Sara Jane Olson
|Sara Jane Olson|
January 16, 1947 |
Fargo, North Dakota
|Other names||Kathleen Ann Soliah|
|Movement||Symbionese Liberation Army|
Sara Jane Olson, formerly Kathleen Ann Soliah (born January 16, 1947), was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in the 1970s. She grew up in Palmdale, California, the daughter of Norwegian-American parents, Elsie Soliah (née Engstrom) and Palmdale High School English teacher and coach Martin Soliah. She has lived much of her life under the alias Sara Jane Olson, which is now her legal name. In 2001, she pled guilty to two counts of possessing explosives with intent to murder stemming from her SLA activities in the 1970s. She was mistakenly released for five days in March 2008 due to an error made in calculating her parole before being rearrested. She was finally released on parole on March 17, 2009.
- 1 Symbionese Liberation Army
- 2 Underground life, capture, and prosecution
- 3 Aftermath of prosecution and sentencing
- 4 References
- 5 Further reading
- 6 External links
Symbionese Liberation Army
Kathleen Soliah was born in Fargo, North Dakota while her family were living in Barnesville, Minnesota. When she was eight, her conservative Lutheran family relocated to Southern California. After graduating from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Soliah moved to Berkeley, California with her boyfriend, Jim Kilgore. There, she met Angela Atwood at an acting audition where they both won lead roles. They became inseparable during the play's run. Atwood tried to sponsor Soliah into the SLA. Regardless, Soliah and Jim Kilgore, along with her brother Steve and sister Josephine followed the SLA closely, but did not join.
When Atwood and other core members of the SLA were killed in 1974 during a standoff with police near Watts, California following their murder of the Oakland school superintendent, the Soliahs organized memorial rallies, including a rally in Berkeley's Willard Park (called Ho Chi Minh park by activists) where Soliah spoke in support of her friend Atwood, while being covertly filmed by the FBI. At that rally, Soliah said that her fellow SLA members had been:
viciously attacked and murdered by 500 pigs in L.A. while the whole nation watched. Well, I believe that Gelina [Atwood] and her comrades fought until the last minutes, and though I would like to have her with me here right now, I know that she lived happy and she died happy. And in that sense, I'm so very proud of her. SLA soldiers - I know it is not necessary to say; but keep on fighting. I'm with you and we are with you!
She asserted that Atwood "was a truly revolutionary woman ... among the first white women to fight so righteously for their beliefs and to die for what they believed in."
Now a fugitive, founding SLA member Emily Harris disguised herself and visited Soliah, who was on the job at a bookstore. Soliah later recalled, "I was glad she was alive. I expected them to be killed at any time." She felt sorry for the group and agreed to help the remaining group hide from the police and FBI. She assisted them by procuring supplies for their San Francisco hideout and birth certificates of dead infants that could be used for identification purposes.
Crocker National Bank robbery and Myrna Opsahl murder
On April 21, 1975, SLA members robbed the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California, in the process killing 42-year-old Myrna Opsahl, a mother of four depositing money for her church. Patty Hearst, who admitted to being a getaway driver during the crime, provided the original information that led the police to implicate the SLA in the robbery and murder; she also stated that Soliah was one of the actual robbers. According to Hearst, Soliah also kicked a pregnant teller in the abdomen, leading to a miscarriage.
Several rounds of 9 mm ammunition spilled on the floor and found in Opsahl's body during the robbery bore manufacturing marks that matched that of ammunition loaded in a 9 mm Browning Hi-Power semi-automatic pistol found by police in Soliah’s bedroom dresser drawer at the SLA safehouse on Precita Avenue in San Francisco. In 2002, new forensics technology allowed police to link these shells definitively to those found at Crocker Bank prior to charging the former members of SLA, including Soliah, with the crime. Prosecutor Michael Latin said that Soliah was tied to the crime through fingerprints, a palm print, and handwriting evidence. The palm print was found on a garage door from a garage in which the SLA kept a getaway car.
