A community responds
Cal Poly student’s disappearance brings friends, family and strangers together
Michael Olson stood in the Nord Safeway parking lot Sunday morning (Sept. 9), surrounded by 100 people who had come out to look for his missing son, Brett, who vanished exactly a week earlier during a Labor Day weekend float on the Sacramento River. Olson went up to everyone in attendance, introduced himself and thanked them for helping with the search.
Olson remained optimistic. As the volunteers gathered around him, he said they were going to be the ones to find his son. When a woman asked to lead the group in a prayer, everyone, including the police who were present, bowed their heads and closed their eyes.
Before the volunteers set out, Olson addressed the crowd, which included familiar faces from the Bay Area as well as many strangers.
“I cannot say [thank you] enough. We’re here as long as it takes,” he said. “If there’s anyone who will find him, it’ll be you. Go find him.”
A few hours later, Olson and his wife, Elizabeth, were called out to Scotty’s Landing to identify their son’s remains. The body of the 20-year-old Cal Poly–San Luis Obispo junior had been spotted by a group of people fishing downstream of Scotty’s near the Washout and was recovered by Butte County Search and Rescue. The tragic news ended a weeklong investigation and massive volunteer effort, including searches in town based on multiple tips that the young man had been spotted at various locations.
So many sightings are normal, especially because of how the media publicized Olson’s disappearance, said Glenn County Undersheriff Rich Warren.
“People want to be helpful,” he said. “It’s better to report things that are possible than to not say anything.”
Warren confirmed that the body was found two miles past Beer Can Beach. While it’s “hard to say” if the reason he wasn’t found initially was because he was caught on a snag, Warren explained that, because the river is so cold, it takes longer for the body to decompose and float to the surface.
An autopsy was performed Tuesday (Sept. 11), but the preliminary results won’t be available for several weeks.
Olson’s disappearance prompted national attention.
One of his friends, Juliana Del Beccaro, started a “Let’s Bring Brett home” Facebook group two days after the float, and the group quickly gained momentum, reaching more than 93,000 members in a few days. Friends posted photos and shared memories there, while strangers expressed words of encouragement.
Fliers describing the Bay Area native papered Chico State classrooms, homes and cars. His missing-person information was displayed on the Jumbotron at a San Francisco Giants game as well as at other sporting events. The tag “findbrettolson” appeared on the Twitter feeds of celebrities such as Selena Gomez, Sophia Bush, Howie Mandel and the band Korn.
On the Facebook page, the friends he went tubing with explained how they’d lost track of him shortly after arriving at Beer Can Beach and later assumed he had made it back into town. Because they were sleeping at different houses that night, it wasn’t clear until the next day that Olson was missing.
Just prior to heading out Sunday to search, Michael Olson described his son as “outgoing and goofy.” He recalled what Brett was like as a kid. He always loved dressing up, said a tearful Olson, recalling how he and Elizabeth had fashioned homemade costumes and swords so Brett and his friends could dress up as the Knights of the Round Table.
“Everybody would like him,” he told this reporter. “Whether you’re sitting down with him for a coffee, soda or beer, you’ll leave feeling like you know him.”
Shane Wright, who organized Sunday’s search, was one of Olson’s closest friends and spoke about him more like a proud parent than a best friend.
“He spreads passion,” said Wright Sunday morning before Olson’s body was discovered. “He’s trusting, benevolent; he’s never initiated negative confrontation.”
Close to Olson since sixth grade, Wright recalled spending summer nights with him and other friends in a tree fort in his back yard when they were young.
At Acalanes Union High School, Brett and his friends were known for painting themselves blue and white and going shirtless to games. He made informative videos but mixed in skits to make them funny.
“When all of us think of our senior year, we think of Brett Olson,” said Del Beccaro, speaking by phone from Lafayette. “He made our senior year.”
Olson, who went on to major in theater arts at Cal Poly, was also known for his leading roles in the high school plays Dracula and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Comedy was his gift, Wright said. People who had never seen a play before would go to watch him, because they’d heard how funny he was.
“He was incredible,” Wright said. “In every play he did he’d steal the show. The audience was captivated.”
In college Olson remained close to his friends from high school, he said.
He was also close to his parents.
“They’re the most tight-knit family I know,” Wright said. “I could show up at their door, and they’d let me sleep there even on a school night. They’d feed me. They treated me like a son and loved me.”
Driving around Chico to a place to print up some maps for the search party, Wright continued to give this reporter insight into his friend.
A week before his disappearance, Olson had shared with Wright some “epiphanies” he’d had over the summer. He told him he wasn’t as focused on his goals during his first two years of college, and he wanted to get straight A’s this semester, study abroad in the spring, and get a film internship.
“He said this was going to be his year,” said Wright, hitting the steering wheel with his hand.
Within an hour, Wright got the call that a body had been found.
Michael Olson joined Facebook to address the people that helped spread recognition about his son, and Sunday night he sent a closing letter to the community.
“You all are our friends now,” he said. “There are not words to describe how moved we have been by everything all of you have done for us. You filled us with hope and love this week which we will carry with us for the rest of our lives.”
On Tuesday night the Chico community gathered at One-Mile in Bidwell Park for a candlelight vigil, led by Pi Kappa Alpha, the fraternity Olson belonged to at Cal Poly.
A letter written by Carly Todd, one of Olson’s friends, was read aloud.
“Thank you for caring and loving my friend you barely knew,” it said. “Brett is home, rest in paradise.”
In addition to his parents, Brett Olson is survived by his younger brothers, Nick and Luke.