Back in 1975, they were revolutionaries--Teko and Yolanda--the gun-toting, rhetoric-spewing leaders of the notorious Symbionese Liberation Army.
These college sweethearts out of Indiana helped kidnap heiress Patty Hearst, saw six of their comrades incinerated in an armed standoff with Los Angeles police, and led the FBI on one of the biggest, most publicized manhunts in U.S. history.
Today, settled and gone gray, the former firebrands, Bill and Emily Harris, have become downright upright.
“They’re middle-class people,” said Michael Bortin, a former SLA associate who has known the pair for 25 years. “People drift toward what they’re meant to be.”
The SLA was a strange and violent vestige of the 1960s’ counter-culture. From the Hearst kidnapping in February 1974, until their capture in September 1975, this ragtag band of radicals dominated the headlines, especially in California. It was a time of cynicism, disillusionment and fear, of Watergate and tensions between two generations.
Afterward, the SLA’s class of 1975 went to prison, fled, or simply faded from the limelight.
Ultimately, the foot soldiers of the SLA went back to what they knew--the lifestyle they once condemned as bourgeois.
“We gravitated back to where we began, which was middle class,” said attorney Stuart Hanlon, a former 1960s activist who has represented several radical figures, including the former Teko and Yolanda.
Hanlon’s latest client is Sara Jane Olson, whose bomb conspiracy trial, set to begin Feb. 7 in Los Angeles Superior Court, has again put the SLA in the news. Olson, then known as Kathleen Soliah, was arrested in June after 23 years as a fugitive. Prosecutors say she was a member of the SLA; she denies it.
In a series of interviews, key SLA alumni, some for the first time in decades, shared their thoughts about their controversial pasts, their present middle-class trappings and the upcoming trial.
The story that emerged from the Harrises, Bortin and his wife, Josephine Soliah, the defendant’s sister, and radical writer Jack Scott is one of how a group of alienated young people set out to change the world, some of them through violent means, and failed.
Looking back, they say they now see how rash and self-destructive their mission was.
“Did I accomplish anything?” Bill Harris recently mused over a breakfast of eggs Benedict. “Yeah, I accomplished ignominy.”
Harris is 55 now, married with two children. A former Marine with a theater background and a master’s degree in urban education, he works as a private investigator in San Francisco. Criminal defense work, he says, provides a more appropriate and fulfilling outlet for his activist bent.
His ex-wife, Emily, is a computer consultant in the Los Angeles area. Now 53, she maintains the type of tidy, ordered life she might have expected growing up a child of privilege, a straight-A student, pep squad member and well-scrubbed sorority sister. She zealously guards her privacy and dreads renewed interest in the 22 months she was Yolanda.
“I don’t think about it every day, but it’s definitely part of my personal history, so for me it’s always there, " she said during a secretive one-on-one meeting last month at a Burbank hotel. She reluctantly agreed to talk to a reporter for the first time in more than 20 years, but only if her photograph and current name, address and employment details weren’t published.
“Any person’s life is an evolution and growth path,” she said. “I made choices, and looking back now, I think some of those choices were extremely reckless and ill-conceived. But I paid the price. I’ve moved on.”
Some of her former comrades weren’t so lucky.
There actually were two SLAs. The original group was founded by Donald DeFreeze, an escaped convict from Los Angeles who took on the name Gen. Cinque Mtume.
DeFreeze and five others--Angela Atwood, Camilla Hall, Willie Wolfe, Nancy Ling Perry and Patricia Soltyzik--died in the South Los Angeles confrontation with police. The Harrises and Hearst, who were not there, went deeper within the underground. They were joined, police say, by the Soliahs, Kathy’s boyfriend, Jim Kilgore, Bortin and a Berkeley radical named Wendy Yoshimura.
Haunted by History
These days, the former SLA figures don’t like to be reminded of the code names, seven-headed cobra symbol, defiantly raised fists and dogmatic communiques of their revolutionary days--or their unwieldy slogan, “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people.”
It’s embarrassing, they say. They look back with no small measure of regret.
“I’m not trying to justify the SLA,” Bill Harris said. “If you do something and you succeed, then you’re a revolutionary of high quality and you get to be George Washington, the father of the country. But if you challenge power and you’re rubbed out, you’re in the trash bin of history.”
What a difference 25 years makes.
Scott, the former Oberlin College athletic director and radical writer who took Hearst and the Harrises underground, now runs a Berkeley-based sports medicine practice, catering to top athletes.
