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The Killing That Keeps Spawning Mysteries

Did Geronimo Pratt shoot Caroline Olsen in 1968? With the case on the brink of a new legal chapter, actions of authorities are sure to be examined.

December 15, 1998|EDWARD J. BOYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a clear, chilly December evening 30 years ago, Kenneth Olsen, head of the English department at Belmont High School, and his wife, Caroline, drove to Santa Monica's Lincoln Park tennis courts to meet another couple for a friendly doubles match.

The courts on Wilshire Boulevard at Seventh Street were dark when the Olsens arrived about 8 p.m. Caroline went to the light meter to deposit a quarter. When she had trouble getting the meter to work, Kenneth went to help.

Just as the lights came on, the Olsens noticed two men walking toward them. As the pair drew closer, Kenneth Olsen realized both men were carrying pistols.

The men ordered the Olsens to put their hands up.

"We want your bread, man," Kenneth Olsen remembered one saying. "Give us your money. Where is it?"

He directed the robbers to his tennis bag and his wife's purse. They ordered the couple to the ground and started to leave.

Suddenly, they turned and opened fire.

Kenneth Olsen survived the fusillade; his wife did not. And those shots fired on Dec. 18, 1968, have reverberated across Los Angeles' legal landscape for the past three decades.

Their echo will be heard again today, when California's 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles will hear oral arguments in Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti's appeal of an Orange County judge's decision last year, reversing the 1972 murder conviction of former Black Panther Party leader Elmer Gerard "Geronimo" Pratt, who was sent to prison for the robbery and murder.

Even by the standards of those turbulent times, it was a crime remarkable for its chillingly random and wanton character.

Describing the shooting at Pratt's trial, Kenneth Olsen said: "It came as a complete surprise to me that they actually fired. I didn't think they would."

He was hit five times--in the forehead and right hand, little finger, forearm and hip. Caroline Olsen was struck in the back and hip.

Olsen, then 31, checked on his wife as blood poured out of the wound in his forehead.

"Are you OK? Can you move?" he asked his wife.

She could not. And there was no one else around.

"I realized I had to get help for her and that I wouldn't last too long the way blood was flowing," Olsen testified.

He stumbled across Wilshire, barely avoiding an oncoming car, and made his way into the Broken Drum restaurant, where a waitress called for help.

Caroline Olsen, 27, a teacher at Stoner Avenue Elementary School, died later from her wounds.

The thugs who murdered her netted about $18.

Panther Infighting

Santa Monica police made little headway in their investigation of the coldblooded assault on the Olsens. But events within the Black Panther Party and efforts by a secret FBI counterintelligence program intersected in 1969 to change that. Three years later, Pratt was convicted in what his defenders still call one of the most overtly political trials in Los Angeles' history.

A month after Caroline Olsen's murder, Panthers in Los Angeles themselves were left reeling by violence. Their charismatic leader, Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter, and his close aide, John Huggins, were killed Jan. 17, 1969 in a shootout on the UCLA campus.

Carter's death left a void, and Julius C. "Julio" Butler, a 35-year-old former Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy turned Panther, saw himself as Carter's logical successor. But party leaders in Oakland tapped Pratt, 20, a decorated Vietnam veteran, who had been a Panther for only about four months.

A bitter rivalry developed between Pratt and Butler. Pratt and other Panthers accused Butler of being a police informant, while Butler accused them of threatening his life.

By May 1969, Butler had begun talking to the FBI. On Aug. 5, he was expelled from the party, according to former Panthers and FBI documents. He says he quit.

Five days later, he gave a letter to Los Angeles Police Sgt. DuWayne Rice, naming Pratt as Caroline Olsen's killer.

Butler had written on the outside of the sealed envelope that it should only be opened in the event of his death. He called it his "insurance letter," and prosecutors at Pratt's trial argued that Butler never intended for it to be made public, likening the envelope's contents to a deathbed declaration.

Information disclosed after Pratt's conviction, however, revealed that Butler's insurance letter was anything but a secret. FBI agents approached Rice on the street immediately after Butler gave him the sealed envelope. They demanded that the sergeant turn it over and referred to it as "evidence."

Rice refused, but later recalled that he wondered how the agents knew the envelope contained a letter since it was sealed, and how could they have known it was evidence.

More than a year later, in October 1970, Butler gave Rice permission to give the letter to his LAPD superiors. Butler explained to Rice that the FBI was "jamming" him and that he had told agents about the letter.

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