Obstruction of Justice
The son of Myrna Opsahl says Sacramento DA Jan Scully is allowing his mother’s killers to get away with murder.
Behind the Mission Ark Church on Marconi Avenue is a cyclone fence. It separates the church from the parking lot of the Hillside Shopping Center, a half-empty strip mall in the aging Sacramento suburb of Carmichael. Nothing that meets the eye is remarkable about the church, the strip mall or that fence.
But if you were to stand in just the right spot, and if you also had the ability to travel back through time 25 years, you would find a hole in this fence just large enough to climb through.
If you were to wriggle through it, and into the past, you would find the church was not a church at all. Instead, you would be approaching the back entrance of a Crocker National Bank branch.
On April 21, 1975, a Monday morning, Myrna Lee Opsahl, a 42-year-old housewife and mother of four, entered through this door with two companions. The three women were active members of the Carmichael Seventh-Day Adventist Church and had arrived at 9:00 a.m. just as the bank doors opened to deposit the weekend collections.
Perhaps Myrna Opsahl noticed four other people entering behind her, dressed in heavy coats and caps, a bit too warmly for this late April morning. The four had just scrambled through that hole in the fence.
Only moments after Opsahl walked through the door, the group behind her pulled ski masks over their faces and began yelling about a holdup, ordering everyone onto the floor.
A robber with a double-barreled shotgun confronted Opsahl, and for reasons that may never be known, fired the gun, ripping a hole in her stomach and torso. She crumpled to the floor, but the robbery continued.
“Get your noses in the carpet,” one of the robbers shouted.
Bank customers described one of the robbers as a woman in her mid-20s who wore a green bandana over her face, held a pistol in one hand, while keeping one eye on her wristwatch, and periodically shouted out how much time had elapsed. Another bandit leapt the bank counter and emptied the money from the teller drawers, caching some $15,000.
Later, witnesses would describe the robbers as being disorganized, yelling at each other and running back and forth. Police would later speculate that the bandits panicked after the shotgun blast, that they were flustered because the robbery had gone awry.
Out of carelessness, or nervousness, the robbers scattered cash around the room, and dropped three 9-millimeter cartridges, leaving them behind on the bank floor, along with the bleeding body of Myrna Opsahl.
The four escaped out the back door, spilling another dozen bullets on the ground and then scrambled back through that hole in the cyclone fence behind the bank. On the other side of the fence they piled into a Pontiac Firebird and sped away.
The hole in the fence has long since been mended. Myrna Opsahl’s husband, Trygve Opsahl, a doctor at the American River Hospital where she was taken, tried to mend the hole in his wife’s side, but could not. She died that morning.
Jon Opsahl, who was 15 years old when his mother died, remembers well being hauled out of his high-school English class and to the hospital, where his father told him what had happened. For a while, Jon Opsahl refused to believe it, except when confronted with the most painful reminders. That afternoon, his father, brother and sister tried to eat their lunches in the family car in the hospital parking lot. Jon Opsahl still remembers the crushing pain he felt when his father said grace over the sack-lunches Myrna had prepared for her children that morning.
“And God bless the hands that prepared it,” his father intoned.
Even now, as Jon Opsahl speaks of that moment, he can’t stop himself from crying.
“That was a very, very difficult sandwich to swallow,” sobbed Opsahl.
For Jon Opsahl and his family, the hole left by his mother’s death is made more painful by the fact that her killers were never punished.
There are holes in the story of her death, as well. Memories fade, people lie or make mistakes, or simply refuse to speak. And while the family is certain that they know who killed Myrna Opsahl a quarter of a century ago, no one has ever stood trial for her murder.
Over the years, Myrna Opsahl’s family, and particularly her son Jon, have tried to convince the Sacramento County prosecutors to bring murder charges in the case. But five consecutive district attorneys, including current District Attorney Jan Scully, have up to this point refused to seek murder indictments, insisting there is not enough evidence to convict. Jon Opsahl says even now the Sacramento DA is helping his mother’s killers get away with murder.
