A Father Lost

Since 1953, Eric Olson has heard more than one explanation for his father's mysterious death. Now he believes it was murder.

August 01, 2004|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

He was 9 years old when his mother woke him before dawn half a century ago in Cold War America. Eric Olson came blinking into the living room of their Frederick home, where his father's boss and friend, Col. Vincent Ruwet, sat with the family doctor.

"Everybody had this stony-faced expression," Olson recalls. "I remember Ruwet saying, `Your father was in New York and he had an accident. He either fell out the window or jumped.'"

After decades of dogged inquiry, Eric Olson now has a new verb for what happened to his father, Frank Olson, who worked for the Army's top-secret Special Operations Division at Fort Detrick, where he developed bioweapons and experimented with mind-control drugs.

Eric Olson found the verb in a 1950s CIA manual that was declassified in 1997 - one more clue in a quest that has consumed his adult life.

The verb is "dropped." And the manual is a how-to guide for assassins.

"The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface," the manual says, adding helpfully: "It will usually be necessary to stun or drug the subject before dropping him."

Eric Olson believes his father - who developed misgivings about his work and tried to resign - was murdered by government agents to protect dark government secrets.

To find out what happened in the Statler Hotel on the night of Nov. 28, 1953, Eric once spent a sleepless night in the room from which his father fell. He confronted his father's close-mouthed colleagues. He had his father's mummified body exhumed. And he built a circumstantial case that Frank Olson was the victim of what he calls a "national security homicide."

The government has long denied the charge of murder. But it has admitted what might be called negligent manslaughter. Its version: that Frank Olson crashed through the window in a suicidal depression nine days after he was given LSD without his knowledge in a CIA mind-control experiment.

Eric never bought that argument. His devotion to the case derailed a promising career as a clinical psychologist that began with a doctorate from Harvard. In some Frederick circles, you'll hear disapproving murmurs about Eric's obsession - contrasted with the success of his younger brother, Nils, a dentist. But Nils Olson, 55, says he admires his brother's tenacity and agrees with his conclusion.

"At every point there seems to be a convergence of the evidence," Nils Olson says. "It all points to my father's being murdered."

The patriotic community surrounding Fort Detrick has long been reluctant to believe such a possibility. Once, Eric Olson says, he was, too.

"I'm not essentially conspiratorial in my worldview," says the lanky psychologist, who seems almost boyish at 59. "In my father's case, I just started turning over stones, and there was a snake under every one."

It may well be that Olson is wrong - that the government merely drugged his father with LSD, treated him thoughtlessly when he fell into madness and covered it up for 22 years. But if Frank Olson was murdered, then part of the plan would naturally be a cover-up.

"No assassination instructions should ever be written or recorded," says the CIA assassination manual. "Decision and instructions should be confined to an absolute minimum of persons."

It adds: "For secret assassination ... the contrived accident is the most effective technique. When successfully executed, it causes little excitement and is only casually investigated."

Whether the truth is homicide or suicide induced by a reckless drug experiment, the Olson saga is a cautionary tale in an era that echoes the early days of the Cold War. In the war on terror, America again appears tempted to use extreme measures.

In Olson's case, it took the government until 1975 to admit to the LSD experiment. When an investigation of CIA abuses exposed the facts in 1975, two White House aides named Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld helped set up a meeting at which President Gerald Ford apologized to the Olson family.

The goal, according to a declassified White House memo, was to avert a lawsuit in which it "may become apparent that we are concealing evidence for national security reasons."

What evidence was concealed, the memo does not reveal. But people who are far from wild-eyed conspiracy theorists accept the plausibility of Frank Olson's death as an execution.

Among them is Army intelligence veteran Norman G. Cournoyer, 85, who worked with Olson at Detrick and became one of his closest friends.

"If the question is, did Frank commit suicide, my answer is absolutely, positively not," says Cournoyer, now frail and wheelchair-bound, living in Amherst, Mass.

Why would he have been killed?

"To shut him up," Cournoyer says. "Frank was a talker ... . His concept of being a real American had changed. He wasn't sure we should be in germ warfare, at the end."

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