The CIA’s Fall Guy

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“The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface.” So reads a passage in the first manual of assassination developed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA.) This passage was designed to eliminate individuals considered enemies of the United States. Some, however, believe the CIA used its most simple assassination tactic to kill one of its own.


On the evening of November 28, 1953, CIA scientist Frank Olson was found barely alive on the sidewalk in front of New York City’s Statler Hotel. He had fallen from a window from the hotel’s 10th floor and died a few hours later. Foul play was ruled out in his death, which was determined to be either an accident or suicide.

Twenty-two-years after the fall, an investigation chaired by the second most powerful person in America questioned the official ruling of Frank Olson’s death.

Frank Olson had a brilliant mind, and it is believed the CIA sought to control his thoughts. Many contend that when he expressed resistance, he was eliminated by the agency he served.

Frank Olson graduated with a B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Bacteriology from the University of Wisconsin. He and his wife Alice had three children, sons Nils and Eric, and a daughter Lisa.

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For several years, Frank headed the military’s biological warfare research and development program at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The 43-year-old was an expert in aerobiology, the delivery of deadly viruses, and infectious microorganisms via spray and aerosol cans.

In addition to his military position, Frank was also on the CIA’s payroll as the covert agency was involved in germ warfare in association with the Special Operations Division, the most top-secret research being conducted at Fort Detrick. Frank was the CIA’s Deputy Acting Head of Special Operations.

In November of 1953, Frank went to a three-day conference with some of his colleagues. He told Alice the men would be discussing research and development projects but that he could not tell her where the event was being held. Upon his return home, Alice noticed a pronounced change in her husband’s demeanor. Frank had become severely depressed and withdrawn.

Frank told Alice he had done something wrong. The tone in his voice and body language made Alice suspect it was something severe. Frank told her he could not tell her what he had done, but he had not broken national security.

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Olson’s boss, Vincent Ruwett, told Alice he believed Frank was near a nervous breakdown. Shortly before Thanksgiving of 1953, Ruwett took Frank to New York for treatment.

Alice did not hear from her husband for a week. When Frank did call on the evening of November 18, 1953, he said he was exhausted but feeling better. He told Alice he loved her, to kiss the children good night for him, and to tell them Daddy would be home soon.

The phone call, however, was the last time Alice spoke to her husband, and Frank’s children never saw their dad again.

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That evening, Olson and fellow CIA scientist Robert Lashbrook shared room 1018A on the tenth floor of New York City’s Statler Hotel, now known as the Pennsylvania Hotel. Lashbrook said both he and Frank went to bed at approximately 11:00 p.m. He said the room’s window was closed.

Lashbrook said the next thing he remembered was being awakened by the sound of breaking glass shortly before midnight. As he looked outside the broken window, he saw Frank lying on the sidewalk, clothed only his underwear and a T-shirt. Several people were gathered around him.

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The police investigating the incident found no evidence of foul play.

Alice was told her husband had suffered a nervous breakdown and had either committed suicide by jumping through a closed window or had accidentally fallen through the closed window to his death. She and many others were skeptical of the determination.  Suicide victims who leap to their deaths don’t usually jump through closed windows, and it seemed unlikely a person could generate enough force on his own to fall through a closed window accidentally.

Nevertheless, the official ruling of suicide stood for over two decades.

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In 1975, twenty-two-years after Frank Olson’s fatal fall, the Rockefeller Commission was formed to investigate charges of past abuses carried out by the CIA.

Various reports mentioned a government scientist who had plunged to his death from a hotel window ten days after being dosed with the hallucinogenic drug (LSD). The scientist was not mentioned by name, but it was later confirmed to be Frank Olson.

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After learning of the report’s findings, Alice Olson and her three children announced they planned to sue the CIA over Frank’s “wrongful death.” The government offered them an out-of-court settlement of $1,250,000, which was later reduced to $750,000. The Olsons accepted and received formal apologies from President Gerald Ford and CIA director William Colby. They were also given what was said to be a complete set of documents relating to the last nine days of Frank’s life.

After reading the documents, the Olsons were convinced the CIA, either intentionally or indirectly, was responsible for Frank’s death.

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The CIA reports said Frank was among ten scientists who had gone to a retreat in Deep Creek Lake in western Maryland in November of 1953. The stated purpose of the meeting was to discuss ongoing research, but in reality, the men were to be used as guinea pigs in testing the effects of LSD.

The Cold War was rapidly heating up, and the Soviet Union was viewed as the most dangerous threat to America. The CIA feared the Russians would use LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs to produce anxiety and fear in captured CIA agents. The agency sought to test the effects of LSD to prepare its American operatives for that possibility. Officials chose their own scientists as the unwitting subjects of their experiment.

The documents revealed eight of the ten men drank Couitreau after having dinner. Unbeknownst to them, the French liqueur was spiked with doses of LSD. The effects were visible within an hour as the men became delusional, dizzy, and discombobulated.

The LSD was said to have been put into the drinks either by Sidney Gottlieb, head of the CIA’s technical services staff or by his deputy, Lashbrook. When Gottlieb told the scientists the drinks had been spiked with LSD, the men became agitated.

Frank Olson was said to be the angriest. The documents say he told his bosses he no longer wished to work for the CIA or have any involvement in germ warfare programs.

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Later that week, the documents went on to say, Frank was taken to New York, supposedly suffering from a nervous breakdown as Vincent Ruwet had told Alice in 1953. Frank was treated by Dr. Harold Abramson, an allergist-pediatrician and LSD expert who worked with the CIA in researching the drug’s psychotropic effects.

