Starvation Heights Exclusive Extract
An Exclusive Extract of Starvation Heights, the latest True Crime story from Gregg Olsen.
The older boys always brought it up to the younger ones.
Sit down, and I’ll tell you the story of what happened here in the very spot you’re sitting on. Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a rusty needle in my eye. I ain’t lying. What I’m telling you is true.
Fourteen Boy Scouts and their Scoutmaster had gathered to camp in a clearing on a brambly hillside meadow not far from the shoreline of Puget Sound in Washington State. It was nearly autumn, 1946. The boys who comprised Fragaria Troop 528 were the sons of chicken farmers, berry growers, and shipyard workers. All were passing from boyhood to manhood.
None were unfamiliar with the place they camped, though they would not have thought to go there on their own. No one but the very stupid or the very brave ever did that. Even on a dare. Some folks who lived their entire lives in the community that was but a mere blip on most maps had never set foot on the property.
Those that knew the story best, those who could tell it best, would gather the others and speak in low, earnest tones. As the campfire burned to an ashy bowl of red-hot embers, the boys would ramble on, piling up horror upon horror, like cordwood stacked under a blood-red-barked madrona tree.
Like most places, Olalla had a bit of a past. Some of it was good, but that, of course, was humdrum, simply unsuitable for the milieu of a campfire. The proud history was the kind of talk a grandmother gives while her grandchildren squirm to break away from her sweetly uninspired dissertation about the good old days. Some of the past, however, was bad. And bad was always better.
Not much of a town anymore, but it’s a true fact that there was a time when people from all over the world came here…
By the time the Scouts gathered to camp at the old Hazzard sanitarium, it had been decades since the town had seen its heyday. Good Lord, to walk its roads or along its beaches was to see nothing but reminders of a bygone era. By the 1940s, fate had reduced Olalla to a dwindling village, a place that inhabited only the faded memories of the greying and the bald. As old businesses along the waterfront burned down or fell into rotten disrepair, they were abandoned. No one ever rebuilt the pool hall, the bakery, the shingle mill, or the net sheds. No one reclaimed what the seawater had stolen, what the insatiable worms had gnawed to Swiss cheese. Many, many years later, old photographs would hang on the walls of the sole surviving waterfront business—a small grocery store and two-pump gas station. Illuminated under buzzing fluorescent lights, the black-and-white images would provide silent, yet convincing, testimony of what had once been.
As the tide from the Sound does to a child’s aimless footprints on the beach, time washes away all traces of what had been.
No one could possess a shred of doubt that Olalla’s most famous institution was the sanitarium up on the heights off Orchard Avenue. Nothing else even came close. Not the sawmills, the strawberry fields, the hotel on the little bay. But, of course, all—even the most famous—had been consumed by the years. All that was left of Dr. Hazzard’s sanitarium were the ankle-deep walls of the foundation and the tower of a masonry incinerator that swelled from the ground like a huge grave marker. In a way, that’s what it was.
The doctor locked her patients up and starved ’em. To skin ’n bone, I heard.
The half-dozen or so little cabins that were reserved for some patients at the peak of the world-renowned institution’s fame had rotted into the earth. The Pacific Northwest’s legendary rains had gently turned the wooden floorboards into a soil so black it looked like a hole to another world. A perfect row of old firs and pines lined up like sentinels from the road.
Each one of them trees marks the spot where the old lady buried one of her victims.
Long before the Scouts and their Scoutmaster came to camp and told ghost stories, a great white, wood-frame building rose from the concrete outline that held it skyward. It was a magnificent structure for its time and place—a sanitarium of three stories, plus a basement. Dormer windows jutted over a porch that ran the full length; a dark, oak staircase in the grand foyer dominated the interior. There was even a kitchen, an office, and of course, the Treatment Room.
A stark-white-painted wooden archway over the north end of a circular driveway that looped from the road to the satiny oak of the building’s front doors proclaimed to visitors that they had arrived at what the owners called Wilderness Heights.
All of what the place had been was the great dream of a woman, a doctor named Linda Burfield Hazzard.
There are bodies out here, buried all over the place. I heard a kid from up the valley found a couple of human skulls when he was diggin’ a pit for baked beans…
Eleven years had passed since the sanitarium burned to the ground, even longer since the story began. The old lady had been dead since 1938; her husband, Samuel, followed her to the grave eight years later. The main house, overlooking a fern-glutted ravine still stood just south of where the old sanitarium had been. The cedar-shingled bungalow was empty at that time. A For Sale sign stuck in the dandelions alongside the driveway.
Many who passed by on Orchard Avenue remarked how the air always seemed a little colder around that place on the hill. Wind blew a little harder, too. At night, the sky’s blackness seemed to hold no room for the cheer of the moon. The Scouts of Troop 528 unfurled sleeping bags into rows in the open field and lay as still as could be. The older ones insisted to the younger ones that at night, when the wind forced treetops to bend over backwards, the haunted screams of the dead could be heard.
It should not have ended that way. It wasn’t supposed to end that way. But it did. Among the debris, hidden beneath tangled shields of blackberry vines and enormous bouquets of salal foliage, were secrets that time seized in its mighty, unforgiving grip. Only in the campfire-stoked stories of Boy Scouts, bedtime tales babysitters employ to frighten bratty charges, or in the sweet delight of grandpas who never grew up, would the stories live on.