SLA Bank Slaying Is Still Seared Into Memories
As they did every Monday, a group of women from the Carmichael Seventh-day Adventist Church drove to the bank on Marconi Avenue to count the money deposited there by church elders after Saturday services.
This time, on April 21, 1975, the volunteers were Bernadine Slackman, Beatrice Squier and Myrna Opsahl, who carried the cumbersome adding machine.
According to court documents and witness statements, four young men and women entered the bank at the same time, one of them holding open the door for the church women. As Squier turned to thank the man, he pulled a ski mask over his face. Inside, the robbers drew guns and yelled at everyone to “get your noses in the carpet.”
Minutes later, Opsahl was dying on the floor.
Nobody knew then that this robbery gone bad in a well-to-do Sacramento suburb would, a quarter of a century later, resurrect some of the most notorious radicals of the 1970s, the would-be revolutionaries of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Opsahl’s death became a mere footnote in the violent escapades of the SLA, something of which the small gang was suspected but never convicted.
It was an event overshadowed by the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst, the assassination of an Oakland school superintendent and the fiery deaths of six SLA members in South-Central Los Angeles. Opsahl’s case languished so long that the SLA members allegedly responsible might have assumed law enforcement would never revisit that Monday morning on Marconi Avenue.
But for Opsahl’s family, the survivors and their families, the memories haven’t faded. What had haunted them for years will now be played out in a courtroom after the events of last week. Until now, their painful accounts of what happened had been restricted to legal records, interviews and books.
In California and Oregon, police arrested four middle-aged ex-radicals on the orders of Sacramento County Dist. Atty. Jan Scully, who said, “Now is the time to seek justice for Myrna Opsahl.”
Facing first-degree murder charges are William Taylor Harris, 56, of Oakland; his former wife, Emily Montague Harris, 54, of Altadena; Michael Alexander Bortin, 53, of Portland, Ore.; and Sara Jane Olson, 55, of St. Paul, Minn., who had been born Kathleen Ann Soliah. A fifth man charged, 54-year-old James William Kilgore, has been a fugitive since 1975.
Those arrested have all asserted innocence.
Police were drawn back into the fading files on Myrna Opsahl’s death by the 1999 arrest of fugitive Olson. She had married a doctor and was a suburban mother of three.
As the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office sought to convict her for conspiring to plant bombs under two Los Angeles police cars in 1975, investigators dug into the violent escapades of the SLA, including the bank robbery.
And so on Friday, after Olson was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison for the attempted bombing of the police cars, she and former SLA associates were charged with Opsahl’s death.
Trying to convict them now of the holdup of the Crocker National Bank branch will mean going “way, way back in history,” warned Emily Harris’ defense attorney at the arraignment in Sacramento.
But for some people--their numbers are whittled by time--that violent morning and its aftermath are recalled not as history but as the sound of guns cocking and robbers cursing, the sight of tear-stained teenagers and the glazed eyes of a dark-haired woman on a hospital gurney.
Stan Squier, a retired dentist, heard his late mother, Beatrice, tell of that morning at the bank many times, when she was close enough to Opsahl to get shotgun wadding blown into her hair.
“When they told everyone to hit the floor,” he said, “Myrna was carrying an adding machine in her hand. She didn’t want to drop it, so she didn’t move fast enough.”
“That’s when they turned and blew her away,” Squier said. “My mom, being a nurse, knew it was fatal. There’s a kind of a death gasp when they’re expiring.”
Witness Still Lives With Trauma
Opsahl, a 42-year-old mother of four, bled to death on the floor inches from Beatrice Squier. The shotgun embedded nine pellets into her left side.
Rachel Harp was a 21-year-old assistant to the loan department manager, sitting no more than 20 feet away from Opsahl.
She saw Opsahl enter the bank through its back, south entrance, directly in front of the robbers.
She heard yelling and stood, turning in the direction of the commotion in time to see Opsahl get shot.
