Editor’s note: This story was reported by the Beacon Project, a student journalism initiative supported by the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. It is independent of the university’s administration.
There were few days in Matthew Olson’s life that could compare to the day he received his admission package from the University of Southern California.
At Corona del Mar High School, Matt was a 4.4 GPA-carrying star athlete. He helped clinch the volleyball national championship in 2018 and earned the Coach’s Award for Hardest Working Player. At just over six feet tall, Matt was at home on the court; perfecting sets, serves and jump floats. He was the president of the National League of Young Men, a non-profit service organization for high school boys, and served as vice president of the school’s Best Buddies program. As he became more competitive on the court, Matt was even considered to play for Harvard’s volleyball team. But USC was too important to him.
Matt’s parents, Rex and Darby, are both USC legacies. Rex earned a scholarship to study business, graduated in the class of 1986 and later collected his MBA. Darby studied public relations and graduated in the class of 1987. Both of them were active in Greek life – Rex was a Kappa Alpha and Darby was a Gamma Phi Beta. They raised their four kids in Corona del Mar, an oceanside neighborhood of Newport Beach that can only be described as a Southern California dream, and drove up to Memorial Coliseum on weekends for USC football games.
“We raised them on cardinal and gold,” Rex said, referring to USC’s signature colors.
As the second youngest, Matt was the first of the Olson kids to receive an acceptance letter, years after his older brother and sister had been rejected. It’s Rex’s favorite memory of his son, something that makes his eyes faraway and misty when he talks about it.
“It was almost too good to be true, because he was going to school with his best friend,” he said, referring to Spencer Wardwell, Matt’s USC roommate, who he had known since kindergarten. Rex added that for Matt’s birthday in September, he and Darby had gotten their son a hotel for the Berkeley Weekender.
Katie Rodewald, one of Matt’s closest high school friends, remembers that day in the spring of 2019 when Corona del Mar students received their acceptance letters in the mail, including her own. She said practically everyone in Corona del Mar knew how big of a deal it was for the Olsons that Matt had gotten in to USC. She described a video taken the day the family got the news.
“He was so excited. His mom is videotaping and crying. It’s the cutest thing ever,” she said. “They have balloons and the package waiting for him.”
Rex and Darby Olson dropped their son off at the University of Southern California on Aug. 21, 2019. That was the last time they would see him.
A YEAR OF TRAGEDIES
In the past year, 19 undergraduate and graduate USC students have died from various causes, according to the university. Nine of those deaths occurred in the Fall 2019 semester.
Matt’s was the first student death of that semester, just two days before classes began. He was struck and killed running on the Southbound 110 freeway, just north of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, at 2:45 a.m. on Aug. 24, 2019. He was 18 years old.
It’s difficult to piece together what happened the night of Matt’s death. It was a tragedy that had taken place just as students were arriving to campus after the summer break. Rumors swirled. Why was he walking on the freeway? Was he intoxicated? Was there fraternity involvement, particularly with USC Sigma Chi hosting the vigil in the wake of Matt’s death, instead of the university? A woman died by suicide on the northbound side of the 110 freeway just hours after Matt that very same morning. The Olson parents say that Matt had no troubles with his mental health, though, maintaining that this was an accident.
It is possible that he accessed the freeway by the 37th Street Metro Station, which runs down the median of the 110. The station is reachable from the large concrete stairs below the overpass, just a block and a half from the southeastern corner of campus.
When standing on the station’s platform, it would be easy to walk into the lanes of traffic if one were so inclined. Yellow metal attenuators line the bus lanes, yet walking into the bus lane and around the concrete barriers gives an individual direct access to the seven lanes of traffic. According to the California Highway Patrol investigation conducted by Officer Bryan J. Hernandez, Matt appeared to access the freeway closer to the south end, where he probably stepped over or walked around the very low concrete wall.
The USC community was in shock. But before anyone had a chance to grieve Matt’s death, two more students died within the next two weeks, both by suicide. As the death count climbed, what happened the night of Aug. 24, 2019 was never fully explained.
The Olsons arrived on campus for move-in day with Spencer’s family. It was surreal for Rex and Darby to be moving their son into their beloved alma mater, seeing the university through his eyes. Their school was now his school.
“It felt like we were living through him that day,” Rex said.
