Bomb Plot Gets Olson 20 to Life


A Los Angeles judge sentenced accused Symbionese Liberation Army member Sara Jane Olson Friday to 20 years to life in prison for her role in a failed bomb plot to kill LAPD officers in 1975.

Moments later, Olson--who lived as a suburban Midwestern mom while on the lam for more than two decades--pleaded not guilty to murder charges in a 1975 Sacramento-area bank robbery that left a mother of four dead.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 1, 2002 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday February 1, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Sara Jane Olson sentencing--In a Jan. 19 story in Section A on the sentencing of Sara Jane Olson, words were mistakenly left out of a quote by her husband, Dr. Fred Peterson. The correct quote: “To my lovely wife Sara, California now is entrusted to clothe you and feed you and shelter you and correct you and try you. But this family of ours and our dear friends will not be diminished in our love for you, in our respect for you.”

Former SLA members Emily and William Harris also appeared in court Friday, in Sacramento, to face murder charges in the same case. And in Portland, Ore., Olson’s brother-in-law Mike Bortin appeared on a fugitive charge as California authorities attempt to extradite him.


Friday’s hearings launched the court proceedings for the four former 1970s radicals who were arrested Wednesday on suspicion of murdering Myrna Opsahl, 42, as she entered the Carmichael bank branch to deposit church offering receipts. Murder charges have also been filed against Olson’s former boyfriend, James Kilgore, who has remained underground for a quarter of a century. Sacramento prosecutors say some of the $15,390 netted from the Crocker National Bank branch robbery paid for explosives to be used by the SLA in Los Angeles.

During Olson’s emotional hourlong hearing in Los Angeles County Superior Court, the St. Paul, Minn., mother of three downplayed her role in the attempted bombing of two LAPD vehicles and said she simply provided support to her friends in the SLA. But then, for the first time in court, Olson, 55, apologized for her actions a generation ago.

“For any mistakes I have made, I accept responsibility,” she said, speaking softly but clearly. “For any pain I have caused, I accept responsibility. And I am truly sorry.”

But an LAPD officer, who prosecutors said narrowly escaped death, was unforgiving.

“It horrifies me to think that the lives of dozens of innocent people . . . would have ended in an instant had the defendant and her conspirators successfully carried out their terrorist attack,” Officer John Hall told Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler. “As for me, I would have died, leaving behind my wife and 3-month-old daughter. My other two children would never have been born.”

Olson’s tear-choked daughter, Leila Peterson, 15, called her mother “one of the best mothers anyone could ever want,” and said she was raised “in a home filled with love and compassion.”

As she cried and hugged her mother, she told her, “I will always be by your side no matter what.”


Later, outside the courtroom, Myrna Opsahl’s son, Jon, said that it was time for Olson to accept responsibility for her actions in the 1970s and for justice to be served in his mother’s murder.

Her apology in court Friday was “too little, too late,” said Opsahl, a Riverside physician.

Olson pleaded guilty in October to attempting to bomb LAPD cars in an effort to kill officers. In exchange, prosecutors dropped conspiracy and bomb possession charges. Because the laws have changed since the crime, Olson’s attorney, Shawn Chapman, believes the state Board of Prison Terms will order her to serve just over five years of the 20-years-to-life sentence.

Judge Fidler, who pronounced the sentence, which was based on a plea agreement between Olson and the district attorney’s office, said Friday that Olson might serve the rest of her life behind bars.

Pipe Bombs Under Cars Didn’t Explode

In August 1975, two nail-packed pipe bombs were planted beneath police cars but did not explode. Olson was indicted in 1976, but was not arrested until June 1999, after officers received a tip following the broadcast of a TV show about the SLA.

Prosecutors said Olson helped plant the bombs to help avenge the deaths of six members of the SLA who died during a shootout with LAPD officers a year earlier. The revolutionary group, which had as its logo a seven-headed snake, gained notoriety with the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst and the assassination of Oakland schools chief Marcus Foster.


Six relatives and friends of Olson spoke Friday at the hearing before Fidler.

They gave emotional speeches about Olson’s role as a mother and community volunteer. Olson read to the blind, cooked for the homeless and taught English to recent immigrants, they told the judge. Chapman presented a stack of letters vouching for her charity work and church activities.

Elsie Soliah told Fidler that her daughter never joined the SLA, and lived an upstanding life.

Olson’s husband, emergency room physician Fred Peterson, said he was proud of his wife of 22 years. “My lovely wife Sara, California is now entrusted to feed you, clothe you, shelter you and try you,” he said. “But this family of ours will not diminish our love for you, our respect for you.”

