Convicted killer Patricia Olsen claims ‘she's innocent,' works toward another appeal
FRAMINGHAM -- She still wears the gold wedding band given to her 19 years ago by the man police and prosecutors say she helped to murder.
Patricia Olsen, 49, sits in the visitors' area of the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Framingham, a woman imprisoned for life for coercing her son to kill her husband in 2005 for her financial gain.
Olsen was convicted of first-degree murder in Berkshire Superior Court in 2006 and was sentenced to life without parole. Her first appeal was denied by the state's Supreme Judicial Court two years later.
Still saying she wasn't involved in the murder -- "I'm innocent," she told The Eagle in an interview last month -- the former Lanesborough resident constantly writes letters looking for pro bono representation because she says she can't afford a lawyer for a second appeal.
"It's like a roller coaster," Olsen said. "You get excited writing all these letters, and then you start getting feedback about how the economy is bad and no one can afford to do pro bono [work]."
In May 2006, Olsen was convicted of murdering Neil Olsen, 48, under the theory of "joint venture with deliberate premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty."
Her son, Christopher Robinson, now 29, admitted shooting his stepfather in the head seven times with a .22-caliber rifle and beating his body with a metal rod after ambushing the victim when he went to feed his horse at the family's Lanesborough home on Jan. 9, 2005.
Robinson is serving a life sentence at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk but will be eligible for parole in 2021.
While Olsen didn't physically kill her husband, a jury of seven men and five women determined she was as guilty of the murder as her son was.
"Patricia Olsen was the murderer; Christopher was her weapon," Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless, the lead prosecutor in the case, told The Eagle earlier this month.
During the trial, which lasted three weeks, Capeless said Olsen had been trying to get her children to help her kill her husband for more than a year. Both Christopher and his sister, Amanda Robinson, took the stand against their mother.
The case has garnered media attention over the years and has found its way into at least one book and several tabloid television shows. In 2010 Olsen appeared on NBC's "Dateline" to state her innocence. The next year she was on "Facing Evil with Candice DeLong" on the cable channel Investigation Discovery. In 2012, the same channel aired another show on her case as part of its "Deadly Women" series. The episode was titled "Match Made For Murder."
Olsen said she did the interviews in the hopes that a lawyer would believe she doesn't belong in prison and take her case, which might be featured on TV again. A spokesman at Los Angeles-based Gurney Productions said his company was working on a crime episode for A&E's "Biography," but no air date has been scheduled.
While Capeless provided assistance to the producers on two shows, he declined to be a part of two others, including the latest. He said that in order to keep viewers interested, TV shows have to portray the case in an exciting way and tend to leave out a good deal of the evidence against Olsen.
"If you look at the facts as they occurred, it's not that entertaining," Capeless said. "It's interesting, but not entertaining."
He said the "real" facts were presented to the judge and jury at the trial. Capeless told jurors that Olsen, facing close to $60,000 in debt, had persuaded her son to carry out the murder in order to get Neil Olsen's money -- about $178,000 -- from a life insurance policy and retirement savings.
Olsen told The Eagle she didn't believe she and her husband had as much debt as was alleged at trial. She did acknowledge she did a poor job of handling the couple's finances.
"I was foolish in not taking care of the bills better, but it's not like we didn't have the money," she said.
Life before the murder
Olsen grew up in Shaftsbury, Vt., and attended Mt. Anthony High School, graduating at the age of 16. Her mother, Priscilla Hall, said she was an A student and very bright. Olsen said she intended to go to Boston University, but her then-boyfriend convinced her to settle down.
Married at 18, she gave birth to Christopher when she was 21 and to Amanda 13 months later.
In 1989, divorced and commuting to Pittsfield from Bennington, Vt., for work as a bookkeeper at Lenco Industries, she met Neil Olsen, who did sign-lettering from time to time for the company, which manufactures armored vehicles.
"It wasn't until March 1993 that he stopped at my desk to get payment for a job he had done there, and he said he needed to talk to me and he wanted me to come over to his house the next day," Olsen said.
That next day, Neil asked her to move in with him.
"He said he had always been attracted to me since the day he had met me years prior," she said, adding that they had never gone on a date, but "he knew in his heart he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me."
She moved in with him, and the following year they got married.
Olsen said that "three or four years later," when Amanda and Christopher were entering the seventh and eighth grades, respectively, they moved in with her and Neil after a custody battle between Patricia and her ex-husband.
While the new living arrangement went well in the beginning, she said, problems developed when the kids hit their teenage years.
"My son was kind of withdrawn; he just didn't seem to be interested in school," Olsen said. "Amanda lived a style I didn't want to realize, or I just kind of ignored it. Neil kept saying: ‘She's up to something.' "
Olsen said her husband constantly searched Amanda's room and at one point removed the door to her bedroom after she was caught smoking.
"As far as I knew, Neil was never physically abusive to the kids. He would come up with some of the most bizarre punishments, like regrading the driveway. We had a long, hilly driveway, and the punishment would be to regrade the ruts," she recalled.
Both children moved out of the house when they were 18.
According to Hall, Patricia was overindulgent when it came to the children, especially Christopher, whom she doted on from an early age.
"She had an all-consuming love for Christopher," said Hall, who is 76 and lives in Bennington. "She would never do anything to put him in jeopardy."
