November 14, 2016
“I have nothing to hide, but as far as I can tell, this story doesn’t end well. My life’s done.”
Those words were spoken by Terry Oleson during a series of interviews I conducted with him more than seven years ago. At the time, he was trying to piece together what was left of his life.
Oleson had been publicly branded the No. 1 person of interest in the murders of four Atlantic City prostitutes. While he was never charged in the case – or even publicly deemed a suspect by close-lipped investigators – uncertainty, breathless media coverage and widespread suspicion created a living hell that lasts for him today.
Image is everything, and his was bad.
In the months after the bodies of the strangled victims – Barbara V. Breidor, 42; Molly Jean Dilts, 20; Kim Raffo, 35; and Tracy Ann Roberts, 23 – were found in various stages of decomposition in a drainage ditch behind the since-demolished Golden Key Motel on the Black Horse Pike, many in the seaside resort’s seedy underbelly lived in fear of a serial killer.
That the shoeless victims were all positioned facing the same direction only added to the specter of menace.
At the onset, Oleson – then a 35-year-old Golden Key handyman – wasn’t on the public’s radar. Soon, images of him in an orange prison jumpsuit, thanks to unrelated charges, became the could-be face of evil, with investigators fixated on him as a possible murderer.
"My body tells me when the anniversary is coming up again. I get depressed. My body – my back – starts hurting worse and worse." – Terry Oleson, one-time person of interest in murders of four Atlantic City prostitutes
Even when he was released from custody, he wondered how long people would whisper that he was “The Eastbound Strangler.” I left our many conversations convinced of his innocence to the point that I dubbed him “The Fifth Victim" in print.
But public opinion – and law enforcement silence – worked against Oleson in dramatic ways. All that pain soon could return to impact everyone from the families still mourning the victims to the friends who've seen what happened to the suspect.
The victims’ bodies were discovered on Nov. 20, 2006; Sunday will mark the 10-year anniversary of the case. While true-crime anniversary stories are an industry standard, this one coincides with the A&E series “The Killing Season,” which debuted Saturday.
Oleson only agreed to talk to its filmmakers because he hoped the series could help further clear his name.
Still, he said he knows that may well never fully happen.
Documentarians Rachel Mills and Joshua Zeman graciously allowed PhillyVoice to watch the entire series before it premiered. Last week, I did so with Oleson and his fiancée at their two-story single family home that stands within eyeshot of the Delaware Memorial Bridge in New Jersey.
I wanted to know what happens when a man whose life was destroyed by innuendo sees it publicly dredged back up at a time when he is struggling to put the past behind him once and for all.
Before getting into that, the filmmakers' intentions for, and discoveries during, the series bear mention.
“The Killing Season” doesn’t entirely center on the Atlantic City victims or Oleson, though they and he are the focal points of the third and fourth episodes, the latter titled “A Darkness on the Edge of Town,” seemingly a nod to the 1978 Bruce Springsteen album and song.
"Well, everybody's got a secret, son. Something that they just can't face. Some folks spend their whole lives trying to keep it. They carry it with them every step that they take," goes one stanza of that song.
The documentary's inspiration was “The Long Island Serial Killer” case. The bodies of least 10 women being discovered in Gilgo Beach, Long Island seemed eerily similar to the South Jersey case. (The series also includes a look at four women murdered near Daytona Beach, Florida, and a broader look at the societal woes that force women into dangerous lifestyles like those of the victims.)
“This is a prosecutor that refuses to have conversations. We no longer live in that society. We need transparency in policing and law enforcement. That’s an old-school way of thinking.” – Joshua Zeman, documentary filmmaker
“We didn’t see the connection to Atlantic City at first. The Long Island case is so huge, bizarre. Since we live in New York, we started just looking at that case,” said Mills, noting that the course of their documentary investigation, which has an element of crowdsourcing through Websleuths.com, led them down the Jersey coastline.
“We couldn’t not look at Atlantic City, and once we got there, we started seeing more and more connections,” she continued. “The victims were all sex workers, it was continuing to happen again and again and again.”
Added Zeman, “We soon knew they were connected, but not in the ways people were assuming. We had to go down the rabbit hole to show the audience all the patterns. Not every case has a single, evil, Dr. Hannibal Lecter-figure to pin it on.