This was also a big day for Jack Casey, at the time a rising sophomore majoring in history and Latin American and Iberian cultures. It was his first official day as a resident assistant for Marks Hall, one of the smaller dorms on campus. With just one girls’ floor and one boys’ floor, Casey was assigned to 38 male residents.
His day started at 6 a.m. and lasted until 11 p.m. that night. The excitement of something new rushed in as the freshmen began arriving with their parents, but not without some twinges of anxiety.
“I know that we were all – myself included – a little bit nervous, too,” he said. “You start to think, ‘What if my residents don’t like me? Am I gonna be a bad RA?‘”
Casey also had an on-campus job outside of his RA position, so balancing those obligations while also being a full-time student taking 20 units left little room for his own social life and downtime.
“I know a lot of that was bearing on my mind, of how I was going to manage all of it,” Casey said. “But I remember move-in day was just so exciting.”
Casey was working the tent on the Pardee Lawn behind Doheny Library to give residents their keys, one of the final steps of the check-in process, when he first met Matt. Because Marks Hall has fewer residents than other dorms, Casey remembers those first interactions with his residents pretty clearly, particularly when he met the Olsons and Wardwells for the first time.
“I checked one of them in, I forget whether it was Spencer or Matt, and I asked where he was from. He said Newport Beach, and I checked the other one in and he said he was from Newport Beach.” Casey laughed remembering the interaction, when he eagerly wanted to introduce the two boys.
“It was kind of a stupid connection because then they were like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re roommates and we know each other and we’ve been best friends all of high school.’”
When Matt and Spencer came into Casey’s room for their mandatory roommate agreement, which freshmen residents write with their RA to lay ground rules and boundaries in their living arrangements, it seemed silly. These two were practically brothers. Living together as college roommates was something they had hoped for in high school and here it was – finally. Both also had plans for rushing together, hopefully with bids from Sigma Chi.
Casey remembers Matt came in grinning. It was apparent to anyone how close he and Spencer were.
“We just had a 10-minute discussion about what kind of rules they wanted for their living situation,” he said. “I just remember being excited to have him and Spencer in my hall because they seemed like fun, nice guys.”
The festivities of USC’s Welcome Week were already underway: Residential College Cups, Galen Center rallies and countless tours and meet-and-greets. One of the biggest events of Welcome Week is the Splash Bash on the Friday before classes start. The famous school-sanctioned party takes place at the spacious, high-end swimming pool at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center, which was used for the 1984 Summer Olympics. Students were required to pick up their wristbands at the Lyon Center in the two days before the Aug. 23 event.
“There was hype about people being able to swim, dance and drink on campus. It was really like the first party – if you want to call it a party – of college,” said Shawn Farhadian, a sophomore majoring in communication. He attended Splash Bash that same night as Matt did. “There’s music, people dressing up and getting ready for it, and pregaming for it.”
No alcohol was provided or allowed at the event, but, as Farhadian explained, it is well-known that this night is the night that kicks off college. It’s the archetypal college party woven into every coming-of-age Hollywood film. As multiple RAs noted, it is also typically the night with the most behavioral incidents.
That night, Matt had gone to New North to pregame with a few friends before heading to Splash Bash. Nick Nuccio was one of the RAs working in the residence hall that Friday night. With parents trickling out and the thrill of college finally beginning, the “partying can get really out of hand,” Nuccio said.
“Students are just arriving at college, and although we tell them about the rules, they have not gone through the behavioral process of what happens when you break the rules, and they have not heard stories so they don’t understand the consequences of their actions yet,” he said.
In fact, Nuccio wrote up Matt and several other students around 9 p.m. the night of Splash Bash.
“I will say that the incident with Matthew was completely non-memorable,” Nuccio said. “It was just him and a couple of his friends in a room with a bottle of vodka. It was very simple, clean-cut, where we just found them and said, ‘You’re not allowed to have alcohol in the dorms.’ It wasn’t really more complicated than that.”
Write-ups are more like warnings. RAs take down the students’ ID numbers, make sure the students dump out the alcohol and then take the report back to their supervisors, who set up a meeting a week or two later with the offenders.
After the New North write-up, Spencer and Matt went to Splash Bash together, according to Rodewald, their long-time friend who remembers Matt’s USC acceptance. They met up after with friends from their Corona del Mar group at a University Gateway apartment, a popular off-campus housing option that is directly across the street from USC.