“I think Scully is obstructing justice,” said Opsahl. “For 25 years the Sacramento DA has been sitting on this case. And they’re still trying to make it go away.”
Police would later determine that the Carmichael bank robbery was perhaps the most heinous act in a two-year-long crime spree carried out through the state by the notorious Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA)—a small crypto-Marxist urban guerilla group that made even other leftist militant groups a little nervous.
The band was enamored of the Latin American revolutionary guerillas, and sought through military action to spark a full-blown class war in American cities.
The band’s rise to notoriety began with the 1973 assassination of Marcus Foster, Oakland’s first black superintendent of schools. According to SLA communiqués, Foster was executed for his support of a plan to issue identification cards to students. But killing Foster alienated the SLA from some other revolutionary groups, who didn’t see how killing black leaders helped the cause. The SLA proved adept at grabbing headlines, but never enjoyed much popular support for their brand of violent revolution.
Of course, the most famous of the SLA’s revolutionary acts was the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. Hearst was first a captive, then, under the revolutionary name of Tania, became a participant in the SLA’s campaign of car-jackings, bombings and bank robberies.
Most of the SLA were killed in a shootout with Los Angeles police in 1974. But the remaining members, including Hearst, eventually made their way to Sacramento, where the group could operate in relative anonymity. Sacramento presented the additional advantage of having relatively few sheriffs’ deputies to cover a large suburban area. In the Sacramento suburbs, the group would be credited with the robberies of the Guild Savings and Loan (which at the time was in Arden Plaza Mall), and the Crocker National Bank, where Myrna Opsahl was killed.
The gang fled back to San Francisco after the Crocker robbery, but the SLA’s crime spree petered out in August 1975, when two pipe bombs were discovered, unexploded, beneath two LAPD patrol cars. After the bombing attempt, most of the remaining members of the SLA were arrested in the Bay Area in September, after months of searching and surveillance by the FBI. One by one, they were tried and convicted for their involvement in the SLA’s reign of terror.
Bill and Emily Harris were convicted and went to prison for the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. Hearst herself went to jail for the armed-robbery of Hibernia Bank in San Francisco. Two other SLA members, James Kilgore and Kathleen Soliah, escaped and became fugitives for over two decades. Another, Michael Bortin, also went underground, only to turn himself in nine years later, in 1984.
But many of the crimes attributed to the SLA were never prosecuted, including the Guild Savings and Loan robbery, and a string of car-bombings in the Bay Area. And many of those crimes seem to have been largely forgotten.
But the Carmichael bank robbery and the murder of Myrna Opsahl have continued to trouble law enforcement officials, and Opsahl’s family, to this day. Myrna Opsahl would have 11 grandchildren if she were alive today. Her son Jon, now a doctor in Riverside with a wife and three kids of his own, will turn 42 in March, the same age his mother was when she was killed.
“We have done really well for ourselves. Every day is full of wonderful things, our families, our careers. But she’ll never get to share in any of those things.”
Federal prosecutors were the first to attempt, and fail, to bring the Carmichael bank robbers to justice. Only Steven Soliah, brother of the fugitive Kathleen Soliah, was indicted for bank robbery in Sacramento in 1976. The federal prosecution relied on testimony from a woman inside the bank who identified Steven Soliah as one of the robbers.
Defense attorneys, however, presented a customer who had been inside the bank that morning who apparently bore a striking resemblance to Soliah, raising doubts that Soliah had ever been in the bank. In the end, he was acquitted, and the case was set aside for nearly 14 years.
In 1990, the Sacramento County district attorney took another run at the case. John O’Mara, newly appointed as the DA’s chief homicide prosecutor, convened a grand jury to investigate the Carmichael case.
