- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

CHOWCHILLA, CALIF. (AP) - A former 1970s radical associated with the group that kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst finished her California prison sentence Tuesday, ending a legal drama that harkened back to a violent era of social unrest.

Sara Jane Olson, 62, was freed from the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla shortly after midnight and was allowed to serve her yearlong parole in Minnesota, the state she adopted during her 24 years as a fugitive.

Olson served seven years _ half her sentence _ after pleading guilty to helping place pipe bombs under Los Angeles Police Department patrol cars and participating in the deadly 1975 robbery of a bank in a Sacramento suburb.

The crimes took place while she was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a relatively short-lived but violent group that sought to overthrow the government while engaging in killings, robberies and gun battles with police.

Among the group’s victims was 42-year-old Myrna Opsahl, a mother of four who was gunned down during the bank robbery.

“I’m just glad that the former SLA members were finally held accountable for the murder of my mom,” Jon Opsahl, who is now living in Southern California, said Tuesday after hearing of Olson’s release.

“It does finish out this chapter, and I hope it’s the last chapter,” he said. “I’m glad she’s leaving the state.”

Olson was released by mistake a year ago after California corrections officials miscalculated her parole date; she was re-arrested after spending five days with her family. Authorities now say she has served the proper seven-year sentence; she had been sentenced to 14 years but got time off for good behavior and prison work.

“She was definitely relieved that it all went smoothly,” said David Nickerson, one of Olson’s attorneys.

It wasn’t immediately clear when Olson, who was known as Kathleen Soliah while a member of the SLA, would head back to St. Paul, Minn., where she lived during her years as a fugitive. She and her husband, Dr. Gerald “Fred” Peterson, were trying to make travel arrangements. A bouquet of flowers was left at the couple’s home Tuesday morning, but no one was there to receive it.

Not everyone in Minnesota will be happy to see Olson return.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and police protective leagues in Los Angeles and St. Paul wrote Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, urging him to have Olson serve her parole in the state where she committed her crimes. Some Minnesota lawmakers also called for Olson to remain in California.

“I think today is a slap in the face of California law enforcement and (other) law enforcement,” Los Angeles Police Protective League President Paul Weber said in an interview.

Schwarzenegger said he deferred the decision to the corrections department. Department spokeswoman Terry Thornton said parole decisions are intended to give former prisoners the best chance of reintegrating into society and avoiding re-arrest.

“Being with their family increases the chances that they will succeed on parole,” she said.

More than 1,000 California parolees are being supervised in other states. They typically have a week to report to the state in which they will serve their parole.

Several hours after her release from the prison, which sits among orchards and vineyards about 150 miles southeast of San Francisco, Olson and her husband returned to a Madera County parole office to finish paperwork.

Neither her lawyers nor corrections officials would say where they went afterward, other than to say they were making arrangements to leave the state.

Olson’s mother and younger sister declined to speak to reporters when they returned Tuesday afternoon to the family home in Palmdale, a working-class suburb in the high desert north of Los Angeles.

The sister, Martha Conaway, spoke later with The Associated Press. She said her sister disappeared from her life when she was in the seventh grade. While they did not know each other well, Conaway expressed relief that her sister was out of prison.

“We are just glad it’s over,” said Conaway, who alternately referred to her sister as Kathy and Sara.

The Symbionese Liberation Army was a band of mostly white, middle-class young people. In addition to the 1974 Hearst kidnapping, it claimed responsibility for assassinating Oakland Schools Superintendent Marcus Foster and was involved in a shootout with Los Angeles police officers that killed five SLA members.

In a sign of those turbulent times, the group adopted a seven-headed snake as its symbol and the slogan, “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people.”

“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,” Olson wrote in an apology before her sentencing for the bank robbery. “In the end, we stole someone’s life.”

In Minnesota, Olson developed an identity that was worlds apart from her California past. She volunteered in social causes and acted in community theater while raising the couple’s daughters. The Olson home was a frequent site of dinner parties.

Her past resurfaced in 1999, when she was arrested while driving a minivan after she was profiled on the television show “America’s Most Wanted.”

All former SLA members but one have been released from prison.

Emily Montague-Harris was paroled in February 2007 after serving half her eight-year sentence. She says she accidentally fired the shotgun that killed Myrna Opsahl.

Montague-Harris’ former husband, William Harris, was paroled in September 2006 after serving half his seven-year sentence for acting as a lookout during the robbery. The couple previously spent eight years in prison for kidnapping Hearst, who was 19 at the time.

Hearst herself spent nearly two years in prison after a 1976 conviction for robbing the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco with the SLA, during which a security camera photographed her carrying a semiautomatic carbine. A granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, she had her sentence commuted by President Jimmy Carter and was pardoned by President Clinton in 2001.

Michael Bortin, sentenced in 2003 to six years in prison for his role in Opsahl’s murder, was paroled in February 2006.

Only James Kilgore remains in prison. He eluded capture in South Africa until his arrest in November 2002 and was sentenced in May 2004. He is scheduled for release in May.

Olson’s brother, Steven Soliah, was acquitted in 1976 of charges alleging involvement in the fatal bank robbery. He declined to be interviewed when a reporter showed up at his Berkeley home Monday night.

The terms of Olson’s parole specify that she cannot associate with former SLA members or co-defendants, including her brother.


Associated Press writers Thomas Watkins in Palmdale and John Mone in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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