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The Case Against Kathleen Soliah
By Mark Zdechlik
August 3, 1999
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In less than a month, Kathleen Soliah - known as Sara Jane Olson in the Twin Cities - is due back in a Los Angeles County courtroom for a pre-trial hearing on charges she conspired to kill Los Angeles police officers.

Freed on $1 million bail, Soliah is waiting under electronic surveillance at home in St. Paul for her trial to begin. A Los Angeles County grand jury indicted Soliah in 1975 for allegedly conspiring to commit murder by placing pipe bombs under L.A. police cars.

ALMOST 24 YEARS AGO to the day, diners and employees at this International House of Pancakes in Hollywood and two Los Angeles police officers got lucky.

Outside the restaurant, early in the morning on August 22, 1975 someone noticed an unusual looking black bag in the parking lot.
Bagget: A civilian on the scene at I-HOP did find the device. A civilian almost kicked the device. He had started to kick it, but the wind from the car's cooling fan had blown the bag open and just as he was about to kick it, he realized there was a big piece of galvanized pipe in it.
Twenty five years ago Larry Bagget was a member of the LAPD bomb squad.
Bagget: I had just gotten home when I got the call, as was the habit headquarters called the last person to leave, and said units had found a pipe bomb at the International House of Pancakes at Sunset and Orange.
What Bagget found was one the most dangerous pipe bombs he had ever seen.Police believe the device was placed on the pavement beneath an LAPD squad car parked at the restaurant; that a triggering device had been attached to the underside of the car, and that when the squad car pulled away, the trigger fired, but the contacts - which would have detonated the bomb - missed by a 16th of an inch.
Bagget: Basically, the device was 14,15,16 inches long. It was big; diameter was about four inches overall. Large galvanized pipe capped on both ends. When we got the thing totally taken apart, it was filled with an explosive, and a lot of it. It was also filled with hardened nails.
At the time, bombings were all too common around the Los Angeles area. Bagget says the bomb squad responded to calls almost daily in the early 1970s.
Bagget: We had the federal building, the state building, the Los Angeles City Hall. We had two or three radio stations. We had a whole bunch of bombings and you could recognize signatures of some of the militants.
But the alleged SLA pipe bombs stood out. Even almost 25 years later, Bagget clearly remembers, unlike other bombs he had come across, the SLA devices were meticulously put together; every item exact in placement. On the outside of the pipe, wires connected to a large battery, carefully bent at 90 degree angles at every turn. The wires were neatly taped to the cylinder. Bagget says it was almost as though the bomb had been put together from a detailed diagram.
Bagget: It was very well built. It was extremely well built. They didn't have to be that precise, but it's like the difference between washing your truck and waxing and polishing it. It was just well done. The hardened nail; a very good idea. Although that device itself was plenty sufficient in and of itself to kill the occupants of a police car.
As Bagget disarmed the bomb, the two police officers who had earlier parked in front of one of the restaurant's plate-glass windows were now down the street on a call. They heard about the bomb over their radio. They checked their car and found beneath the driver's side - still attached - part of the triggering mechanism.
Bagget: 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.
As soon as police determined what they were dealing with, an emergency department-wide warning went out: all police vehicles were to be checked for bombs and not to be driven until cleared from any threat. The second pipe bomb was soon discovered about 10 miles from the restaurant. It was on the pavement beneath an unmarked police car outside an LAPD precinct. It was a virtual twin of the first bomb and it, too, was safely disarmed. That there were no explosions, Bagget says, was miraculous.
Bagget: If you believe in a higher power, you had Divine Intervention. If you don't, you had absolute blind luck.
A little more than a year before the pipe bombs were discovered, six suspected Symbionese Liberation Army members died in a stand-off with police at a home in south-central Los Angeles. Police had traced SLA members to the house through a license-plate number a day after a foiled robbery attempt. Prosecutors allege the pipe bombs were planted in retaliation for the deaths.
King: I wasn't surprised when the bombs were found. In my mind, it was "hey, it looks like it's pay-back time."
Retired LAPD Captain Mervin King commanded police during the deadly shoot-out with the SLA. He was also on the scene a year and three months later when the first pipe bomb was found in Hollywood.

In the months following the shoot-out, King says SLA sympathizers rallied against the Los Angeles Police Department, accusing police of setting the house on fire and trapping those who died inside.
King: The SLA was definitely a hatred for the police. Their target was what they called to "off the pigs." There's no doubt in my mind at the time that we were getting payback.
In early 1976, six months after the bombs were found, a Los Angeles County grand jury indicted Kathleen Soliah on five counts for allegedly conspiring with several SLA members to blow up the police cars. But there was not trial. Soliah had vanished; only to resurface to the law in June.

An "America's Most Wanted" feature led to the arrest of a St. Paul wife and mother of three, known in Minnesota as Sara Jane Olson.

Retired LAPD captain Mervin King won't discuss any specifics of the evidence he says links Soliah to the attempted bombings. He does say when he left the police force the year Soliah was indicted, he was convinced authorities had a strong case against her.

Soliah's legal team disagrees. San Francisco Attorney Stuart Hanlon last month, moments after Soliah was released on $1 million bail pending her trial.
Hanlon: There is no evidence here at all; no physical evidence whatsoever. No one saw her here. There's no evidence.
Los Angeles County district attorney's office prosecutors are not talking with reporters about their case again Soliah. They have, however, acknowledged in court, they hardly have a "slam dunk." Still, they say they have enough to present to a jury for a decision.

Two key witnesses who testified before the grand jury that indicted Soliah in 1976 are dead. One was a plumbing company employee who picked Soliah from a photo line-up as being the woman who accompanied a man who bought supplies linked to the bombs. The other, a bomb expert killed three years ago, testified he thought the pipe bombs could have been made in a San Francisco apartment where Soliah's finger prints were found.

According to the grand jury transcript, the only finger prints investigators were able to identify on the bombs were those of police who disarmed the devices.

University of Southern California Law Professor Martin Levine says allegations aside, it appears the government will have a very difficult time proving Soliah had anything to do with the bombings.
Levine: As this case has been described, she seems sort of to have been a fellow traveler to a violent group. It's not totally different from the days when Communists were prosecuted criminally and it was just not enough to show someone was a fellow traveler or even a member of a particular group. You had to show that the particular person did criminal acts with a particular state of mind.
Soliah faces charges only in relation to the Los Angeles pipe bombs. However, following her arrest the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department reopened a 1975 bank robbery-murder case some believe Soliah was involved in. Despite the initial investigation of that crime and two subsequent grand jury hearings, no one was ever charged with the killing. Two detectives are now working fulltime on the case.

Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped by and later became an SLA sympathizer, has said Soliah took part in the robbery-killing. Law enforcement officials in Sacramento County say they're exchanging evidence with their counterparts in Los Angeles. They are reportedly talking about whether Soliah might be offered some sort of plea bargain, in exchange for information about the bank robbery.