Attorney John O. Olson, who won first Sterling Hall bombing conviction, dies at 82

May 12, 2019

WILLIAMS BAY — It was one of the darkest moments in Wisconsin history, and it resulted in one of the state’s most infamous criminal cases of the 1970s.

And John O. Olson was right in the middle of things.

Olson, an attorney from Walworth County, was a federal prosecutor who got the first conviction in the 1970 war-protest bombing of Sterling Hall at UW-Madison.

Putting bomber Karleton Armstrong behind bars remained Olson’s proudest professional achievement in a long and distinguished career.

“Those were tumultuous times,” said his daughter, Sheree Olson Rogers. “And he was a law-and-order kind of guy.”

Olson, who continued to practice law privately for 40 more years in Lake Geneva, died May 4 following a battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 82.

Former law partner Dan Draper described Olson as a gifted litigator who won long-shot cases that often seemed like lost causes.

“He was an incredibly good lawyer,” Draper said. “He had a very big presence in the courtroom.”

Born in Whitewater, John Olmstead Olson graduated from Milton High School and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force just after the Korean War. He earned his law degree from UW-Madison in 1963 and served as district attorney in Taylor County, north of Madison.

After an unsuccessful run for Wisconsin attorney general in 1966, he was appointed by President Richard Nixon in 1969 as U.S. attorney in the Western District of Wisconsin.

One year later, UW student protests against the Vietnam War turned deadly when protesters detonated a bomb outside Sterling Hall, a campus building where researchers did work for the military. The blast killed researcher Robert Fassnacht and injured three other people.

The first bomber captured was Karl Armstrong, whom Olson prosecuted, winning a conviction and a lengthy prison term. Armstrong ended up spending about seven years behind bars and before returning to Madison.

Rogers, a high school freshman at the time, remembered her father spending long nights and weekends at the office, working to ensure that justice was served in the bombing case.

“That was a big time in our lives,” she said. “He was certainly passionate about investigating what happened and who was responsible.”

Two others — Armstrong’s brother, Dwight Armstrong, and David Fine — were later charged, and a fourth, Leo Burt, remains a fugitive to this day.

Olson stepped down from his U.S. attorney’s appointment in 1974, and he and his family returned to Walworth County. He and his wife, Marjorie, had four children. The marriage ended in divorce, and he remarried.

Living in Whitewater and later in Williams Bay, Olson was an active member of the Whitewater Lions Club.

Fellow club member Bernie Tangney said Olson was a shrewd attorney who enjoyed relaxing with his Lions Club friends and being “just one of the guys.”

“He was a man who became successful, but hadn’t forgotten his roots,” Tangney said.

While continuing his private law practice, Olson served on the Governor’s Commission on Crime and Law Enforcement and the advisory board to the State Crime Laboratory. In 2014, the Walworth County Board Association recognized him with a lifetime achievement award.

His daughter said Olson talked later in the life about feeling proud of the Sterling Hall case. He thought about retiring many times, she said, but he continued practicing law as long as he could.

“In the end,” she said, “he wanted to be a lawyer.”