St. Paul resident Sara Jane Olson and four other former members of the Symbionese Liberation Army were charged with murder Wednesday. The charges stem from a 1975 bank robbery in northern California, in which a 42-year-old woman was shot and killed. They follow Olson's guilty plea last month to charges she helped plant bombs under two Los Angeles police cars in 1975.
For more than 25 years, prosecutors suspected the bank robbery and murder were the work of the small but radical SLA, best known for the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. In fact, it was Hearst who first told them members of the SLA were involved, including Sara Jane Olson.
But prosecutors always said they didn't have the evidence. Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully said now they do.
"Based upon a review of both old and new materials, I believe that there is now both direct and circumstantial evidence sufficient to file charges and begin criminal proceedings for the murder of Myrna Opsahl," Scully said.
Opsahl was killed when she went to the Crocker Bank in a suburb of Sacramento to deposit money from her church.
Prosecutors offered few details on why they decided to press charges now, saying only that last year's case against Olson uncovered new evidence, and that new forensic techniques helped them link the shotgun pellets that killed Opsahl to shells in an SLA hideout.
Olson, who celebrated her 55th birthday Wednesday, surrendered to authorities at her attorney's Los Angeles office.
In addition, authorities arrested Emily Harris, 54, of Los Angeles, her ex-husband Bill Harris, 56, of Oakland - both of whom have already served eight years for the kidnapping of Hearst. Michael Bortin, 53, of Portland was also arrested. Olson and the three others have denied involvement. Prosecutors also charged James Kilgore, 54, but he remains a fugitive.
Hearst, in her book on her life with the SLA, admitted to driving one of the getaway cars on the day of the robbery, but was granted immunity for cooperating with prosecutors. She is expected to be a star witness in the case.
The family of Myrna Opsahl welcomed the charges. Jon Opsahl was 15 at the time of his mother's death.
"Emily Harris was quoted in Hearst's book as saying that her death doesn't matter anyway. She was a bourgeois pig. Those words have always kind of haunted us," he said.
But Opsahl also criticized law enforcement, saying there was enough evidence to file charges long ago. He set up a website several years ago as part of a campaign to pressure prosecutors.
"All I can really say is that our family has waited for 26 years for this day. To the District Attorney Jan Scully and Sheriff Lou Blanas, there's one other thing to say and that is - its about time," Opsahl said.
If convicted, each defendant faces the penalty for murder at the time of the crime - life in prison.
Olson, meantime, is expected to be sentenced in the bombing conspiracy case Friday, before being flown to Sacramento to face charges in the murder case.