Steven Soliah was dragged before a grand jury, as were Wendy Yoshimura and Patty Hearst. The 1990 grand jury report is still sealed, but in March 2001, Jon Opsahl said he was allowed by Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully to read transcripts from the proceeding. According to Opsahl, Hearst gave an explicit account of the Carmichael robbery, including who was in the bank and who pulled the trigger of the fatal shotgun blast.
Yoshimura was given immunity for her testimony, and Opsahl said she partially corroborated Hearst’s story but refused to identify any of those inside the bank. Steven Soliah also had immunity, but he provided little useful information.
In fact, according to Opsahl, Soliah vexed prosecutor John O’Mara by “playing games,” rarely answering questions directly, frequently excusing himself for a drink of water or some other reason, and then returning having forgotten the question.
Apparently frustrated by the lack of cooperation from his witnesses, O’Mara never asked for an indictment, and despite the testimony of Hearst, seemed to wash his hands of the case.
Opsahl said he managed to get his hands on a page of the transcript of the grand jury proceeding. In the passage, O’Mara appears to be explaining to jurors that he thought the investigation had proved to be a waste of time. He says:
“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 fifteen boxes and put it in a warehouse somewhere.
“So, I doubt very seriously the case will ever be examined, again. I mean it’s theoretically possible that one of these folks on their death bed might say, ‘I want to tell you everything that you ever wanted to know about the SLA and the Carmichael bank robbery,’ but if fifteen years didn’t do the trick, I doubt 30 or 40 will.”
To this day Opsahl is critical of the way O’Mara handled the grand jury investigation, describing it as “half-hearted.” He complained that immunity was given to the witnesses who provided almost nothing in return. And he said that O’Mara didn’t show the grand jury the physical evidence that had been accumulated by police investigators. (O’Mara has refused to return phone calls from the SN&R.)
Almost 12 years later, there have been no deathbed confessions. But the capture of Kathleen Soliah in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1999, presented a potential break in the case.
Soliah, who has since changed her name to Sara Jane Olson, was indicted in 1976 in Los Angeles for the attempted car bombing of LAPD patrol cars. During her new life, Olson married a doctor and had three daughters, became an accomplished gourmet cook, and an all-around upstanding citizen.
Rather than simply try to prove that Olson put bombs under patrol cars, prosecutors attempted to implicate her in a wide-ranging SLA terrorist conspiracy that included not only the attempted car bombing, but a number of other crimes as well, including the Carmichael bank robbery.
Critics of the prosecution dismiss the casting of such a wide net, saying it shows the DA was grasping at straws to get any kind of conviction against Olson. Others believe that the L.A. district attorney’s real interest has always been in prosecuting the much more serious murder case in Carmichael.
Indeed, as they were preparing to try Olson in L.A., prosecutors were simultaneously pressuring Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully to pre-empt their prosecution of Olson in L.A. and file murder charges in Sacramento.
But Scully balked at the request. On January 3, 2001, she issued a statement that the Carmichael case was “not prosecutable,” due to the lack of sufficient evidence.
Back in L.A., prosecutors Michael Latin and Eleanor Hunter pressed forward with their efforts to connect Sara Jane Olson to the death of Myrna Opsahl, using Patty Hearst’s account, some corroborating physical evidence that was found at the time of the crime, and some new ballistics evidence that wasn’t available in either 1976 or 1990.
Had Olson’s case ever gone to a trial in L.A., Patty Hearst was to be the star witness.
President Jimmy Carter commuted Patty Hearst’s prison sentence for the Hibernia bank robbery in 1979. She continued to press for a full pardon (granted by President Clinton just before he left office in January, 2001) and in 1982 Hearst wrote a book, Every Secret Thing, that is considered one of the cornerstones of the case against the SLA in Myrna Opsahl’s death.
