but also had worked in assassinations. Gottlieb admitted to congressional investigators that he had personally delivered anthrax to the Congo in 1960 to be used for assassinating President Patrice Lumumba. (The plot failed.) When Eric first heard this, he became convinced that his father "was not an LSD suicide but rather a CIA assassination, murdered because he had become a security risk. I mean, you can't have an MK-ULTRA unless you're willing to terminate people who threaten to expose it."
When Gottlieb met the Olsons, he had retired from the CIA and lived with his wife in an isolated mountain region of Virginia, where he had taken up yoga and organic gardening. By the time Gottlieb left the agency in 1973, he had destroyed all the files on MK-ULTRA, which left no additional trail for congressional investigators to pursue.
Eric recalled, "Gottlieb said he was very anxious about our visit and had dreamed we arrived on his doorstep with guns and immediately shot him." Gottlieb claimed he was a changed man who regretted his overzealous behavior, but he emphatically denied Frank Olson was pushed out the window. "Whenever I brought up the idea of murder," Eric said, "he got angry and told us, 'If you don't believe what I'm telling you, there’s no reason to be here.'" At the end of the meeting, Eric became furious at a comment Gottlieb made: “I can see you’re still wrapped up in your father's death. I recommend that you join a support group for children whose parents have committed suicide."
Robert Lashbrook, the CIA agent who had slept in the bed next to Olson's, had also retired by the time the family visited him in Ojai, California. “He was a nervous wreck and kept claiming to forget things,” Eric said. The meeting yielded no new information until “time worked to our advantage and Lashbrook forgot the cover story.” According to Eric, the former agent told his visitors that Gottlieb had been in New York with Olson the week before he died—a detail Gottlieb had neglected to mention.
Lashbrook has never been suspected of involvement in Olson's death. The theory shared by Eric and various investigators is that Lashbrook was purposely kept out of the loop because, as Olson’s primary caretaker, he would have been an obvious suspect (and presumably would have objected on moral and legal grounds). Speculation is that Lashbrook may have been ordered out of the main room and into the bathroom, where police found him after Olson died on the street.
Lashbrook has, however, given conflicting accounts of what he saw in the hotel room. In his original statement to the police, he said he was awakened by a flapping window shade after Olson went out the window. But that same morning he had told a psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Gibson, another version. According to Gibson, Lashbrook said “he awoke in the middle of the night and saw Olson standing in the middle of the room, out of bed.” Lashbrook “started to find out what was going on, Gibson recalled, "when Olson ran toward the window and hurled himself crashing through the window.” I tried to ask Lashbrook about these contradictions, but when I knocked on the door at his home in Ojai, a middle-aged woman answered the door and, upon learning I was journalist, slammed it shut. Later I called his lawyer, to no avail.
The first official support for Eric's assassination theory came, like many things in the case, serendipitously. In 1994, while on an airplane, a friend of Nils's read an article in Spin magazine about a retired Federal Bureau of Narcotics agent named Ike Feldman who had worked on the MK-ULTRA project. In the article, Feldman said he wasn't sure if Olson "jumped or was pushed." In the 1950s, Feldman had worked for George White, an aggressive, hard-drinking drug agent who ran the infamous CIA-financed safe house in New York's Greenwich Village. Under the direction of Gottlieb, in yet another type of behavioral experiment, the agents hired prostitutes to lure men into the "Pads," as White called them, and then gave the men drug-faced drinks. While the couples had sex, it has been reported, White would sit behind a two-way mirror, sipping martinis and watching.
Eric found Ike Feldman in a Long Island phone book, but Feldman refused to talk. Eric kept calling back until Feldman finally agreed to meet him. When I spoke to Feldman in September, he went further with his impressions than he had in the past. "I heard that Frank Olson was talking to people he shouldn't have," Feldman told me, adding that, given the secret nature of MK-ULTRA, "It's very logical he was pushed."
