Inquiry into CIA researcher's '53 death inconclusive

November 29, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A team of forensic scientists yesterday left open the possibility of homicide in the 1953 death of a Frederick researcher whose psyche was damaged by LSD in a secret government experiment.

Reporting on a six-month investigation, the team that examined the remains of Frank R. Olson could not say conclusively whether he was slain or committed suicide after unwittingly taking the mind-altering drug in a CIA-run test.

But neither possibility can be excluded, said James E. Starrs, the team leader and a professor of law and forensic science at George Washington University.

He said that a suspicious injury above the left eye, and circumstances surrounding the death, are "rankly and starkly suggestive of homicide." He called on law enforcement authorities to reopen an investigation of the death.

Olson, a 43-year-old civilian researcher at the Army's Fort Detrick in Frederick, plunged from the 13th floor of the Statler Hotel in New York. His death initially was listed as a suicide but a complete autopsy never was conducted.

He died of multiple traumatic injuries -- injuries consistent with a fall from such a height, said James L. Frost, a forensic pathologist and deputy chief medical examiner for West Virginia who conducted an autopsy for the team.

Olson had fractures of the skull, pelvis, legs and arms. He fell 173 feet to the ground, hit a wooden barricade and then the sidewalk.

Eric Olson, one of Frank Olson's two surviving children, said yester

day that he and his brother, Nils, needed to study the 21-page report before deciding on further action. He noted, though, that a "whole range of legal strategies are open to us."

The brothers received the final report at a news conference yesterday -- exactly 41 years after their father died.

"I have said all the time that it was murder," said Eric, who has given up his psychology practice to write a book about his father's case. "But to juxtapose that with this report isn't something I'm going to do."

Not until 1975 did Frank Olson's family learn that he had been an unwitting participant in a CIA experiment involving LSD. The family later received $750,000 in a pension-settlement from the federal government; then-President Gerald R. Ford also apologized for what happened to Olson.

During the Cold War era, the CIA experimented with LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs, using some government employees as guinea pigs. The objective, Mr. Starrs and others contend, was to gauge whether trusted operatives would reveal secrets if given the drug by enemy agents.

Olson was given LSD during a meeting at Deep Creek Lake in Western Maryland. Three days later, he became withdrawn and unstable. Then a CIA staff member accompanied him to New York for treatment of the LSD-related behavioral aberrations. About 2 a.m. on Nov. 28, 1953, he plunged through a window that had the shade drawn.

Starrs and others have speculated that Olson knew of sensitive warfare studies at Fort Detrick, and of clandestine CIA activities, and that his reaction to LSD made him a security risk. Another source of speculation: the conflicting accounts by Dr. Robert Lashbrook, a CIA scientist who was sharing a hotel room with Olson.

Initially, Dr. Lashbrook said he saw Olson fling himself out the window. In a later account, Dr. Lashbrook recalled being awakened by a flapping window shade and never saw Olson fall. In recent interviews, Dr. Lashbrook has said that he firmly believes Olson committed suicide.

Eric and Nils Olson, who live in Frederick, agreed to have their father's body exhumed in June from Linden Hills Cemetery and examined by Mr. Starrs and the forensic team. The Olsons were in the process of reinterring their father at Frederick's Mount Olivet Cemetery, where their mother and a sister are buried.

Mr. Starrs, who has conducted forensic investigations into the deaths of explorer Meriwether Lewis, the ax-murdered parents of Lizzie Borden and assassinated Louisiana Sen. Huey Long, said he and the team had been hopeful the probe would lead to conclusive answers.

The 24-member team included forensic toxicologists, pathologists and criminalists, as well as a lawyer, photographers and other specialists. A computer animation company assisted in the investigation by creating possible scenarios for both homicide and suicide.

Both scenarios show Olson coming through the window arms first and spiraling head first to the ground.

The team's autopsy showed no evidence of multiple cuts on Olson's face and neck as noted on the original autopsy report. Such cuts would have indicated that he went through a closed window.

Toxicology tests on body tissues showed no sign of LSD or any other drug. Mr. Starrs is awaiting toxicology results on Olson's hair.

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