Study of exhumed body hints at homicide

July 24, 1994|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Sun Staff Writer

Forensic scientists examining the exhumed body of the Frederick germ warfare researcher who died more than 40 years ago days after unwittingly taking LSD in a CIA experiment say they have found skull fractures that could point to homicide rather than the official verdict of suicide.

Frank R. Olson, a civilian researcher at the Army's Fort Detrick, died in a fall from a New York hotel window.

Investigators at George Washington University are making a copy of Mr. Olson's skull to study a number of fractures missed by the first autopsy and to determine whether they are consistent with the original coroner's ruling that his death was a suicide.

The Olson family believes that Mr. Olson did not take his own life and that he might have been killed. Last month, at the request of Mr. Olson's sons, Eric and Nils, an investigative team had Mr. Olson's remains exhumed from a Frederick County cemetery and taken to Hagerstown for an autopsy by a forensic pathologist.

When Mr. Olson died, his family, the New York police and the coroner knew nothing of his experience with LSD. He had become despondent and depressed after taking the drug, but the original investigators of his death believed he was just someone who had come to New York seeking psychiatric help.

Dr. James L. Frost, deputy medical examiner for West Virginia and a former deputy medical examiner for Maryland, conducted the recent autopsy in Hagerstown after the body was exhumed June 2.

He said he can understand why the original medical examiner did not photograph or X-ray the body: The death appeared to be a routine suicide.

"Who knows how many suicides they had that night, that week or that month in New York," Dr. Frost said.

In the mid-1970s, the Olson family and the public learned about the LSD experiment. Questions have haunted them since, and a $750,000 settlement and federal pension -- along with an apology from President Gerald R. Ford -- did not answer them.

James E. Starrs, a forensic scientist and law professor at George Washington, and his team say they hope to find answers. In addition to Dr. Frost's autopsy, a Baltimore physician is running toxicology tests on skin and tissue samples, looking for evidence that could determine whether Mr. Olson was drugged at the time of his death.

At York College in Pennsylvania, a forensic anthropologist is studying Mr. Olson's bones to try to determine how he sustained his injuries.

Six weeks into the investigation, the team has drawn no hard conclusions, although its efforts have spawned intriguing questions.

For example, after examining and X-raying the body, researchers discovered many more head injuries than the single, small skull fracture reported in the original autopsy, Mr. Starrs said.

Mr. Olson had a fracture across the top of his skull, from ear to ear, and one at the base of his skull. Further study may reveal more fractures, researchers said.

Dr. Frost said the scientists wonder how Mr. Olson could have sustained so many head injuries when he apparently hit the ground feet first -- both of his legs were broken in the fall.

Mr. Starrs said there are several possible explanations for the additional head wounds. Mr. Olson could have injured his head diving out the window, or he could have hit an obstruction on the way down.

"There have to be explanations," he said. "And one of the possible explanations is homicide, it's quite clear."

Other questions include:

* In the original autopsy, the coroner noted scratches and abrasions on Mr. Olson's face and neck, the kind of injuries expected if someone had crashed face-first through a closed window. But Dr. Frost and other scientists found no such scratches on the corpse.

"Maybe he didn't go out face first," Mr. Starrs said. "Maybe he went out feet first."

* Dr. Robert Lashbrook, a CIA scientist who was in the hotel room with Mr. Olson that night, reported waking to the sound of a crash through the window.

Mr. Starrs said that copies of the original police reports obtained by the family in the 1970s list witnesses who confirmed Dr. Lashbrook's account, but their names were blacked out. Mr. Starrs said he is attempting to get unedited copies of the original reports in hopes of finding the mystery witnesses.

* The night Mr. Olson died, someone may have stayed in the adjacent room, which had a connecting door to Mr. Olson's room. Mr. Starrs is trying to get hotel employees to track down guest register to find out who, if anyone, was in the adjoining room.

The CIA has issued a neutrally worded statement on the latest investigation.

"The death of Frank Olson in 1953 was extensively investigated in the Congress and the executive branch," said spokeswoman Suzanne Wheeler Klein.

"We have read the press reports on the private forensic investigation currently in progress at the behest of the Olson family. If the conclusions of that investigation include any new information on the case, it obviously should be brought to the attention of the law enforcement authorities."

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