So long as Alice Olson was alive, Eric and Nils took no major initiative. By the mid-’80s, although she had recovered from alcoholism, her sons were afraid the next step they had in mind might be too traumatic for her. But after she died of pancreatic cancer in 1993, they agreed it was time to dig up their father's body.
In June 1994, after Frank Olson had been in the ground for forty-one years, Professor James Starts, a well-known criminologist and forensic scientist at George Washington University, exhumed his body. Starts had an unusual resume. Over the years, he had dug up various notables, including Jesse James and Dr. Carl Weiss, the alleged assassin of Senator Huey Long.
On the morning of Frank Olson's exhumation, a small group of reporters and family friends gathered on the hillside of the cemetery, which overlooks Camp Detrick. Nils followed Starts’s advice and did not attend, but Eric couldn't stay away. He was 11 excited but “trembling” as the huge crane clawed at the earth for nearly two hours, finally raising the dirty, rusted casket, which was taken to a nearby police lab.
"We don't think you should see this,” Starrs cautioned Eric as the casket was about to be opened. From experience Starts knew the chances were good that a gruesome, shrunken cadaver lay inside.
"I'm seeing this!” Eric insisted. He had never been allowed to see his father's body at the funeral, and it was an opportunity, albeit an unusual one, to finally have closure.
In an interview with me, Starrs said he was “very surprised” by what he found. Frank Olson's skin was brown and shrunken, but he was clearly recognizable and “looked good.” Seeing his father's body after so much time, Eric said, “was one of the great moments in my life. I actually felt relieved, because I finally had some resolution."
Without Eric present, Starts performed a thorough autopsy, and his findings were significant. What he found, he concluded, was “rankly and starkly suggestive of homicide.” For one thing, Starrs found no cuts on the head or neck, which would be expected if the official version—that he had shattered the window as he jumped—was correct. The most stunning discovery, however, was a large bruise over Olson's left eye, which suggested to Starrs that he had been hit on the head with a blunt object before he went out the window.
"Something had finally opened up, and I knew we were in high gear," Eric said. But the optimistic feeling was not destined to last.
Starrs's discovery of the bruise took on even more significance three years later, when Eric came across two remarkable declassified CIA documents. The first rrevealedthat in 1953 the CIA planned to assassinate fifty-eight key Guatemalan leaders. The second was an assassination manual that described the circumstances of his father's death almost exactly. It told operatives how to create “a contrived accident” by Miring someone on the temple and then “dropping the subject from a high window.” As he read, Eric became physically ill. He sat almost paralyzed, as if he were seeing his father's murder “described in a manual that had guided the hands of his killers."
Even with Starts's explosive findings and all the circumstantial evidence Eric had collected, hope soon turned to depression, when his lawyer reminded him of an obstacle that seemed impossible to get around. In August 1994, high-powered Washington lawyer Harry Huge agreed to represent the Olsons, but he pointed out that the waiver the family had signed in 1976 as part of the settlement agreement meant they had forfeited their right to sue the government. But there might be one way around that, Huge said: if Eric could prove fraud-lies-on the part of the government.
There was only one way to do that. Eric and his lawyer had to prove Frank Olson's death was a homicide. They decided to try persuading Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau to reopen an investigation into a case that had occurred in his district forty-three years earlier. Much to their amazement, Morgenthau agreed. He assigned the case to two crack prosecutors from the office's cold-case unit.
One week after they reopened the case, however, the problems began, when former CIA director William Colby, a key witness, vanished. His body eventually washed up after a reportedly suspicious boating accident. Next, the prosecutors wanted to interview Robert Lashbrook, but he vigorously fought their subpoena. He went so far as to tell the sheriff who came to his house in Ojai to serve the subpoena that he didn't know anyone by the name of Robert Lashbrook. (Lashbrook was finally forced to give a deposition.)
The main target of the D.A.’s investigation, however, was Sidney Gottlieb, but before the office had a chance to assess the extent and character of his involvement, he died.
Frank Olson’s skin was brown and shrunken, but he was recognizable.