One of those friends was Cassidy Brown, a USC junior studying communication, who grew up with the Olson family in Newport Beach. Her older sister is best friends with Matt’s older sister, which is why she said Matt was her “little brother.” Before midnight, the Gateway group then headed back to Brown’s apartment at West 27th. Lots of students from the Greek life community live here because of its proximity to the fraternity row. It was a group of about seven or eight of them, a mix of USC students and non-USC students, but mostly from Corona del Mar, hanging out and drinking in the apartment.
When Matt died on the freeway approximately three hours later, his blood alcohol concentration was .27, well past the limit when an average person may begin “blacking out.”
Brown said that no one is really sure how or when Matt left. She had no recollection of him trying to call an Uber home, either.
“That’s the part where we’re all struggling, at least for me,” she said. “I don’t know the reasoning behind why Matt left, but I do know it was weird because my last couple texts were questioning where he went, and I just didn’t get a response.”
The major streets running the perimeter of USC – Figueroa, Jefferson and Vermont – have been marked by the city as especially dangerous in terms of traffic collisions. In 2016, the City of Los Angeles released a map called the High Injury Network, which spotlights streets with a high concentration of injuries and fatalities, particularly of pedestrians and bicyclists. All of these treacherous streets surrounding campus are heavily frequented by USC students, especially at night as they head home from late classes or roam to friends’ houses and parties. The 37th Street Metro Station is not listed on the high injury map, but it is less than one block from Figueroa and USC’s campus.
Locals from the South Central area have pointed out that the station is also a hazardous area for pedestrians. In the middle of November 2019, a transportation equity advocacy group called ACT-LA staged a demonstration at the 37th Street Metro Station, where Matt had died just steps away less than three months earlier. The organizers were calling on the city to improve it by, among other things, making it safer, said Mariana Huerta Jones, the senior coalition and communications manager for ACT-LA.
“We chose that station because it happens to be – I mean come on, it’s in the middle of the freeway,” Jones said. “It’s extremely dark, surrounded by concrete. At night there’s not a lot of lighting. If something happens, it’s so isolated and away from everywhere that not many people would know or see, or have a really rapid way to respond.”
Transportation experts say that it is often more cost-effective for cities to build busways down the medians of prominent freeways. But concerns have certainly been raised regarding the safety and noise level of these platforms, particularly through the 11-mile long Harbor Transitway that the 37th Street Metro Station lives on.
Until informed by a reporter, Jones was unaware that a USC student had died next to the platform just a few months before the demonstration. Commuters had repeatedly emphasized the lack of security they felt around this station.
In fact, Jones said, some community members try to avoid the station altogether.
‘WE ARE SUPPOSED TO TAKE CARE OF THEM’
On Saturday morning, Rodewald woke up in Brown’s apartment and made the hour-long drive back home. She had barely made it back when she got an alarming text from her friend in Corona del Mar asking her to come over.
“I knew something was wrong so I was super upset the whole way to her house,” Rodewald said. “I was outside and I checked my phone to tell her I was here. And someone had sent it in our group chat.”
“It” was a text saying Matt had died overnight.
A witness statement from the coroner’s report stated that around 2:40 a.m., Matt was running southbound on the double yellow lines of the FasTrak lanes, directly next to the 37th Street Metro Station platform. According to that same report, a Toyota in the second FasTrak lane saw him and quickly swerved, but not quickly enough to avoid swiping him with the driver’s side mirror. This driver was later arrested for driving under the influence. Knocked onto the ground into the first FasTrak lane, Matt was then struck by another car, which did not stop.
According to CBS Los Angeles, the driver who first hit him remained at the scene and tried to help Matt, but he was pronounced dead at 2:58 a.m. Police found a fake ID in his wallet. The red “Late Night ‘SC” wristband for Splash Bash was still on his arm.
His parents said that he had a meeting early that morning with the USC women’s volleyball coach to talk about how he could possibly help out with the team and stay involved with his favorite sport. According to CHP, a follow-up investigation looking into why Matt was on the freeway in the first place was supposedly headed by CHP Officers J. Aguilar and K. Cardoza.
CHP declined to provide a copy of the follow-up investigation, instead directing the Beacon Project to city attorney Mike Feuer’s office. Feuer did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
None of the people Matt was with that night found out that he’d died until the morning after, hours later. Shane Premer, a high school teammate who was a year younger, was playing video games around 9 a.m. when he got a call from a good friend. Spencer Wardwell found out from his parents around 10 a.m., according to Ty Thabit, a close friend of both Spencer and Matt. Cassidy Brown found out around 11 a.m. from a phone call from her mother.
