No one saw Frank Olson plunge to his death from the 13th story of New
York’s Statler Hotel. No one, at any rate, willing to admit it.
Not the man from the CIA who was in room 1018A with Olson when the 43-year-old
biochemist and father of three crashed through a closed, shuttered window
and tumbled to the cold sidewalk below. To believe the CIA man, he either
awoke in his bed some time after midnight to see his roommate charge the
window and throw himself through the thick plate-glass; or, as he told
it on another occasion, he awoke after Olson had already defenestrated,
startled from sleep by the sound of shattering glass.
The CIA man with the shifting story was Robert Lashbrook, deputy to the
spy agency’s wizard of mind-control and exotic assassinations. Despite
its many inconsistencies, the CIA account of what happened during the
early morning hours of November 28, 1953 would become the official story
of Frank Olson’s death: It was an unfortunate suicide triggered
by a small dose of Lycergic Acid Diethylamide – LSD – secretly
administered to Olson in a mind-control experiment gone awry.
Fifty years after the fact, conventional history records Dr. Frank Olson’s
death as perhaps the most infamous repercussion of MK-ULTRA, the CIA’s
illegal quest to “modify an individual’s behavior by covert
means” using hypnosis, electroshock treatment and psychotropic drugs
such as LSD. According to this interpretation, Olson’s fatal fall
was the result of a “bad trip,” a tragic, yet accidental,
consequence of the CIA’s Cold War wet dream of developing a magical
But could the Frank Olson story have an even simpler, albeit darker, explanation?
Is it possible that the accidental death scenario – however embarrassing
to the CIA at the time of its disclosure during the mid-1970s -- served
as a cover story to conceal a more disturbing truth? To wit: Was Frank
Olson deliberately assassinated?
Two decades after the bizarre tragedy, Olson’s eldest son, Eric,
would begin to dispute the official account. His search for answers would
ultimately span the course of three decades, becoming a personal obsession
that would drain his finances, upend his relationships, and derail his
once promising career as a Harvard-trained psychologist. No obstacle would
deter him from his mission, not even the taboo of unearthing his father’s
bones. (The Shakespearean parallels weren’t lost on the scholarly
Eric; “think Hamlet,” he liked to say, “but on the order
of years, not months.”) Eventually, Eric would uncover tantalizing
evidence suggesting that his father, far from being the victim of a “drug
experiment gone awry,” may have been murdered as the proverbial
man who knew too much.
Yet in the aftermath of that ill-fated Thanksgiving weekend in 1953, and
for a numbing 22 years afterward, the Olson family had been given no explanation
at all for Frank Olson’s mysterious death.
It was still dark outside when two grim visitors arrived at the Olson
house in Frederick, Maryland, two days after Thanksgiving. Alice Olson
roused her nine-year-old son, Eric, from bed and led him into the living
room. The sleepy boy immediately recognized the two men as the family
doctor and Lt. Col. Vincent Ruwet, his father’s boss at U.S. Army
Camp Detrick, just down the road from the Olson home.
Ruwet delivered the terrible news: Alice’s husband was dead. Earlier
that morning, Frank Olson had “fallen or jumped,” as Ruwet
put it, from the window of a New York City hotel room. Calling it a “work-related
accident,” Ruwet explained that the family would be eligible for
government compensation. (In the compensation form he subsequently filed
on behalf of the family, Ruwet wrote that Olson had died of a “classified
Exactly what kind of work Olson had been engaged in at the time of his
“accident” wasn’t a part of the morning’s ad hoc
grief counseling. Alice, a 38-year-old housewife, had only a vague knowledge
of her husband’s classified work at Camp Detrick, where he was director
of planning and evaluations in the Army Chemical Corps’ Special
Operations Division (SOD). She knew that as a biochemist, Frank Olson’s
specialty during World War II had been the airborne delivery of biological
toxins and bacteria, including anthrax. Before the end of the war, a painful
stomach ulcer had forced Olson to seek a medical discharge from the Army.
But he had stayed on at Camp Detrick as a civilian scientist.
In consoling the Olsons, Ruwet made no mention of the nature of the work
at Detrick. Nor did he ever mention LSD or the CIA.
As Eric struggled to absorb the devastating news, Alice composed herself
enough to tell her two other children, seven-year-old Lisa and five-year-old
Nils, that their father would not be coming home. Compounding the family’s
sense of shock was the seeming improbability of the tragedy. That Frank
Olson had taken his own life just didn’t square with the devoted
husband and caring father they knew. It made no sense. And in the absence
of a reasonable explanation – the missing how and why – a
kind of numbness began to set in. As Eric would later recall, “In
that moment when I learned that my father had gone out a window and died,
it was as if the plug were pulled from some central basin of my mind and
a vital portion of my consciousness drained out.”
Yet Alice knew that her husband had been troubled by something of late.
A deeply moral and religious man, Frank Olson had been grappling with
an ethical dilemma related to his work. Whenever a group of lab monkeys
died upon completion of a successful experiment, Olson had come home depressed
and withdrawn. At one point, he had said to his wife rather enigmatically,
“If the Germans had won the Second World War, my colleagues and
I would have been prosecuted for war crimes.”
The casket, draped with an American flag, remained closed at the funeral
four days later. The government explained to the family that even though
the body had been embalmed, it was badly disfigured from the fall. Among
the mourners at the ceremony were two CIA men: Robert Lashbrook –
the man from room 1018A – and his boss, Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, architect
of the CIA’s MK-ULTRA program and the spy agency’s mastermind
of bizarre assassination techniques employing lethal biological agents
ranging from anthrax to shellfish toxin.
As the coffin was lowered into the ground, the CIA men might have felt
an odd sense of relief. After all, the mystery of what killed Frank Olson
– and, perhaps, who killed him – was buried on that day along
with the body.
The mystery would remain underground – literally -- for the next
22 years. In the absence of “closure,” the Olsons’ personal
trauma would also remain buried, in a state of unspoken denial. As Eric
would later explain, “So great was the shock experience by the family
that we did not grieve our loss at all; it was as if nothing had happened.”