Bortin married Josephine Soliah in the late 1980s; the couple are raising four children in Portland, Ore. He installs hardwood floors for a living; she works as a nurse.
Except for occasionally exhibiting her artwork, Yoshimura maintains a low profile in Berkeley.
Steven Soliah, Olson’s brother, who allegedly joined her in hiding with the SLA, paints houses in Oakland and “lives a hippie lifestyle” with his girlfriend, according to his sister, Josephine.
Hearst has been married for more than 20 years to her former bodyguard, Bernard Shaw, and lives in Connecticut. The older of her two daughters is a freshman at Georgetown University.
Kilgore remains underground, with a $20,000 reward on his head.
And Olson--who abandoned the name Kathy Soliah when she went underground--has become a cookie-baking, stay-at-home mother of three in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Whatever crimes they might have committed in the past, they appear to have been model citizens for at least two decades.
While once he preached about the need for armed struggle, Bill Harris now says maintaining a middle-class lifestyle in the pricey San Francisco Bay Area is struggle enough. Revolution is a game for the young. “I don’t want to do it anymore,” said Harris. “I am not an activist anymore, at least not in that sense.”
Looking back, Emily Harris said, “I think I felt like change had to be grandiose and huge.” Now, like many of her generation, she has scaled back her expectations.
“I view change now more as a personal thing. It happens person to person,” she said.
News of Olson’s arrest, after 23 years, brought back memories of her own arrest during a morning jog in San Francisco, Emily Harris recalled. “I knew what she was going through. I felt empathy.”
Conjuring Up the Past
Pretrial motions began in the Olson case Monday. The trial is expected to center on two pipe bombs found under Los Angeles police cars in August 1975. Because prosecutors allege that the bombs were planted as part of a wide-ranging conspiracy to incite a revolution, the trial is certain to dredge up ghosts from the SLA’s past--and a host of old, unsolved crimes, including a robbery-murder in suburban Sacramento.
Hearst, the Harrises and the other potential witnesses are not eager to revisit the past.
The latest legal proceedings could rattle the middle-class lifestyles the former revolutionaries have embraced. Bill and Emily Harris are unindicted co-conspirators in the Los Angeles bombing plot. The Harrises and Bortin have been subpoenaed to testify at the trial, a source close to the case said. Hearst also has been ordered to testify.
As police and prosecutors try Olson for the alleged 1976 bomb plot, their counterparts in Sacramento have reopened their investigation of an April 1975 bank robbery in Carmichael, a Sacramento suburb, in which a woman customer was shot and killed.
Hearst told the FBI years ago that the SLA pulled that heist. She also wrote about it in her 1982 book. She said Emily Harris shot the woman; Harris denies it.
Olson’s old radical friends still refer to her as Kathy Soliah. To a person, they defended her.
“She is innocent of all that,” Bill Harris said, referring to the string of bank holdups and bombings attributed to the SLA.
“She had nothing to do with it,” he added. “She was an absolutely nonviolent person. But she’s the classic target. [Law enforcement] always go after women with children. They have the most to lose.”
Bortin said of Olson: “For 15 years we’ve been making fun of her for being such a goody two-shoes. All of a sudden, she gets arrested and she’s a terrorist.”
Olson ran, her lawyers say, because she feared being railroaded. And after awhile, the authorities stopped actively looking for her.
Married to a Harvard-trained doctor, Olson is raising three teen-aged daughters in an ivy-covered Tudor house in an upscale neighborhood of St. Paul, Minn. She does volunteer work and is active in community theater, her church, and local liberal politics.
She recently wrote a cookbook, a symbol of her sedate station in life if ever there was one. Her defense fund is raising money by selling her recipes for caramel cinnamon rolls and other homemade goodies.
Olson denies ever being a full-fledged member of the SLA, and her former associates agree with her. They say she eschewed violence. But neither side disputes that she gave the Harrises and Hearst money, hid them from police and arranged for them to go underground during the summer of 1974, and lived with them when they returned to California that fall.
Angela Atwood, who was among the six people killed during the May 1974 armed standoff with police in Los Angeles, provided the link between the Harrises, the SLA and an earnest wannabe then known as Kathy Soliah.
Soliah and Atwood met while auditioning in Berkeley for a community production of “Hedda Gabler.” They became fast friends.