Los Angeles Police Department bombs
On August 21, 1975, a bomb that came within 1/16 of an inch of detonating was discovered where a Los Angeles Police Department patrol car had been parked in front of an International House of Pancakes restaurant earlier in the day. After the bomb was discovered, all Los Angeles police were ordered to search under their cars, and another bomb was found in front of a police department about a mile away. Soliah was accused of planting the bombs in an attempt to avenge the SLA members who had died a year earlier in the standoff with LA police.
The pipe bombs were rigged to detonate as the patrol cars drove away. One police officer present that day described the first bomb as one of "the most dangerous pipe bombs he had ever seen" and went on to say:
This device was designed to go off when that car was moved, and the only way you move a car is to get in and drive it. This bomb wasn't directed against property. It wasn't directed against the car. You could have thrown a device under the car and lit a fuse and then ran. It was directed at whoever got in the car and moved it, however it would have also taken out anybody in the vicinity.
At Soliah's 2002 sentencing hearing on the bombing, police officer John Hall, who had been in the car on top of the bomb described a little girl who stood feet away with her family:
Your honor, it horrifies me to think that the lives of dozens of innocent people, like that child in the window [would have ended] in an instant had the defendant and her co conspirators successfully carried out their terrorist acts.
Soliah was indicted in 1976 for setting the police bombs along with five other SLA members, but vanished before the trial could commence. When Soliah was eventually brought to trial years later, the evidence against her was not considered by prosecutors to be a "slam dunk," although enough to convince a jury of her guilt. Two witnesses who had originally testified in her grand jury indictment had died by the time she was found and brought to trial: a plumber who had sold materials used in the bomb had picked Soliah out of a lineup as one of the buyers, and a bomb expert had stated the explosive could have been built in Soliah's apartment. Police could not identify any fingerprints on the devices other than those of the officers who had disarmed them; however, Soliah's fingerprint, handwriting and signature were identified on a letter sent to order a fuse that could only be used for bomb-making purposes, and components matching those used in the police car bombs were found in a locked closet at the Precida Avenue hideout that Soliah lived in with the other members of SLA.
Underground life, capture, and prosecution
In February 1976, a grand jury indicted Soliah in the bombing case. Soliah went underground and became a fugitive for 23 years. She had built a life with her husband Gerald Frederick "Fred" Peterson (who was a doctor) and three daughters from Zimbabwe to Saint Paul, Minnesota, having assumed the alias Sara Jane Olson; the surname chosen being one of the most common names in Minnesota due to the large descent Scandinavian-Americans. She was active in Saint Paul on community issues. Her husband described the family as interested in progressive social causes.
On March 3, 1999, and again on May 15, 1999, Soliah was profiled on the America's Most Wanted television program. After a tip generated by the show, she was arrested on June 16, 1999. Soliah was then charged with conspiracy to commit murder, possession of explosives, explosion, and attempt to ignite an explosive with intent to murder.
Shortly after her arrest, Soliah legally changed her name to her alias, Sara Jane Olson. She also published a cookbook entitled Serving Time: America's Most Wanted Recipes. On October 31, 2001, she accepted a plea bargain and pled guilty to two counts of possessing explosives with intent to murder. As part of a plea bargain, the other charges were dropped.
Immediately after entering the plea, however, Olson told reporters that she was innocent and that she had decided to take a plea bargain due to the climate after the September 11 attacks, in which she felt an accused bomber could not receive a fair trial from a jury. "It became clear to me that the incident would have a remarkable effect on the outcome of this trial ... the effect was probably going to be negative," she said. "That's really what governed this decision, not the truth or honesty, but what was probably in my best interests and the interests of my family."
Angered by Olson's announcement that she had lied in court, Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler ordered another hearing on November 6, at which he asked her several times if she was indeed guilty of the charges. Olson replied "I want to make it clear, Your Honor, that I did not make that bomb. I did not possess that bomb. I did not plant that bomb. But under the concept of aiding and abetting, I plead guilty."