But as they often do, calm surfaces belied turbulent undercurrents. By
the 1960s, Alice had developed a drinking problem that eventually led
to the loss of her job as a teacher and a drunk driving arrest on Christmas
Eve. Unable to broach the subject of their father’s death with their
mother, the Olson children were left to grapple with a legacy of shame
and pain. To their friends, they would explain that their father had died
of a “fatal nervous breakdown.”
It was long after the Olson children had grown up – and Alice had
recovered from alcoholism -- that the ghost of the father returned. On
June 11, 1975, startling new details turned up on Alice Olson’s
front doorstep, in the morning edition of The Washington Post. A front-page
story headlined “Suicide Revealed” zeroed in on a sensational
item from the just-released report of the Rockefeller Commission, the
first of the post-Watergate inquiries into CIA misdeeds. According to
the report, an “Army scientist” had leaped to his death from
the 13th floor of a New York City hotel room in 1953 after being dosed
with LSD by the CIA.
Though the report didn’t name the victim, the family recognized
their father in the details. A check with Ruwet confirmed it.
According to the report in the Post – based on the official findings
of an internal CIA investigation conducted after the incident –
a “civilian employee” of the Army had been dosed with LSD
during a government retreat in western Maryland. As the Rockefeller Commission
summarized, “This individual was not made aware he had been given
LSD until about 20 minutes after it had been administered. He developed
serious side effects and was sent to New York with a CIA escort for psychiatric
treatment. Several days later, he jumped from a tenth-floor window of
his room and died as a result.” (Actually, Room 1018A was on the
In the weeks following the Post story, no one from the government bothered
to contact the Olsons. Frustrated and understandably indignant, the family
– and their lawyers -- held a press conference in the back yard
of the home in Frederick. Now the bizarre story had a face and a name,
and journalists flocked to the event. Eric, by then a 31-year-old graduate
student working toward a Ph.D in clinical psychology at Harvard, recalls
brushing elbows with the likes of Rolling Stone magazine’s Hunter
S. Thompson and Leslie Stahl of CBS News. The Olsons took turns reading
from a family
statement demanding full disclosure from the government. “We
feel our family has been violated by the CIA in two ways,” Eric
declared. “First, Frank Olson was experimented on illegally and
negligently. Second, the true nature of his death was concealed for twenty-two
years. … In telling our story, we are concerned that neither the
personal pain this family has experienced nor the moral and political
outrage we feel be slighted.”
That evening and the following day stories about Frank Olson and his family
dominated network news broadcasts and newspaper headlines. Suddenly, information
so long denied the Olson family began to dribble in. Two days after the
press conference, a man named Armand Pastore contacted the family. In
1953, Pastore had been the night manager at the Statler Hotel. He explained
that at around 2 a.m. on November 28 of that year, a panicky busboy had
summoned Pastore out to the sidewalk in front of the hotel. Lying on the
pavement, bloodied and broken, was Frank Olson. Looking up 13 floors,
Pastore saw a dangling blind flapping through an open window frame. Amazingly,
Olson was still alive. "He was trying to mumble something,”
Pastore later told reporters, “but I couldn't make it out. It was
all garbled, and I was trying to get his name." Pastore called for
a priest and an ambulance. By the time the ambulance arrived, Olson was
Pastore recalled that immediately after the incident someone had made
a phone call from Olson’s hotel room to a number in Long Island.
According to the hotel switchboard operator, who had listened in, it was
a short conversation consisting of only two lines:
“Well, he’s gone,” a man in the hotel room had said.
“That’s too bad,” a man on the other end of the line
had replied, before hanging up.
Pastore told Alice Olson that he had always been disturbed by the “unusual
circumstances” of her husband’s death. As he later elaborated
to reporters, “In all my years in the business, I never encountered
a case where someone in the middle of the night jumped through a closed
window with the shades and curtains drawn.”
Pastore wasn’t the only interested party to take note of the recent
news headlines. Less than two weeks after their backyard press conference,
the Olsons were summoned to White House for a personal meeting with President
Ford. In the Oval Office, Ford offered the family an official government
apology. In a photograph taken during the 1975 meeting, Alice Olson and
her grown-up children – Eric, 30; Nils, 27; and Lisa, 29 –
look at ease and, more to the point, relieved, as they stand with the
president. At the time, it must have been a reassuring, and even heady,
experience. After years of government silence on the subject of Frank
Olson’s death, the family had finally achieved recognition –
and, most importantly, a promise of full disclosure.
The Olsons had been considering legal action, but White House attorneys
advised the family against it, telling them, Eric Olson recalls, that
“the law was not on our side.” Instead, the government lawyers
promised that the White House would support a private bill in Congress
to pay the family a settlement. The family signed a waiver releasing the
CIA from liability, and in return the Olsons were eventually awarded $750,000
in compensation. The family decision not to file suit, made in deference
to Alice Olson’s desire to bring the 22-year ordeal to closure,
would prove to be a mistake.
Yet at the time, the family believed that full disclosure was finally
at hand. Five days after the Oval Office session, the Olson family met
with CIA Director William Colby at the spy agency’s headquarters
in Langley, Virginia. Over a lavish multi-course luncheon in the Director’s
dining room adjacent to his 7th-floor office, Colby offered the Olsons
his apologies. The meeting was as awkward as the food was elegant. In
his memoirs Colby later referred to the encounter as "one of the
most difficult assignments I have ever had." At the end of the hour,
the CIA chief gave the family an inch-thick file of declassified documents,
calling it the complete dossier on the death of Frank Olson.
Though heavily redacted, the file fleshed out the narrative bones of the
Washington Post story. On November 19, 1953, Olson had joined nine colleagues
for a three-day working retreat at Deep Creek Lodge, a rustic cabin in
the secluded woods of western Maryland. Five of the attendees were SOD
men from Camp Detrick, including Olson and his boss Ruwet. The remaining
four were CIA officers from the Technical Services Staff (TSS), commonly
known inside the Agency as the “dirty tricks department.”
