Sara Jane Olson Speaks
The former revolutionary struggles to come to terms with Kathleen Ann Soliah and the criminal acts of her past. She was only trying to help.
The trial of Sara Jane Olson, one of the last associates of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), was supposed to be the trial of the century—the last century. But in a new twist, it now threatens to stretch well into 2002 and perhaps beyond. It is likely that her image and words will be seen and heard repeatedly in Sacramento during the coming months, if not years, as her fate is further decided by the legal system.
She recently spoke of her life, guilt and innocence during an interview in Los Angeles. And it may be a while before she speaks again, at least to the news media.
After decades of hiding from the law, Olson was arrested in June 1999 for attempting to blow up two Los Angeles Police Department cruisers back in 1975. Patricia Hearst herself, the SLA’s most famous victim and member, was to have taken the stand as the star witness against Olson to retell the sordid tales of the nine-member band of homegrown terrorists that kidnapped her in 1974. Hearst would tell of gunslinging, bank robbery, bomb making, love, rape, Sapphism, recorded communiqués left in trash cans near community radio stations, turgid manifestoes, graffiti and cockroach-infested hideouts, settling once and for all whether the Nixon-era “revolutionaries” were archcriminals or youthful idealists gone psycho.
Hearst never got the chance. After a series of ping-pong pleas (first “guilty,” then “not guilty,” then “guilty” again) the first chapter of Olson’s case was finally closed last Friday, when Judge Larry Paul Fidler sentenced her to two consecutive terms of 10 years to life imprisonment. Due to discrepancies between old and new sentencing laws, Olson’s lawyers believe she’ll only receive five years and four months—and might serve a little over two years with good behavior.
Among those who spoke on Olson’s behalf before the judge pronounced the sentence were her husband, Fred Peterson; her St. Paul, Minnesota, pastor; and the youngest of her three daughters, Leila, 15. Olson broke into tears as her daughter told the packed courtroom that her mother is “one of the best mothers anyone would want. I want to tell you,” she said, “that no matter what happens, I love you.” Hugging her mother, Leila keened, “Mommy!”
Olson then said, “I did not have anything to do with those bombs. If I did harm, I did not mean to, and I want to apologize. I am truly grateful for all that I’ve had in my life.”
She added, “For all the mistakes I’ve made, I accept responsibility, and I am truly sorry.”
But immediately after the sentencing, Judge Fidler opened another chapter in Olson’s saga. He arraigned Olson on a new charge of first-degree murder, stemming from the April 21, 1975, murder of Myrna Opsahl. Opsahl was gunned down during a $15,000 SLA bank heist in Carmichael. Olson entered a plea of not guilty.
It appears Hearst will finally testify. The prosecution certainly hopes so.
After all, Hearst places Olson right in the middle of the Carmichael robbery and Opsahl’s murder in her 1982 book Every Secret Thing. In her detailed account of the SLA’s Sacramento crime spree, Hearst says it was Emily Harris who pulled the trigger, but Olson—then known as Kathleen Ann Soliah—was in the bank that day, expertly emptying the money drawers.
From the moment Olson was first arrested in 1999, Los Angeles district attorneys were ready to take on the entire 682-day career of the SLA—from the autumn of 1973, when the commandos assassinated Marcus Foster, the popular black superintendent of Oakland’s public schools, through 1974, the “Year of the Soldier,” in which six of the urban guerrillas shot it out with the LAPD’s newly minted SWAT unit and died, in the premiere episode of live, nationally televised domestic terrorism. The prosecutor’s chances seemed dashed with Olson’s guilty plea and the non-trial trial. But with the murder trial on the horizon, prosecutors may get a second chance to conjure the SLA spectacle out of the grim, largely obscure past.
In person, Sara Jane Olson is deeply inscrutable. Is she, as Judge Fidler declared after her numerous flip-flops, “guilty because she is guilty” and deserving of her current prison term? Or is she, as she asserts, little more than an innocent bystander?
When discussing her guilt or innocence, Olson is by turns risible and phlegmatic. At 55, she is thin, with a runner’s body. Sitting in her attorney’s office, she is relaxed, almost too relaxed, as she flings one leg over the arm of her chair, tucks the other against her chest and turns her torso akimbo to make eye contact. It is the pose you expect of a teenage girl, fearful and coquettish all at once—the ingénue.
