FBI Reopens Probe of Killing Linked to SLA
Deadly 1975 holdup of Carmichael bank
Michael Taylor, <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Friday, February 9, 2001
The FBI, spurred on by recent news stories and advances in technology, has
reopened its investigation into a bank robbery and homicide allegedly
committed by members of the 1970s terrorist group that kidnapped newspaper
heiress Patricia Hearst, law enforcement sources said yesterday.
The robbery of the Crocker National Bank in the Sacramento suburb of
Carmichael took place April 21, 1975, but the case has lain dormant for
nearly 26 years. Every Sacramento County district attorney since then has
refused to press charges, saying there isn't enough evidence to get
indictments, let alone convictions.
During the robbery, Myrna Lee Opsahl, the 42-year-old wife of a Sacramento
surgeon, was shot to death by one of the robbers with a shotgun.
The crucial evidence that could tip the scales in favor of prosecution
consists of shotgun pellets taken from Opsahl's body, sources say.
Laboratory research recently discovered that those pellets match pellets in
shotgun shells connected to the alleged robbers, according to law
enforcement sources familiar with the case.
Now FBI agents are joining forces with investigators from the Sacramento
office to see if there is a way to prosecute six of the eight alleged bank
robbers in federal court, since a prosecution in state court seems to have
been ruled out.
Court records in Los Angeles say the robbery was committed by members of
the Symbionese Liberation Army, a tiny radical group that was known chiefly
for its February 1974 kidnapping of Hearst.
In San Francisco, FBI spokesman Andy Black said he could neither confirm
nor deny that the bureau is back on the case.
Other law enforcement sources said, however, that FBI agents met yesterday
with investigators from the Sacramento sheriff's office and members of the
Opsahl family to see where to take the case next.
ACQUITTAL 25 YEARS AGO
One of the alleged robbers, Steven Soliah, was tried 25 years ago in
federal court in Sacramento on charges of robbing the bank. He was
acquitted, and it is not likely he would be charged again. Another alleged
robber, Patricia Hearst, was in a getaway car, according to her own memoir
and court records. She has been given immunity from prosecution if she
testifies against gang members.
Hearst is the granddaughter of media baron William Randolph Hearst, founder
of the Hearst Corp., which owns The Chronicle. She served 21 months of a
seven- year federal prison term for her conviction on a different SLA bank
robbery. Her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter in January
1979. Three weeks ago, President Bill Clinton gave her a full pardon.
The possible federal prosecution for the Carmichael bank robbery is the
latest twist in a case whose revival stems from the June 1999 arrest of
Sara Jane Olson, a Minnesota housewife who was a fugitive for 23 years.
Back in the mid-1970s, she was known as Kathleen Soliah, she is the sister
of Steven Soliah, and, according to police and prosecutors, was a key
figure in helping the terrorist SLA gang while it was on the run from the
FBI in the mid- 1970s. She was indicted in February 1976 by a Los Angeles
grand jury on charges of trying to bomb Los Angeles police cars and now, a
quarter-century later, faces trial in April.
Los Angeles county prosecutors Michael Latin and Eleanor Hunter, along with
Opsahl's husband, Dr. Trygve Opsahl, and their son, Dr. Jon Opsahl, have
been unsuccessfully urging Sacramento County to prosecute the Carmichael
bank robbery case, saying there's enough evidence to get convictions.
Most of the evidence consists of hundreds, if not thousands, of items
seized by the FBI from two SLA safe houses in San Francisco when they
arrested Hearst, Steven Soliah and SLA members William and Emily Harris in
EVIDENCE GIVEN AWAY
Over the years, the FBI gave away some crucial evidence, including ski
masks and wigs, which made any future cases that much harder to prosecute.
But they kept a number of SLA weapons and many boxes of ammunition.
Twenty years ago, Hearst's book about her 19 months with the SLA said that
after the Opsahl slaying, one of the bank robbers buried the possibly
incriminating shotgun shell in a Sacramento park. Investigators dug up a
good portion of the park but never found the shell.
Now, however, with advances in metallurgical science, detectives have been
able to get a match, supposedly good enough to hold up in court, between
the pellets taken from Opsahl's body and pellets found in shotgun shells
seized by federal agents when the SLA was arrested.
Asked about the new federal investigation, San Francisco attorney Stuart
Hanlon, who is a consultant to the Olson case and has represented other SLA
members in the past, said he would be "greatly surprised" if federal
prosecutors got this case to court.
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