Olsen, Jack (1925-2002)

  • By Michael Hood
  • Posted 7/22/2002
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7570
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Jack Olsen was a respected journalist and prolific writer who pioneered the genre of "true crime." Olsen also wrote fiction and books about sports and social issues, but it was his true-crime writing that earned him national acclaim and readership. The Washington Post gave him the title of "dean of true-crime authors." Olsen preferred to be characterized as a hard-nosed reporter seeking the truth and getting it right.

Over a career that began in the early 1950s on the old San Diego Daily Journal, Olsen's was a long life that included being a Time magazine bureau chief, a reporter for Sports Illustrated and a sheriff's deputy in Gilpin County, Colorado.

Olsen's work had social conscience. At Sports Illustrated in 1968, he shook the athletic establishment with a series about black athletes and the discrimination they faced in professional and college sports.

The Philadelphia native's taste for crime stories was whetted in a college criminology course. He was known for getting subjects to talk and for plumbing the sociopathic depths of killers, rapists, and other criminals. He became a national pundit on criminal behavior.

Crime and Punishment

Olsen's penultimate book was Last Man Standing: The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt, the tale of a Black Panther Party member who served 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. "He just couldn't deal with injustice. It haunted him," said David Guterson, a Bainbridge Island neighbor and author (Holt).

"I start every book with the idea that I want to explain how this 7 or 8 pounds of protoplasm went from his mommy's arms to become a serial rapist or killer. A book that doesn't do this is pure pornography," Olsen always said (Holt).

Kudos and Vendettas

Son: A Psychopath and His Victims, won a Special Edgar Allan Poe award from the Mystery Writers of America, and Doc: The Rape of the Town of Lovell, took a 1991 Edgar Award. Predator won the American Mystery Award for Best True Crime book.

Olsen was no stranger to controversy, whether it was filing lawsuits to protect his sources' confidentiality, or waging a fierce and protracted battle with The Seattle Times over what he felt was a long-running vendetta against him in the newspaper's coverage of his work.

His string of books started long before Olsen quit Sports Illustrated to head west with the magazine's first swimsuit cover girl, Su Peterson, who became his fourth wife. It was a union that stuck. They came to Bainbridge Island in 1976, were married 38 years and had two children. Harper, of Seattle and Emily Sarah Bischoff of Bainbridge Island. Olsen had five other grown children from his previous marriages. A son, Jonathon, died in 2001.

On July 16, 2002, Olsen was found dead in the bedroom of his Bainbridge Island home, the victim of an apparent heart attack. He was 77 years old. He was productive to his last day and had just completed what proved to be the last of his 31 books.


Marc Ramirez, "Crime Journalist Olsen had Written 31 books," Seattle Post Intelligencer, July 18, 2002; Gordy Holt, "Jack Olsen, Crime Writer, Dead at 77," Seattle Post Intelligencer, July 19, 2002; Seabury Blair Jr., "'Dean of True-crime Writers' Dies," The Bremerton Sun, July 22, 2002; Michael Hood, Jack Olsen interview, Point No Point, Fall 1998.

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