In Olson’s version of events, the SLA came to her, not the other way around. A few years before Foster was murdered and Hearst was nabbed, Kathleen Soliah was attending UC Santa Barbara, where she witnessed the incendiary anti-war demonstrations in Isla Vista. She shed her high-school yearbook resumé of Girl Scout counselor, churchgoer, honors graduate and “pep chairman” for the Palmdale High Falcons and, after graduating, drifted to Berkeley, still, in the early ’70s, the lodestar for radical wannabes. In September 1972 she met Angela Atwood, and the two became best friends and roommates, taking night courses in radical politics at UC Berkeley and waitressing together at the Great Electric Underground in the Bank of America headquarters. They quit after complaining about their scanty outfits, meanwhile denouncing their bosses, in a five-page letter sent to all employees and a local radio station, as “agents of the ruling class.”
By early 1973, Olson says, she had met Bill and Emily Harris. Less than a year later, Atwood went to live with the Harrises; the three would soon disappear altogether, only to emerge months later with the new monikers General Gelina (Atwood), Yolanda (Emily Harris) and General Teko (Bill Harris). With General Field Marshal Cinque Mtume, in reality a black escaped convict named Donald DeFreeze, at the helm, Teko, Yolanda, Gelina and five other comrades gave birth to the SLA, with a big bang: On election day, they ambushed Marcus Foster, the first black school superintendent in Oakland, who died instantly, cut down by eight cyanide-tipped rounds from a .38-caliber pistol. It was a senseless, idiotic murder, the more so when the SLA proclaimed that it was a blow against the “fascist Board of Education” which was considering reinstating a student ID program, and was therefore “guilty of supporting and taking part in crimes committed against the children and the life of the people.”
At the time, Olson says, she had no idea that her new friends had gone off and started the SLA. It wasn’t until she returned from a trip to Mexico, in late January 1974, that her roommates handed her newspaper accounts revealing that Atwood and Bill and Emily Harris had, it seemed, come completely unmoored. “It made no sense to me. I thought it was stupid. We said, ‘Why did somebody do that?’ My roommate and I just couldn’t figure it out. I had no way of knowing that they were in the SLA.” Soon after, on February 4, 1974, Hearst was kidnapped, followed by Randolph Hearst giving away $2 million in food to ransom her back. Two months later, on April 15, a Kodak 400 surveillance film captured “Tania” brandishing an automatic rifle during the SLA’s “expropriation” of $10,692.51 from the Hibernia Bank, in San Francisco.
“It was very hard for me to accept that Angela was in the SLA,” Olson says. “And really, Emily didn’t seem the type. Bill was a comedian, he was funny. They kept saying in these communiqués that they had all kinds of units. So I thought they must be in the propaganda unit or something like that. They must not be doing the actions these other people are doing. They’re doing some other stuff. Maybe they are taking care of logistics. They might not even be in the Bay Area. That’s kind of what I would tell myself.”
Everything changed after 9,000 rounds of gunfire were exchanged between the LAPD and the SLA, and the charred remains of her best friend, Angela, were pulled from the ashes of a bungalow near Compton Avenue. At a June 2, 1974, SLA memorial in Ho Chi Minh Park in Berkeley, Soliah eulogized her.
“Angela was a truly revolutionary woman … among the first white women to fight so righteously for their beliefs and to die for what they believed in.” To Bill and Emily Harris, and Patty Hearst, the rump remnant of the SLA—three reckless desperadoes equipped with a handful of semiautomatic weapons, a tape recorder, a sheaf of communiqués, the SLA’s multiheaded cobra logo and its warrior slogan “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people”—Soliah chanted, “Keep fighting! I’m with you! We’re with you!”
Shortly after the rally, Emily Harris, disguised in a wig, visited Soliah at the bookstore where she worked, and the two went out to lunch. “I was glad she was alive. I expected them to be killed at any time,” says Olson, who agreed to help them elude the FBI and police dragnet, and “get out of Dodge.”
“I felt bad for ’em,” Olson says, in a burst of defiance. “I did. This was lonely. Everybody they knew had been killed and they were pariahs. How could they have a life? What an awful position to be in, regardless of how they got there, what their own role was in it. They were in over their heads. They didn’t know what they were doing.”
First Hearst then the Harrises were spirited across the country to an unoccupied farm in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. But the Harrises just couldn’t stay away from the West Coast, and by the fall of 1974, they and Hearst were back, once again, Olson now says, seeking her help.
According to Hearst, Olson was waiting for them in Sacramento, where she greeted them with “open arms” and helped them get set up in a new hideout on W Street in a run-down part of Sacramento’s Midtown neighborhood. In Sacramento the group would pull two more bank heists—including the ill-fated Carmichael crime where Myrna Opsahl was killed—before they would flee back to San Francisco. Not only did Olson help the gang get set up in new digs, but she was “eager to get on with her first real action,” according to Hearst, and helped plan and execute both Sacramento-area bank robberies.
