In 1953, the United States government told the family of scientist Frank Olson that their patriarch had fallen from a hotel window to his death, a tragic suicide induced by work stress. Twenty-two years later, the CIA was forced to admit that its agents had given Olson a glass of Cointreau spiked with LSD immediately before dying, and his death was reclassified as a drug-induced suicide.
The Olson family, however, doesn’t believe this summary of events. They believe that the CIA was guilty of murder.
These real events make up the plot of Wormwood, an upcoming six-part series on Netflix that blends narrative and documentary filmmaking, directed by Errol Morris. In the first trailer for Wormwood, released Monday, the series is described as a telling of the “true story of the CIA, LSD, mind control, and the death of a family man.”
In Wormwood, Peter Sarsgaard plays Olson, a bioweapons expert who worked within a special operations division of the Army’s Biological Laboratory, which worked closely with the CIA. Olson’s family says that in 1953, he went on a work trip to Europe to visit biological and chemical weapon research facilities, where he allegedly witnessed CIA-backed interrogations that used biological agents to coerce subjects, which he found intensely disturbing.
Shortly after, Olson attended a work retreat in Deep Creek Lake, Maryland, where CIA officials, including the head of MK-ULTRA, Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, were in attendance. In 1975, the American public discovered that MK-ULTRA was a secret CIA project that, between 1953 and 1964, conducted unethical experiments on unknowing subjects with the goal of achieving mind control. Many of these tests included administering LSD on unsuspecting civilians, which the CIA later acknowledged “made little scientific sense.”
It was in Deep Creek Lake that Olson became one of the unsuspecting victims of MK-ULTRA. There, CIA agents secretly slipped LSD into his drink, as a scene in Wormwood’s trailer shows. Olson was told, 20 minutes after the fact, that his drink had been laced, and then he left the retreat in an agitated state. On November 24, he told a colleague and his wife that he planned to resign. But before that could happen, the CIA forced him to attend a “psychiatric evaluation” four days later. On November 28, he was found on the sidewalk after emerging from the window of the Statler Hotel in New York.
In 1975, the Washington Post revealed that a federally commissioned investigation into the situation found that “a civilian employee of the Department of the Army unwittingly took LSD as part of a Central Intelligence Agency test.” During a joint hearing on MK-ULTRA conducted in 1977, Senator Edward Kennedy acknowledged that “At least one death, that of Dr. Olson, resulted from these activities.”
Olson’s family has cried murder ever since. In 2012, they filed a lawsuit accusing the CIA of a cover-up, but in 2013 the case was dismissed because it was filed too late after the event took place. U.S. District Judge James Boasberg, however, did acknowledge that “the public record supports many of the allegations that follow, far-fetched as they may sound.”
What actually happened to Olson, as well as his family’s continued quest to reveal the truth, will play out in Wormwood. The series will be released on December 15.
See below: The CIA Drugged Thousands of U.S. and Canadian Citizens