- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 15, 2003

SACRAMENTO, Calif. Four graying former members of the Symbionese Liberation Army the '70s radical group that kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to eight years yesterday for a murderous 1975 bank robbery.
The sentences were largely spelled out in a plea bargain reached by the former radicals in November.
Before they were sentenced, three of the four apologized to the family of Myrna Opsahl, a bank customer who was killed by a shotgun blast during the holdup in suburban Sacramento 27 years ago while depositing her church collection.
"I will be sorry for the rest of my life," said Emily Montague, 55, who was formerly known as Emily Harris. It was her gun that fired the deadly blast. She has said it went off accidentally.
Montague's ex-husband, William Harris, 58, addressed Mrs. Opsahl's son, saying: "I've thought about your mother a lot. Your mother was never an abstraction to me. It's absolutely unacceptable that this happened."
Montague was sentenced to eight years in prison, Harris to seven years, and Michael Bortin, 54, and Sarah Jane Olson, 55, to six years each. Olson who was known as Kathleen Soliah during her SLA days was the only one who did not address the court, but she apologized in a letter included in her probation report.
"If we had foreseen her killing, we would never have robbed the bank," she wrote. "We were young and foolish. We felt we were committing an idealized, ideological action to obtain government-insured money and that we were not stealing from ordinary people. … In the end, we stole someone's life."
All four had pleaded guilty to murder.
Superior Court Judge Thomas Cecil acknowledged that the Board of Prison Terms could still extend the sentences agreed to by all sides, but he discouraged such an action, saying he and everyone involved had carefully considered the long history of the case in making their recommendations.
"We recognize the seriousness of the crimes that occurred in 1975," he said. But he said the prospects of the defendants are clear. "We need not guess whether these defendants will function in society. We have seen it."
He referred to their upstanding lives since the crime and said, "In my view and in the view of the district attorney, none of these defendants poses a danger to society."
A fifth defendant, James Kilgore, 55, is also charged in the case. After decades underground, he was captured last year in South Africa, where he had assumed a new identity and was working as a professor.
Mrs. Opsahl's son, Dr. Jon Opsahl, read a statement in which he told of the anguish his family has endured and how he had come to believe in "monsters" after his mother was killed. He said that "a group of pathetic, deranged revolutionaries decided to make my mother instantly expendable."
But he said he agreed to the plea bargain and felt that it was more devastating to the defendants now than it would have been had they been captured, tried and sentenced in the '70s.
"Back then, they were angry and foolish with nothing to lose," he said. "Back then, some might have thought they were martyrs. … Now they are more tolerant, a bit wiser and with so much more to lose. Maybe now the defendants will come to terms with what they did."
Among the most gripping statements to the court during the sentencing was that of a bank teller who was there during the robbery.
"I was among the 25 people in the bank. There is not a day that goes by that we do not relive that tragedy," Rachel Harp said. "We were threatened with guns held to our heads. We were kicked and left on the ground as if we did not matter."
She wept as she went on: "I was only 22 years old, and it changed me. Life's journeys change us, but this one was not for the better. We were all victims."
It was Olson's capture in 1999 after 25 years as a fugitive that began the chain of events leading to the plea agreements. She had assumed a new name and built an ordinary life as a married mother of three children in St. Paul, Minn.
In 2001, she pleaded guilty to trying to blow up two Los Angeles police cars during the '70s and was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Harris' wife and two sons were in the courtroom, along with Olson's physician husband and two grown daughters.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide