The day the bodies were found, Terry Oleson was 60 miles from the Golden Key Motel, a sleazy place where he was forced to flop a few nights each week. Even now, though, he can't escape the cloud of suspicion.
Everywhere Terry Oleson goes, he thinks people are staring at him. Whispering, “Oh my God, that’s the serial killer.” Yet he goes on about his day, pretending he doesn’t feel it, trying to mask the effects.
If it’s even possible to put into words what happens when you’re painted as the shady drifter who choked four Atlantic City hookers to death and lined their heads up in a particular order, Oleson is willing to do it.
“I have nothing to hide,” says the never-charged, No. 1 person of interest in the case. “But as far as I can tell, this story doesn’t end well. My life’s done.”
Those are chilling words when you consider the context. But Oleson, who hasn’t talked publicly about the case since a photo-op press conference last March, doesn’t hide from a single question.
I’ve interviewed Oleson no fewer than 10 times since last October. Any fear that I had about being in a motel room with somebody suspected of killing people in motel rooms quickly dissipated.
In the run-down New Jersey Turnpike motel room he shared with his fiancée Carol-Ann Seaholtz and their pooch Bandit for a post-release year while trying to sustain themselves on welfare dollars, Oleson seemed world-weary and cordial, but was prone to controlled vocal outbursts when asked sensitive questions.
Seaholtz, the high-school sweetheart who reignited their flame by sending Oleson poems in jail while police investigators tried to make their case, sees the strains on him. He gives off the aura of a struggling-to-get-by everyman who got swept up in a tempest. Yet through it all, even the decimation caused by not being able to get, or physically do, work hasn’t broken him. He’s just accepted a broken reality.
“I really don’t know what to do. We just sit here and watch TV. I’ve basically lost ties with everybody I was ever close to. It’s ruined my life. Like a knife cutting me from the inside out, that’s how I feel 24/7,” he says. “It’s all so frustrating. I don’t see a way out right now.”
The day the bodies were found, Nov. 20, 2006, Oleson was 60 miles from the Golden Key Motel, a sleazy place where he was forced to flop a few nights each week. If he had earned enough to cover the commuting costs, the mechanically gifted handyman would’ve slept under his own roof. But he didn’t, so he couldn’t.
Oleson, powerfully stacked with a hammer of a laugh despite deteriorating vertebrae that he says have already made him two-inches shorter, did what he had to get by.
But the day the motel became a crime scene, Oleson’s life started on a path from bad to seemingly unsalvageable.
By April 1, four months and a dozen days after the bodies were discovered, the law was closing in on the man they suspected of being a serial killer. So compelling was the case of four strangled Atlantic City prostitutes eroding in a marsh behind the motel—their heads all facing the neon lights, a message amid madness—that efforts were already underway to find catchy nicknames. Atlantic City Ripper. Black Horse Strangler.
But none of that was on Oleson’s mind. That night he was focused on evicting his longtime girlfriend from the Salem County house he’d built up since buying it from his family when he was 17 years old.
They were a toxic mix. Oleson says marble tiles were swung and strangers were almost run over during fights at Home Depots. Restraining orders were issued. When he asked her to take her daughter and leave, she cried harassment to the cops. He already had a judge’s order.
Oleson says his ex packed up just about everything, hers and his , before the court-sanctioned deadline. What he didn’t know then was that when he was off in Atlantic City working, neighbors had seen the police around the house. They were building a case.
The next day when he went to the courthouse to settle a traffic ticket, police approached and questioned him. Oleson remembers the homicide investigator’s exact words: “We know you did it.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Oleson recalls thinking. “They were not very good at their jobs if they thought I killed those women.”
Officers impounded Oleson’s truck and followed every step of his over 30-mile walk home from the courthouse. Three days later, news helicopters hovered over Friesburg Road in Alloway, a 12-mile maze of country roads from the Delaware Memorial Bridge that dozens of reporters somehow happened upon.
Investigators descended on Oleson’s home searching for evidence. Baseboards were yanked from walls, swatches cut from furniture for DNA and unlocked car windows were smashed so, presumably, police wouldn’t have to enter through the door. When they found a DVD with pictures of a nude underage girl, they had what they needed to lock him up. When they walked out, they told Alloway Construction official H.F. Underwood they were “worried that if they left the house in such deplorable condition, the electric could spark and they’d be responsible [for a fire].” So the house was condemned. It was a real-time destruction of both a homestead and a man’s life.
PW's Summer Guide 2015