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.
Though Atlantic County Prosecutor Theodore Housel’s office never offered more than just the minimal facts and off-the-record winks and nudges, the story the media unwittingly told was that Oleson was a perverted, violent dirtbag who wrapped his strong hands around four hookers’ necks and squeezed them beyond their final breaths.
Investigators have since refused any public admission about Oleson’s guilt or innocence. Why bother? The public-opinion verdict was in. And, the press was forced to follow what few crumbs investigators offered.
They “would never say anything about the investigation. There are plenty of reasons not to compromise the case, we’re just looking for what’s already on the public record,” says Miguel Sancho, who produced 48 Hours ’ “Beyond the Boardwalk” episode that aired in May 2007 and, to Oleson’s dismay, on cable loop since. “There was nothing for months, and then all of a sudden, this guy was arrested. And they tiptoe around the fact that they’re looking at him? They never said ‘suspect,’ but clearly he was their person of interest.”
That’s just semantics. The odd and tragic twists here are legion. Geraldo Rivera jumped from a van for some on-street reporting action, for crissake.
Oleson was held on $100,000 cash bail. In Superior Court, a judge said the $100,000 bail was warranted. “Does it increase the flight risk for someone to be a suspect or person of interest in four homicides? Yes,” Judge William Forrester said. Yet prosecutors made certain to publicly state Oleson was nothing beyond a “person of interest.” The arrest and “ransom” were for illicitly photographing his girlfriend’s underage daughter in various states of undress. The running theory: investigators wanted to hold Oleson while they built a murder case—one that never came.
On Saturday April 7, a bail bondsman phoned Jimmy Leonard, a criminal defense attorney from Atlantic City. By the time Leonard (who owns an upstart magazine for which I’ve written) got to Salem County jail, the guards were acting like “I was going to see Hannibal Lecter.” They placed an alarm device that resembled a hand grenade on the table before him. Grab in case of emergency, they instructed, as if Oleson might remove his face to wear while escaping.
“He came in; we shook hands. Not firm. Just a normal handshake,” recalls Leonard. “After a couple minutes, I’m thinking, ‘No way. Not capable of doing it.’ Typically, I don’t get feelings like that initially, but not for a millisecond have I thought he was guilty. It takes a special kind of individual to kill with their bare hands. Then, he tells me he’d volunteered to take a lie detector and DNA test. In my mind, he was either completely not guilty or the dumbest serial killer on the planet.”
Looking back, Oleson says he returned to the Golden Key a couple days after the bodies were found (and months before he was arrested) and mentioned to one of the on-scene investigators—he says to be helpful—that he’d seen shoes on the roof. That information didn’t seem to be of interest to officers, but Oleson was.
Maybe it was the sex toys and kinky videos in his truck. “Something wrong with having a healthy sexual appetite?” he asked when I brought it up. Maybe he just looked rough-and-tumble and, inconveniently, lived part-time near a murder factory. Or maybe it didn’t help much when another prostitute told authorities Oleson copped to the crimes.
The Prosecutor’s Office became fixated on Oleson, which would have made sense had the DNA evidence from the crime scene matched. Leonard doesn’t think the test produced any evidence against his client, because if it meant they could clear four nationally-noticed homicides, prosecutors would have used it—and the media extravaganza would have only just begun.
The prosecutor didn’t respond to numerous requests for comment. (Working the A.C. crime beat from 1997 to 2000, I found this was their rote approach to public relations.) The closest I came was calling Jill Horenberger, the retired chief assistant prosecutor who worked the DNA hearing. “I would not be able to comment on that at all,” she said.
Those who still think Oleson is responsible for the murders are likely driven to close four homicides and bring “closure” to survivors. But secrecy and an unwillingness to adapt to evidence, even from unreliable witnesses, cost Oleson dearly.
Setting aside the medical condition that precludes Oleson from lifting anything over 50 pounds at risk of paralysis, and how he’s since had to sell the home his family built, his reputation was destroyed.
There are four victims, and groups of survivors, in this case. On Nov. 20, 2006, two women ambling behind the motel-strip discovered the body of Kim Raffo, 35, PTA-mom-turned-prostitute. She’d been strangled to death hours earlier. When CSI: Atlantic County arrived, they found—within 110 yards—the bodies of Molly Jean Dilts, 20; Barbara V. Breidor, 42; and Tracy Ann Roberts, 23. Dilts’ body had been there for a month. Like with Breidor, decomposition made finding a cause of death impossible. Roberts, who’d been there for roughly a week, was choked like Raffo.
“We can only hope and pray that the monster responsible for their deaths will be caught and prosecuted to the fullest extent,” says Breidor’s sister, Francine Lentes.
It’s time to add a fifth name to the victim list. Because of how the investigation was handled all along—from botched evidence at the scene to star witnesses retracting stories—Oleson’s future, as modest as it seemed to be, was choked to death too.
“As this progressed, Oleson was not treated fairly by the system,” says Martin Siegel, an attorney who represented Oleson until prosecutors cited the conflict of interest from representing Oleson and his ex-girlfriend before. “It was very unfair that he was publicly targeted the way he was. What the public remembers is that he was suspected. Whether called a suspect or not, the public doesn’t differentiate.”
Oleson volunteered DNA samples in June 2007. This, after he says jail personnel wrapped his pubic hair around their gloved fingers and yanked clumps out. The prosecutors likely enjoyed the subsequent New York Post ’s “Atlantic City Strangler Suspect Admitted Killing: Hooker” story, except the part where Leonard says the witness is “a lying crack-addicted prostitute with a wild imagination and absolutely no credibility.”
PW's Holiday Guide 2014
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4