Atwood had known the Harrises during Bill’s theater days in Indiana. After Bill and Emily married in 1972, they followed Atwood and her husband, Gary, to Berkeley.
Within days of the SLA’s standoff with Los Angeles police, the Harrises turned to Soliah, who had delivered a moving eulogy to the six dead SLA members at a rally in Berkeley. She gave the Harrises money and hid them.
The SLA ceased to exist after Los Angeles, Emily Harris said. “We were just trying to survive.”
Soliah brought in her onetime neighbor, Jack Scott, who hoped there might be a book in the SLA’s story. Following hours of negotiations, Scott agreed to hide Hearst and the Harrises if they put down their guns.
“It became clear to me,” he says now, that the SLA “was my generation gone crazy. . . . This wasn’t your normal, red-blooded American criminal. This was some kind of weird new criminal.”
Scott and his parents drove Hearst to a house they’d rented for the summer in rural Pennsylvania. The Harrises joined them later, along with Yoshimura, who faced charges in connection with a boyfriend’s Berkeley bomb factory.
After their summer sojourn, the fugitives returned to California, meeting up again with the Soliahs, Kilgore and Bortin. They settled in Sacramento first, then moved around. Prosecutors claim that Olson and the others then enlisted in the SLA, but they deny it.
By the time the Harrises, Hearst and Yoshimura were arrested in September 1975, everyone was pairing off and planning to head in different directions.
Hearst was convicted of bank robbery and served two years of a seven-year sentence before winning a commutation from President Jimmy Carter. She is seeking a pardon.
Bill and Emily Harris went to prison in 1977 for the Hearst kidnapping and a string of crimes leading up to the Los Angeles shootout. They were released in 1983.
After they were paroled, the Harrises tried to repair their marriage--which in keeping with SLA beliefs had never been exclusive. They divorced in 1984 and went their separate ways, though they still talk a couple of times a year.
Rebuilding their lives was difficult, and they have come to appreciate their jobs, homes and families.
Bill Harris is a soccer dad. He sometimes thinks about how he is going to tell his boys about his revolutionary past.
“My [older] son’s 11. He knows something’s going on,” Harris said. “I’ll sit down with him when he’s 18 and try to explain it to him.”
He cleaned houses for money, then worked as a secretary for attorney Hanlon. He met his current wife there and was married in 1988.
In his off hours, Harris shuttles his boys to practice. He’s active in their schools. But just beneath the surface still beats the heart of rebel.
In 1994, the state attorney general’s office went to court to try to put Harris out of business because he wasn’t licensed to work as a private investigator. When he applied for the license, he was turned down as an ex-felon.
He lost a four-year legal battle. He then formed a partnership with a licensed investigator and continued to work. He makes it sound like he lost the legal battle but won the moral war. “They had an opportunity to monitor me and regulate me, and they refused to do it,” he said with a grin.
Emily Harris’ prison computer training came just in time for her to catch the high-tech wave.
“When I got out of prison, I sent a resume and a letter, cold turkey, telling people I’d been in prison and these are the skills I have.”
A man she says worked for “a major corporation” took a chance on her. He hired her and became her professional mentor. She declined to identify him.
“He was not someone I knew before, not a friend of a friend.” He was a stranger who took a chance on her. She was so grateful for his kindness, she says, it changed her outlook on life. “I’ve been able to move along in a career path where I feel I’ve realized some success,” she said. “I started with a yoke around my neck. Just being able to get a job and survive on my own gave me hope.”
In a blue jumper and white turtleneck sweater, Emily Harris now looks the part of the Midwestern school teacher she once set out to become. These days, she expresses her political activism with her checkbook and with her time, donating to charities and performing volunteer work.
Why did they feel compelled to take up arms 25 years ago?
“None of it could happen now,” Emily said. “Between 1966 and 1975 there was such a loss of hope. We were reacting to the war in Vietnam, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers, government surveillance. There was a very real feeling of threat and fear. We felt a revolution was going to happen. By 1972 and ’73, we realized the world wasn’t going to change.”
Scott, who was investigated but never charged with any crime, is 57 and battling throat cancer. Radiation treatments have left his voice weak and scratchy. “Like everything else in Berkeley, my tongue is rebelling,” he said, sipping from a water bottle during a recent interview in the sun-drenched loft at his North Berkeley home.
He and his wife, Micki, were divorced in 1994. He lives with his 19-year-old son.