The official purpose of the gathering was to discuss MK-NOAMI, a top-secret
joint program of the SOD and TSS to develop germ weapons to infect enemy
spies in the field. To maintain absolute secrecy, the participants had
been instructed to remove all Camp Detrick tags from their automobiles,
and to adopt the occupational “camouflage” of sports journalists.
Assisted by his deputy Lashbrook, Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, head of the TSS
Chemical Division, led the sessions in the lodge’s chestnut-paneled
living room, opposite a roaring fire in a stone hearth. A brilliant chemist
with personality tics numerous enough to satisfy a novelist’s appetite
for the aberrant (Norman Mailer and Barbara Kingsolver have immortalized
him in their fiction), Gottlieb at the time had not yet been dubbed “the
CIA’s Dr. Strangelove.” But a few decades of diligent work
– and a congressional inquiry or two – would eventually remedy
Born with two clubfeet, Gottlieb spent much of his life almost compulsively
adapting himself to the external world. According to a cousin, in the
hospital when the blanket covering his feet was removed, his mother screamed.
Unable to walk, he spent his earliest years in her arms. As a child, he
underwent foot surgery three times. Although he remained handicapped for
life, he compensated by teaching himself to become a graceful square dancer.
A habitual stutterer, Gottlieb exhibited the same zeal for self-improvement
and personal reinvention in every other aspect of his life. He excelled
in his studies and eventually earned a doctoral degree in chemistry from
the California Institute of Technology.
After joining the CIA in 1951, he quickly proved himself to be an ardent
Cold War patriot. As his CIA recruiter later noted, “He always had
a certain amount of 'guilt'…about not being able to be in the service
during World War II like all his contemporaries because of his clubfoot,
so he gave an unusual amount of patriotic service to make up for that.”
Working in the CIA’s chemical group, he impressed his superiors
as a resourceful, inventive administrator.
By early 1953, Gottlieb had been given control of the Agency’s newly
minted mind-control program, MK-ULTRA. At the same time, he ran the research
efforts into germ warfare being conducted out of Camp Detrick. Later,
he would become the CIA’s expert in better assassination through
chemistry. Some colleagues saw Gottlieb, in his single-minded ardor for
his work, as a something of a “wild man.”
In less than a year on the job as steward of MK-ULTRA, Gottlieb had already
established a rather wild and arguably unscientific methodology that involved
dosing unsuspecting CIA men at Langley with LSD and then watching them
freak out. According to the official CIA account, Gottlieb performed the
same experiment on the men at Deep Creek Lodge.
After dinner on the second night, Gottlieb or one of his CIA men secretly
slipped LSD into seven glasses of Cointreau liqueur. If Gottlieb and Lashbrook
are to be believed, each of the seven men received a relatively modest
dose of 70 micrograms. (Ten years later, Hollywood luminaries such as
Cary Grant and James Coburn would regularly ingest doses of 200 micrograms
under the supervision of a handful of Los Angeles psychiatrists who briefly
dabbled in LSD therapy.) The meeting quickly devolved into laughter and
random psychedelic incoherence, and by various accounts several of the
men grew uneasy. Olson reportedly had the worst trip. As the biochemist’s
SOD colleague Ben Wilson would later tell author John Marks, “Olson
was psychotic. He couldn’t understand what happened. He thought
someone was playing tricks on him.”
Olson and several others spent a sleepless night under the effects of
the drug. The next morning, their nerves frayed, the men decided to adjourn
early. When Olson returned home, Alice found her husband to be uncharacteristically
withdrawn. After a silent dinner, he told his wife he had made a “terrible
mistake” at the retreat. He refused to elaborate, and he didn’t
mention anything about Gottlieb drugging him.
Over the weekend, Olson remained quiet and emotionally remote, his thoughts
as impenetrable as the dense November fog that hung over the landscape
outside. He and Alice spent much of that weekend sitting on the couch,
holding hands, quietly looking out the window at the obscuring mist. At
one point, Alice asked her husband whether he had falsified information.
He said he hadn’t. When Alice asked if he had broken security, Olson
replied, “You know I would never do that.” Although he revealed
little more, he did tell his wife that he planned to resign his job and
retrain himself as a dentist. Alice said that if he felt it was necessary,
she would support his decision.
On Sunday night, Frank and Alice Olson took in a movie, Martin Luther,
the just-released biopic on the 16th-century Protestant reformer. As Alice
would later note, it wasn’t the best choice of movies, given her
husband’s mood. The film, which chronicles Luther’s struggles
against moral corruption in the Catholic Church and his ultimate break
with Catholicism, greatly upset Olson. At the end of the film, Luther
nails his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Whittenburg, officially
severing his ties to the Catholic Church.
Early the next morning, Frank Olson appeared in his boss’s office
to tender his resignation. Lt. Col. Ruwet reassured Olson that he had
done nothing wrong at the retreat, and persuaded his employee to stay
on. But the next morning, Olson, still agitated, was back in Ruwet’s
office determined to quit. According to Ruwet, Olson said he felt “all
mixed up” and questioned his own ability to perform his duties.
Ruwet decided that Olson needed “psychiatric attention.” But
instead of sending him to the base hospital, Ruwet called Lashbrook at
Lashbrook and Gottlieb hastily made arrangements for Olson to see Dr.
Harold Abramson, a New York M.D. and allergist who had parlayed a fascination
with behavior-modifying drugs into lucrative MK-ULTRA contract work. (In
one of his “experiments,” Abramson had dosed goldfish with
LSD to see their reaction.) The fact that Abramson was not a psychiatrist
apparently didn’t bother Gottlieb, who later sought to justify the
peculiar patient referral on national security grounds, that last refuge
of panicky civil servants: Abramson, who had considerable experience dosing
himself and others with LSD on behalf of the CIA, was already vetted for
Ruwet phoned Alice on Tuesday morning to tell her that he and a colleague
were taking her husband to New York for treatment because they were “concerned
that Frank might become violent with you.” According to Eric, this
statement “completely shocked my mother, because she had seen no
indications of anything remotely like violent tendencies.” Eric
now believes that Ruwet was lying, in an effort to frighten Alice and
thereby “preempt the possibility that she might object in any way
to their plans." Later that day, Alice drove with her husband to
Washington, D.C., where he was to catch a flight to New York with Ruwet
and Lashbrook. The couple stopped for lunch at a coffee shop just outside
the Capitol, but Olson wouldn’t touch his coffee. “I can’t
drink this,” he said. He grew anxious that someone might have tampered
with the beverage, a not entirely paranoid concern given his earlier secret
LSD dosing. A half-hour later, Frank Olson boarded a flight to New York.
