Alice W. Olson, won $1.25 million suit against CIA

August 23, 1993|By Staff report

Alice Wicks Olson, a well-known Frederick County mental health counselor who in the 1970s fought and won a battle with the CIA for details of her husband's unexpected violent death, died Thursday of cancer at Frederick Memorial Hospital. She was 77.

A longtime advocate for alcohol-abuse awareness, Mrs. Olson helped create a program in Frederick County to help judges assess the problems of intoxicated drivers and recommend substance-abuse programs for them.

She had worked as a counselor for the Frederick County Health Department for at least two decades. Friends said she was one of the first in the health profession to help private industries start assistance programs for employees with substance-abuse problems.

She acknowledged many times her own alcohol problem in talks with college students.

"She was a fine lady," said Peter Scaruhas, director of substance-abuse services for the Frederick County Health Department. "She was very forthright, very honest, very direct and a very competent clinician."

Such was her standing in the community that the health agency in April 1991 named in her honor a halfway house for those recovering from substance addictions. Initially called the Alice Olson Recovery House of Women and Children, the facility at 608 E. Patrick St. in Frederick is now referred to as Olson House -- and is a home for men. Women are housed in Gale House at 336. N. Market St. Earlier this year, Mrs. Olson donated one of her watercolors to the home.

Because of her work in mental health over the years, Mrs. Olson received the regional Soroptimist Club's Woman of the Year award.

In the 1970s, Mrs. Olson unexpectedly found herself tangling with the Central Intelligence Agency in connection with her husband's death two decades earlier.

In 1953, Frank R. Olson, a civilian research scientist at Fort Detrick, the Army's chemical research facility in Frederick, plunged to his death from a New York City hotel room.

As would be confirmed years later, he unknowingly ingested LSD given to him by the CIA as part of a 10-year program to test the drug's effects. He was given the drug after a meeting with CIA officials to discuss his work.

Three days after taking the drug, the 43-year-old man became withdrawn and was sent to New York with a CIA staff member to see a psychiatrist. About 1:30 a.m. Nov. 28, he suddenly ran through a window with a drawn shade and plunged to his death.

Mr. Olson's family was told the death was an unexplained suicide.

Twenty-two years later, in 1975, the Olson family learned that the suicide was linked to the hallucinogen by reading a Rockefeller Commission report that disclosed -- though not by name -- that the CIA's drug experiments had led to one suicide.

"I was stunned," Mrs. Olson told the New York Times. "It never occurred to me that there could be foul play."

She persisted in seeking the truth about her husband's death. The disclosures led to a congressional investigation and an apology from President Gerald R. Ford.

In 1976, the CIA agreed to pay the Olson family $1.25 million.

Services for Mrs. Olson are scheduled for 11 a.m. tomorrow at the First Presbyterian Church, 115 W. Second St., Frederick.

Surviving are her sons, Eric W. Olson of Stockholm, Sweden, and Dr. Nils W. Olson of Frederick; a sister, Virginia W. Vidich of Storrs, Conn.; and three grandchildren.

The family suggested donations to the Alice Olson Recovery Home, 608 E. Patrick St., Frederick, or to Gale House, 336 N. Market St., Frederick.

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