Hearst’s tale of a captive-turned-comrade--as told during the 1970s at her trial, in statements to the FBI and in her 1982 book--is considered crucial to the current Olson prosecution.
But Hearst is a reluctant witness.
She wrote a novel last year, and appears at charity functions and to promote her books and movies, which have made her a camp cult figure. She has appeared in three movies by the eccentric director John Waters.
Bortin was a fugitive for a while. He was in Minnesota when Kathy Soliah, already using the name Sara Jane Olson, met her husband, Harvard-trained physician Gerald “Fred” Peterson.
Olson and Peterson married in Minnesota in 1980. Their eldest daughter is named Emily--for which Emily Harris says she is flattered.
When his mother fell ill with cancer, Bortin returned to California and turned himself in, spending 18 months in jail for violating parole by associating with the SLA.
Bortin and Josephine Soliah, both divorced, married in 1989--long after their days with the SLA. They are raising their four children in a large, Victorian-style house they are refurbishing in Portland.
At the time, several SLA alumni said, they didn’t give their parents a second thought. Now, they regret everything they put their parents through.
Wendy Yoshimura also went to prison--not for any SLA crimes, but for an earlier explosives case involving Bortin and her former boyfriend, radical Willie Brandt.
These days she works at a juice bar in Berkeley a few days a week. She referred questions to her lawyer, who did not return several phone calls.
Steve Soliah was tried and acquitted in federal court for his alleged role in the SLA bank robbery in Carmichael. He paints houses for a living, taking long breaks to travel with his girlfriend. He did not want to talk for this story.
Kilgore is the only one still missing, but Bortin hinted that he has heard from his old friend.
“He’s doing fine,” Bortin said. Kilgore is “in the same situation the rest of us are in--basically, middle class, kids and everything.”
Bortin says he long ago tired of dealing with the case, which haunts his family and in-laws “like a deranged relative knocking at your door every few years.”
A few months ago, he said, an FBI agent tried to talk to his 10-year-old daughter, who was playing with a friend in the front yard. The girls screamed and ran into the house.
Most of the former radicals interviewed had the same question: Why a trial now? What’s the point?
“It’s perplexing to me” Scott said. “Even if they convict Kathy, her record over the past 25 years has been exemplary.
“It’s just a shame. All these people--from the cops, to Kathy, to Patty--they should all be at home raising their kids.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The Revolutionaries Then and Now
Then: “Teko.” Joined the Marines and served in Vietnam without seeing combat. Returned to the University of Indiana and became active in Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Married Emily Schwartz in 1972. Sentenced to eight years in prison for SLA crimes.
Now: Private investigator specializing in criminal defense work. Married to attorney Rebecca S. Young; has two sons, ages 5 and 11.
Then: “Yolanda.” Grew up in the Chicago suburbs and was a straight-A student at the University of Indiana. Met Bill Harris on a blind date. The couple followed friends to Berkeley and became involved in radical politics. Sentenced to eight years in prison for SLA crimes.
Now: Computer consultant living in Los Angeles County. Guards her privacy.
Then: “Tania.” Art history student was living with her fiance, Steven Weed, when kidnapped Feb. 2, 1974, by the SLA. Joined her captors, was convicted of bank robbery and served two years of a seven-year sentence that was commuted by President Jimmy Carter.
Now: Married for more than 20 years to her former bodyguard, Bernard Shaw. Mother of two teenagers. Has written two books and appeared in three films directed by John Waters. Still seeking a pardon.
Then: One of five children of Palmdale High School track coach. Young Goldwater Republican, studied theater at UC Santa Barbara. Confrontation between police and student protesters radicalized her politics.
Now: Legally changed her name to Sara Jane Olson. Married 20 years to Harvard-trained emergency room physician Gerald “Fred” Peterson. They have three teenage daughters.
Then: A former track star and onetime athletic director at Oberlin College, had a doctorate in sociology from Berkeley and a loyal following of star athletes who admired him for his athlete-empowerment philosophy. He spirited Hearst and the Harrises across the country.
Now: Undergoing treatments for throat cancer. For the last decade, he has been involved in a sports medicine clinic. He lives in Berkeley with his 19-year-old son.
Sources: Times interviews; Patty Hearst autobiography, “Every Secret Thing"; “Voices of Guns,” by Vin McLellan and Paul Avery
* D.A. GETS LEEWAY
Prosecutors of Sara Jane Olson can discuss 23 other crimes allegedly tied to the SLA. B1