Tuesday, January 22, 2002
Olson’s Prison Time May Hinge on Aiding Murder Case, Experts Say
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
The amount of time Sara Jane Olson spends in prison for attempting to bomb Los Angeles police cars in 1975 could hinge on how much help she gives Sacramento officials prosecuting a bank robbery and murder from the same year, law Professor Gerald Uelman said yesterday.
Olson, a former Symbionese Liberation Army associate, was sentenced to 20-years-to-life Friday in Los Angeles Superior Court for her involvement in the bombing plot which targeted Los Angeles Police Department cars and officers. In exchange for her guilty plea in October prosecutors dropped conspiracy and bomb possession charges.
Immediately after her sentencing Olson, through her attorney Shawn Chapman, entered a not guilty plea to the first-degree murder of 42-year-old Myrna Opsahl during the 1975 robbery of the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, just outside of Sacramento.
Also facing first-degree murder charges are alleged SLA members William Taylor Harris, 56, of Oakland; his former wife, Emily Montague Harris, 54, of Altadena; and Olson’s brother-in-law Michael Alexander Bortin, 53, of Portland, Ore. James William Kilgore, 54, who has remained a fugitive since 1975, was also charged.
Steven Soliah, Olson’s brother, was the only suspect tried for the robbery, and a federal jury acquitted him in 1976.
But it is what Olson does next that could have a significant impact on her own fate and the fates of her accused cohorts in the Carmichael case—and Olson may not have much choice, Uelman, a professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law, said.
“Prosecutors have her exactly where they want her,” he said.
Cooperation with the prosecution, given her guilty plea in the Los Angeles bombing case, may handcuff her into cooperating with prosecutors and put her co-defendants in the hot seat if she hopes for the low end of her indeterminate sentence from the state Board of Prison terms, Uelman said.
Chapman said she believes Olson will be ordered to serve just over five years of the 20-years-to-life sentence. But Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler said Friday that Olson may spend the rest of her life behind bars.
‘Rock and a Hard Place’
“It puts them between a rock and a hard place,” Uelmen said of Olson’s co-defendants in the robbery and murder. “It’s not just the credibility of Patty Hearst anymore.”
Hearst’s credibility remains at the center of controversy in the case as both sides debate statements made by the newspaper heiress who was kidnapped by the SLA in February 1974 from her Berkeley apartment. She later joined the group and said she participated in the Carmichael robbery.
“Hearst will be the wild card in the trial,” Southwestern University School of Law Professor Robert Pugsley said. “But there’s nothing to suggest that she has been on a one-woman crusade to bring them to justice.”
District Attorney Steve Cooley said Friday that Hearst’s account of the robbery and murder, which she detailed in her 1982 book “Every Secret Thing,” is supported by witness accounts and physical evidence.
Chapman attacked Hearst’s credibility, noting that federal prosecutors who tried and failed to convict Steven Soliah of the bank robbery wrote a memo saying Hearst was not credible.
“Patty Hearst has been completely discredited and disbelieved,” Chapman said. “I think what she has said is in direct conflict with the physical evidence.”
In her book, Hearst claimed to be a driver of one of the getaway cars in the Carmichael robbery, detailed how the SLA carried out of the robbery, implicated Olson (then known as Kathleen Soliah), the Harrises, Kilgore, and Bortin in the robbery, and named Emily Harris as the triggerwoman.
Hearst also quoted Emily Harris in her book, “ ‘Oh, she’s dead,” replied Emily airily, ‘but it really doesn’t matter. She was a bourgeois pig anyway.’ ”
Of all the defendants in the Carmichael case, Olson most symbolizes that upper-class lifestyle that Harris and the members of the SLA were so disgusted with—something that could work against her co-defendants in the Carmichael case, Pugsley said.
“I think Sara Jane Olson turned into that upper-class bourgeois person,” Pugsley said.
Friends and family of Olson packed the courtroom Friday to tell Fidler of Olson’s life as a pillar of the community and devoted mother who cooked for the homeless, made recordings for the blind, and taught English to recent immigrants.
Uelmen and Pugsley agreed that Olson’s self-imposed reform could play an important role when the Board of Prison Terms decides her sentence. It also could work against her co-defendants, who established middle-class lives, they said.
Olson’s 20-years-to-life sentence was not merely a slap on the wrist, Pugsley said, explaining that if the former radical-turned-soccer mom received a lengthy prison term for her involvement in the bombing plot, her less-reformed and less-repentant co-defendants could expect even harsher sentences if they are found guilty in the Carmichael case.
“[Olson’s] taken it on the chin for the first trial and she’s going to be in the thick of it for the second,” Pugsley said. “It does look bleak for those [other] defendants.”
Los Angeles prosecutors contend the $15,000 netted in the Carmichael bank robbery was used to buy cars for an SLA field trip to Los Angeles and to buy explosives—the bombs that Olson was charged with planting under police cars.
Two nail-filled pipe bombs were planted under two LAPD cars in August 1975 but did not explode.
Olson was indicted in 1976 in the plot. It was not until June 1999 that she was arrested in Minnesota, where she was living as a doctor’s wife and the mother of three daughters. She had changed her name from Katherine Soliah.
After congratulating his prosecutors for a job well done, Cooley Friday tried to put the focus on the Sacramento case.
“Rather than crying for the defendant today, we should be very mournful of the victim from 25 years ago,” Cooley said.
The evidence in the Carmichael case was much stronger than the evidence in the bombing plot, Cooley said, and he had urged Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully to file charges early last year, but she wanted to wait to see how the Los Angeles case played out.
“Ms. Scully told me personally that she wanted to see how Ms. Hearst did under cross examination,” Cooley said. “Our case played out very well.”
Chapman denied Olson had any knowledge of the bank robbery.
“She knew these people and she helped them in small ways,” Chapman said Friday. “But she was never admitted into their inner circle and never was asked to do criminal acts.”
Chapman called the timing of the charges suspect and said political reasons are behind the renewed interest in the robbery and homicide.
“Jan Scully is up for reelection this year,” Chapman said. “Other than that nothing else is new.”
Scully’s office did not return calls for comment, but a press release posted on her office’s website contained comments from a press conference she held Wednesday.
“Fortunately, the law has long recognized that there is no statute of limitations for murder,” Scully said in her comments. “Our community, the Opsahl family, as well as the accused, deserve their day in court to finally resolve this matter. The state of the evidence today has convinced me now is the time to seek justice for Myrna Opsahl.”
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company