---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sat, 09 Nov 2002 19:10:04 -0800
From: radtimes <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Sara Jane Olson pleads guilty to murder
Sara Jane Olson pleads guilty to murder
by Bob von Sternberg
Nov. 8, 2002
Sara Jane Olson, the 1970s pipe bomber who became a St. Paul homemaker
in the '80s and '90s, closed the final legal page on her re volutionary past
Thursday when she pleaded guilty to a 1975 murder that occurred during a
Olson and three other members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA)
agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder to avoid the life sentences
they would have faced if convicted of first-degree murder.
Olson, 55, agreed to a six-year prison sentence on the reduced charge. She
would begin serving that time after she completes a 14-year sentence for her
role in helping members of the SLA, a radical fringe group, plant pipe bombs
beneath two police cruisers in 1975. She is eligible for parole from that
sentence in seven to nine years.
"I never entered that bank with the intent of harming anyone," Olson testified
during a hearing Thursday in Superior Court in Sacramento, Calif. "I am truly
sorry, and I will be sorry until the day I die."
Olson, brought to court from the Central California Women's Facility in
Chowchilla, appeared in orange and yellow prison garb, her wrists and ankles
Olson's husband, Gerald Peterson declined to comment, referring questions to
his wife's attorneys and blasting the news media's coverage of her case.
"When someone becomes a public figure by way of arrest, journalistic ethics
seem to go by the wayside," he said.
In the murder case, Olson and her co-defendantsWilliam Harris, Emily
Montague and Michael Bortinwere charged in the death of Myrna Opsahl,
a 42-year-old homemaker who was killed by a shotgun blast as she
deposited her church's collection plate money on April 21, 1975, at the
Crocker National Bank branch in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael.
Under terms of a plea agreement reached after days of negotiations,
Montague could spend eight years behind bars and her former husband, SLA
warlord William Harris, faces a seven-year sentence. Olson and Michael
Bortin are to serve six years in prison. A sentencing hearing is set for
Prosecutor Robert Gold said the Opsahl family agreed to the plea bargains on
the condition that each defendant publicly admit responsibility for Opsahl's
Montague admitted in court Thursday that she pulled the trigger but told a
hushed courtroom that the shotgun discharged accidentally.
"I was horrified at the time. There has not been a day in the last 27 years
I have not thought of Mrs. Opsahl and the tragedy I brought on her family,"
William Harris, his hair and beard now gray, said he acted as a lookout during
the robbery, from a position across the street from the bank. "There's
absolutely nothing I can say that can repair the Opsahl family, and I say that
from the bottom of my heart."
Bortin, a Portland flooring contractor, spoke from a statement handwritten on
a piece of notebook paper. He said he walked into the bank, "announced the
robbery" and "waved my handgun a little bit."
Speaking of Opsahl's death, Bortin said he was "devastated and very
ashamed . . . I know it doesn't mean much to say I'm sorry to the family .
. . I
just can't imagine how horrible it must be."
Olson will be allowed to withdraw her guilty plea if the California Board of
Prison Terms disagrees with the plea bargain. The board last month increased
Olson's sentence in the pipe-bombing case, saying that she harbors the
potential for violence and cited the harm that would have come to multiple
intended victims had the pipe bombs gone off.
A fifth SLA member charged in the murder, James Kilgore, has been a
fugitive since 1976. Michael Mason, FBI special agent in charge of the
Sacramento office, said "we will not rest until he, too, is brought before the
bar of justice." (Update: An Associated Press story on Friday, Nov. 8,
reports Kilgore's arrest overseas. See accompanying story.)
All five belonged to the revolutionary group that gained its greatest
when it kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst. Had the cases gone to
trial, Hearst would have been expected to be the government's chief witness.
The guilty pleas essentially mirrored Hearst's published account of a bank
robbery that deteriorated into an unintentional shooting.
Jan Scully, Sacramento district attorney, said prosecutors agreed to the deal
only after concluding that "substantial legal and evidentiary hurdles"
if they went to trial. The 27-year-old case, she admitted, had grown musty
with age, faded memories and the deaths of some witnesses.
"There comes a time when a wrong, albeit an old one, has to be addressed,"
said Scully, adding that the agreement was "a very difficult decision for me."
Aside from admitting guilt, the four SLA members agreed to financial
restitution to Opsahl's family. If they in any way profit from the case,
writing a book, the money would be donated to a scholarship fund for nurses,
Bortin said Thursday that the SLA's acts wreaked "horrible damage" on
people who peacefully protested the Vietnam War and social injustices during
The pipe-bombing case had faded into obscurity by 1999, when Olson was
arrested as the result of a tip that came to the FBI after "America's Most
Wanted" broadcast an account of the case.
Olson, who had gone underground shortly after the bungled bombing and
shed her birth name of Kathleen Soliah, had been hiding in plain sight with a
new name, a husband and three daughters.
Her case moved into a Los Angeles courtroom 13 months ago, when she
pleaded guilty to two of the five charges against her. Then, she promptly
declared her innocence to the news media. Next, she restated her guilt and
finally tried, unsuccessfully, to withdraw her guilty plea.
The Opsahl murder case also languished for years, garnering scant public
attention. Detectives were stymied by a lack of evidence, while her son, Jon,
clamored tirelessly for his mother's killers to be brought to justice.
Opsahl, who learned of the plea agreement late Wednesday afternoon, said
he was stunned that the case had come to such a sudden conclusion. Though
he had hoped for a stiffer sentence, he said he accepted the penalties that
four now face.
"There is no such thing as perfect justice," he added. "There's nothing we can
do that will bring my mother back to life."
Gold, the prosecutor, cited several reasons for accepting the guilty pleas,
including what he called "evidentiary difficulties" that existed even when the
case was fresh. He also said that despite their violent acts a quarter-century
ago, "each defendant has led an otherwise law-abiding life" for more than two
decades and is no longer a danger to society.
Jon Opsahl sat in the front row of the courtroom with his father Thursday.
Before the hearing, he said only, "I want to see it before I believe it."
Afterward, he said: "I am happy about all of this. I'm glad this whole
over and that truth and justice prevailed in the end. That is what this
case is all
Staff writer Curt Brown and the Los Angeles Times and the Associated
Press contributed to this report.
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