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Ex-fugitive Sara Jane Olson sentenced to 20 years to life
By Frank Stoltze
KPCC Radio
January 18, 2002
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Sara Jane Olson
The bank robber in a ski mask pressed a shotgun to Myrna Opsahl's side and killed her with a single blast, the result of a holdup by a 1970s group known for its revolutionary rhetoric.

According to a later account, the alleged killer claimed the shooting was an accident but that it didn't matter because the victim "was a bourgeois pig anyway." More...

Olson entered the courtroom smiling and waving to family and friends in the audience. But it wasn’t long before the 55-year-old mother of three was confronted with her two lives: the one with the SLA and the one in Minnesota.

Among those who stood up to speak on her behalf was her pastor, John Darlington of the Minnehaha United Methodist Church, who said Olson was always there when the community needed her, "feeding the hungry, helping to house the homeless, reading to the blind, helping people learn English as their second language. She loved children and she wanted to make a difference in their lives," he said.

Olson continued to smile, listening intently as two other members of her St. Paul community spoke. Then, her teen-age daughter, Leila, came to the lectern to address the judge.

Leila talked about how her mother used to drive her to tap-dancing classes and soccer practices and, how when Olson was arrested, she had to take over some of the cooking for the family.

It became too much for Leila as she described the days following Olson's arrest in the summer of 1999.

"Sometimes I would cry when I was alone from that day to today. I don't want to lose my mom, the one I love most in the world," she said as she burst into tears.

"I'll be always at your side no matter what," she told Olson, then fell into her mother's arms as sobs wracked her body.

It was too much for Olson, who began to cry too, and continued crying as her own mother maintained Olson was never in the SLA and lashed out at prosecutors and police for harassing the family.

Her husband spoke too, describing a happy marriage and a family that emphasized progressive social values.

Then it was time for the story of the other Sara Jane Olson.

Minneapolis Defense Attorney Joe Friedberg has been following the case closely. He says the dramatic witness testimony at Olson's sentencing had no bearing on Olson's sentence. He talked with All Things Considered host Greta Cunningham. Listen.


Prosecutors presented two of the police officers who likely would have been killed had the bombs Olson helped plant gone off in 1975.

Officer John Hall, who is still with the LAPD, recalled how his police car was parked outside an International House of Pancakes Restaurant and how a little girl was with her family just a few feet away.

"The little girl was seated in front of a large window smiling and waving energetically back at us. Your honor, it horrifies me to think that the lives of dozens of innocent people, like that child in the window in an instant had the defendant and her co conspirators successfully carried out their terrorist acts," he said.

Olson said that her involvement with the SLA was really just her coming to the aide of friends of her friend Angela Atwood, who was an SLA member killed in the famous shootout in Los Angeles.

She also apologized. "I still maintain that I did not participate in these events in Los Angeles, but if I did anything that brought harm to other people, I am truly sorry because I did not mean to," she said.

Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler sentenced Olson to two consecutive terms of 10 years to life, but said state law will allow the Board of Prison Terms to recalculate the term after she is in prison.

"She could have it fixed as little as five years," Fidler said.

A few moments after the sentencing, Olson pleaded innocent to murder and robbery charges in a deadly 1975 bank holdup that prosecutors also blame on members of the radical group.

Bail was set at $1 million, but the move was symbolic because Olson is headed for prison.

Olson, 55, was a fugitive for more than 20 years until her arrest two years ago in Minnesota. She had changed her name from Kathleen Soliah and was living the life of a community activist with a doctor husband and three daughters.

The SLA began in the fall of 1973 when a handful of white, college-educated children of middle-class families adopted a seven-headed snake as their symbol, a black ex-convict as their leader and the phrase, "Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people" as their slogan.

The group derived its name from "symbiosis," a biological term referring to unlike organisms coexisting harmoniously for mutual benefit.

The SLA claimed responsibility for the murder of Oakland Schools Superintendent Marcus Foster, because he supposedly favored a police plan for students to carry identification.

But the group is best known for the 1974 kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst, who later joined the group in robbing banks and could become a key figure in the latest case against Olson.

Prosecutors this week charged Olson and four other former SLA members with killing bystander Myrna Opsahl during a 1975 robbery of a bank in Carmichael, a suburb of Sacramento.

Two of the defendants, former couple Bill and Emily Harris, made a brief appearance in a Sacramento courtroom Friday and are expected to plead innocent Feb. 1. A few hours earlier, defendant Michael Bortin told a judge in Portland, Ore., that he plans to fight extradition to California.

The long-dormant robbery case gathered legal momentum after Olson's arrest. Prosecutors say they have new information, and the FBI has linked shotgun pellets found in Opsahl's body to ammunition from an SLA house.

Court files also say Olson's palm print matches prints on the door of a Sacramento garage where the group stored a getaway car.

Olson's bombing conspiracy case had seesawed since Oct. 31, when she stunned the public by pleading guilty to possessing bombs with intent to murder police officers.

Her plea was immediately thrown into question when she told reporters she was really innocent and had pleaded guilty because the Sept. 11 attacks had created a climate in which anyone accused of domestic terrorism could not be acquitted.

She was ordered back into court, where she eventually lost a battle to withdraw her plea and go to trial.

There was one, small victory for Olson. The Ramsey County Attorney says Sara Jane Olson did not violate election law by voting under an assumed name. Susan Gaertner says Olson legally certified her new name when she married in 1980.

Gaertner says any challenge to the name change would have to be made in Hennepin County, where Olson married. Gaertner says she received two complaints about Olson, who registered to vote in St. Paul in 1990.