SLA Member Gets 6-Year Sentence

Times Staff Writer

After a generation on the run, the final member of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army was sentenced Monday to six years in prison for the slaying of a suburban homemaker during a botched bank robbery here nearly three decades ago.

James Kilgore, 56, expressed remorse for the 1975 slaying of Myrna Opsahl, a 42-year-old mother of four killed by a shotgun blast shortly after she arrived at a bank in the nearby suburb of Carmichael toting church collections.

Kilgore fled within months of the slaying and lived under an assumed name in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Authorities caught up to him in November 2002, just a day after four of his SLA colleagues pleaded guilty to Opsahl’s murder.


Last week, Kilgore also was ordered to spend 4 1/2 years in prison on federal explosives and passport fraud convictions in San Francisco.

Inside a hushed Sacramento County Superior Court room, Kilgore apologized to Opsahl’s family, saying he accepted full responsibility for his role in the bank robbery that led to her death. “If there is one day in my life I could live again,” Kilgore said, “it would be that moment.”

Opsahl’s family members said they were happy to see Kilgore finally brought to justice, but expressed regret that with time for good behavior he might serve as little as three years in prison for the murder.

“It’s difficult to accept,” said Jon Opsahl, 44, one of the sons. “He’s not really being punished to the degree that taking a human life deserves.”

The sentencing marked the final chapter in the long and twisted saga of the SLA, the violent West Coast revolutionary group that made headlines in the waning days of the Vietnam War with a wild series of bank robberies, bombings, the slaying of Oakland’s school superintendent and the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst, who eventually joined the group.

After a fiery 1974 shootout with police in Los Angeles left the group’s founder and several core members dead, Kilgore joined SLA survivors to continue a carbine-toting battle with the establishment in an attempt to foment revolution.


In April 1975, the group set up shop in Sacramento, plotting a series of bank robberies. But their plans quickly went awry at Crocker National Bank in Carmichael. Inside the bank, SLA member Emily Harris brandished a loaded shotgun at Opsahl, and the gun went off. Harris later would say the weapon discharged by accident.

Opsahl was rushed to an emergency room and her husband, a surgeon, was called to the hospital, where he joined in trying to save her life.

Within months, several members of the SLA were arrested along with Hearst. Kilgore managed to slip away, living in hiding around the U.S. for a time before leaving the country with a forged birth certificate. He borrowed the name of a child that had died in infancy.

The son of a wealthy Marin County family, Kilgore was a former honors student and letterman in golf and baseball at San Rafael High. After graduating from college, he joined the SLA. After fleeing the U.S., Kilgore spent more than two decades in Zimbabwe and South Africa under the adopted name Charles William Pape.

Like his onetime SLA colleagues back in America, Kilgore grew into middle age and sank roots. He married an American overseas and raised two sons. Since 1996, Kilgore had worked as a university professor in Cape Town, South Africa. Several colleagues heralded his work to help impoverished labor unions during the country’s post-apartheid struggles.

In the U.S., the Opsahl murder case appeared to have hit a dead end until the arrest in 1999 of Sara Jane Olson, a Minnesota homemaker who a quarter-century before had been active in the SLA.


Two Los Angeles County deputy district attorneys, Eleanor Hunter and Michael Latin, assigned to dig into old SLA investigative files, became convinced enough evidence existed to justify reviving the decades-old Sacramento murder investigation.

Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley took up the cause and put pressure on Sacramento Dist. Atty. Jan Scully to bring the charges that eventually led to guilty pleas by Kilgore and the others.

Among those now serving six- to eight-year terms in California prisons for Opsahl’s murder are Harris, 57, who now goes by her maiden name of Emily Montague; her former husband, William Harris, 58, who has a wife and two children in Oakland; Michael Bortin, 55, who had built a new life in Portland, Ore., as a hardwood floor contractor; and Olson, 57, who married a physician in St. Paul, Minn.

The Opsahl family moved on, even as they pressed for justice. Opsahl’s husband, Trygve, retired and remarried, moving to the Sierra Nevada foothills. Her four children became doctors and dentists.

“Time does have a way of healing,” said Jon Opsahl, who was 15 when his mother was killed. “We’ve all moved on with our lives, and done the best we could, as our mother would have wanted us to.”

He said there was never much doubt about going forward with plea deals for each of the SLA members, even though the sentences were far lighter than the family wanted. Opsahl said he wondered what might have occurred at trial, but said, “I don’t think our mother would have wanted us to keep spinning our wheels.”


“In the end, I think all is about as well as could be expected from this sort of tragedy,” he added. “Nothing that can be done now is going to bring her back to life.”


Times staff writer Mitchell Landsberg contributed to this report.