Olson runs Seattle's Private Eye Tours, and for $20 ("just two sawbucks") he'll ferry you around Seattle's most notorious neighborhoods, letting you in on the secrets and gory details he's uncovered over the years. Fastidiously dressed in gray flannel, soft wool sweater, and a carefully knotted necktie, Olson, age 73, looks every bit the part of a Tinseltown gumshoe. His dark fedora and crisp trench coat mark him as a man whose profession once required the look of tough respectability, while revealing a love of formality and tradition. Though he speaks like a character out of vintage detective fiction--"We had it all skookumed in those days"; "What always gets them in the end is booze, broads, and boredom"--Olson is so soft-spoken I often have to ask him to repeat himself when he's tossing off some interesting tidbit of local crime history.
I've chosen Olson's Capitol Hill tour, and Olson's partner, a woman named Jake who is a forensic scientist and specializes in blood-spatter patterns, tells me Olson will pick up my friend and me on the corner of Pike and Harvard at 10:00 a.m. sharp. "Look for a blood-red van with Private Eye Tours printed on the side," Jake says.
Olson introduces himself, loads us into the back of the conspicuous automobile, and boasts that Seattle is the bridge-sinking, serial-killing, and rock music capital of the world. Then he starts pointing to gas stations and Mexican restaurants, reminding us to think about them later--these landmarks, he promises, will be revealed as not mere buildings, but bits of evidence that figure ominously in the neighborhood's criminal history.
Several minutes and landmarks later, we're parked along a street in the Central District so Olson can mark the exact spot where a dead woman he calls "Chicken Legs" was found early one morning by a prostitute. Chicken Legs, my friend and I realize with not a little queasiness, was the Gits' murdered frontwoman, Mia Zapata, and for a moment, I feel horribly intrusive and tacky for shelling out two sawbucks for this salacious tour. But Olson, one of the numerous investigators called upon by Zapata's friends and family to find answers regarding the still-unsolved murder, recounts the singer's last day with disarming compassion and purpose. As he speaks of her final lunch date with her father, Olson's own fatherly compassion (he's been married to the same woman for over 50 years and has three children) is evident. "That's the upside of her day and the downside of her day," he says sadly.
Leaving the scene behind us, Olson aims his blood-red van up the hill to a mansion that was once the ostentatious home of a con man who claimed to be a healer. Olson says he witnessed firsthand the supposed shaman healing himself after a spark from a match landed on his iris. "I heard it sizzle," says Olson. "I'm not a believer in all that hocus-pocus, but I know what I saw that day." We pass Devil's Dip, where two kids were decapitated while sledding. We visit Lakeview Cemetery, where Bruce Lee and his son Brandon are buried. We drive to the Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery, where Olson points out a grave for a doctor named Coffin, which the neighbors claim is haunted with ghosts wearing Civil War uniforms. And of course, Olson takes us to a spot overlooking the house where Kurt Cobain committed suicide.
Olson points out a more modest home in Madrona. The brick-fronted domicile looks to hold no more secrets than those on either side, but Olson knows better. The home was the scene of a highly publicized mass murder, a hate crime in which an entire family was bludgeoned to death simply because their Jewish surname was listed in the phone book. As he finishes this gory story, Olson reaches into a bag positioned between the van's front seats and casually hands me a household iron. Then he tells me it's the murder weapon. I'm shocked, then I turn it in my hands, studying a curious, rust-colored stain.
By the time the tour ends, I've also fondled the Smith & Wesson a man used to murder his wife in an apartment near the original Red Robin restaurant, and cooking utensils gathered from the kitchen of an Eastlake man who served his family to dinner guests. I've gauged the heft of a crowbar that left a deadly indentation in the skull of one of Ted Bundy's victims. That last bit of murder memorabilia is handed to me outside Bundy's former apartment in the U-District. The current resident comes out and asks Olson, who has hopped out of his van to take a photograph, what's so interesting about the place. "Take the tour," says Olson jovially before noting quietly to me that if the guy knew who lived there before him, he'd probably move out.
I ask Olson how he's managed to keep his depressing occupation from tainting his obviously rich personal life. He tells me he has other interests. I'm surprised to learn that Olson is the "King Kong of Ping-Pong" and that he put together the Seattle Sockeyes, a table tennis team which was one of the region's first professional sports organizations. The Sockeyes, he proudly tells me, have won three world titles, and Olson is hoping to make Seattle the site of the next U.S. Table Tennis Open. He has also raced motorcycles and trained drug-sniffing dogs. Is there nothing this man, who began his life of adventure as an insurance adjuster, can't accomplish? "No matter what you do," he says sagely, "find the fun in it, and you'll be successful."
Before I leave the tour, I ask Olson if he'd choose to be an investigator today, given that the many technical tools available now take the footwork out of the job. He gets a little sentimental, and tells of how he used to wear black in order to sneak around undetected and how charm and conversational skills had to be honed in order to get folks to offer information. "There are no more secrets," he says, somewhat deflated, noting that many of his old-time techniques are now illegal. The profession may not be as glamorous as it once was, but as long as Olson is around to tell the stories Seattle's murder victims can't, the city's history remains intact.