Ex-SLA fugitive sent back to prison for one more year
California authorities rearrested Sara Jane Olson at noon Saturday, just hours after she was prevented from flying home to Minnesota from Los Angeles, and said she must serve one more year in prison because they miscalculated her release date.
The former member of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army had been paroled Monday from a California women’s prison after serving about six years for her role in a 1975 plot to kill Los Angeles police officers by blowing up their patrol cars.
Officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said at a news conference that they had made a mistake in computing the amount of time Olson should serve in a separate case in which she pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for participating in a Sacramento-area bank robbery in which another SLA member killed a customer.
“The department is sensitive to the impact that such an error has had on all involved in this case and sincerely regrets the mistake,” Scott Kernan, the agency’s chief deputy secretary of adult operations, said at a Saturday afternoon news conference. “The department has launched a full investigation.”
Kernan called the case “extremely complicated, given the amount of changes to the sentencing laws that have occurred over the last 30 years.”
Olson should have been sentenced to 14 years, not 12, for the two crimes, Kernan said. He said state officials had failed to account for the bank robbery. The earliest possible release date for Olson now is March 17, 2009, he said. At that point, she will have served half of the 14-year term.
Like most California inmates, Olson has earned credit against her sentence for working while in prison. She served on a maintenance crew that swept and cleaned the main yard of the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, according to prison officials.
She was taken to a prison in Chino on Saturday but will be moved back to Chowchilla, Kernan said.
When news organizations reported Olson’s release Friday, law enforcement officials reacted with dismay and raised questions about whether she had been let out too early.
Jon Opsahl, son of Myrna Opsahl, the woman killed in the bank robbery, called the Sacramento County district attorney’s office and said he believed Olson had not served enough time.
Corrections department officials acknowledged that they began an intensive review of their internal calculations of the sentence after getting questions from the Sacramento County district attorney’s office and a local television reporter, but they denied that they had bowed to pressure.
After Olson was taken back into custody, Los Angeles Police Protective League President Tim Sands issued a statement, saying, “We are relieved that Sara Jane Olson has been returned to prison for another year.”
But Sands said the organization was “far from satisfied. Parole shouldn’t even be an option for terrorists who are convicted of murdering innocent bystanders and attempting to murder police officers. Anyone who tries to kill police officers should get significant jail time and serve their full sentence.”
Olson’s attorney, Shawn Chapman Holley, said she was outraged by the rearrest and asserted that her client had been illegally arrested and is now being “illegally imprisoned.”
Holley said she was surprised to receive a phone call late Friday night from Olson, who told her that law enforcement officials at Los Angeles International Airport “were telling her her travel pass was rescinded and they would escort her back to her mother’s home in Palmdale.”
After midnight, Holley said, she got another call from Olson, telling her that Olson had been taken to her mother’s home in a law enforcement convoy and that although she was not under arrest, law enforcement officials had stationed a car in front of the house and told her she would be followed if she left.
Holley said she planned to file a writ of habeas corpus seeking Olson’s release within the next few days.
She scoffed at the suggestion that there had been “a computation error.”
“We received an order from the state parole board more than a month ago informing us that she would be released on March 17,” Holley said.
She referred to a decision of the board, saying that on Oct. 12, 2007, the panel had notified a Los Angeles Superior Court judge that “it did not intend to impose” a one-year enhancement that had been challenged by Olson’s attorneys. The decision went on to say that Olson’s “earliest possible release date has been recalculated to March 17, 2008.”
Noting that the decision had been made months ago, Holley said: “The idea that suddenly they discovered an error is untrue. What appears to be the truth is they are bowing to pressure from the Police Protective League or someone else.”
But Opsahl, the son of the slain woman, said he was “definitely glad” that corrections department officials “caught the mistake and they are going to insist she serve her full sentence. . . . She is no threat to society, but criminals have to pay their debt to society.”
Olson changed her name from Kathleen Soliah when she went underground after the bank robbery.
She had lived in Minnesota for a number of years before being arrested on charges related to the 1975 plot to plant pipe bombs beneath police cars in retaliation for a May 1974 shootout with Los Angeles police that left six SLA members dead.
Olson married Dr. Gerald Peterson, an emergency room physician.
The couple lived for a while in Zimbabwe before settling in St. Paul, Minn. Olson lived the quiet life of a homemaker and mother of three daughters in an upscale neighborhood and appeared in local theater productions.
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, she struck a plea deal in the bombing attempt, saying she feared she would not get a fair trial.
She pleaded guilty to two charges of possessing a destructive device with the intent to murder and struck a deal in the bank case, pleading guilty to second-degree murder.
For the murder conviction, she was given a one-year sentence. For the botched bombings, she was initially sentenced to five years and four months, but that was extended to 12 years after a state prison board designated her a serious offender.
Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen said he found it “hard to imagine” that state officials made a calculation error. The executive director of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice said he had never heard of an instance in which a prisoner was mistakenly released early.
However, Uelmen said he believed that “if she was erroneously released, they can take her back into custody until she serves her sentence” in full.
Ohio State University law professor Douglas Berman, who runs a widely read blog on sentencing issues, said, “There is a lot more uncertainty about the legal formalities of when someone is entitled to be released and how that can be enforced” than about many other areas of the law.
“If you look hard enough at the criminal justice system, you can find a lot more errors than you would think,” including prison officials keeping someone incarcerated for longer than they should. “In a lower-profile case,” he said, “no one is likely to find out.”
Times staff writer Joel Rubin contributed to this report.