It was the last time Alice would ever see him.
According to the CIA file, Olson saw Abramson for the first time later
that day. By then, Olson had become increasingly “paranoid,”
as the CIA report put it, and was convinced that the Agency was putting
Benzadrine or some other stimulant into his coffee to keep him awake.
The next day, Lashbrook and Ruwet took Olson to the home of John Mulholland,
a professional magician whom the TSS had hired to write a manual adapting
“the magician’s art to covert activities.” Gottlieb
had tasked Mulholland with developing sleight-of-hand techniques that
CIA agents could use to slip drugs into drinks. Although Lashbrook later
asserted that he was only trying to amuse Olson, the visit had an opposite
effect – it freaked him out. If anyone had wanted to unhinge a guy
already convinced that he was being drugged against his will, they probably
couldn’t have done better than to commission an impromptu magic
show by a known conjurer of CIA mickey fins.
Cutting the visit with Mulholland short, Lashbrook and Ruwet hustled Olson
back to Abramson’s Long Island office. The CIA allergist talked
to Olson for about an hour, then gave him permission to spend Thanksgiving
with his family. Olson and his two escorts had an evening to kill before
their flight back to Washington the next morning, so the trio took in
a Rogers & Hammerstein musical. But Olson became agitated during the
first act, believing, according to Ruwet, that people were waiting outside
the theater to arrest him. Ruwet took Olson back to the Statler hotel.
That night while he slept in the adjacent bed, Olson slipped out of the
room and wandered the streets of New York. According to Ruwet, Olson proceeded
to tear up his paper money and throw his wallet away, purportedly under
the delusion that he was following orders. Ruwet and Lashbrook claimed
to have found Olson sitting in the Statler lobby early the next morning.
In Ruwet and Lashbrook’s version of events, the three flew back
to Washington later that morning. However, during the drive from National
Airport back to Frederick, Maryland, Olson purportedly grew alarmed. If
Ruwet is to be believed, Olson said he was “ashamed” to see
his family in his present condition, and worried that he might become
violent with his children. Lashbrook supposedly contacted Gottlieb, interrupting
his boss’s Thanksgiving dinner, and the CIA men decided it would
be best to take Olson back to Abramson in New York. Ruwet agreed to return
to Frederick and notify the family that Frank Olson wouldn’t be
coming home for the holiday.
Later that day, Lashbrook escorted Olson to Abramson’s office, and
the non-shrink finally decided to get Olson qualified professional help.
According to the CIA’s version of events, Olson agreed to check
himself into Chestnut Lodge, a Maryland sanitarium staffed by psychiatrists
who allegedly had special security clearance. (In fact, Eric Olson would
later discover that the doctors at Chestnut Lodge had no special security
clearance, a fact that begs the question, Why did the CIA lie about this?)
. According to Lashbrook, he and Olson were unable to get a departing
flight until the weekend, so they settled for Thanksgiving dinner at a
Horn & Hardart Automat, then checked into room 1018A of the Statler
At some point on Friday – the last day of Frank Olson’s life
-- Abramson showed up at the hotel with a bottle of bourbon and the sedative
Nembutol. To say the least, it was an odd prescription for a man who already
believed – irrationally or not -- that the CIA was trying to drug
him. The CIA report offers no more details about Olson’s doings
on that Friday. However, we do know that Olson called his wife on Friday
evening. It was the first time they had spoken in three days, and Alice
was relieved to discover that his mood had improved (a state of mind in
stark contrast to the angst-ridden portrait depicted by the CIA). They
spoke for several minutes, and Olson told his wife that he was looking
forward to seeing her and the kids the next day. By 2 a.m. Saturday morning,
just hours after the phone call, and hours before his scheduled flight
back to Washington, Olson was dead.
When police arrived on the scene, they found Lashbrook sitting on the
toilet in room 1018A, cradling his head in his hands. The CIA man immediately
began to tell lies. First, he claimed that he worked for the Defense Department.
Then he insisted he had no clue as to why Olson jumped, but added, irrelevantly,
that the dead man had “suffered from ulcers.” Police initially
suspected a homicide with homosexual overtones, but they dropped the matter
after Ruwet and Abramson backed Lashbrook’s account and hinted at
classified government connections.
While the CIA’s Office of Security went to work scrubbing New York
clean of any telltale evidence linking Olson’s death to the Agency,
Lashbrook and Abramson got their own cover stories straight. Lashbrook
dictated the specifics of Olson’s alleged psychiatric symptoms while
Abramson took notes. Lashbrook went so far as to claim that Alice Olson
had urged her husband to seek psychiatric help months before the LSD dosing
– a bald-faced lie, according to Alice.
Despite Lashbrook’s pathetic attempts to deflect blame by trumping
up a bogus psychiatric history for Olson, CIA Inspector General Lyman
Kirkpatrick officially (but secretly) concluded that Olson’s “suicide”
had been “triggered” by the LSD dosing. Kirkpatrick recommended
stern censures for Gottlieb and his immediate TSS superiors, but CIA Director
Allen Dulles interceded, reducing the reprimand to a weak hand-slap that
did no harm to Gottlieb’s career as the Agency’s Cold War
Although the CIA documents that Colby had given the Olson family filled
in some missing details, it raised as many questions as it purported to
answer. In fact, the New York Times called the file “elliptical,
incoherent, and contradictory.” It was, the newspaper concluded,
“a jumble of deletions, conflicting statements [and] unintelligible
passages.” For one thing, despite LSD’s tendency to provoke
mercurial responses in distressed individuals, Olson’s bad trip
– a week-long psychosis escalating to suicide – seemed out
of proportion to the small dose he supposedly swallowed. Then there were
several contradictory statements made by Abramson in the report. In one
memo, he wrote that Olson’s “psychotic state…seemed
to have been crystallized by [the LSD] experiment.” But in another
document, he characterized the LSD dose as “therapeutic,”
and an amount that “could hardly have had any significant role in
the course of events that followed.