Hearst wrote that Kathy Soliah set up house for the SLA in a building that was “little more than a wooden shack” at 1721 W St.—at the time a run-down neighborhood in Midtown Sacramento. The SLA also rented apartments on Capitol Avenue and T Street, and tended to move from safehouse to safehouse, depending on the internal politics and frictions between individual members of the group. In all, the SLA had eight guerillas based in Sacramento: Hearst, Kathy Soliah and her brother Steven, Wendy Yoshimura, Michael Bortin, James Kilgore, Emily Harris and her husband, general field marshal of the SLA, Bill Harris. Hearst attended classes at Sacramento City College, as did the Harrises, but beyond that the group had little interaction with the rest of the community, or even with other radical or anti-Vietnam War groups in the city.
According to Hearst, the federal government’s case against Steven Soliah in 1976 was flawed because he was never in the bank. Instead Steven Soliah, who Hearst reveals was her lover for a time, waited in a blue Mustang across the street from the bank. He and the group’s leader, Bill Harris, served as the lookout men for the four robbers inside: Emily Harris, Kathleen Soliah, Michael Bortin and James Kilgore.
Emily Harris had decided to bring a 12-gauge shotgun along on the robbery, although her comrades had warned against it. It was too much firepower, and had a hair-trigger besides, according to Hearst. Nonetheless Harris brought the gun. The four robbers traveled in the Firebird to the bank.
Hearst herself was waiting just a few blocks from the bank in a VW bus, which would serve as a switch car, whisking the robbers home to their Midtown Sacramento safehouses after the Firebird was abandoned.
After the robbery, the four robbers piled into the van and were flustered, according to Hearst’s account. Kathleen Soliah said someone had been shot in the bank. Emily Harris later said that Myrna Opsahl hadn’t moved fast enough, so Harris attempted to threaten her by thrusting the shotgun at her. The gun went off accidentally, said Harris.
Opsahl’s death was a mistake, but not one Harris seemed to regret.
According to Hearst, Harris said, “Oh, she’s dead, but it really doesn’t matter. She was a bourgeois pig anyway.”
Emily Harris has denied any involvement in the Carmichael case. Since serving her prison sentence for the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, Harris is believed to have changed her name and moved to Southern California, where she works as a computer consultant.
Ever since the arrests of most of the SLA in the Bay Area late in 1975, there have been several pieces of physical evidence uncovered that indicate the gang carried out the Carmichael robbery, including evidence that connects Sara Jane Olson to the SLA in Sacramento.
Olson’s palm print was found on the door of one of the garages where the stolen getaway cars were kept. Other pieces of evidence include Olson’s handwriting on letters terminating the rentals of Midtown safehouses.
Finally, Olson’s fingerprints were found on what was called the “bakery list,” a checklist that details how to plan a bank robbery.
But perhaps the most important piece of evidence wasn’t discovered until L.A. prosecutors Latin and Hunter began piecing together the circumstances of the Carmichael bank robbery to use as evidence in the pipe-bombing trial against Olson.
During their investigation, the L.A. prosecutors had ballistics analysis performed on the ammunition dropped in the Crocker National Bank, as well as the buckshot removed from Myrna Opsahls’ body.
Twenty-five years after the fact, they learned that the shotgun ammo that killed Opsahl matched ammunition found in a dresser drawer of an SLA safehouse on Precita Avenue in San Francisco. The dresser was in a bedroom that police investigators said was used by Olson.
To Jon Opsahl the physical evidence corroborates Hearst’s testimony and makes a compelling case. He believes murder charges can be brought against everyone who was in the bank, including Olson.
“There’s a lot of evidence that puts [Olson] right in the thick of things,” said Opsahl.
Even with the new ballistics evidence, Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully seems reluctant to bring charges.
In March 2001, perhaps because of pressure from the L.A. district attorney and Opsahl’s family, Scully and the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department formed a task force to take yet another look at the case.
Over a dozen phone calls to the Sacramento district attorney’s office went unanswered before spokesperson Robin Shakely finally said “the case is still under investigation.” Shakely would not say whether the investigation has made any progress, if charges are imminent or when a decision was likely to be made.
