Ex-SLA fugitive’s release sparks anger

Times Staff Writers

Jon Opsahl said he learned from the TV news Friday morning that Kathleen Soliah, a former member of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army, was released on parole from a California women’s prison.

Opsahl’s mother, Myrna, was killed at age 42 during a botched SLA bank robbery in Sacramento in 1975 that included Soliah.

“I’m just dumbfounded -- that someone can be involved in an SLA terrorist-type group, commit murder and get out of prison in a half-dozen years,” he said. “The justice system is incompetent or impotent.”


The 61-year-old Soliah was released from prison Monday after serving about six years behind bars for her role in a separate case involving a plot to kill Los Angeles Police Department officers by blowing up their patrol cars. She had been sentenced to 12 years in prison for her crimes but earned credit against her sentence for working in prison.

Her release sparked anger among some family members of SLA victims and police.

Retired LAPD Officer John Hall, one of two officers in a patrol car Soliah pleaded guilty to trying to bomb, said in a statement Friday that people should be directing their displeasure at Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown.

“We need to ask them why it is that our taxpayer dollars and our parole system are being used to put convicted murderers and terrorists back on the streets,” he said.

But others were more reflective.

Opsahl’s father, a surgeon, rushed the day of the robbery to find his dying wife, a mother of four who was at the bank that day to deposit the weekly take from the church donation plate. He toiled unsuccessfully to try to save her.

Now 82 and retired to the Sierra foothills town of Sonora, Dr. Trygve Opsahl said Friday that he is trying to put his tragic link to Soliah and the SLA behind him.

“It’s all pretty much in the past,” he said. “The sentencing system is so complicated it’s pretty hard to comprehend. . . . I feel if somebody’s involved in murder, it used to be the death sentence. But now they just quibble over whether it’s a few months or years in jail.”

He expressed hope that Soliah can emerge from prison to offer society some productive years.

“I hope she has learned something from this and can go out and be a good citizen and contribute to the community where she lives,” he said. “And still have some life left to live.”

After Soliah was released from prison in Chowchilla, she and her husband, emergency room physician Gerald Peterson, went immediately to her parents’ home in Palmdale.

Later, Peterson briefly spoke to reporters before dashing out to buy luggage and a bag of items from a local Ross store. He said they were happy about her release and were returning home to Minnesota.

“The kids are shoveling the walk,” Peterson said. “They’re pretty anxious to see her.”

Shortly after that, he piled two suitcases into a car and a thin-looking Soliah followed him out the door.

“Thanks,” she said, looking back at her mother. She then walked quietly to the passenger side of the car, ignoring reporters’ questions as the couple got in and drove away.

Soliah must serve a year of parole, and prison officials said they had given her permission to serve the time in Minnesota, where she had built a life as a suburban soccer mom during a quarter-century on the run.

The child of a middle-class Palmdale family, Soliah joined the violent band of radicals best known for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patty Hearst in the mid-1970s.

Soliah was charged with taking part in a 1975 plan to plant pipe bombs beneath Los Angeles police cars in retaliation for a shootout with police that left six SLA members dead. The nail-packed bombs didn’t detonate when the triggering device on one malfunctioned.

Soliah fled California, changed her name to Sara Jane Olson, and married Peterson. For years, Soliah lived the quiet life of a homemaker and mother of three daughters in St. Paul.

She was apprehended in 1999 after being featured on TV’s “America’s Most Wanted.” Her case was moving toward trial on Sept. 11, 2001. After the terrorist attacks, Soliah struck a plea deal in the bombing attempt, saying she feared she would not get a fair trial.

Soliah pleaded guilty to two charges of possessing a destructive device with the intent to murder. She was initially sentenced to five years and four months, but the term was later extended to 12 years by a state prison board.

After the 1999 arrest, Jon Opsahl and two Los Angeles prosecutors -- Eleanor Hunter and Michael Latin, both now judges -- began a push to see murder charges brought against Soliah and several SLA cohorts in the Sacramento bank robbery. Soliah and four other SLA members ultimately accepted plea deals.

Soliah initially was to serve six years for the murder of Opsahl, who was gunned down by an SLA accomplice who called it an accident caused by a hair-trigger shotgun. Soliah’s sentence was whittled back and, with time off for her prison work, she ultimately spent a year in prison for the killing. She also was allowed to serve it concurrently with her time behind bars for the failed police car bombings.

“She’s pretty tough. She will do fine,” said David Nickerson, one of Soliah’s attorneys. “She doesn’t want the notoriety. Maybe this is the last chapter, the end of it. . . . Maybe she can go back and live a normal life again.”