For many, the unexpected sight of a dead body or seeing someone die in front of your eyes can cause tremendous trauma throughout life, especially for a young teenager.
Bainbridge Island resident Tom Olis experienced that as a 13-year-old boy in Oak Park, Ill. not just once — but three times. Those appalling sights from his childhood led Olis to spill all his firsthand memories into a newly published memoir How the Pharaohs Rise, available as an E-book on Amazon. Some of it deals with the relevant topic of racial injustice.
“It’s a coming-of-age story about a boy (himself) who was present at three unexpected deaths,” Olis said. “These three deaths marked his descent from age and fear…It ties together a lot of characters from my childhood. These deaths were very symbolic to me, and they had a huge impact on my ability to ever feel comfortable. There are some things I talk about in the book that still to this day has never sat well with me.”
Olis said the first death was an old man in his car in front of his house. The second death was more gruesome as he saw it unfold. While riding his unicycle in Oak Park, a motorcycle hit the back of a car that catapulted the person on the back of the bike into a telephone pole before falling to the ground dead, Olis said.
Witnessing those two tragic events was tough enough, but a couple of months later he saw another traumatic incident. He described it as a serene and beautiful night in Oak Park, just outside of Chicago, where he was outside playing with his brother, cousin and a few friends before the sun went down. The boys decided to head down to convenience store, The Hen, and they made their way through the alleys in typical fashion.
“You could kind of see in the shadows all the way down the alleyway,” Olis recalled. “About three minutes after we were all on our way there….right behind the first house, my brother, who was on the far right side said, ‘Oh my’ and then kind of just crumbled. Then we all kind of looked over, and everyone had different reactions at the time.
“She was still bleeding after the neighbor came out,” Olis went on to say. “I remember seeing light in her eyes…she was still alive, there was still blood coming out of her neck. Then it was all kind of panic, and we were knocking at neighbors’ doors.”
After police showed up to tend to the murdered woman, Olis said they all walked home, and he didn’t really discuss anything about what he saw moving forward.
“I guess I don’t really remember the rest of that night,” he said. “That was kind of like the last time I ever spoke about it. At the time it was early 1980s; there wasn’t a whole lot of focus on mental health. That was the start of a bad summer. After the murder, I kind of shut down.”
The body was 24-year-old Kathleen Lombardo, who police later determined was sexually assaulted and fatally stabbed on Aug. 1, 1984, while out for an evening jog near her Oak Park apartment, according to the Chicago Tribune. No one has been charged in the killing.
Olis said the sexual assault determination “just didn’t really fit a number of things” and that within 24 hours, police were posting pictures of a potential African-American suspect all over town. In his memoir, Olis touches on his own theories for how Lombardo might have been killed based on his firsthand experiences.
“It just seemed like a perverted attempt, and there was just so much fear going on in the early 1980s. They never interviewed me and I never had the chance to let out why that official explanation never made sense to me. At the time, it folded into a larger narrative of nobody’s listening” he said.
After the murder, Olis recalled how racial viewpoints shifted from acceptance to most people being afraid of Black people due to biased stereotypes.
“The whole tide shifted,” he said. “It became like, ‘I don’t like those people because I don’t know them’ to ‘I don’t like those people because I’m afraid of them.’”
After witnessing those three incidents in a rather short time, Olis was shell-shocked and kept his feelings bottled up. He said his biggest regret was not opening up sooner.
35 years after that unforgettable night, Olis received a call from the production company involved with HBO’s documentary series I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, a true-crime genre based on Michelle McNamara’s novel of the same name about the investigation to uncover the Golden State Killer, along with other true crime stories.
The connection to Olis is that McNamara also grew up in Oak Park and was a year older. Lombardo’s murder is really what drove her toward a career in true crime. She also had her own theory about a neighbor killing Lombardo, which she included in her book. McNamara died in 2016 of an accidental overdose due to the effects of multiple drugs, including Adderall, Xanax and fentanyl.
Olis agreed to be interviewed for a special episode that airs June 21 on HBO, which encompasses McNamara’s upbringing and her introduction to true crime through Lombardo’s murder. He was contacted after they found out that he was one of the first witnesses of her body.
“One of the things the HBO series is about is that anyone can be a detective,” Olis said. “One of the things I think the book brings insight to is some of the questions that the HBO (series) brings up. They talk about it being a sex crime…but was it something more is what they’re hinting at. (In the episode) I’m like yes it was, and here’s why. Many of the things that are in the book did not come up in my interview.”
After being interviewed by HBO it became apparent to Olis that he had more to say and thought a memoir would be the perfect way to present two versions of himself — the child who witnessed those tragic events and the adult who now has more perspective.
“Essentially, it should be a quick read,” he said. “It’s not too deep. It’s this boy (him) witnessing the greed and the racism and this murder…settling in around them with everyone becoming afraid of these things, but observing these things with a touch of innocence.”
“The timing was very good,” Olis went on to say. “I kind of separated the grown-up half of my brain and the childhood version of me. It proved to be very effective for me to be able to have this childhood kid come out of me and say these things. This was kind of like a strange capstone on this self-improvement effort of the past five years that I’ve been on. To have that interview happen kind of just validates this strange era of my life.”
Now that Olis is a published writer, he is working on a fictional horror novel that centers around racial injustice, a lot like his memoir. “One of the main themes of my work is the racial injustice I’ve witnessed firsthand,” he said.