Eric Olson moved back into his childhood home in Frederick after his mother's funeral, and he has never left. The house, says Nils, is “a shithole,” and he’s right.The plaster is cracked and falling from the ceiling, and the place smells of mildew.
When I met Eric there this past June, he was in good spirits, but it was only a temporary state. He had just ended a phone call with Stephen Saracco, one of the Manhattan prosecutors assigned to his father's case, and was reassured that the D.A.’s investigation was going forward, despite Sidney Gottlieb’s death.
Little else in Eric's life is going as well, and at age 55, broke and beaten down from pushing his father's case this fit, he is “shipwrecked.” He is often lonely, he said, and emotionally frayed. The floor of his car is littered with unopened bills, and creditors hound him by phone daily. After I left, his phone was shut off for nonpayment.
He owes much of his $150,000 debt to credit-card companies, friends and Nils, with whom he is finally rebuilding a relationship. His visits with his I 10-year-old son, Stephan, who lives in Sweden, are limited to when Eric can pay the airfare. He has been dating his present girlfriend, Stephanie, for more than a year, but friends sense she may be getting fed tip with Erics fixation on the case. As she put it when we met in June, “He is it, and it is him."
Eric hasn't worked in his chosen field of psychology since 1993, but an old friend from Harvard said, "He works harder than anyone I know.” When people suggest he get a job, his reply is not completely crazy: “It's my pressure on the system that moves this case forward. It takes tremendous effort, and if I don't do it, it won't get done.”
At press time, it appeared that Eric's efforts were finally paying off. Although the Manhattan prosecutors have not concluded their investigation, indications are they are expected to find that the motive and circumstantial evidence in the case add up to Olson’s death being a homicide and not a suicide. Such a finding would be extraordinary for its suggestion that the CIA might have murdered an American citizen. The final step in Eric’s long journey is also on a fast track, as his lawyer plans to file a multimillion-dollar wrongful-death lawsuit against the agency this spring. Eric has no illusions about the outcome. “The CIA will never admit to anything,” Eric said. “A financial settlement is the only way we can hurt them and get a pound of flesh.”' Assistance for the plaintiffs may come from a surprising source. Former CIA director Jim Woolsey indicated to me that he might consider “becoming involved” in the civil case but would do so only “once it's clear I'm not going to be called for questioning as part of the D.A.'s investigation. Until then I want to hear nothing further about this.”
While Eric anxiously waits for the next phase to happen, Frank Olson, mostly a bag of bones with a bruised skull, remains locked in a metal cabinet in James Starts's Office, ready to be reburied once the case is finally over.
Has it all been worth it? “Without question,” Eric said. “Though it has not felt that way sometimes, as the price was refacing the fact that my father was thrown out the window like so much garbage. But vindication, certainly—as my suspicious have been confirmed beyond my wildest dreams. A snake under every rock, and rocks as far as the eye can see. When I undertook this, I didn't know I would have to move heaven and earth to know the truth, and I didn't know I would have to refight the Cold War.
"To grasp why I did it, one only has to think of Hamlet. Was lie free to turn away from his father’s death? Must not a murder be avenged, justice obtained? My father’s murder forces us as a nation to confront a terrible history of American life that is painful and disorienting. One wishes it would go away. Through confronting it, though, I have gotten my father back and the country will also regain a censored chapter of its past, which I believe it needs to know."
Recently, something his son, Stephan, said made Eric wonder if he would do it all over again. "Papa, please don't die in a mysterious way," the boy said. "I don't want to get into the hard place you are."
Mary A. Fischer is a GQ senior writer. She has written often about abuses by the U.S. national-security state during the Cold War, but few stories are as moving as that of Frank and Eric Olson, father and son. Eric has spent his adult life obsessed with the death of his father, who had been an unknowing participant in early CIA experiments with LSD. "His investigation into his father's death has left Eric broke and demoralized," says Fischer. "But I have to think his father would have been very proud of him and moved by him."