This love, Hall believes, would have prevented her daughter from ever asking Christopher to kill Neil Olsen.
Asking for prayers
When Lanesborough police first arrived at the Olsen home on Jan. 10, 2005, they believed Neil's horse, Hanna, had trampled him to death. But when shell casings and a metal rod with blood on it were discovered, state police -- who had joined the investigation -- began to consider foul play.
"We had our suspicions. ... When we got the autopsy results back, we knew he had been murdered," Capeless said.
It wasn't long before the investigation centered on Christopher Robinson. While he initially denied any involvement in the killing, he soon confessed and also pointed the finger at his mother.
Olsen denied then, and continues to deny, any role in her husband's death.
"Anything I've ever said ... is the same thing I said nearly eight years ago," she told The Eagle. "I've always told the truth about things."
She said she believed Christopher killed Neil out of hatred and in the misguided belief that if his stepfather were out of the way, he would be able to move back into the home.
"[Neil and I] had talked about letting Lyndsey and the baby move into our house," Olsen said, referring to Lyndsey Turner -- Christopher's ex-girlfriend -- and their daughter, Zoe.
"I seriously think that Chris thought that with Neil gone, he would be able to move into the house and have his mother back, his girlfriend back, and his baby," Olsen said. "I am sorry that my son did this. I just ask that people pray for [Neil Olsen's family], me, my children."
At the trial, Robinson testified that his mother gave him the money to buy the rifle used in the killing and that she repeatedly asked him to murder his stepfather. During the interview, Olsen said she gave her son money to buy snow tires, not a gun.
Olsen told The Eagle her son was known for telling lies. In one instance, she said, Christopher had told several friends that his sister was Canadian and was adopted.
The Eagle requested an interview with Christopher Robinson but never received a reply to a letter sent to the prison.
Olsen, during her interview, said she had a list of more than 20 witnesses who would have testified at trial that Robinson was a liar. Those witnesses, however, were barred by Judge Daniel A. Ford because they didn't meet legal standards that would have allowed them to testify.
Known as "prior bad acts," this form of evidence can be used to show a person's general reputation, but not specific acts of lying.
‘I knew he was scared'
The Supreme Judicial Court, in its rejection of Olsen's appeal 41 2 years ago, found that Ford had acted appropriately in regard to the potential witnesses. Further, the court said, Robinson testified in Berkshire Superior Court that he was a liar and had lied to police on several occasions during the investigation. The court thus found no convincing evidence to reverse Olsen's life sentence.
Olsen said she wasn't happy with her representation at trial, saying that her lawyers -- Leonard H. Cohen and Lori Levinson -- didn't call any defense witnesses besides her.
"The prosecution had three weeks, and I had five hours," she said. "I felt like whichever way I was turning, I wasn't getting the help I needed."
Cohen and Levinson declined to comment for this story.
In 2008, the same year that Olsen lost her appeal to the state's highest court, she lost a $1 million civil, wrongful-death suit filed by Neil Olsen's family. The money that would have gone to her as Neil's widow -- the $178,000 in retirement and life insurance money, plus nearly $300,000 from the sale of their house in Lanesborough -- was given to his family instead. Olsen still owes the remainder of the money.
At the criminal trial, Olsen said she believes her children turned on her to protect themselves. She said her son didn't want to spend the rest of his life in prison and believed his mother would be acquitted.
"I've forgiven him for what he's done to me because I know he was scared ... but I still can't forgive him for what he did to Neil," Olsen said.
Capeless told The Eagle that while his office did not promise Robinson anything for his testimony, it did give him a plea deal afterward.
The district attorney said he considered Robinson's role in helping to convict his mother, as well as his age, when he recommended his sentence to Ford.
On June 7, 2006, two weeks after Olsen was convicted, Robinson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole after 15 years.
"If not for him, Patricia Olsen wouldn't have been charged, much less convicted," Capeless said.
Meanwhile, Amanda Robinson was never charged in the case, even though, according to Olsen, Amanda believed she was facing a lengthy prison sentence as an accessory because "she was aware" that Christopher had bought the gun, and then "she lied [to police] about [that knowledge] afterwards."
"[Amanda] never committed a crime," Capeless said. "You need intent. ... She never intended to carry anything out [related to the killing]. ... She was mollifying her mother."
Amanda has since moved to Wilmington, N.C., and did not respond to The Eagle's interview requests.
Olsen said she hasn't seen her daughter in four years.
"I think in her mind it's just easier to consider me dead and not have to deal with this," Olsen said.
Her life in prison
Nearly seven years after being convicted of murder, Patricia Olsen has settled into her prison routine, writing letters and working 61 2 hours a day digitizing designs used in embroidery. She also takes college courses through the Boston University prison program, in which she's six hours away from completing an undergraduate liberal arts degree.
On Sundays she attends church.
"I stay very busy," Olsen said. "I've got a lot of good friends in here that give me a lot of mental and spiritual support. ... I just keep writing letters [to attorneys]. I just keep praying. It's my faith that keeps me going every day. It's my faith that's allowed me to forgive people, and it's my faith that keeps me alive. I don't think I'd be here today if I didn't have that."
If she ever gets out of prison, she says she'll return to Vermont.
"I want to go home with my mother," Olsen said. "She drives here once a month. She's been my rock."
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