Even more puzzling were the report’s numerous references –
with all details blacked out -- to the CIA’s Project ARTICHOKE.
As the precursor to MK-ULTRA, ARTICHOKE concerned the search for a “truth
drug” to aid in interrogation. But the top-secret program had also
involved other interrogation methods, including torture and attempts to
induce amnesia in “blown agents” who knew too much. If Frank
Olson’s death was indeed the unintended result of an MK-ULTRA experiment
– as the report concluded -- then why all the cryptic references
in the document to ARTICHOKE?
Unanswered questions or not, the family wanted to believe – needed
to believe -- that vindication and justice had prevailed. It was time
to move on. But, it seemed, the curse of the past wouldn’t let go.
In 1976, Eric’s sister Lisa, her husband, and her two-year-old son
took off from Frederick in a small plane, bound for the Adirondacks, where
they planned to invest Lisa’s share of the settlement money in a
lumber mill. The plane crashed and no one survived.
That same year, Eric moved to Sweden, the birth country of his father’s
parents, hoping to put some distance between himself and the family curse.
In Stockholm, he worked to develop the psychotherapeutic technique he
had begun at Harvard: the “collage method,” a process that
involved clipping pictures and pasting them into photomontages. Eric found
that when patients assembled a collection of nonverbal images in a tableau,
they often gained powerful insight into suppressed emotions and memories.
(Eric’s own collages often featured images of men tumbling from
buildings.) He believed that the collage method might provide a “whole
new conceptual base for psychotherapy.” During what would become
a decade-long sabbatical in Sweden, Eric fathered a son, Stephan, with
a woman he did not marry.
But his new life abroad offered little insulation from the past. Ironically,
Eric’s retreat to a “neutral and very quiet country”
only sharpened his resolve to exorcise the old family ghosts. “Sweden
gave me a great deal of distance from the whole CIA business,” he
explained. “And it was precisely the new-found calm which enabled
me to see that, objectively, the CIA’s version of events made no
sense. My effort was not to hold on to the issue, but to put it behind
me. The problem was that every time I turned over another rock, I discovered
The serpents were in the details. In his spare time Eric continued his
labors to “decode” the meaning of the Colby documents. It
was a process not unlike the collage method – piecing together seemingly
fragmentary data, but often uncovering deeper or hidden connections.
Back home in the United States, some of those deeper connections had begun
to surface on their own. In late 1975, summoned by the U.S. Senate, Sidney
Gottlieb returned from semi-retirement as a hospital volunteer in India
(he dedicated the latter portion of his life to charitable pursuits, almost
as if doing penance for earlier sins). In secret testimony before the
Senate Church Committee on Assassinations, the former CIA chemist admitted
to his key role in CIA assassination plots against foreign leaders. In
1960, for instance, Gottlieb himself had hand-delivered an “assassination
kit” to the CIA station chief in the Congo, with instructions that
it be used to eliminate Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. The kit consisted
of a lethal toxin – possibly anthrax -- concealed in a tube of toothpaste.
When the Church Committee published its findings, Eric realized that Gottlieb
had been involved in work much darker than mere “experimental drugging.”
In 1978, an even bigger shocker surfaced: In his memoir, former CIA chief
William Colby admitted that Frank Olson was more than an “Army scientist,”
as the official story claimed. At the time of his death, in fact, Olson
had been a full-fledged “CIA employee,” and a “CIA officer.”
Clearly, in its post-mortem investigation, the CIA had attempted to conceal
the fact that Olson was one of its own. But why? Eric wondered. Ransacking
the Colby documents for the umpteenth time, Eric stumbled upon a new,
possibly telling clue. One of the reports submitted by Abramson, the CIA
allergist, described the drugging at Deep Creek Lodge as “an experiment
[that] had been done to trap” Frank Olson. This description of the
fateful session as a “trap” obviously contradicted the official
CIA story that Olson had been one of seven human guinea pigs in a simple
LSD experiment. Given the many references in the Colby document to ARTICHOKE,
Eric began to wonder if the Deep Creek dosing had been part of an interrogation
targeting his father.
In 1984, Eric returned to the United States. His first order of business
was to visit room 1018A at the Statler Hotel (by that time, renamed the
Pennsylvania Hotel). Standing in the tiny room, Eric was struck by the
physical impossibility of the official scenario. There wasn’t room
enough for a running start, and the window sill was high and blocked by
a radiator. Says Eric: “I knew that my father couldn’t have
jumped out through that closed hotel window even if he wanted to.”
That same year Eric, Nils and Alice paid a visit to Sidney Gottlieb at
his secluded farmhouse in Rappahannock County, Virginia. The 66-year-old
former master assassin was now devoted to two of his presumably less lethal
passions, goat farming and communal living. He greeted the Olsons warily.
“Oh my God,” he said. “I'm so relieved to see you all
don't have a gun.” The night before, he told them, he had dreamed
that the Olsons had shot him dead. The family wanted answers, but Gottlieb,
true to his espionage training, was evasive. He said that he regretted
the incident, but denied that Olson was pushed out the window. At the
end of the meeting Gottlieb snapped to Eric, “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.”
The family also called on Lashbrook, by then retired, at his home in Ojai,
California. Eric recalls that Lashbrook was uncommunicative and nervous,
claiming to have forgotten key details. The one useful item he revealed
was that Gottlieb had been with Olson in New York the week before he died
– a fact Gottlieb had failed to mention.
If the CIA’s cult of secrecy remained the proverbial immovable object,
by the early 1990s Eric had become its unstoppable force. Eric’s
avocation had become a fixation that had eclipsed his career; having returned
to the United States for good, he gave up his work as a clinical psychologist
to focus full-time on his father’s case. To bankroll his investigation,
he became adept in the art of nonprofit fundraising. But he also borrowed
money from friends and family, maxed out half a dozen credit cards, and
began to sink into debt. Personal relationships faltered. Friction grew
between Eric and brother Nils, a successful dentist who had helped Eric
financially in his quest, but who now worried that Eric had gone off the
Concern for his mother, who by the early 1990s had developed pancreatic
cancer, held Eric back from taking the next logical step in his investigation.