But Jon Opsahl said the new investigation seemed to consist of little more than watching what happened in L.A.
“As far as I can tell, the task force is a joke. They have never made any public reports. They have never told me anything.”
According to Opsahl, prosecutor John O’Mara has over the years repeatedly told him that he believed Hearst’s account, but that, because she was an admitted accomplice to the crime, he didn’t think she would come across as a reliable witness.
O’Mara did not return phone calls from the SN&R, but he has been quoted in other newspaper articles as saying his decision to prosecute the Carmichael case would depend on Hearst’s performance on the stand in Olson’s L.A. trial.
But Olson’s trial never happened. In a bizarre series of events, Olson pleaded guilty to the attempted car-bombings, saying she believed it would be impossible, given the events of September 11, and the public’s acute anxiety about terrorism, to get a fair trial.
Then, Olson attempted to withdraw her guilty plea, saying she had been browbeaten by her pro-bono attorney, Tony Serra, into taking a plea.
The judge denied the motion to change her plea. Olson is to be sentenced on January 18, although it is possible that date could be delayed. Her attorneys believe she will serve no more than five years.
Former L.A. prosecutor Sterling Norris has been following the case and said Olson was “sold down the river” by her lawyers.
“Believe me, I have no sympathy for Ms. Olson. But I know that [the prosecution] didn’t really have a case down here [in L.A.],” said Norris. “It’s a very strange affair. They have no real evidence placing her down here [in L.A.]. And they couldn’t place her with the bombs.”
Norris, who now directs the watchdog Judicial Watch organization, has offered to prosecute the Carmichael murder himself, and wrote a letter to the Sacramento grand jury asking them to look into the case again. Norris said he thinks it is ironic that Olson will go to prison for a crime she very well may not have done, while escaping punishment for a much more serious crime that, he believes, she did participate in.
Norris also said the Carmichael murder would be easier to prosecute than the L.A. case.
“You’ve got an actual witness for one thing. Patty Hearst was sitting right outside.” Then there is the accumulated physical evidence, including the pellets pulled from Myrna Opsahl’s body. And Norris believes that the emotional element of the murdered woman is more likely to sway a jury to convict than an attempted car bombing where no one was hurt.
“It’s the difference between no case and a real gotcha case,” said Norris.
Gotcha case or not, Norris doesn’t think Scully will touch it. He speculated that the DA was trying to save herself the embarrassment of admitting that the case had been neglected for so many years.
“She’s not going to file charges,” Norris said. “She’s already copped out.”
But despite Hearst’s detailed account and the physical evidence L.A. prosecutors say they have, it is not clear that the Carmichael case would be winnable, especially if you listen to Olson’s attorneys.
Her lawyers concede she was an associate of the SLA in Sacramento. Olson’s role was characterized by her attorneys as “blind assistance.”
“There were a number of innocuous acts of assistance that Miss Olson may have made,” said defense attorney Shawn Chapman.
But Chapman denied that Olson ever lived at the Precita Avenue apartment where the ammunition and other weapons were found. Indeed, whether she lived there or not might be hard to prove as, by most accounts, the SLA tended to move from safehouse to safehouse in nomadic fashion.
Olson has said all along that her involvement with the SLA was nothing more than that of a helper on the periphery: renting apartments and cars, giving money, yes. But robbing banks and planting bombs, never.
“It seems that the SLA did it,” admits Chapman. But nothing, other than Hearst’s account, puts Olson in the bank, or even proves that she participated in the planning of the robbery. For that matter, Hearst is the only participant in the Carmichael robbery ever to testify about who was in the bank.
Not surprisingly, Olson’s attorneys dismiss Hearst’s account as a fabrication, made up years ago to protect herself and to reduce her own sentence. “Hearst is a liar,” said Chapman.
