A judge sentenced four graying former soldiers of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army to prison Friday for killing a mother of four in a botched 1975 bank robbery, ending a quarter-century quest for justice in a case that was once deemed impossible to resolve.
After the grown son of Myrna Opsahl derided the SLA as a group of “pathetic, deranged revolutionaries,” Superior Court Judge Thomas Cecil sentenced the foursome to terms ranging from six to eight years for second-degree murder.
Emily Montague, 56, admitted accidentally shooting Opsahl with a hair-trigger shotgun and will serve eight years. Her former husband, William Harris, the 58-year-old self-avowed field marshal of the group, faces seven years in state prison. Michael Bortin, 54, a Portland, Ore., flooring contractor, and Sara Jane Olson, a 55-year-old who fashioned a new underground life as a Minnesota soccer mom before her recapture in 1999, were given six-year terms.
Bortin, Montague and Harris apologized to the family and friends of Opsahl, a 42-year-old Seventh-day Adventist who entered the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael on April 21, 1975, to drop off church donations.
Montague, known during her radical days as Emily Harris, said through tears that she felt a deep sense of remorse and would be “sorry for the rest of my life.” A somber Bortin said he and the rest had “beat ourselves up” over the crime more than anyone could know.
“I can offer nothing but my apologies,” he said, facing Opsahl’s children and husband. “I’m sorry.”
Harris delivered a rambling and equivocal nine-minute monologue, looking eye to eye at Jon Opsahl, the victim’s 42-year-old son, who was seated in the first row.
Harris said the SLA has been “monstericized” by the media, and he understood if the Opsahl family hated everything it stood for. “Your mother was never an abstraction to me,” Harris told the son. “It’s absolutely unacceptable that this happened .... I feel horrible.”
While apologizing for the murder, Harris said his imprisonment would have a devastating effect on his wife and two young sons. But he conceded that his absence would not begin to approach “the devastation caused by the murder of your mother.”
Olson, known as Kathleen Soliah in her SLA days, offered her regrets in a letter. “If we had foreseen her killing, we would never have robbed the bank,” Olson wrote. “We were young and foolish.... In the end we stole someone’s life.”
A fifth defendant, James Kilgore, was arrested late last year in South Africa, where he had forged a new identity as a university professor.
Kilgore, 55, is expected to appear in court on a federal bomb charge in San Francisco next Friday, then accept the same six-year plea deal as Bortin and Olson.
The sentences were spelled out in a plea bargain reached by the former radicals in November. With good behavior in prison, the four SLA members could see their sentences cut roughly in half.
The five formed the nucleus of the SLA during its final days. The revolutionary band cut a violent swath through the turbulent 1970s, capturing international headlines with the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst and her reemergence weeks later as their brainwashed radical addition.
Over the past two decades, all of the survivors fashioned new lives as upstanding citizens -- holding jobs, buying homes and raising families. Montague was a computer consultant, Harris became a private detective, Bortin finished wood floors and Olson led a whirlwind life of community philanthropy as a doctor’s wife in suburban Minneapolis.
Life wasn’t easy for Opsahl’s family. Jon Opsahl, who was 15 when his mother was killed, described in court how the death shadowed them.
He talked of how the bank robbers refused to allow others to come to his mother’s aid, and the hopelessness and fear she must have felt as her pleas went ignored. He said Montague had been warned the shotgun had a hair trigger, yet took it along anyway.
He explained how his father, a surgeon, was called to the hospital to find his own wife, a nurse, bloodied with a shotgun wound, then tried feverishly to save her life.
Opsahl lamented that none of the SLA members seemed genuinely remorseful until they were ready to negotiate a plea bargain. Though it had taken decades, he said, perhaps justice is better served today.
“Although the defendants still seem arrogant and they still seem to believe some of their failed methods and ideologies, they are at least more tolerant, a bit wiser and, most importantly, they have so much more to lose.”
While the sentences were palatable to Opsahl’s family, the son voiced his frustration that the case had languished so long.
“I really could not understand,” he told the hushed courtroom, “why somebody wasn’t doing something about it.” Later, he added, “Myrna Opsahl was murdered in her prime, and then almost forgotten.”
The sentencing was a victory for Eleanor Hunter and Michael Latin, two Los Angeles County deputy district attorneys who in recent years had prodded Sacramento County officials to press forward with the case.
Meanwhile, Jon Opsahl mounted a pressure campaign, establishing an Internet site detailing the case. Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley came to his aid, threatening to file a case when Sacramento authorities balked.
On Friday, Sacramento County Dist. Atty. Jan Scully insisted that she had refused to be bullied by Los Angeles prosecutors to speed up a methodical review of the case. But in January 2002, charges were brought.
The conclusion of the case served as vindication for Hearst, who detailed her days in the SLA in an exhaustive book but was deemed for two decades to lack the credibility to be an effective witness against the SLA.
Prosecutors repeatedly concluded that Hearst’s account was insufficient to corroborate the robbery and murder.
One potential obstacle remains. By law, the state Board of Prison Terms can hold a hearing in the next 90 days to extend the sentences if it deems fit.
The board virtually doubled Olson’s prison sentence for a failed squad car bombing to 14 years. She is appealing that decision.
All four defendants agreed to plead guilty only if the prison board doesn’t take a similar step against them. If it does, they can go to trial.
As Friday’s sentencing hearing concluded, the four SLA members hugged their attorneys and gazed out at family members, who waved from the packed courtroom. Bortin flashed the peace sign and smiled.
Later outside the courtroom, Rachel Harp, who was a young bank teller on the day of the robbery, said she felt the apologies of the SLA seemed hollow.
“There’s a bigger judge in this picture than me, you and the judge behind that bench,” she said. “Eventually, they’ll have to face that conclusion.”