“When we peeled the curtain back, we’ve found there are a large number of men killing in record numbers all over the place. Down that rabbit hole, we found a much more horrific truth. It would be so much easier to just say it’s one guy. We want to see those connections because it’s almost comforting to think there are only a few out there preying on these women. Then, we think ‘it could never happen to me.' We keep ourselves feeling safe.”
When it came to Oleson, they admittedly wanted to think they were talking to a serial killer at the onset of their interviews.
“We go in and realize this guy didn’t do it. I don’t think he did it,” said Zeman, a sentiment echoed by Mills.
But the fact that investigators have only offered vague, we-never-called-you-a-formal-suspect non-apologies left some concerns in their minds (i.e. if the DNA evidence was so degraded that they couldn’t officially charge Oleson, who volunteered samples nearly a decade ago.)
In the documentary, they take Oleson to the Golden Key, just days before its demolition, and interview him in the abandoned rooms and near the drainage ditch that became a scene of horrors.
They also found that the Atlantic County Prosecutors Office’s lack of transparency regarding the investigation – apparent in my days working for The Press of Atlantic – continues to this day. Zeman decried that as a vestige of an older age.
“This is a prosecutor that refuses to have conversations,” he said, alluding initially to Jeffrey Blitz, who has since retired from that role, and that silence can prey on the minds of victim’s families as well. “We no longer live in that society. We need transparency in policing and law enforcement. That’s an old-school way of thinking.”
The documentarians, who said they got in touch with Blitz only to get referred back to the prosecutor's office for comment, said they hope the series leaves viewers educated about the “systemic issues that the killer thinks they can get away with” murdering women on the fringes of America, where prostitution and drug addiction mean they’re already loathe to be in contact with law enforcement.
“For me, it was never our intention to solve these cases. That would be the icing on a really disgusting cake. We hope to get people involved, to realize the cracks in the system that make this possible,” said Mills, ruing the fact that she learned there’s no national database that keeps track of these homicides. “I thought if someone went missing in one state, it would pop up in another state thanks to some supercomputer and be quickly solved. That’s definitely not what’s happening.
“It’s so upsetting to me. I don’t want to throw law enforcement too hard under the bus, they’re overworked and underpaid, but I hope this inspires people to help solve unsolved cases in their communities since we’re in that crowd-sourcing age.”
Noted Zeman, “What we’ve shown is a prosecutor’s office being so tight-lipped, which has so many ramifications that go beyond managing the case. We’ve shown it doesn’t work. It’s not serving the public interest.”
He then said he’s heard that the prosecutor’s office might host a press conference on Monday to release new information in the case. Since they couldn’t get confirmation, they asked me if I could find anything out.
An email sent to the Atlantic City Prosecutor’s Office on Friday was returned Sunday morning, with a promise of a Monday response but no further details about whether anything along those lines is coming.
When I arrived at Oleson’s place, he and his fiancée were waiting at the front door. They’re all smiles. We’ve known each other for a while now. But those smiles disappear as a recent loss comes up in conversation. They've recently lost a beloved pet dog, Bandit, to cancer. His ashes sit in a custom-ordered memorial box on a dining-room shelf.
“They were looking for their jinx moment and didn’t get it because he’s not responsible.... Hopefully, he can find peace, move on and and never have to experience the dirty looks and other things he’s had to deal with.” – James Leonard, Oleson’s attorney
Their living room features three recliners. A laptop is plugged into a small TV that sits beneath an old-time Western-themed photo of the couple with her two sons. “All this was made possible because two people fell in love,” reads the caption.
“The only good thing that came out of this is that I found him again,” said Carol-Ann, who sparked a penpal relationship with her ex-boyfriend after hearing the predicament he found himself in many years ago.
She's had relatives disown her and friends ask how she can be comfortable having her children around Oleson. She scoffs at those sorts of reactions; she knows Terry is a decent man.
As for what he thought it’d be like to watch the series before we hit play, he said, “It’s no big deal.” What makes this one a bigger deal than the other crime show segments that have come before is how it falls on the 10th anniversary, and he granted a rare interview hoping it'd be a positive.