Spencer did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The news rippled out from Matt’s close friends to the USC community later that Saturday afternoon. Jack Casey was at the beach with a friend when a supervisor from USC Housing called him asking him to return to campus for an emergency staff meeting. Casey attended the meeting with the rest of the RAs from South Residential College in the Marks Hall classroom, where the president of Res Ed and a couple of Engemann counselors spoke to them vaguely about Olson’s death.
“This has been a big thing in me trying to resolve my own personal feelings about what happened,” Casey said. “In the weeks leading up to move-in, we’re told we’re responsible for our residents and that we are supposed to take care of them and guide them. So for me, being Matt’s RA, it definitely weighed on me heavily in feeling that I could have done something.”
The senior staff asked Casey to call a meeting specifically for his residents, so he sent a message to the group chat he had created on move-in day. Casey remembers the confusion and shock from the freshmen, as they tried to remember if they themselves had met Matt or even said hello to him. They were already taking everything in with wide eyes, flushed with the adrenaline of arriving at college. Yet here they were, being reminded of how scary the world could be away from home.
“For me as an RA, I was just very sad in thinking that it was my duty to take care of all my residents,” Casey said. “Not many RAs have this experience happen to them. How do you move forward from that, honoring the memory of Matt and the community member that we lost? How do you construct a strong community around such a tragic loss right at the beginning of the year?”
On Monday, Aug. 26, 2019 at 2 p.m., the first day of classes for USC’s fall semester, a university-wide email was sent out by the new USC President, Carol Folt, and Vice President of Student Affairs Winston Crisp.
“It is with heavy hearts that we inform you of the tragic loss of our student Matthew William Olson, in an accident on the 110 Freeway early Saturday morning,” Folt wrote. “We join the entire Trojan Family in expressing our deepest sympathies to Matt’s parents, family and friends.”
The email went on to describe Matt’s athletic achievements and his involvement in Best Buddies and Future Business Leaders of America. It is these moments that Darby Olson speaks of most fondly when remembering her son, particularly his dedication to building friendships with students facing intellectual and developmental challenges. In high school, Matt would regularly skip lunches with his friends to spend time with Dimitir, the student who he was paired up with for Best Buddies. In the first couple of years, Dimitir was very reserved and rarely engaged with others, despite Matt’s patient efforts to coax a conversation or toss a basketball to him. After three years, Dimitir said his first words when they parted one day: “Bye, Matt.”
Or his gentleness with Audrey, the four-year-old girl undergoing chemotherapy treatments. In a volunteer event at the local pediatric care center in Newport, Matt sat beside the little girl in her wheelchair as she painted a wooden flower bright pink and green. Audrey tilted the paintbrush away from the flower and began painting onto Matt’s hands. She had extended the art piece to swirling leaves and petals across Matt’s arm, while he grinned and encouraged her. Darby remembers looking on at the sweet moment and feeling her eyes well with tears.
“One of the things about Matt is that he did the right thing when no one was looking,” she said.
A memorial in Corona del Mar was held the weekend following Matt’s death, where at least 1,000 people attended or watched on a livestream. The Olsons were stunned by the outpouring of support. Darby said they didn’t realize the strength of the Corona del Mar community until that moment.
“We received meals from people for over six months, and people dropping off flowers,” she said.
On Sept. 3, 2019, a vigil for Matt was hosted at the Sigma Chi fraternity house for USC students to attend.
Brown said the night that he died, she remembers receiving a Snapchat of the Sigma Chi house from Matt captioned “future home.” Having only been at USC for three days, he was not a part of the fraternity, but his family and friends knew that this was the house he was planning to rush.
Skyler Radcliffe, the president of Sigma Chi for the 2019-2020 school year, recalled meeting Matt the day before he died and knew that he was interested in joining the fraternity.
“Our house has a lot of people from the Newport Beach area and the Orange County area, so I think there were a lot of close friends from home for Matt in the house,” said Radcliffe.
Because Matt was acquainted with quite a few members, Katie Rodewald said she had wanted Sigma Chi to host something in his memory. She and some friends reached out to the members of the fraternity and, after Rush Week was finished, some of Matt’s close friends in Sigma Chi pulled it together.