Olson refused to answer questions about her time in Sacramento during this interview. She does say of the time when she was helping out members of the SLA: “It got so that I got asked to do a few more things more often, but they were only the kind of things that were survival-related. But, you know, it was getting bad. It had to end. It had to end. They had to leave. I would say, ‘You have to leave. You can’t stay. Now I can’t stay anymore. I have to go somewhere because of you guys.’ ” Olson admits that she brought over “a car full of stuff”—mostly for the kitchen—to the SLA’s new safehouse, on Precita Avenue in San Francisco, and secured birth certificates of dead infants that could be turned into false IDs.
“If I’ve screwed up,” she concludes, “it’s because I can’t say no.”
Strangely, Sara Jane Olson emits a chuckle. She is laughing at herself, at her own bonhomie, and this laughter is terribly disconcerting—as if it is a mask hiding a dark, unthinkable truth.
This impression is reinforced by the odd calibration of Olson’s emotional attachments, and detachments. When she is making a political point of no particular personal relevance—discussing, for instance, the fate of the disappeared in Mexico and the response of the Vicente Fox government—her voice is clear, expressive, full of pathos. But when asked about her brother or her sister, whom she recruited to help the SLA fugitives launch round two of their nihilism, her voice loses its ballast. She peers into the distance and whispers.
And, perhaps, she is hiding something—and there is more to Olson’s story than her good-natured willingness to lend a helping hand. Although the L.A. prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Michael Latin, said at the onset that his case was not a “slam-dunk,” there are pieces of evidence that rattle Olson’s assertion of naiveté. Latin said fingerprints, a palm print and handwriting implicate Olson in the SLA’s robbery of the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael. Olson’s attorneys have conceded that she was in Sacramento and that she performed little acts of help, renting apartments and running errands, but have said repeatedly that there is nothing other than Hearst’s account that proves Olson was in the bank or helped to plan the robbery. Olson denies any involvement in the holdup, but could face a murder charge in connection with the robbery.
Her arrest in Minnesota sparked an intense campaign by Myrna Opsahl’s son, Jon Opsahl (see sidebar story, “The Jan and Jon Show”) and Los Angeles prosecutors to pressure Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully to file murder charges in the Carmichael bank robbery. That campaign culminated last week in the arrests of Olson, Bill and Emily Harris and Michael Bortin. All four were charged with murder.
As for the L.A. bombs, there are Soliah/Olson’s fingerprints on a map of Los Angeles that was found in the San Francisco house on Precita occupied by Bill and Emily Harris. There is a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol, purchased in L.A. and discovered in the desk drawer of what authorities claim was Soliah’s bedroom in the house. There is a cache of bomb components, many of which are said to match the devices placed under the LAPD cruisers, that was seized from a locked closet at Precita. Finally, there is a letter, in Soliah’s handwriting, bearing her signature, sending away for a type of fuse that could only be used in explosives.
When I ask her to explain the letter, Olson replies testily, “Yeah, well, here we go. I remember when they told me about this letter, that neatly ties me into absolutely every locale and aspect of this conspiracy. And I said, ‘Well, what is it?’ I said, ‘Well, I would never have been asked to do anything like that. I was never asked to do those kinds of things. That right away says it’s not me. So,’ I said, ‘let me see the letter.’ So they did, and of course, it looked just like my handwriting. And they said there’s a fingerprint on it. And I said, ‘I can’t explain it.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you talk first of all to [the former SLA members] and ask them about this? And ask them if they asked me to write the letter or not. Am I crazy?’ And then I asked if, at that time, the FBI could have forged my handwriting. But, I said, more importantly, ‘Could they have transferred a fingerprint, because they did have my fingerprints from me stealing that street sign in Santa Maria?’ I said, ‘Find out if that’s what they did, because that’s my handwriting—but I never did it, and I wouldn’t have been asked to do it.’ I asked later on, ‘Did you ask anybody that might have had reason to know [about the letter]?’ And they said, ‘Nobody has any idea what this is all about.’ ”
Is this a lapse of memory, self-deception or cunning evasion?
Later, the conversation returns to Marcus Foster, and Olson says that during the months while she was “aiding and abetting” Bill and Emily Harris to evade the manhunt, she asked them about the assassination. “I said, ‘What the hell did you think you were doing?’ And as far as I know, none of those people had anything to do with the Marcus Foster killing, because they would never, ever defend it in the way, like, ‘Well, I did this and I did that.’ It was just that they felt they had to defend the legacy. And so, they would talk about why it was done. They didn’t do it, but they would defend its being done. Even they would start to see that it was a nonstarter. I think they started thinking, ‘Oh, shit, that wasn’t very good.’ It’s a bad thing to do. Bad, terrible thing to do. Just kill some guy, in a terrible way—and make him a martyr. And there he was bleeding all over the street. Just imagine. Terrible.”
