Montana activist calls arson investigation "outrageous"

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com August 27 2002 12:00 AM ET

The head of a Montana gay and lesbian advocacy group said Saturday that a Missoula police arson investigation may be driven by bias, not evidence, and he's been dragged into it. Karl Olson of Helena, executive director of Pride, said Missoula police think political activists and community advocates orchestrated the arson to benefit their cause. The fire destroyed the Missoula residence of Carla Grayson and Adrianne Neff in February while the couple and their 2-year-old son were in the house. At a news conference Olson said the orchestration theory is outrageous and surreal and he believes the investigation may have a chilling effect on people involved in civil or human rights organizations.

Missoula County attorney Fred Van Valkenburg said police are simply trying to solve the case and have not targeted any organization.

Olson said Missoula detectives questioned him in Helena on Thursday and opened by asking if he would be surprised if they had information that he may have been involved in the arson. He said they asked where he was when the fire was set and that they were amazed a 700-person rally the next day could have been organized so quickly. "The horrific implication behind this interrogation was that I, Pride, other groups and other individuals working to support Carla and Adrianne--some combination of this support system--conspired to burn a house down to bring attention to our issues," Olson said.

Van Valkenburg said he couldn't comment on details of an ongoing investigation but that "Karl Olson is hardly the only person who has been interviewed by the police with respect to the investigation." Van Valkenburg characterized the questioning as "nothing but an effort by the police to investigate this case as thoroughly as they can." He also wouldn't comment on whom else police have questioned or say why authorities chose to question Olson.

In the days after the fire, police portrayed the blaze as an effort to kill Grayson, Neff, and the child. One motive linked the arson to a lawsuit the couple and two other women had filed against the Montana University System because it doesn't provide health insurance benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian employees. The suit, in which Pride also is a plaintiff, was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and is pending in district court at Helena. However, police soon shifted their focus to Grayson and Neff, saying it appeared the fire was set with fuel and materials found at the couple's house.