Former fugitive in SLA bomb case claims Sept. 11 attacks forced her guilty plea

Thursday, November 1st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ In an odd final act of a notorious criminal case from the 1970s radical era, a former Symbionese Liberation Army fugitive told a judge she was guilty of possessing bombs with intent to murder police officers, then left court and declared she was innocent.

Sara Jane Olson, a former member of the Symbionese Liberation Army who was arrested in 1999, said she only admitted her guilt Wednesday because the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks made it impossible for her to get a fair trial.

``I pleaded to something of which I'm not guilty,'' Olson, 54, said outside court. ``Given that law enforcement has risen in credibility, it was inevitably going to play on the minds of jurors.''

Deputy District Attorney Eleanor Hunter said that during plea negotiations Olson did not deny her culpability in the effort to bomb two Los Angeles police cars in 1975.

``She's either lying in court or lying to the press to try to save face,'' Hunter said.

The prosecutor acknowledged that the trial would have depicted the SLA as a terrorist organization and exhumed its violent history, including crimes with which Olson was not charged. Defense lawyers lost a bid to delay the trial in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

``Justice weeps for Sara Jane Olson,'' said defense attorney J. Tony Serra. ``Sara Jane Olson is truly a victim of Sept. 11. We didn't have a level playing field. They have brandished about the term of domestic terrorism.''

Olson, 54, made no reference to the attacks during the hearing in which she admitted to possessing bombs and attempting to explode them in two incidents _ one at the Hollenbeck Police Station in Los Angeles and another near a House of Pancakes restaurant in Hollywood on Aug. 21, 1975.

Neither bomb went off. Prosecutor Eleanor Hunter said one of them was one of the largest pipe bombs ever built in the United States and would have injured many people.

Olson, whose given name was Kathleen Soliah, was accused of targeting the officers in retaliation for the deaths of six SLA members in a 1974 shootout and fire at a Los Angeles house. The SLA gained national notoriety after the 1974 kidnapping of media heiress Patty Hearst.

Soliah vanished a short time after the attempted bombings. She was indicted in 1976 but remained a fugitive until her June 1999 capture in St. Paul, Minn., where she was living under the assumed name, Sara Jane Olson.

Minnesota friends who helped raise Olson's $1 million bail were shocked by the plea, but remained supportive. ``She is a very good person,'' friend Kathy Cima said. ``I think it's a bad time to be on trial.''

The trial, which had lurched to a start last week, then stopped during motions, was to have provided a post-mortem on the SLA's violent history and perhaps a finale to a story which once riveted America.

Hearst, who was 19 when the group kidnapped her, was to return as a witness against Olson a quarter century after she herself was convicted of armed bank robbery in an SLA heist.

Prosecutors dismissed three other charges Wednesday against Olson, but did not guarantee her a specific sentence. Her lawyers said they expected her to get about five years in prison, but she could be sentenced to life behind bars Dec. 7.

Before Olson's arrest, the former radical had built a life as a wife, mother of three children, sometime actress and gourmet cook. She was known for her volunteer and community service.

After the hearing, Olson said she had to consider the possibility of being convicted and sentenced to life in prison. She said her lawyers advised her that her chances of a lesser sentence would be better if she pleaded guilty.