Sarah Jane Olson free again, looks to return to Minnesota

4:38 PM, Mar 23, 2008   |    comments
  • Share
  • Print
  • - A A A +

Important Update
A day after this story first appeared California Corrections officials detained Olson at LAX Airport and would not allow her to leave the state. They're now saying a miscalculation led them to release Olson from prison one year too early by mistake. Original Report Friday March 21
One day in 1999 time caught up with Sarah Jane Olson. Now she's done her time and will try to catch up with her life. The 61-year-old inmate walked out of the Central Women's Facility in Chowchilla, California on Thursday and headed for her mother's home in Palmdale. She finished only six years of a 14-year prison term for two high-file crimes from the 1970's, including one that claimed the life of a Sacramento area woman. "She's paid her debt to society and I'm glad she's out of prison and back in the world," her friend Peter Moore told KARE 11 Friday. Moore, an actor and director, has known Olson since he cast her in a play a dozen years ago in Saint Paul. "And she was terrific," Moore recalled, "She did a great job, and so I was as surprised as anyone when I heard that she had this past. It was a shock." Olson's arrest in her Saint Paul neighborhood nine years ago created a national sensation, and ended 24 years of living a secret life on the run. The outgoing mother of three and doctor's wife was actually Kathleen Soliah, a member of the 1970's domestic terrorist group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army. The SLA rose to national prominence in 1974 when they kidnapped publishing heiress Patty Hearst in San Francisco and turned her into a bank robber and strident advocate of the organization's brand of radical populism. In her memoir "Every Secret Thing" Hearst pointed the finger at Olson, saying she drove the getaway car in 1975 when three other SLA members robbed the Crocker State Bank in Carmichael, California. The hold-up ended with bank customer Myrna Opsahl, a 42-year-old mother of four, being shot to death. In an interview with the Sacramento Bee newspaper Friday, Opsahl's son Jon said he felt let down by Olson's early release. "She's out of prison too soon by far," he told the Sacramento Bee. "It's another in a series of slaps in the face of the victims by the justice system." Olson will be on parole for three years, but a judge Friday granted her permission to serve that parole time in Minnesota. "I think this community will be glad to see her again," Peter Moore told KARE, "The woman I know, is not violent and is not dangerous. And she made some mistakes as a young person, and now she's paid for them." Decades on the run
The same year as the bank robbery, in 1975, Olson went into hiding when Los Angeles authorities issued a warrant for her arrest on charges of rigging two Los Angeles police squad cars with large pipe bombs. The devices, designed to be triggered by motion, never detonated. A passerby discovered one of the bombs under a patrol car outside a pancake house. That prompted a search of other squad cars, enabling officers to detect the second pipe bomb before it exploded. The SLA's attempt to blow up officers was thought to be in retaliation for the loss of six SLA members, who died in May 1974 during a fiery shootout in LA police officers raiding one of the group's safe houses. Among those killed was Olson's close friend, and Minneapolis native, Camilla Hall. A couple weeks later Olson led a rally in a park in Berkeley to eulogize her fallen colleagues. In a film clip that has been aired countless times since her arrest she can be heard telling the crowd that her friends, "were visciously attacked and murdered by 500 pigs in LA while the whole nation watched." The fatal bank robbery in Carmichael took place the following year, in April of 1975. And then, in September of that year, police captured Patty Hearst in an apartment in San Francisco. They caught SLA members Bill and Emily Harris at the same time, but there was no sign of Olson. She had assumed the new identity of Sarah Jane Olson by the time she moved to Minnesota, where she married physician Fred Peterson in 1980. They raised three daughters, and were living in Saint Paul's Highland Park neighborhood at the time investigators found their fugitive. Reluctant Guilty Pleas
At the time of her arrest in 1999 Olson's friends, family and fellow church members gathered behind her emotionally and financially. The Sarah Jane Olson Defense Fund collected $1 million needed to meet her bail and spring her from the Los Angeles County Jail. In December of 2001 she pled guilty to a charge of attempted murder in connection with the police car bombings, but immediately denied wrongdoing to the TV cameras waiting outside the courtroom. "I pleaded to something of which I am not guilty," Olson told reporters. "I'm still the same person I was then, I believe in democracy for all people, and all the things that that entails." The comments angered Judge Larry Fidler, who ordered her to appear in court again two days later and asked her if guilty plea was genuine. "You can't have it both ways," he told Olson, "She can not have it both ways and she will not have it both ways." He also took Olson's attorneys to task for saying they had originally planned to let a jury decide her fate, but that the September 11th terror attacks would made it impossible for an accused urban terrorist to get a fair trial. Reality Sets In
Olson did not retract her guilty plea, but maintained she did not have a direct role in procuring materials or attaching the devices to the vehicles. "I want to make it clear your honor that I did not make that bomb. I did not possess that bomb, and I did not plant that bomb," Olson told Fidler in a televised court appearance, "But under the concept of aiding and abetting I plead guilty." By January of 2002, when Judge Fidler sentenced Olson to 14 years in prison for the car bombs, Sacramento prosecutors had already charged her and four other SLA members with murder in the bank robbery case. In December of that year Olson pleaded guilty to second degree murder for her role in the killing of Myrna Opsahl, and in 2003 she was sentenced to six years for that crime. He co-defendents Michael Bortin, William Harris and his ex-wife Emily Harris Montague also reached a deal. Montague admitted to shooting Opsahl accidentally with a shotgun during the bank robbery. A fifth SLA suspect in the bank case, James Kilgore was captured in 2002 and pled guilty in 2004. Sarah Jane Olson's brother, and fellow SLA member, Steven Soliah was tried in federal court in 1976 for the same bank robbery and acquitted on all charges.

By John Croman, KARE 11 News

(Copyright KARE TV 2008. All rights reserved.)

Most Watched Videos