In addition to Hall, retired LAPD Officer Martin Feinmark testified for the prosecution.

“I saw a large pipe and a bunch of red wires and I froze,” Feinmark said, noting that the vehicle he looked underneath was a community policing car that was often used to transport children and other civilians.

Feinmark said that he hoped Olson would learn a lesson while serving time in prison.

According to a probation report prepared for the sentencing, Olson’s actions in 1975 narrowly avoided creating a tragedy for many people. “What the defendant did was huge,” the report read. “It was too big to let pass.”

The probation report also said that Olson’s community involvement showed that she is no longer a dangerous radical, but rather an “asset to the political system she once helped attack.”


After the hearing, Fidler allowed Olson to meet with her family and friends in the courtroom for half an hour. Dressed in a blue jail jumpsuit, Olson’s last words to the crowd as she was led away were, “Thank you for coming. I love you,” her attorney said.

Olson was taken to Sacramento on Friday afternoon for the Carmichael case and is due in court there Tuesday.

The Carmichael robbery and murder case remained mostly dormant for 27 years. But the arrest and conviction of Olson, along with the persistence of Jon Opsahl, revived the case.

“I think they’ve gotten as much time off for good behavior as they’re going to get,” he said outside the Los Angeles courtroom Friday.

The Sacramento County district attorney’s office said this week that ballistics and fingerprint evidence uncovered by Los Angeles prosecutors links the SLA to the robbery and murder.

“The good that came out of this fresh-eyes approach has certainly gone beyond our county,” Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said Friday. “And I think that justice on other fronts will hopefully be secured because of the work we’ve done down here.”


When Los Angeles prosecutors first traveled to Sacramento, Dist. Atty. Jan Scully was reluctant to file charges. Scully said she wanted to see how the Los Angeles case went and how Hearst did under cross-examination, Cooley said. But Scully started a task force in March and filed charges Wednesday.

Cooley said Friday that Hearst’s account of the robbery and murder, which she detailed in her 1982 book, is corroborated by physical evidence and witness statements.

Patricia Hearst Could Be the Key Witness

Defense attorney Chapman, however, discounted the credibility of Hearst, who could become the prosecution’s key witness. Chapman said that federal prosecutors who tried and failed to convict Olson’s brother, Steve Soliah, of the bank robbery in 1976 wrote a memo saying Hearst was not believable.

Chapman said Olson did not know anything about the bank robbery. “She knew these people and helped them in small ways,” she said. “But she was never admitted into their inner circle, and never was asked to do criminal acts.”

The Harrises and Bortin are also maintaining their innocence in the Carmichael case.

Emily Harris and her ex-husband, William Harris, stood side by side Friday in Sacramento, wearing orange pants and restrained by waist and ankle chains. Emily Harris, 54, appeared pale and nervous, constantly rubbing her fingers together. William Harris, 56, was subdued.

Their attorneys said after the brief hearing that they planned to enter pleas of not guilty by the time their clients return to court Feb. 1 for their bail hearings. The attorneys said their clients are not flight risks and deserve an affordable bail.


The Harrises were married at the time of the robbery and homicide, and both served time in prison for crimes related to SLA involvement, then established middle-class lives.

“Both the Harrises had a sense that this was coming,” said attorney Stuart Hanlon, who represents Emily Harris. “They’ve lived in their community since they were released [on] parole in 1983. They did not run. They had every opportunity to. They are not a flight risk.”

The defense attorneys called the charges unfair and made clear that they expect prosecutors to portray the 1975 robbery and slaying as part of a reign of terror by the SLA. “We hope the district attorney will try this case as what it is--a homicide in a bank robbery case and not use the label ‘terrorist,’ ” said Hanlon. “This is not a time in our history where one could guarantee someone charged with terrorism a fair trial.”

In Portland, Bortin, 53, appeared in court wearing a blue jail outfit and glasses. He did not enter a plea on the fugitive charge.

“I would like to state for the record that I am not a fugitive and that I have been a legal resident of the state of Oregon for 12 years,” said Bortin, who runs a hardwood flooring business and has four children.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Chuck French said the California governor’s office must request Bortin’s extradition from Oregon to face the murder charge, which could take as long as five weeks. The judge ordered Bortin, who is being held without bail, to return Feb. 22.



Contributing to this report were Times staff writer Steve Berry in Los Angeles and Times researcher Lynn Marshall in Portland.