A masked woman yelled for everyone to lie down, and Harp remembers the rest of the robbery in sounds: Opsahl’s moans; patrons and tellers screaming and crying; the robbers cursing and cocking their guns. She can still recall the shuffle and thump of their feet as they tried to jump over the counter.
“It was extremely chaotic,” Harp said. “My face was in the dirt, and I could hear them yelling and cussing and I kept thinking to myself, ‘You’re going to do whatever they say. If they say, dance on the counter, you’ll dance on the counter.’ ”
According to Hearst, who went from SLA victim to participant, Emily Harris, Olson, Bortin and Kilgore entered the bank. William Harris and Steven Soliah, Olson’s brother, stood outside as armed lookouts, while Hearst and Wendy Yoshimura drove getaway cars.
After the robbery, Harp went into the bank’s kitchen to get paper towels in a futile attempt to staunch Opsahl’s wounds.
In an era before grief counselors and emergency response teams, Harp was back at work the next day. What she experienced left a residue of anger, fear and wariness that has never faded.
“They didn’t just shoot her that day,” she said. “They took part of us away too.”
Her feelings only intensified after prosecutors appeared to shunt aside her account about a female shooter to focus on Steven Soliah. He was the only person ever tried for the robbery, and a federal jury acquitted him in 1976.
Steven Soliah, Hearst and Yoshimura cannot be prosecuted because they were given immunity years ago to testify in grand jury proceedings.
Harp said she tried, to no avail, to reignite media interest in the case when Hearst published an account of her SLA kidnapping in 1982 in the book “Every Secret Thing.”
Founded in 1973 by escaped convict Donald DeFreeze, the Symbionese Liberation Army recruited followers from middle- and upper-middle-class homes under a slogan: “Death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people.”
The group burst into headlines with the November 1973 murder of an Oakland school superintendent who they mistakenly believed wanted to require students to show identification on campus.
In February 1974, eight members of the SLA abducted Hearst from her Berkeley apartment and demanded that the Hearst family feed the poor as ransom. Three months later, six SLA members holed up in a house near 54th Street and Compton Avenue died in a firefight with the LAPD. The dead included Olson’s best friend, Angela Atwood.
Two weeks later in Berkeley, Olson addressed a large crowd, declaring that SLA members had been “viciously attacked and murdered by 500 pigs.”
Prosecutors may rely heavily upon Hearst’s account of her time with the SLA, detailed in the book and in 1976 police interviews. Hearst said she drove a getaway car from the bank and that Emily Harris admitted to accidentally shooting Opsahl.
Careless Remarks About the Victim
When Olson asked about the condition of the victim, Hearst’s book says Harris replied, “Oh she’s dead, but it really doesn’t matter. She was a bourgeois pig anyway.”
According to Hearst’s account, Olson also asked who had shot the woman.
“I did, let’s not talk about it,” said Emily Harris, according to the book.
Hearst’s account says Kilgore complained that Emily Harris was careless with her shotgun and had nearly killed him instead of Opsahl.
William Harris brought in part of a shotgun shell, saying, “This is the murder round.”
“If it hadn’t been for good old [Myrna],” he said, “one of our comrades would have been dead.”
The same day, Harris buried the remains of the shotgun shell near a tree in a central Sacramento park where people were feeding ducks, according to Hearst’s account.
Carolyn Reece, once a good friend of Myrna Opsahl, remembers that day well.
Both women were married to doctors, and both of those doctors happened to be making their rounds at American River Hospital when an emergency call came over the loudspeaker. Both James Reece and Trygve Opsahl rushed to the emergency room, not knowing the identity of the gunshot victim.
“There was nothing anybody could do,” Carolyn Reece said. “Can you imagine the shock of finding out that this is your friend and, more unfortunately, that this poor soul is your beloved, cherished wife?
“I remember how my husband came home devastated from the hospital. I remember how sick at heart he was. I remember how Trygve looked, I remember how the children looked. I remember the funeral, the dinner afterwards and those precious, motherless children.
“I have grieved for her for 27 years. These people were heartless.”
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