Only Hard Sell Revived ‘Slam Dunk’ SLA Case

Times Staff Writer

Eleanor Hunter and Michael Latin were teenagers in the early 1970s when the Symbionese Liberation Army was carrying out its outlandish campaign of terror.

They knew who Patty Hearst was. They watched the TV news when six SLA members were killed in a shootout with Los Angeles police.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 15, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 15, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 19 inches; 679 words Type of Material: Correction
SLA -- A caption that ran with a photo of Symbionese Liberation Army members in Friday’s Section A incorrectly said that Patricia Hearst was at the upper left. Emily Harris was at the upper left. Police had identified Hearst as possibly being the woman at the lower left.

The name of Myrna Opsahl meant nothing to them.

Opsahl, a 42-year-old mother of four, was shot to death on April 21, 1975, during a bank holdup in Carmichael, a Sacramento suburb. For nearly three decades, her murder went unsolved, or at least unpunished. Time and again, it was reviewed by prosecutors in Sacramento who felt certain the SLA was responsible. Time and again, they decided there was insufficient evidence to file charges.


Hunter and Latin, now deputy Los Angeles County district attorneys, will take no small measure of satisfaction today when four people associated with the SLA are sentenced in Sacramento Superior Court for their role in Opsahl’s death. Although the two prosecutors had no formal role in the case, they can rightly claim credit for bringing the killers to justice.

Emily Montague (then Emily Harris), who admitted pulling the trigger, will get the most time, eight years. Lesser terms will be handed down to her ex-husband, William Harris, to Sara Jane Olson (then Kathleen Soliah) and Michael Bortin. All four pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

A fifth suspect, James Kilgore, was captured recently in South Africa and awaits trial.

What brought Opsahl’s killers to justice was a lucky break, a modest advance in technology and the dogged work of Hunter and Latin, who believed in the case in a way that their Sacramento counterparts didn’t.

Their role began in early 1999, when Latin accepted a transfer to a new job on the district attorney’s major crimes squad. Being the division’s rookie, he inherited one of its least promising cases: charges against Kathleen Soliah of planting bombs under Los Angeles Police Department patrol cars in August 1975. Soliah had been a fugitive since.

“It was a dead case,” Latin said. “The lady had successfully evaded law enforcement for some 24 years. I really didn’t expect to have much more to do with it than to just review.” He did that, stuck the case in a desk drawer and forgot about it.

A few months later, on June 16, 1999, Latin was at his son’s preschool graduation when his pager went off. Soliah had been arrested in Minnesota.


What followed was more than two years of stalling and parrying by defense lawyers for Soliah, now Olson. On Oct. 31, 2001, she pleaded guilty.

Latin had been paired up, early on, with Hunter, a veteran with more experience in big cases. She is 41, tall, blond and savvy; he is 43, shorter, with boyish features and a gung-ho zeal. Both blend idealism with a prosecutor’s predatory instinct.

Both say that if Soliah had gone to trial without delays, they would have done their best to prosecute her and then wash their hands of the SLA.

“Luckily for us,” Latin said, “they kept delaying and delaying and delaying, and giving us time, and that was our most precious resource.”

The more time they had, the more they learned about the SLA. The more they learned, the more they became convinced that the group had escaped prosecution for numerous crimes. One was the slaying of Opsahl. They began to read old case files with a rising sense of excitement.

“It just kind of hit us over the head,” Latin recalled. “We both kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Are we crazy or is this a great case?’ ”


The case hinged on detailed accounts by Patricia Hearst, the newspaper heiress who was kidnapped by the SLA and later joined its revolutionary cause. Hearst had driven a getaway car in the bank robbery, and recounted in her book, “Every Secret Thing,” how Emily Harris had admitted shooting a woman when her gun went off by accident.

When Hearst, the Harrises and others were arrested in September 1975, the Sacramento County district attorney deferred to federal prosecutors in the Opsahl case. But the U.S. attorney in Sacramento charged only Kathleen Soliah’s brother, Steven -- and only in the robbery, not the murder. Federal prosecutors decided not to let Hearst testify, apparently because she insisted that Steven Soliah had stayed behind in a getaway car outside the Crocker National Bank branch. Other witnesses said they saw him inside the bank, and the prosecution was based on that.

When the case went to trial in April 1976, the defense brought forward a man who bore a striking resemblance to Soliah. He said he had been in the bank as a customer that day. Soliah was acquitted -- and Hearst, in a sense, was vindicated.

Two months later, Chief Deputy Sacramento County Dist. Atty. Geoffrey Burroughs filed a report to his boss on the prospects for bringing murder charges in the Opsahl case. “I believe Hearst is telling the truth when she recounts the details of the robbery,” he wrote. “I don’t believe a jury would convict five suspects of murder based upon her testimony alone.”

Although there was physical evidence in the case -- fingerprints, bullets, getaway cars, “bait” money taken from the bank -- Burroughs concluded that it was insufficient to corroborate Hearst’s account.

No charges were filed.

Subsequent district attorneys in Sacramento reviewed the case and came to the same conclusion.