The value of Hearst’s testimony is also questionable given that none of the other participants in the robbery are ever likely to corroborate her story. Even with the accumulated physical evidence, Hearst’s version may seem to a jury like nothing more than one accomplice pointing the finger at someone else.
One of Olson’s former attorneys, Susan B. Jordan, who also served as attorney to Bill and Emily Harris, said that if murder charges were going to be brought, it would have happened by now.
“The Sacramento district attorney has twice refused to indict in this case. I think that speaks for itself,” said Jordan, adding, “This isn’t about evidence. It is about Jon Opsahl’s emotions.”
Another of Olson’s former defense attorneys, Stuart Hanlon, said he was concerned that emotion, not evidence, was driving the calls for Olson to be tried in the Carmichael case. “Nobody is for homicide. Nobody is for murdering people’s mothers,” said Hanlon. “But [Opsahl’s family] are the people who are least capable of being objective.”
Hanlon said he thinks the L.A. prosecutors have been swept up in that emotion. “It’s a very strange situation. They seem to have a very personal involvement in this case.” Olson’s L.A. prosecutor, Eleanor Hunter, recently received the Prosecutor of the Year award from the advocacy group Crime Victims United.
Because the crime happened so long ago, it is impossible, due to the statute of limitations, to bring robbery charges. But even a murder charge, for which there is no statute of limitations, would be hurt by the passage of so much time. Some of the witnesses in the bank have died, others may not clearly remember what they saw.
And since Scully publicly said only a year ago that there was not sufficient evidence to try the case, it could be difficult to convince a jury that there is sufficient evidence now.
The L.A. prosecutors, for their part, have said little, pending Olson’s sentencing. “We’re not going to talk about Carmichael right now,” said L.A. district attorney spokeswoman Sandra Gibbons.
Opsahl said the L.A. district attorney has indicated to him that if the Sacramento DA does nothing, then L.A. prosecutors will attempt to prosecute the case. Such prosecution from another jurisdiction is rare, and politically risky, but there are precedents, said Opsahl. Sandra Gibbons wouldn’t confirm the L.A. district attorney’s plans. “The Carmichael case is up to the Sacramento County DA. Until the Sacramento district attorney makes a decision, we have nothing to say,” she added.
Opsahl said he is so frustrated by John O’Mara’s “bungling” of the case—giving immunity for useless testimony and not presenting physical evidence to the grand jury—that he hopes O’Mara, who put the case in a warehouse 12 years ago, will hand over the job to someone else.
“I don’t think [Scully] has even looked at the evidence. Scully is relying on O’Mara, and he wants it buried. I would like to hear that John O’Mara has stepped aside.”
Meanwhile, Jon Opsahl has steadily tried to keep up the pressure on Scully to bring charges or turn the case over to someone who will. He has launched a Web site, www.myrnaopsahl.com, which chronicles the case he believes exists against the SLA. And he’s started to print postcards, with Myrna Opsahl’s portrait in the front, which are pre-addressed to Jan Scully.
He believes the L.A. district attorney’s office would bring charges tomorrow, if Scully would concede it to them.
“The truth is that I don’t think [Scully is] capable of doing this case. And I’m furious about her refusal to let other willing and capable prosecutors pursue it.” To Opsahl, the DA’s inaction shows a callousness that really isn’t different from his mother’s killer.
“The DA is basically agreeing with Emily Harris when she said my mother’s death didn’t matter anyway.”
He thinks it is ironic that Olson played up her own image as model citizen, churchgoer and suburban mother during the L.A. trial. “She not only participated in the crime that took my mother’s life, but she adopted a life that was parallel to it for years.” He plans to attend Olson’s sentencing where he, like most observers, expects she will be sentenced to a few years in prison, most likely in Minnesota, where she can be close to her family.
But Opsahl said he’s confident that, one way or another, Olson will have to face up to the death of Myrna Opsahl.
“I believe, before she ever comes up for parole, she will be charged with murder, and will be looking at a life sentence.”