But after Alice died in 1993, Eric, with the consent of Nils, decided
to exhume his father’s body. In June 1994, 41 years after Frank
Olson’s burial, Eric watched as a steam shovel began to dredge up
the earth at his father’s grave. Supervising the disinterment was
Professor James Starrs, a criminologist and forensic scientist at George
Washington University who had previously unearthed and re-examined the
corpses of Jesse James and Dr. Carl Weiss, alleged assassin of Senator
Huey Long. After two hours of digging, Starr’s men hauled the rusted
casket out of the hole and transported it to a nearby police lab.
In the lab, as he prepared to unseal the lid, Starrs warned Eric not to
watch. The sight of his father’s shrunken corpse might prove disturbing.
“I’m seeing this!” Eric shot back. When Starrs raised
the lid, he was surprised to find Frank Olson’s body remarkably
well preserved. The skin was brown and shriveled, but the face was still
recognizable. After Eric left the lab, Starrs began his autopsy. He quickly
discovered that the New York medical examiner’s report from 1953
was dead wrong. That report had described multiple facial lacerations
caused by the impact with the glass. But Starrs was looking at an undamaged
face, devoid of cuts. Even more remarkable than what he did not find was
what Starrs did find: A large bruise over Olson’s left eye, which
suggested to Starrs that the victim had been smashed on the head before
plunging through the window. Starr’s concluded that the forensic
evidence was “rankly and starkly suggestive of homicide.”
“I am exceedingly skeptical of the view that Frank Olson went through
that window on his own,” Starrs said at the end of his investigation.
The evidence suggested that someone had knocked Olson over the head either
while he slept or during a struggle, and then tossed him out the window.
Three years later, Eric would discover that a CIA assassination manual
written in late 1953 – the period of his father’s death –
prescribed exactly that technique. The manual, declassified by the CIA
in 1997, contained the following eerie passage: “The most efficient
accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of 75 feet or more onto a
hard surface. Elevator shafts, stairwells, unscreened windows and bridges
will serve. . . . The act may be executed by sudden, vigorous [redacted]
of the ankles, tipping the subject over the edge.” The manual recommended
a sharp blow to the victim’s temple: "In chase cases it will
usually be necessary to stun or drug the subject before dropping him."
Eric had other reasons to believe that his father had been the victim
of a CIA assassination. Investigative writer H.P. Albarelli, who had been
conducting his own research into the Olson death, claimed to have contact
with retired CIA agents in Florida. According to these unnamed sources,
the CIA had hired contract killers associated with the Trafficante mob
family to murder Frank Olson in Room 1018A. Citing confidentiality agreements
with the Agency, these sources have thus far declined to go public with
Though armed with a mountain of circumstantial evidence, Eric remained
hamstrung by the waiver he and his family had signed promising not to
sue the CIA. Barred from pursuing the case in civil court, he turned to
the criminal justice system. In 1996 Eric asked Manhattan District Attorney
Robert Morganthau to open a new investigation. Morganthau agreed, assigning
the task to his “cold case” unit. Almost immediately, though,
the investigation encountered a major setback. A week after the case was
reopened, William Colby, a key witness, vanished. After an intensive ten-day
search of the Wicomico River in Southern Maryland, where he had last been
seen canoeing by himself, the former CIA chief’s body washed ashore.
The death was ruled accidental.
Meanwhile, ex-CIA man Robert Lashbrook fought the New York D.A.’s
attempts to interview him; he eventually submitted to a deposition. But
the D.A.’s attempts to question Sidney Gottlieb – who was
to become a central target of the investigation – hit a terminal
snag in 1999 when the ailing Gottlieb died, taking whatever secrets he
still guarded to his grave.
Although their cold case proceeded to get colder, the D.A.’s office
did manage to dislodge a number of interesting leads. Most notably, a
source with connections to Israeli intelligence told the investigators
that for years the Mossad had used the case of Frank Olson in its operative
training program as an object lesson in the “perfect murder.”
But as new millennium ushered itself in, it was becoming clear to Eric
that the New York D.A. was losing interest. Eric inundated cold case unit
daily with potential leads, but few were being checked out. Then in early
2002, to Eric’s dismay and frustration, the D.A. quietly dropped
the case (the New York D.A.’s office has declined to comment, citing
grand jury secrecy). In an angry letter to the New York District Attorney
Robert M. Morgenthau, Eric and Nils accused the D.A.’s office of
being “corrupted [by] and … knuckl[ing] under to federal pressure
to back off from any real examination of the facts and motives involved”
in the Frank Olson case. In another letter to Assistant D.A. Stephen Saracco,
Eric wrote, “I know that you have reason to believe (no –
that is too weak a way of putting it; to “know” is more like
it) that my father was murdered. You have made that abundantly clear on
numerous occasions… Looking back, I realize that it was when you
returned from California [to depose Lashbrook] that everything changed.
You stopped taking any initiative, you stopped gathering evidence….”
For Eric, the D.A.’s dumping of the Frank Olson case was yet another
in a long line of betrayals by the state. But even the worst setbacks
can be instructive. He now realized he had been naïve to expect justice
from the same government that had committed the crime in question. After
all, he observed, “The CIA has never been convicted of any crime
in this country.”
Ironically, the Frank Olson case itself may have played a key role in
fortifying the CIA’s ability to commit felonies with impunity –
the equivalent of a get-out-of-jail-free card. Eric would later uncover
an official “memorandum of understanding” between the CIA
and the Department of Justice essentially excusing the Agency from having
to report crimes committed by its own personnel when doing so might compromise
“highly classified and complex covert operations.”
The timing of the memo was interesting. It was drafted in early 1954,
shortly after Olson’s death, contemporaneous to the CIA’s
internal probe into the Olson affair, and in anticipation of then-pending
legislation requiring government agencies to report criminal violations
of its employees to the Justice Department.