In 1990, newly appointed Dist. Atty. Steve White convened a grand jury to take a fresh look at the Opsahl killing. The grand jurors studied the case for a year, examining old evidence and listening to eyewitness testimony. In the end, one juror turned to Deputy Dist. Atty. John O’Mara, a seasoned homicide prosecutor who was in charge of the case.

“Where do you go from here?” he asked.

“Well,” the prosecutor replied, “I am ordering a copy of the transcripts of all the witnesses that have testified over the last year. And I have to write a report for my boss, and then I will put it in about 15 boxes and put it in a warehouse somewhere .... I doubt seriously the case will ever be examined again.”

O’Mara’s remarks were preserved in a transcript, and in that form tumbled through the years until, nearly a decade later, they struck Opsahl’s son like a cold, hard slap in the face.

Jon Opsahl was a 15-year-old high school freshman when his mother was killed. A devout Seventh-day Adventist, she had been taking church tithes to the bank. As Jon grew older, he said, he couldn’t understand why no one seemed to care about her death. If Hearst’s kidnapping was such a big deal, why wasn’t his mother’s murder?

“Well,” he finally decided, “people do get away with murder in this country.”

Sometimes fate catches up.

Researching the Soliah bomb-planting case, Hunter and Latin looked at evidence in all the SLA cases, read Hearst’s grand jury testimony, and became convinced that there was enough evidence to corroborate her account of the slaying in Carmichael.

They went to tell Sacramento prosecutors.

“This is how naive we were,” said Hunter. “We thought, well, gosh, maybe we’re seeing something no one else has seen. Maybe the Sacramento D.A.’s office didn’t know about how great a case they have.”


Their then-boss, former Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, contacted Sacramento County Dist. Atty. Jan Scully and arranged for Hunter and Latin to meet with her. They assembled a PowerPoint presentation, and in August 2000, they flew to Sacramento, laptop in hand.

The meeting, from their perspective, was a disaster.

Scully, said Latin, “didn’t know anything about the case, other than that John O’Mara ... didn’t think it should be filed.” O’Mara, the deputy who had convened the grand jury in 1990, was still in charge of the case.

A spokeswoman for the Sacramento district attorney’s office said neither Scully nor O’Mara would discuss the case.

Feeling humiliated, Hunter and Latin shed their politesse. “At that point, we took it personally,” said Hunter.

They began showing their PowerPoint presentation to anyone who would listen, beginning with Jon Opsahl, by then a physician in Colton.

“I was outraged,” Opsahl said.

“All this evidence existed all the time, all of it corroborated Hearst’s account, none of it disputed it, and it was about as much of a slam dunk as you could get.”


The prosecutors told Opsahl that, as public servants, they could not mount a public campaign to sway Scully -- but he could. Opsahl began speaking out. He developed a Web site,, that laid out the case against the SLA five. And, along with a Malibu-based organization, Justice for Homicide Victims, he began a postcard campaign to persuade Scully to file charges.

Along the way, Hunter and Latin had ordered ballistics tests, using new technology to compare bullets used in the Opsahl killing with bullets found in an SLA safe house. They matched, strengthening the case.

In January 2001, a spokeswoman for Scully told the Sacramento Bee that the new evidence wasn’t sufficient.

In December 2000, L.A. County had changed district attorneys. Latin and Hunter’s new boss, Steve Cooley, sought a meeting with them within a week of taking office and sat through the PowerPoint presentation that Scully had refused to see. He raised the possibility of filing the case in Los Angeles if Scully refused to file it in Sacramento. And he began to put pressure on Scully.

Cooley and Scully met in March 2001, deputies in tow. Hunter described the meeting as chilly.

The next month, Cooley sent a letter to Scully. Saying the evidence in the Opsahl case “more than meets the standard for a criminal filing,” he demanded that she act -- within 30 days.


Scully did not take kindly to the deadline. “I am curious,” she wrote back, “about the continued effort by you and your staff to have us make this important decision on your schedule rather than the one we deem more prudent and thoughtful.”

Laying out her credentials, Scully wrote that she would base her decision on the law, ethics and justice. “I will not allow political pressure to enter the equation,” she said.

On Oct. 31, 2001, Sara Jane Olson pleaded guilty in the Los Angeles bomb case. The following Jan. 16, Harris, Montague, Olson and Bortin were arrested on murder charges filed by Scully’s office. In a statement issued that day, Scully acknowledged that “both the Opsahl family and the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office have strongly urged me to review the case.”

“We all agree that after almost 27 years, justice has not been served,” she added.

On Nov. 7, the four defendants pleaded guilty, each acknowledging a role in the death of Myrna Opsahl. Hunter and Latin couldn’t attend the hearing, and didn’t feel all that welcome in Sacramento anyway. Still, said Hunter: “We wish we were there to hear those words out of their mouths.”

For Jon Opsahl, who was there, it was an almost indescribable relief. He gave credit to Hunter, Latin and Cooley.

Hunter and Latin had brought new energy to the case, he said, lifting a cloud of despair for those who cared about Myrna Opsahl’s death. “They said, ‘Hey, your mother’s death does matter and we’re going to do something about it.’ ”