In emotional hearing, former 1970s radical Sara Jane Olson sentenced for 1975 bomb plot

Saturday, January 19th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ An emotional sentencing hearing brought an end to the police car bomb plot case of Sara Jane Olson, but the former fugitive's ordeal in the courts is far from over.

Olson, 55, was sentenced Friday to 20 years to life in prison for trying to blow up Los Angeles police cars in 1975. She was once a 1970s radical linked to the Symbionese Liberation Army, which emerged from the anti-war movement and is perhaps best known for the 1974 kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst.

Immediately after the sentencing, the next chapter in Olson's courtroom saga began. She was arraigned on murder and robbery charges stemming from the 1975 holdup of a suburban Sacramento bank in which Myrna Opsahl, a bystander, was killed.

Olson pleaded innocent to the robbery as the woman's son, Dr. Jon Opsahl, looked on. The charges could bring Olson life imprisonment if she is convicted.

Olson's sentencing hearing in the bombing case drew an outpouring of support from family members who defended the radical-turned-suburban mother. They said Olson was a good person who had devoted her life to public service and to raising her daughters.

``I want to say again that my daughter was never a member of the SLA,'' her mother, Elsie Soliah, said. She went to her daughter at the defense table and hugged and kissed her. ``It's all right. It's OK,'' Soliah said

Olson's 14-year-old daughter, Leila Peterson, sobbed as she spoke of her mother as ``one of the best mothers anyone would ever want.''

``I'll be always at your side no matter what,'' she told Olson, then fell into her mother's arms as sobs wracked her body.

Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler said a change in the law since the time of the offense means the Board of Prison Terms will recalculate the sentence he gave to Olson.

``She could have it fixed as little as five years,'' Fidler said.

In a written statement submitted to the court, Olson had denied having a role in any SLA crimes. She said she helped members of the group obtain fake identification and rental cars only because she believed they ``would be shot to bits if I didn't do my bit to help.''

``I have for many years realized that my zeal led to some bad decisions,'' Olson wrote.

Before she was sentenced, Olson said in court that she never intended to harm anyone when she helped SLA members.

``I helped them because I thought I was saving lives,'' she said.

Olson denied trying to murder police officers by planting car bombs, a plot prosecutors said was intended to avenge the deaths of six SLA members during a shootout with authorities in 1974. The bombs didn't explode.

Olson was a fugitive for more than 20 years until her arrest more than two years ago in Minnesota. She had changed her name from Kathleen Soliah and was a community activist with a doctor husband and three daughters.

Prosecutors called on two police officers who said they would have died if the bombs had gone off. One of them, Officer John Hall, said he hoped Olson's sentence would send a message that terrorism of any kind will not be tolerated.

The SLA was formed in 1973 when a small group of middle-class college graduates adopted a seven-headed snake as their symbol, an ex-convict as their leader and the phrase, ``Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people,'' as their slogan.

The band of radicals claimed responsibility for the murder of Oakland Schools Superintendent Marcus Foster, carried out because he supposedly supported a police plan requiring students to carry identification.

The group rose to prominence after the 1974 kidnapping of Hearst, who later joined the group in robbing banks. She could be the star witness in the upcoming murder trial in Sacramento.

Also charged in the bank robbery case are Bill and Emily Harris, Michael Bortin and fugitive James Kilgore. The Harrises and Bortin made court appearances on Friday.

The Harrises didn't enter pleas during a brief arraignment in Sacramento Superior Court. They will return to court Feb. 1 for a bail hearing.

``They are not guilty,'' said Stuart Hanlon, Emily Harris' attorney.

In Portland, Ore., Michael Bortin said at an extradition hearing that he is not a fugitive and will fight the effort by prosecutors to take him to California.