On November 13, Olson filed a motion requesting to withdraw her guilty plea and acknowledged that she did not misunderstand the judge when he read the charges against her. Rather, she said:
I realize I cannot plead guilty when I know I am not. ... Cowardice prevented me from doing what I knew I should: Throw caution aside and move forward to trial. ... I am not second-guessing my decision as much as I have found the courage to take what I know is the honest course. Please, Judge Fidler, grant my request to go to trial.
Sentencing in explosives charges
On December 3, 2001, Fidler offered to let Olson testify under oath about her role in the case. She refused. He then wondered "I took those pleas twice ... were you lying to me then or are you lying to me now?"—and denied her request to withdraw her plea. Observers expected her to serve only three to five years, but on January 18, 2002, she was sentenced to two consecutive 10-years-to-life terms. Fidler warned that according to California law, the Board of Prison Terms could later change the sentence to a lesser term; at the time, Olson's lawyers asserted that due to discrepancies between 1970s laws and current California laws, their client would most likely serve only five years, which could turn into two years for good behavior. The Board of Prison Terms did later change the sentence.
At her sentencing hearing, Olson's teenage daughter Leila, her pastor, and her husband spoke in her defense, while Olson's mother claimed on the stand that Olson had never been a part of the SLA and spoke against prosecutors and police she asserted had harassed the family.
Sentencing in Opsahl murder
On January 16, 2002, first-degree murder charges for the killing of Myrna Opsahl were filed against Olson and five other SLA members: Emily Harris, Bill Harris, Michael Bortin (Olson's brother-in law who had married her sister Josephine), and James Kilgore, who remained a fugitive. Judge Fidler arraigned Olson on the murder charges immediately following her sentencing hearing on January 18. Olson pled not guilty to that charge at the time, but on November 7, she changed her mind and pled guilty. She was sentenced on February 14, 2003 for the maximum term allowed under her plea bargain, which was a six-year term concurrent to the 14-year sentence she was already serving.
Aftermath of prosecution and sentencing
Olson served her time at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla. Her custody status was "Close A," which is reserved for inmates requiring the most supervision. This status limited her privileges and required that she be counted seven times a day. It also prevented her from being able to seek a relocation to a facility closer to her home. David Nickerson, Olson's attorney stated that this status reflected the Department of Corrections' view that she was a potential flight risk. Olson herself has never expressed remorse or regret for her actions. 
Olson's husband and three daughters continued to support her during her imprisonment and took turns visiting her frequently in Chowchilla. In an article for the magazine Marie Claire (published by Hearst Corporation), Olson's 23-year-old daughter Emily Peterson dismissed her mother's radical past with the SLA, saying:
Judge reduces sentence
The state Board of Prison Terms had scrapped her original sentence in October 2002 in exchange for a 14-year sentence, saying Olson's crimes had the potential for great violence and targeted multiple victims. In July 2004, a judge said there was "no analysis" of how the state Board of Prison Terms decided 14 years was appropriate and threw out the sentence. Her sentence was converted to five years, four months.
Appeals court panel restores sentence
Release from prison and rearrest
Olson was released from the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla on parole March 17, 2008, and was blocked from boarding her flight to Minnesota at Los Angeles International Airport on March 21. She stayed at her mother's home in Palmdale during the brief time she was out of prison and spent some time hiking with her husband.
She was rearrested when it was decided that she had been mistakenly released a year early from prison due to a miscalculation by the parole board. Her attorney said Olson would fight the action and added that the action was a political move. Olson was taken back into custody by the California Department of Corrections and placed in the California Institution for Women in Corona.
Release and parole
After serving seven years, about half of her sentence, Olson was released from prison on March 17, 2009, and will serve her parole in Minnesota. Police unions in both Minnesota and California have protested the arrangement, stating that they believe her parole should be served in California, where her crimes were committed. In a letter to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota also protested Olson's being allowed to return to Minnesota.
Daughter competes in American Idol
- "A Radical Change?". The Seattle Times. January 10, 2000.
