In reburial, Olsons hope to lay saga of father to rest

Family has disputed government claims he committed suicide in '53

Ceremony planned for today

August 09, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- It was here in the Olson family back yard in 1975 that the world first learned the name of a man who, the story went, had been unwittingly drugged with LSD by the Central Intelligence Agency 22 years earlier and then jumped to his death from a 10th-floor hotel room.

The Olsons -- among them Eric, the oldest child -- called a news conference. Reporters from throughout the country came to the house that Frank Olson had built and gathered around the picnic table to listen.

Reporters heard that family patriarch Frank Olson, ostensibly an Army scientist, had committed suicide in 1953. But that explanation left the family -- Eric Olson in particular -- with many questions about Frank Olson's life and death.

Eight years ago, questions unanswered, Frank Olson's body was exhumed from the Frederick cemetery where it had lain for more than 40 years. Forensic experts are hesitant to assert anything with complete certainty, but they said the death was not a suicide.

Today, Eric Olson and his family will try to put their questions, theories and suspicions to rest as they rebury what is left of Frank Olson in the cemetery plot he shared with his wife. Yesterday, from the same picnic table, Eric Olson, now 57, spoke again to reporters, this time saying he knows how his father was killed, and why -- enough answers to allow him to move on.

"I feel satisfied," said Olson, a Harvard-educated clinical psychologist. "We're where we want to be -- we know what happened."

What Olson says he knows is this: His father was not a civilian scientist at nearby Fort Detrick, as the family had been told. Instead, he worked for the CIA, running the Special Operations Division at Detrick, which Olson says was the government's "most secret biological weapons laboratory," working with materials such as anthrax.

He says the evidence he has gathered over the years shows that Frank Olson didn't suffer a nervous breakdown, as the family initially was told, and didn't commit suicide because he had had a negative drug experience, as they learned in the 1970s. Instead, the son says, his father was killed by the CIA because officials there feared he would divulge classified information concerning the United States' use of biological weapons in Korea.

"It didn't happen," CIA spokesman Paul F. Novack said yesterday. "We categorically deny that."

Two weeks after that news conference in 1975, the Olson family was invited to the White House for a formal apology from President Gerald R. Ford. "Actually, it was not at all clear exactly what it was that the president and the CIA director were apologizing for," Olson recalled yesterday. After the family agreed not to sue the CIA, it was awarded a $750,000 settlement. They had been told theirs was a case they could not win.

Now the family has learned that the Ford administration was keeping information from the family, concerned that family members would ask questions about the scientist's work that the government was unprepared to answer. Among those who advocated keeping quiet were Dick Cheney and Donald H. Rumsfeld, now the vice president and defense secretary, the Olsons learned from memos and other papers received last year from the Gerald R. Ford Library.

"Most of it is documented now," said Philadelphia lawyer David Rudovsky, who was a roommate of Eric Olson's in the 1970s and has assisted him with the case over the years. "It's more than just some crazy paranoid speculation."

"It's not an easy theory to wrap your mind around," concedes Nils Olson, 53, Eric Olson's brother.

Little is left of the body the Olsons exhumed in 1994. When the casket was opened that day -- it had been closed during the funeral years before because the family had been told Frank Olson's body was too disfigured from his fall -- Eric Olson recognized his father. His face was largely intact, lacking the cuts that would have resulted if he had broken through a plate-glass window to jump.

Something else they say they have learned: Information about the murder of Frank Olson, as the family calls it, is included in the assassination curriculum of the Israeli Mossad -- Israel's intelligence agency -- because it is considered a successful instance of disguising a murder as a suicide.

When Frank Olson is buried again today, only bones will be returned to the ground -- the tissue has been removed for study. The bones have been sitting for years in a locked file cabinet in the George Washington University office of James E. Starrs, the professor of law and forensic sciences who determined that the death was not a suicide.

Yesterday's news conference lasted nearly two hours as members of Eric Olson's family, including his brother, son and nieces, read through a statement, more than 20 pages long, before answering questions. Eric Olson lives in his childhood home, the place he lived when he was 9 years old and learned of his father's death.

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