The memo remained under wraps and officially off the books for decades
– until the Frank Olson case erupted again, in 1975. The day after
President Ford apologized to the Olsons in the Oval Office, a congressional
subcommittee headed by Bella Abzug met to question Lawrence R. Houston,
the former CIA general counsel who had drafted the 1954 memo. In the transcript
of the hearing, Abzug presses the ex-CIA lawyer to explain the genesis
of the memo. When the lawyer hems and haws, Abzug rather astonishingly
asks whether the memo might have been used to cover up murder in the Frank
ABZUG: It may very well have been a State offense if there was foul play.
Was [the Olson case] ever referred to the New York Police Department or
State authorities for consideration?
HOUSTON: Not that I recall.
ABZUG: In other words, this memorandum of understanding in your judgment
gave authority to the CIA to … give immunity to individuals who
happened to work for the CIA for all kinds of crimes, including possibly
Failing to get a straight answer, the indomitable congresswoman presses
harder, and Houston finally yields:
HOUSTON: It could have that effect, yes.
ABZUG: Did it have that effect?
HOUSTON: In certain cases it did.
By the time Eric Olson unearthed the hearing transcripts, Abzug had passed
away. So it’s not possible to know for sure whether she had any
specific reason – other than a well-oiled suspicion of the CIA --
to suspect that Frank Olson had been murdered.
Eric would later wonder whether Houston’s “memo of understanding”
– or another backroom agreement – had played a role in the
abortive investigation by the New York D.A.’s office. As Professor
Starrs had once summed up the mystery, “When you pull on the Frank
Olson case you feel that something very big is pulling back.”
Embittered, cynical, frustrated -- and utterly undeterred -- Eric pressed
ahead with his own private investigation. Now living by himself in the
family home his father built, he surrounded himself with stacks of documents
and bits of evidence accumulated in his decades-long pursuit of justice.
What little money he managed to scrape together he funneled back into
the investigation. Meanwhile, without proper maintenance, the Olson home
had fallen into disrepair, its paint peeling and roof sagging. It was,
in a sense, a house haunted by its own history.
Although Eric was convinced that his father had been the victim of a CIA
assassination, the possible motive behind a murder had long remained the
weak link in his theories. But new sources were emerging. One of them
was a former CIA pimp named Ira “Ike” Feldman. A squat, muscular
fellow who played the tough guy card to the hilt, Feldman had worked as
a federal narcotics agent during the 1950s. Most of his historical foot-notoriety,
however, stems from his freelance work using prostitutes to lure unsuspecting
“johns” to a CIA safehouse in San Francisco, where the unwitting
pleasure-seekers would instead be dosed with MK-ULTRA acid. Feldman told
Eric that Frank Olson had been murdered.
As Feldman elaborated in a 2002 documentary about Olson aired on German
television: “The source that I have was the New York City Police
Department, the Bureau of Narcotics agents and the CIA agents themselves.
They all say the same thing: that [Olson] was pushed out of the window
and did not jump. People who wanted him out of the way said he talked
too much and he was telling people about the things he had done, which
are American secrets. If you work on a top government secret… and
it spills out to people who should not know, there is only one way to
do it: kill him.”
To be sure, as a CIA scientist working on some of the nation’s most
secret Cold War projects, Frank Olson was in a position to know things
that, if exposed publicly, would prove embarrassing to the government.
But, Eric wondered, what sort of secrets might his father have known?
Another clue arrived when a European investigator and journalist contacted
Eric and told him of a trip his father had made to England, Germany and
Scandinavia during the summer of 1953. The investigator had interviewed
William Sargant, the English psychiatrist and consultant to British intelligence
(and author of an early book on brainwashing). Frank Olson had met with
Sargant to discuss a moral crisis: he had been horrified to witness “terminal
experiments” conducted by the CIA on human subjects – Nazi
prisoners and suspected spies who had been plied with the various, sometimes
lethal, ARTICHOKE interrogation techniques.
Frank Olson’s special diplomatic passport confirmed that he had
indeed traveled on government business to Europe during that time frame.
Eric recalled family descriptions of Olson’s state of mind upon
returning from the European junket. According to Eric’s uncle, who
spoke to Olson during the summer of 1953, he had undergone an ethical
crisis of some sort. And at one point, Olson had commented to his wife
that Americans were just as responsible for “war crimes” as
the Germans had been.
In the spring of 2001, Eric heard from one of his father’s colleagues
at Camp Detrick, Norman Cournoyer, a man Eric had assumed was dead. Cournoyer
had worked with the elder Olson during World War II to design the protective
clothing worn by American soldiers during the invasion of Normandy. He
had remained close to Eric’s father after the war, when Olson had
been recruited into the CIA. Cournoyer had recently seen an article about
Eric in the New York Times Magazine. “Eric,” he said, “you’ve
got everything right except for one thing.”
“What’s that?” Eric replied.
“The historical context.”
Eric asked him to elaborate but the old man demurred. “I am eighty-two
years old and I’m no longer afraid,” he said. “I’m
going to tell you the truth. But I don’t want to do it on the phone.”
A week later, Eric flew to Massachussets to meet Cournoyer in his home.
The man who greeted him at the door was physically frail, confined to
a wheelchair as the result of a stroke, but still sharp of mind. Cournoyer
directed Eric into his dining room, instructing him to remove all the
paintings from the wall to make room for the eight-foot-long historical
timeline Eric had brought with him, a chronological collage.
Cournoyer got right to the point: “Yes, your father worked for the
CIA. He told me that directly.” Cournoyer explained that Frank Olson
had revealed sometime in 1946-47 that he was “on a new path”
as a CIA employee. That path involved “information retrieval,”
an intelligence euphemism for interrogation techniques pioneered under
the ARTICHOKE project.
Cournoyer affirmed that Frank Olson had returned from Germany during the
summer of 1953 feeling “troubled.” Later, in the documentary
aired on German TV, Cournoyer would elaborate, stating that “the
people [Olson] saw in Germany [at the CIA interrogation center] went to
the extreme. He said: ’Norm, did you ever see a man die?’
I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Well, I did.’”
