Kenny Olson had thick dark hair and a kind smile. His high-pitched voice didn’t break until he was 20, prompting his big sister to tease him that he should audition for the Vienna Boys Choir.
He was also a heroin addict when he died in a Spokane Valley motel room two years ago at age 22. He overdosed on a mixture of drugs as his father, Kristopher Olson, lay passed out several feet away.
Kenny’s death, in many ways, is the sad result of his father’s troubled life – a life that included both physical and sexual abuse as a child – and an example of the devastation abuse can exact on victims years after the fact.
Kristopher Olson, now 51, stands accused of killing Kenny by providing his son with methadone – a consequence of hooking his kids on drugs as teens and then trying to ease their addiction pains. Olson is out on bail, awaiting trial.
Olson’s daughter, Elizabeth Olson, said her father must take responsibility for her brother’s death.
“I love my dad,” she said during a recent interview, “and I know he loves us. He is suffering inside, but he needs to do some time in prison.
“He needs to get clean and quit being numb to the pain he has caused.”
Many chapters of Kristopher Olson’s life read like hard-luck fiction.
He declined to talk for this article on the advice of his public defender. Interviews with family and a review of legal papers and court records, though, reveal a life scarred by childhood beatings, the sexual predations of a Catholic priest, and drugs.
Olson grew up in a violent home at 17th and Napa near Spokane’s Lincoln Park in the 1960s. His father, Kenneth, was an artist and worked for a local television station. He had a temper. He would hit his wife and leave Kristopher Olson bloody, remembered Kim Mangis, the youngest child in the family, who believes she escaped the beatings because of childhood heart problems and operations.
“I don’t think he hit me because he thought it might kill me,” she said, pulling at her collar to reveal an open-heart surgery scar she’s had since she was 4. “He was a brutal dude. He beat the crap out of my mother and brothers.”
Dorothy, the mother of Olson and Mangis, was addicted to prescription drugs, using her good looks and street smarts to curry favor with doctors, Mangis said.
When their father left for good, Olson and Mangis, the youngest children, celebrated. The family moved to a home on the 1500 block of East 16th Avenue, and though they had no money and their mom was often gone, the children made great memories striking up ballgames at a large grassy field below Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
“We were pretty wild,” Mangis remembered, “and we were a little bit vulnerable to the elements.”
Olson was kicked out of parochial school in the fifth grade for hitting a nun and then attended Grant Elementary. Around that time, in about 1970, he met a young priest named Patrick O’Donnell.
The priest had a habit of hanging around parks and other places frequented by children, Mangis said.
“He would just appear. Always watching the boys,” she said.
Sometimes O’Donnell would take boys swimming, according to court records. He would inspect and measure their genitals.
Instead of watching over and helping kids in need of supervision and structure, O’Donnell sexually abused them. O’Donnell has admitted in court depositions to molesting numerous boys. His pedophilia is one of the main factors driving the Spokane Catholic Diocese to bankruptcy, as the church sought to avoid multiple lawsuits by victims of clergy sex abuse.
Olson told his mom about the abuse weeks later. She took the children to her counselor at the chancery to report what had happened, Mangis said.
When O’Donnell learned of the report, the priest went to the Olson home.
Mangis remembers crawling onto the roof of the home with Olson, secretly listening as their mom made O’Donnell, while standing on the porch, swear on a Bible that he hadn’t done the things her brother said.
Their mother believed the priest and her relationship with her son was broken, Mangis said.
Olson turned to the streets. He later worked as a laborer.
A marriage that produced four children ended in divorce. During that time, Olson used heroin and other drugs, his family said.
Mangis said she was abused by O’Donnell, too. She claims that he paid her $5 to rub her hand over his pants, making her the only woman accusing O’Donnell of sexual touching.
Her claim is pending in the diocese bankruptcy case.
Olson hired attorney John Allison to sue the diocese several years ago.
In the weeks leading up to the diocese’s December 2004 bankruptcy filing, the church’s insurer settled with Olson for $200,000.
After paying his lawyers, Olson’s share was about $130,000. He said at the time he was going to use the money to buy a house, according to his daughter. Instead, he blew the cash on drugs, hotel rooms, a car and other items.
Greg Arpin, a diocese attorney, said the church and its insurer acted in good faith to settle Olson’s claim.
He said the diocese, like any defendant against a claim, can’t dictate what a legal adversary does with the money obtained in a settlement.
“We paid on this because we reached a settlement everyone thought was fair,” he said.
In June 2005, Olson withdrew several thousand dollars from his bank account. Kenny was sick, having been off the methadone treatment program for several weeks; his dad sought help.
Police say that with the help of others, Olson secured dozens of methadone tablets and checked into a room at the Red Top Motel on East Trent.
Olson allegedly gave some of the tablets to Kenny. The next morning Olson found Kenny dead. An autopsy showed Kenny’s blood had high levels of methadone, along with methamphetamine and cocaine.
Police arrested the distraught father, who was sitting on the bed telling paramedics and police that morning, “Ken may have overdosed.”
After his arrest, jailers put Olson on suicide watch. He has been released on bail and is now living at an Oxford House in Spokane, a self-run housing program for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics.
There is a legal question whether he has the mental competency to be tried on the charges of homicide by controlled substance. Mental health investigators at Eastern State Hospital are evaluating Olson’s condition.
“My dad and Kenny were best buddies,” Elizabeth Olson said. “Kenny loved him so much. My dad never laid a hand on us. That cycle ended. But my dad also didn’t act like a dad.”
Some of her most vivid childhood memories are watching her father shoot heroin in the living room. He’d be so stoned that she and Kenny would watch their dad light cigarettes, then forget to take a drag until the burning end would blister his fingers.
Elizabeth Olson is studying college English in Colville, and hopes to write a book about what happens when parents use drugs with their children. Now 27, she has been an addict for about half her life and believes she has experiences and wisdom to share.
Clean for two years, she said, she lost custody of her own daughter, a 6-year-old who is living a better, more stable life than she could provide. She has limited visiting rights.
In an account eerily similar to Kenny’s fatal story, Elizabeth Olson was doing drugs with her dad when she stopped just shy of her own drug overdose.
She believes that her father will always struggle with addiction and the legacy of abuse, yet must confront his actions.
“What has happened to him isn’t fair,” she said. “And what happened to Kenny and everyone else isn’t fair, either.”
Biting her lip and holding a picture of her dad when he was in the Army, she grabs hold of her aunt’s hand.
“I’ve told him to take a deal with prosecutors, because if he puts us through trial, I’m going to tell the truth. … I want a life. And I want one for him, too.”