“I try not to pay attention to crap like this,” he said.
As the show plays on the television, talk turns to how they recently let Carol-Ann’s sons know about the allegations. They were too young back then to understand it, but now, they’re 17 and 18.
“Not Mr. Terry. He’d never do that,” came the reaction from one of them.
Oleson doesn’t fidget or rock in the chair while watching the show. He passively takes in what viewers across the country will soon see.
He doesn’t get anxious even when the third-episode cliffhanger leaves the question of his innocence dangling in the air.
Still, he's a little worried about the anniversary news story requests he’s likely to field in the next couple of weeks as a result. It's a good thing nobody really knows where they're living these days, they hoped.
Oleson fully expects viewers to think, “Did he do it? Did he do it?” for that week in between episodes, one that the documentarians told me was coming, but that the narrative evens out in the next episode. (Suffice it to say, it does, though I won't offer any specific spoilers before it airs.)
What’s irked Oleson for years is the prosecutor’s office claiming that since it didn’t publicly name him as a suspect, “we can’t publicly apologize.”
“They were looking for their jinx moment and didn’t get it because he’s not responsible,” said Oleson’s attorney, James Leonard, during a phone interview on Friday. “The years have served to vindicate him to a certain degree. Hopefully, he can find peace, move on and and never have to experience the dirty looks and other things he’s had to deal with.”
Leonard also shared his disappointment about a lead which drew a straight line toward a real suspect never being, to his mind, properly investigated by local authorities. That further served to leave Oleson dangling on the line.
Oleson just shook his head when a woman named Melissa Bishop again goes on camera and tearfully says, “I’m scared to death of that man. … Terry Oleson admitted killing some people and regretted doing it and when I tried to leave, he attacked me and I had to fight him off. I believe that man’s capable of anything.”
He shared his longtime assertion that “I still think a cop or someone in law enforcement did it. Why else would the investigation get so f***** up?” He also questioned why police focused on the Golden Key – where he often stayed and did odd jobs for management – instead of an abandoned restaurant next door frequently occupied by squatters.
Huge puddles left behind from Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge still filled the parking lot on the day of their interview. The lines on the walls inside the abandoned Golden Key indicated the waters rose several feet.
Oleson scoffed at a couple scenes in the episode, most notably how the editing process made it seem as if the first time he met the interviewers came after a parking lot meeting to which he arrived in a pickup truck. (He said they’d rented it for him previously.)
“I’ve seen these things so many times that I’m kind of immune to it,” he said, when asked about how it feels to see his face on the television screen again.
Other things he picked up on: the Golden Key motel’s surveillance footage hadn’t come to light before now as best he can recollect and that investigators didn’t “bag” the victims' hands as is common practice in such cases.
“A lot of stuff never made sense at all,” he said.
“You were 100 percent guilty in the press,” noted Carol-Ann, not incorrectly.
“Even without thinking about it, my body tells me when the anniversary is coming up again. I get depressed. My body – my back – started hurting worse and worse,” he said. “Every year, it’s the same s**t over and over again until March or April. I know my body and it’s just not right.”
“He already doesn’t sleep because of the back pain, but it’s just so much worse when this comes up,” added Carol-Ann. “I don’t even ask what’s wrong anymore.”
What’s irked him for years is the prosecutor’s office claiming that since it didn’t publicly name him as a suspect, “we can’t publicly apologize.”
At this point, though, a public apology wouldn’t make much of a difference. That damage has been done.
Oleson’s major takeaway, after watching the entire series which doesn’t specifically come back to the Atlantic City case after episode four, was one of measured positivity, though.
In a scene, a voice-over of the documentarians openly questioned whether Oleson was collateral damage in a dynamic that saw a hungry media wanting to pin it on a single person and investigatorial silence doing nothing to mend that wound.
“At least they admit to dragging my name through the mud,” Oleson said matter-of-factly. “Common sense will tell you that I didn’t do it, but now I have to deal with it all over again.”
After all he’s been through, Terry Oleson hopes this isn't the best he can expect, but is resigned to the fact that it very well may be.
"The Killing Season" airs on A&E on Saturdays at 9 p.m.