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Date: Mon, 21 Jan 2002 13:54:27 -0800
From: radtimes <email@example.com>
Subject: Soccer mum pays for terror past [SLA]
Soccer mum pays for terror past
Minnesota housewife Sara Jane Olson was once an armed fugitive along with
heiress Patty Hearst. Now new murder charges are forcing America to confront
a nightmare from its past.
Duncan Campbell in Los Angeles
Sunday January 20, 2002
The slim, smiling woman at the counter of Midnight Special, a busy left-wing
bookshop in Santa Monica, California, just before Christmas had assembled
around 20 thick books. She now has good reason for buying so many fat
volumes since she will have plenty of time to read them during the decades
of prison time that may now stretch in front of her.
The woman was Sara Jane Olson, who, in her previous life as Kathleen Soliah,
was alleged to be a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, one of the
most bizarre of the urban guerrilla groups of the Seventies. She had already
been convicted of placing a pipe bomb under a police car and was awaiting
sentence - hence the book-buying - but now she and three of her alleged
fellow-members are facing trial for the murder of a bank customer during a
1975 raid carried out by the SLA.
Their surprise arrests last week have reopened a book in American life that
had long seemed closed. Not least among the many ironies in the case is that
those now accused of being home-grown terrorists had become the industrious,
civic-minded, middle-class members of society against whom the SLA once
In 1973 the SLA killed Marcus Foster, a popular black superintendent of
education in Oakland who wanted to introduce student ID cards. But the SLA
is best known for its kidnapping of Patricia Hearst, the newspaper heiress
held for ransom in February 1974. By her account she was intimidated into
becoming part of the group and robbing the Hibernia bank in San Francisco
under her nomme de guerre of Tania before she and two of her kidnappers,
Bill and Emily Harris, were arrested.
Hearst was jailed for seven years for her part in the robbery but released
after two when President Jimmy Carter issued a clemency order; she was
pardoned by President Clinton as he left office last year. The hardcore of
the SLA, including its leader, Donald 'Cinque' DeFreeze, had already died in
a Los Angeles house in May 1974 after a shoot-out with police.
Hearst later married her bodyguard, Bernard Shaw, with whom she has two
children. She has often said that she hoped her 'Tania' days were over but
she is now likely to be the chief prosecution witness in the case.
Hearst wrote her memoirs, Cecil B DeMented, in 1982, and it is a passage in
this book that implicates Olson, the Harrises, and two other radicals, Mike
Bortin and Jim Kilgore, as taking part in the $15,000 robbery of the Crocker
National Bank in Carmichael, California, in 1975.
According to Hearst's version, a 42-year-old mother of four children, Myrna
Lee Opsahl, who was depositing her church's Sunday collection, was shot
during the raid by Emily Harris. 'Oh, she's dead,' Hearst quotes Emily
Harris as saying, 'but it doesn't really matter. She was a bourgeois pig
anyway. Her husband is a doctor.'
That remark was to act as a spur for Dr Jon Opsahl, one of the children of
the murdered woman, who has attempted to keep the case alive, urging
prosecutors to pursue the people named in the book and setting up a website
(www.myrnaopsahl.com) that contained the evidence.
'Those words have always haunted us,' Opsahl said after the arrests last
week. 'She was a wonderful mother... and it was kind of the parallel life
that [Sara Jane Olson] assumed which was disturbing, how she participated in
a crime that took a life and then kind of assumed [that lifestyle]. She put
on this soccer mom act and the public even came to her defence but I said
"wait a minute, that is what my mom was".'
Olson's new life has been, by all accounts, exemplary. Married to a
Harvard-educated emergency room doctor, Fred, who has worked on
Oxfam-related projects in Zimbabwe, she regularly read to the blind, was
active in her Methodist church in St Paul, Minnesota, worked with torture
victims, took part in charity runs and brought up three daughters Leile,
Sophia and Emily.
Bill and Emily Harris, who served eight years in jail, separated long ago
and Bill became a private investigator and married a lawyer with whom he has
two sons; he was arrested last Wednesday driving them to school. Emily
Harris became a computer programmer and moved to the LA area. Bortin, a
former leading light in Students for a Democratic Soci ety, had married
Olson's sister, Josephine, and the couple ran a hardwood flooring company in
Portland, Oregon.The fifth, Jim Kilgore, from San Rafael in Marin County,
has never resurfaced. The FBI tried to tease him out after the arrest of
Olson in 1999. He did not take the bait.
Nothing could have illustrated better the passage of time between those days
of violent revolution than an event in that same Santa Monica bookshop
towards the end of last year. One Sunday afternoon, a Chicago professor,
Bill Ayers, well-known for his academic studies on the education of
children, was talking about his new book to an audience of around 30 people.
The book, Fugitive Days, was about Ayers's life as a member of the Weather
Underground, another defunct urban guerrilla group. It had been published on
10 September, hardly the most auspicious day for launching a book one
chapter of which opens with the words 'Everything was absolutely ideal on
the day I bombed the Pentagon.' (The 2lb bomb placed in a Pentagon women's
lavatory caused no injuries or deaths.) After Ayers had read from his book a
member of the audience stood up and talked about her own case. She was Sara
A quarter of a century ago, a meeting of members of the Weather Underground
and the SLA would have fuelled the FBI's wildest fantasies but what we had
was a friendly conversation between a genial prof and a busy suburban
The next day, talking at a fund-raiser in Santa Monica, Olson said that her
heart had 'selfishly' sunk when she heard of the World Trade Centre attacks.
She felt that the climate had changed and her chances of a fair trial had
Then Olson signed her own book, Serving Time, America's Most Wanted Recipes,
which she had written to raise funds for a defence case costing hundreds of
thousands of dollars.
The book shows Olson on the cover in striped apron and holding a spatula in
one hand and a pair of handcuffs in the other. In the foreword, Olson
confesses to membership of the Food Conspiracy in the 1970s, 'an umbrella
group of neighbourhood food-buying clubs that brought organic food from
rural farms and local distributors'. It is this larky nature of her
fund-raising efforts that has puzzled some and alienated others.
In November last year, after months of proclaiming her innocence, she
pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge connected to the pipe bomb but
immediately left the courtroom to say she had done so only because her
lawyers had insisted she accept a plea bargain deal that would mean she
spent only five years in jail. The following week a tetchy Judge Fidler
required her to come back and reiterate her guilt. She did so. Then she
changed her mind once more and sought to have her plea struck from the
records asking that she now stand trial after all. The judge refused, saying
he had no doubt about her guilt. On Friday she was sentenced to 20 years, a
term which will become academic if she is convicted of murder.
All of those charged last week have protested their innocence. But the mood
in the United States is an unforgiving one. When Olson was first arrested,
there was some public sympathy for her, an idealistic woman who had become
involved in the SLA after her closest friend had been burned alive in the LA
shoot-out. But 11 September has changed the rules: there is much greater
support for the police and little sympathy for anyone associated with
A new chapter is about to be written in the book which everyone had believed
was closed and in which the SLA will have its final epitaph. Perhaps it has
already been uttered by the fugitive Jim Kilgore. In her book, Hearst quoted
him screaming furiously at the surviving members of the group as all their
plans unravelled: 'What did the SLA ever accomplish? You killed a black man,
kidnapped a little teenage girl and robbed a bank. What the hell did that
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