- Free Library.com
- 70's radical-turned-housewife back in prison, CNN, March 22, 2008
- Former 1970s radical freed from Calif. prison, to be paroled home in Minnesota, AP, March 17, 2009
- The Last Revolutionary: Sara Jane Olson Speaks by Greg Goldin, LA Weekly, January 18, 2002
- The Case Against Kathleen Soliah
- Soliah-Olson timeline: Radical, bank robber, mom, inmate
- June 27, 1999: The life and times of Sara Jane Olson
- The Last Revolutionary: Sara Jane Olson Speaks, Page 2 by Greg Goldin, LA Weekly, January 18, 2002
- Sara Jane Olson charged with murder, Frank Stoltze, Minnesota Public Radio, January 17, 2002
- The Last Revolutionary: Sara Jane Olson Speaks, Page 3 by Greg Goldin, LA Weekly, January 18, 2002
- Payback from a long-forgotten account, Dennis Roddy, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, March 10, 2001
- Ex-fugitive Sara Jane Olson sentenced to 20 years to life Minnesota Public Radio, January 18, 2002
- Ex-Fugitive Sara Jane Olson Gets 20 Years to Life for 1975 Bomb Plot Fox News, January 18, 2002
- Altman, Alex (March 18, 2009). "Sara Jane Olson: American Housewife, American Terrorist". Time. Retrieved May 23, 2010.
- Sara Jane Olson's 14-year prison sentence thrown out by Marisa Helms, Minnesota Public Radio, July 13, 2004
- Declamecy, Dree (2001-11-01). "Angry judge orders hearing on Olson plea deal". CNN.com (CNN). Retrieved 2008-09-22.
- Now ex-fugitive Olson wants to stand trial by Larry D. Hatfield, San Francisco Chronicle, November 14, 2001
- A Life on Hold in California Prison Page 2 Los Angeles Times, August 14, 2006
- A Life on Hold in California Prison Page 3 Los Angeles Times, August 14, 2006
- When Mom Has A Secret: An Exclusive Report on a Family Torn Apart By Tara McKelvey Page 8 from Marie Claire June 2007. Accessede June 26, 2007
- When Mom Has A Secret: An Exclusive Report on a Family Torn Apart By Tara McKelvey Page 2 from Marie Claire June 2007. Accessed June 26, 2007
- When Mom Has A Secret: An Exclusive Report on a Family Torn Apart By Tara McKelvey Page 4 from Marie Claire June 2007. Accessed June 26, 2007
- Minnesota Public Radio News by Marisa Helms, July 13, 2004
- Sentence restored for Sara Jane Olson, former SLA member Star Tribune - April 14, 2007
- Rubenstein, Steve (March 22, 2008). "Sara Jane Olson released from prison". The San Francisco Chronicle.
- Coté, John (March 24, 2008). "SLA's Olson will fight return to state prison". The San Francisco Chronicle.
- CNN (2008-03-22). "'70s radical-turned-housewife back in prison". Retrieved 2008-03-22.
- Harlow, Tim (23 March 2008). "March 23: A return to prison, not St. Paul". StarTribune.com (Star Tribune). Retrieved 15 March 2009.
- Thompson, Don (15 March 2009). "California due to release 1970s radical Olson". Associated Press. Retrieved 15 March 2009.
- "Document: letter from MN Gov. Pawlenty to CA Gov. Schwarzenegger". Minneapolis Star Tribune. 17 March 2009.
- "'American Idol' contestant's link to LAPD attacks brings no protest from police union". Los Angeles Times. 24 Feb 2011.
- Hendry, Sharon Darby, Soliah: The Sara Jane Olson Story, Cable Publishing, 2002 ISBN 1-893088-35-9
- Chronology of the SLA from CourtTV News (only goes up to 2002)
- Profile of Sara Jane Olson
- Full Court TV coverage of the Kathleen Soliah bombing case
- Myrna Opsahl, woman murdered by SLA at Crocker Bank