Olson told Cournoyer that CIA interrogators were using experimental techniques
first employed in Nazi drug experiments during wartime. Now the Americans
were testing the same techniques on captured Germans and others. “They
were using Nazis,” Cournoyer said, “they were using prisoners,
they were using Russians.”
But terminal ARTICHOKE experiments weren’t the only matters weighing
heavily on Olson’s conscience during the summer of 1953. Pointing
to the section on Eric’s timeline spanning the early 1950s, Cournoyer
offered a laconic statement: “Korea is the key.” This was
the historical context he had referred to in the earlier phone call.
“Your father,” Cournoyer explained, “was horrified to
discover that the Americans were using biological warfare in Korea.”
According to Cournoyer, through his work at Camp Detrick, Frank Olson
had acquired direct knowledge of illegal biowarfare experiments conducted
by U.S. armed forces and the CIA on Korean soldiers and civilians. One
of the virulent agents deployed was none other than airborne anthrax,
the elder Olson’s area of expertise. Cournoyer’s assertions
resonated strongly with Eric. He recalled his mother telling him that
Frank Olson had been concerned that the United States was using biological
weapons in Korea.
The U.S. government has always denied allegations that it sprayed Korean
soldiers with anthrax and dropped a number of other lethal germ warfare
agents, including Bubonic plague-bearing fleas. However, the allegations
have proved persistent, and, thanks in large part to a 1952 international
study into the matter, are generally taken as a given everywhere in the
world outside the 202 area code.
Did Frank Olson – hardly reticent about his growing ethical dilemma
– become a perceived security risk. Did his superiors fear he might
turn whistleblower, exposing dangerous knowledge about America adopting
the killing techniques of German and Japanese war criminals? Cournoyer
believed so. “This,” he told Eric, “is quite probably
what got your father murdered.”
As Eric spoke with his father’s old friend and colleague, Cournoyer’s
gardener interrupted them. “There’s something out there,”
he said, pointing at the window overlooking the lawn. The men moved to
the window. From behind a tree in the middle of the lawn, a huge mountain
lion emerged. Padding slowly, it crossed the yard while the men gazed
in astonishment. A third-rate novelist couldn’t have ordered up
a more obvious literary trope: The cat was indeed out of the bag.
As he continued to assemble his postmortem collage, Eric also encountered
signs and symbols of a less fantastical nature.
There was the peculiar memo in Olson’s personnel file at Detrick,
which indicated that the CIA did indeed see him as a potential security
risk. In 1994, an Associated Press reporter discovered the typewritten
memo, which quoted an earlier, hand-written note forwarded to Detrick
in 1975 by a person described only as “retired Army and retired
DAC” (Army shorthand for “Department of the Army Civilian”).
The hand-written note, headlined “Re – Dr. F. W. Olson,”
suggested further investigation into Olson’s background in connection
to his death. One item on the list suggested that someone look into “Trip
to Paris and Norway in 1953(?) and possible fear of security violation.
Sources – F.W. Wagner, H.T. Eigelsbach, Robert Lashbrook, and Dr.
That the CIA had much to hide became dramatically evident during the summer
of 2001, when Eric obtained documents from the Gerald Ford Presidential
Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Among the papers were memos written by
senior White House staffers and attorneys who were concerned about the
possibility of an Olson family lawsuit – and the inevitable public
disclosure it would entail. White House attorney Roderick Hills wrote
to White House Deputy Staff Director Dick Cheney (yes, that Dick Cheney)
stating, “Dr. Olson’s job [was] so sensitive” that in
a trial the government would refuse to reveal it. Another of the memos,
written by Cheney on July 11, 1975, the day after the Olson family press
conference, and addressed to his boss Donald Rumsfeld (yes, that Donald
Rumsfeld) raised concern for:
“…the possibility that it might become necessary to disclose
highly classified national security information in connection with any
court suit, or legislative hearings.”
Such a revelation was to be avoided at all costs, the internal correspondence
stated. What exactly was this “highly classified national security
information”? MK-ULTRA? As far as that program was concerned, disclosure
was already well underway. . Was the big secret that Olson was a CIA employee?
That hardly seems shocking in the context of an accidental LSD dosing.
In fact, it might be argued that, PR-wise, a CIA employee dying in a bungled
CIA drug experiment is somewhat less scandalous than an innocent Army
civilian as fallguy.
Fifty years after the fact, Eric Olson came to believe that he had finally
prized loose the carefully guarded state secret of his father’s
death. In the summer of 2002, he and his brother Nils were finally ready
to lay their father, and the mystery, to rest. Nine years after unearthing
Frank Olson’s body, Eric and Nils Olson put their father’s
cursed bones back into the ground (the tissue remains in Professor Starr’s
lab). They now rest in a plot beside the remains of their sister, Lisa,
her husband and child, and their mother, Alice.
The day before the reburial, the surviving Olsons held one last backyard
press conference. It wasn’t exactly the sort of closure the Olson
family had sought for so many years; after all, no one from the District
Attorney’s office was on hand to announce an official finding, or
even to call for a congressional inquiry. And no government panel would
be publishing a report acknowledging that Frank Olson had been murdered.
But nevertheless it was a kind of justice – hard-fought and self-won.
“Frank Olson did not die as a consequence of a drug experiment gone
awry,” Eric said, addressing a small huddle of television cameras.
“He died because of security concerns regarding disavowed programs
of terminal interrogation and the use of biological weapons in Korea.
This secret was so immense that even twenty-two years later the White
House had been enlisted to maintain it.”
Finally, the fall that had begun 49 years earlier was over. It had held
the family suspended in a kind of weightless limbo, captives to the pull
of their own unrevealed and unresolved history. And like bodies in motion
around a distant, immense, and barely visible object, their destination
was forever falling away from under them. But on the day Eric put his
father to rest for the second time, the son seemed to have found his footing
again. At last, he said, he was ready to move on. “Today,”
he announced, “Frank Olson finally hit bottom.” Eric Olson
might just as well have been talking about himself.
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above to read the chapter on the Olson story from the previous edition,
now part of a re-edited Chapter 1 of the new edition.