It is Olson speaking those last few lines—not her former friends—and by the time she utters that final “terrible,” she has reached what seems the lowest, almost inaudible, register of her voice, striving to give the word its full emotional impact. But she is off-key, not because she is being untruthful in her expression of horror at Foster’s murder. It is because she has deftly separated the nature of the deed from its perpetrators—and, with nonchalant sang-froid, disassociated herself from the plotters and the assassination too. In the process, she has turned her own past into an abstraction. One is left to wonder whether Olson herself knows the truth anymore.
In truth, there was never any justification for the acts of the Symbionese Liberation Army. It was a “revolution” that had existed only in the eyes of its beholders. To many on the left, the early 1970s was an era of political disillusionment in America. In them, idealism was dying. It had crumbled as the moral imperatives of civil rights and the war in Vietnam receded. The veterans of the New Left retreated into the privacy of their personal thoughts and faded back into the middle class from which they’d emerged. Revolution was a thing of the past.
Still, a dynamic of ’60s politics had yet to spin itself out—as farce. The SLA turned the paradigm of radical politics inside out. The New Left, at first, sought to fulfill the highest aspirations of the American enlightenment. It invoked Jefferson and Paine and Thoreau, and was animated by the idea that politics flows from the conscience, and not just the interests of mankind. The demise of the New Left soured radicalism into an open scorn for the common man and the uplifting possibilities of political engagement. The striving for democracy, the slow, patient, public spadework needed to win a popular following and to arouse the conscience of a nation, as Martin Luther King Jr. had done, fizzled. Stuck on the fringes of American politics—in that brief moment when Nixon’s impending impeachment raised new hopes—bands of crypto-Marxist-Leninists assumed the self-righteousness of tyrants. The SLA, self-proclaimed enemy of injustice and inequality, embraced guns and the underground with the desperate fury that only total isolation can spawn.
Vexed by the absence of genuine political movements, the SLA adopted Prince Peter Kropotkin’s “politics of the deed.” As Communiqué No. 1, the death warrant against Marcus Foster, announced, “TO THOSE WHO WOULD BEAR THE HOPES AND FUTURE OF OUR PEOPLE, LET THE VOICE OF THEIR GUNS EXPRESS THE WORDS OF FREEDOM.” Many thousands of white, college-educated, guilt-ridden, middle-class American kids, circa 1973, might not have picked up the guns, but the slogan had its combustible appeal. Kathleen Ann Soliah, whether or not Sara Jane Olson can admit it today, fell in love with the anger, the vengeance and the thrill of insanity.
For two decades or more, the name Sara Jane Olson was fictitious, an assumed identity, a hiding place for the fugitive from the 1970s, Kathleen Ann Soliah. Within that name, Soliah built for herself a refuge, an unreal sanctuary. In St. Paul, Minnesota, she’d married a Harvard-educated emergency-room physician, was a devoted mother to three teenage daughters, read to the blind, volunteered to help victims of torture, organized soup kitchens. She reverted to her Palmdale upbringing—and proved that she was a woman of essential decency. No wonder the reality of a guilty plea gave her such a jolt. No wonder she seems to wear so many faces.
How much easier it might have been for Sara Jane Olson if she’d come clean, if her guilty plea had been given without caveat. Had she admitted how enmeshed she had become in a radicalism gone amok, she might have been able to resurrect herself. This, sadly, seems impossible now. Contemplating what, exactly, was going on inside the Precita Avenue house with all those guns and explosives, Olson says, “If I had anything to do with that, that’s a terrible thing. This is something I’ve always wondered. I cling to things like the bomb expert saying that these were not signature bombs”—by which she means there might be no connection between the bombs found at Precita and those planted at Hollenbeck and the International House of Pancakes. “That’s what I believe.”
I ask her to address the facts that suggest she was more involved in the SLA than she has acknowledged. “You’ve had a lot of time to think about this in the last two years, and there is some factual … ”
She cuts in: “I sincerely hope not. I sincerely hope not. Because I don’t want to be responsible for that in any way. Not because I am afraid of responsibility, but because it’s an incredibly heavy burden to bear.”
“Because you might have supported people who really did commit the crimes of the SLA?”
“Right, yeah,” she says quietly, her voice once again trailing off.
Many months, if not years, of prison lie before her. Perhaps, in that time, Sara Jane Olson will reflect on Kathleen Ann Soliah and decide that they’re one and the same—her. Greg Goldin is a contributing editor of the LA Weekly, where a version of this article first appeared.