Over the next few days, Frank made several more visits to Dr. Abramson, always accompanied by Lashbrook and Ruwet. The documents released to the Olson family, however, do not say what occurred during these sessions.

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The documents do state that while he was in New York, Frank experienced delusions and, in one instance, threw away all his identification and money.

After reading the report and going public with its findings, the Olsons were contacted by Armand Pastore, the night manager at the Statler Hotel at the time. He said shortly afterward Frank was found have fallen from the window, that the hotel’s telephone operator told him she heard the man calling from room 1018A (Lashbrook) say, “Well, he’s gone.” and the man on the other end reply, “Well, that’s too bad.”. Then they both hung up.

After reading the report and hearing Pastore’s account, the Olson family believes that Frank told his superiors of his intention to leave the CIA and end his involvement in germ warfare research. The agency had determined he was a security risk and decided to have him eliminated. Author Ed Regis concurs, saying Frank told Ruwet he wanted to quit the biological program after the LSD experiment.

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When Alice Olson died in 1993, Nils, Eric, and Lisa had their father’s body exhumed to rest beside hers. Before Frank Olson was reburied, however, the children had an autopsy performed on him.

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George Washington University Professor and renowned forensic scientist James Starrs performed Olson’s autopsy forty years after his death. Dr. Starrs was pleasantly surprised and amazed that the remains were in excellent condition.

After completing his examination of Frank’s remains, Dr. Starrs criticized the original autopsy performed by the New York Medical Examiner in 1953, saying the report was incomplete as the examiner had not checked for foreign substances or accurately charted Frank’s physical injuries. The New York Medical Examiner had stated that there were multiple lacerations on Olson’s face and neck, but Dr. Starrs found no such injuries.

Dr. Starss said that if Frank had fallen out of a closed window, he would have incurred numerous cuts and abrasions. He found no such wounds.

What Dr. Starrs did find was a large hematoma on the left side of Olson’s head and a significant injury on his chest. The forensic team concluded injuries likely occurred in the room before the fall. He believes the window was broken after Frank fell to his death.

Dr. Starrs concluded the police and CIA ruling of Frank Olson’s death as either suicide or accident was, “rankly and starkly suggestive of homicide.”

After the findings were made public, Lashbrook, who was in the room with Frank before he plunged to his death, changed his story and said he could not remember if the window had been opened or closed.

Robert Lashbrook died in 2002 at age 84.

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In 2012, Eric and Nils Olson filed suit in the United States District Court in Washington, D.C., seeking unspecified compensatory damages and access to additional documents related to their father’s death, which they claim the CIA had withheld from them.

The lawsuit was dismissed in July of 2013 because of the 1976 settlement between the family and government.  U.S. District Judge James Boasberg wrote, “While the court must limit its analysis to the four corners of the complaint, the skeptical reader may wish to know that the public record supports many of the allegations [in the family’s suit], far fetched as they may sound.”

In 2017, Netflix released “Wormwood,” a documentary detailing the controversy surrounding Frank Olson’s death.

In the six-part miniseries directed by Errol Morris, journalist Seymour Hersh says high ranking sources told him that during the height of the Cold War, the government had a security process to identify and execute domestic dissidents perceived as a risk to the United States. He said that Frank Olson was viewed as such a dissident and that his death was covered up by his CIA colleagues. Hersh, however, says he cannot elaborate or publish on the facts because it would compromise his source.

The Wormwood documentary is still available for viewing on Netflix.

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Frank’s death was not the only tragedy the Olson family endured. Another untimely family death also occurred in New York.

Lisa Olson Hayward was only seven-years-old when her father died. On March 19, 1978, she, her husband Greg, and their one-and-a-half-year-old son perished in a plane crash. As a result of intensely high winds, the twin-engine Beechcraft crashed into the Katy Mountain in the Adirondack Mountains near Lake Clear, New York. The pilot and one other passenger were also killed. Lisa was 32-years-old.


THIS LIST OF LINKS IS NOT AN ALL-ENCOMPASSING SOURCE CITING. ALL OF THE INFORMATION USED IN THIS ARTICLE CAN BE EASILY FOUND ONLINE. LINKS BELOW WERE USED AS SOURCES AND ARE RECOMMENDED READING FOR SYNOVA’S READERS. SYNOVA STRIVES TO CITE ALL THE SOURCES USED DURING HER CASE STUDY, BUT OCCASIONALLY A SOURCE MAY BE MISSED BY MISTAKE. IT IS NOT INTENTIONAL, AND NO COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT IS INTENDED.


SOURCES:
• Associated Press
Frederick (Maryland) News Post
Los Angeles Times
New York Times
Newark Advocate
The Telegraph
Unsolved Mysteries
• UPI
Washington Post
• Washington Times 


Recommended Reading:

More About Our Wonderful Guest Blogger:

Ian Granstra is a writer and a native Iowan now living in  Arkansas.Growing up, he enjoyed watching real-life crime shows and further researching the stories featured. He wrote about many of them on his personal Facebook page, and several people suggested he should start a group featuring his writings. Ian founded the Facebook group “Murders, Missing People and More Mysteries” in August of 2018 he writes about many cold cases. The group also features many current criminal cases in the news. When Ian isn’t writing, he enjoys exercising, traveling and collecting sports cards. He’s also a big animal lover (his Facebook nickname is “beagle lover.”)


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