“All the girls really wanted Sigma Chi to get involved since Matt was already close with so many of them,” Rodewald said of the vigil planning. On the night of the event, she said the attendance was impressive. “It was mostly Sigma Chi members, there were a lot of volleyball players there, anybody from USC that knew Matt, some of Taylor Olson’s older friends.”
Reporters were asked not to attend the vigil.
The other person who didn’t receive an invite to the vigil was Jack Casey. He was struggling to process Matt’s death on his own terms.
“There really wasn’t any sort of encouragement for me to go and see a counselor at Engemann, beyond just them having those two counselors there at the meeting,” Casey said. “I don’t think I really realized how severe of an effect it had on me for two or three weeks following Matthew’s passing. I was depressed.”
Other than his immediate staff cohort, Casey said he received little support from the university. He attended a few counseling sessions at the Engemann Health Center until he was told that he had resolved his issue.
“I did feel some sort of closure but obviously a lot of sad feelings of loss were continuing after that,” he said.
We may never know why Matt Olson stepped onto the freeway that night, but it does not appear to be a suicide or an incident of fraternity hazing. Based on the Beacon Project’s investigation into the events of Aug. 24, 2019, it seems that his death was merely an accident.
When asked about the school’s response to Matt’s death last August, VP Winston Crisp avoided answering specific questions about changes made to student safety and university protocol around accidental deaths of students.
“Regardless of the cause of death, a customized postvention effort is launched to provide support to impacted communities, such as roommates, friends, residential communities, classmates and campus affiliations and associations,” Crisp wrote in an email to the Beacon Project. “A multi-disciplinary team is convened to determine how best to support both the student’s family and the impacted campus community.”
He spoke generally, writing that grieving is a collective process that takes time and that closure comes in many different forms for those affected. Yet Casey’s experience following Matt’s death suggests a different story, one that leaves grieving incomplete and students feeling unsupported after the loss of a peer.
If you were at one of his games back in high school, you’d find Matthew Olson by looking for his favorite number: 23. He had picked that number long before even joining a spot in USC’s class of 2023.
Maybe that’s why the nickname “M.O. 23” wrote itself. The phrase is in the social media bios of Matt’s friends and family — and on the shirts they made in honor of him last fall. A close friend of the Olsons, Shannon Eusey, even helped establish the “MO23 Forever Foundation.” In July 2020, the foundation awarded seven scholarships to students from Newport Harbor High School and Corona del Mar High School. Troy, Matt’s younger brother, sits on the scholarship committee. The family wants to award students who share Matt’s character qualities and commitment to kindness in their community.
“The Foundation’s goal is to enable the ‘compassionate doers’ in our community to further their education and make a positive impact in this world,” the Olsons wrote in a press release about the launch of the foundation.
Matt wasn’t the only one who loved the number 23. Shane Premer, one of Matt’s volleyball teammates, did too. However, he got stuck with number 24 in his junior year because Matt was a year older, therefore getting seniority pick.
“The whole year, he was saying, ‘Yeah Shane, sorry, you’re not gonna get 23 next year. They’re going to retire my number after this season,’” Premer said. “It was kind of an ongoing joke we had.”
When Matt died, Premer felt like he had lost an older brother, someone he looked up to on and off the court. He remembers that Matt was a popular kid, but always made time to hang out with Shane, even if he had his own plans with his senior friends.
“He was really good at not making anyone feel left out,” he said. “It was really cool.”
In February 2020, Premer was beginning his last season of volleyball for Corona del Mar. Every year, the players’ backpacks get passed on and re-used for next season. After a tough few months, Premer picked up his new backpack after school and stopped in his tracks: it was number 23.
“You wear it better,” Matt had written in a note to Premer inside the bag at the end of his last season. “Rep 23 well.”
He couldn’t help but smile when he thought of finding that piece of paper inside the backpack. “Now I just have it next to my bed, something to read if I need it,” he said.
This past spring, Premer received his admission package to the University of Southern California. Accepting his offer was a no-brainer. Just like number 23.
Karen Wang, Tajwar Khandaker and Sasha Urban contributed to this story.
Story corrected Aug. 31, 2020 at 12:11 p.m.: An earlier version of this story stated that Matthew Olson’s sister was responsible for the video described by Katie Rodewald; the reference to his sister has been removed. The earlier version of this story also contained speculation as to why Matthew left West 27th on the night of his death; that sentence has been removed. Annenberg Media apologizes for these errors.