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.
That September, Oleson’s defense turned over recordings of someone else confessing the crimes to the Prosecutor’s Office. “Thirty seconds into meeting him at the jail, I felt like he was capable, beyond a shadow of a doubt,” says Leonard of the confessor. “I told him ‘If you have something to say, say it. There’s an innocent man sitting in the Salem County Jail.’ His response to me was, ‘I know.’ He was trying to get something off his chest.”
“They blew me off,” Leonard says of the prosecutors.
In October, with the case stagnant, Oleson’s bail was lowered. That stung one of the dead women’s sisters, though she accepted why it happened. “I read what he was arrested for and I think it’s sickening,” Lentes said, “but it’s extremely upsetting that the person responsible for my sister’s murder is still out there free to live his life while my sister is gone forever.”
Oleson remained free long enough to hold a press conference complete with an apology from Denise Hill, the prostitute whose information became the linchpin to bringing Oleson under suspicion. In a bizarre twist, Hill recanted after realizing it was another customer, not Oleson, who confessed to her. Meanwhile, prosecutors whispered to other reporters that they checked out, and dismissed the story.
Hill says the man who confessed even asked her to get a copy of the 48 Hours show to watch in her A.C. apartment. “He told me he couldn’t touch me because I’m an angel,” says Hill. “I’m not ashamed to say that I’m a prostitute, and that I still [do drugs] a couple times a week. I am what I am. What haunts me every day is that they never looked into anything I told them. I can’t get that out of my head. Why can’t they just take the time to look at somebody who may have murdered four people?”
In November, Oleson went back to jail after pleading guilty to the invasion of privacy charge. He says the pissed-off girlfriend planted those photographs knowing full well that the cops were on the way, but he ate the 364 days in jail because he didn’t want the child to face questions in a public courtroom. Is he a peeping Tom? “Maybe,” he says. But he’s “not Jack the Ripper.” With time served, he walked free in March 2008.
After his release he spent more than a year in that motel that was frequented by people traveling selling magazines, welfare recipients and police. “It’s a motel of last resort,” says Oleson.
He and his fiancée then moved to a stand-alone rental home in Salem. Having a home is good for the couple. It enables Seaholtz’s two sons from a marriage that hasn’t been divorced quite yet to stay with them—even if her husband tells them to be wary of Oleson. It’s bad that the family saw a crack deal going down right outside their dining room window, while eating dinner.
“It’s just a bigger cell,” Oleson said last month, “with more fresh air.”
Leonard remembers walking from the courthouse after the bail had been lowered. He says Oleson sported a gray T-shirt that read, “Off the Hook.” Gone were the national reporters, most of the Philadelphia TV vans and any element of perp-walks-free vindication. “In theory, that is the moment when he’s supposed to get on with his life,” says Leonard. “He turned to me and asked, ‘What happens next?’ I looked at him and said, ‘I don’t know.’ I still don’t know. He went from being Charles Manson to being Richard Jewell.”
Elements of Oleson’s story are indeed reminiscent of what happened to Jewell after an explosion at the 1996 Olympic Games killed one and injured 111 people. He went from hero to nail-bombing suspect to dead at 44 of natural causes. Thing is, Jewell, who likened the swarm of investigators and media to “piranha on a bleeding cow,” got an apology from Janet Reno. Plus, the real bad guy, Eric Rudolph, got caught.
Oleson on the other hand hasn’t even received a private apology as he deals with a litany of physical and financial woes, and he hasn’t gotten back a damn thing the cops took during the search.
“I can’t stand being lied to since I don’t lie to people,” said Oleson, who has been a guest speaker in a community-college robotics class, and concocted elaborate Halloween displays complete with a pair of hearses. “The only thing they’ve ever said is, ‘We never charged or accused you, so we can’t officially clear you.’ They ruined my life. I’ve prayed for death.”
“He’s a tragic figure. Life is a daily struggle for him,” says Leonard. “And investigators still, to this day, say, ‘I never liked him from the beginning. He’s the guy, and we’re going to get him.’ I believe that some of them still think he’s the prime suspect. Because of that, this case will never get solved. Maybe if they [the real murderer/s] get caught, Oleson can get what’s left of his life back. “If they come to me tomorrow, or in 10 years, with some iota of evidence that he did this, I would be stunned and disgusted. I believe wholeheartedly in his innocence. But, this is not a Terry Oleson case. For Terry Oleson, life goes on. This is about those four women and their families and loved ones.”
For Oleson and his fiancée, though, the future can be broken down easily.
“The world revolves around money and we don’t have it,” says Seaholtz, who self-published a book of her poems to Oleson entitled Heartfelt Confessions .
A dinner at McDonald’s when the kids are in town sometimes costs $20 that they don’t have. Food stamps, SSI and perpetual disability don’t go a long way, but the relationship brings at least a glimmer of hope for a future that will sustain him.
The Salem rental is better than the motel, but Oleson still wants to “get a little bit of property, an acre or two off the road, and build a house,” even if his ailments prevent any heavy labor. Still, “it hurt me” to have to sell the house and then get hit with a tax bill for $1,000 more than he got for it.
For all he’s been through, Oleson has a very simple wish list: Getting property seized during the search back, and restoring enough of a good name where people he’s known for years won’t tell their children to keep the front door open when they visit Seaholtz’s kids. Those are pretty simple requests from a man left dangling in the wind. But let’s go two better: an apology for Oleson from those who destroyed his life, and some answers for the friends and family of Breidor, Dilts, Raffo and Roberts who still just want to know who killed their loved ones. ■
Dinner with Luke Palladino