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St. Paul Residents Stunned by Out-of-Left-Field Ending to Case

Reaction: Once convinced of Sara Jane Olson's innocence, many of her supporters now feel let down by her guilty plea.

November 02, 2001|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The evening already felt strange to folks here, way too warm for this time of year, a full moon casting elongated shadows of the maple trees, Halloween in full swing but very few trick-or-treaters.

Then came the news from Los Angeles about their friend and neighbor.

Sara Jane Olson, template for a good citizen of this charming capital city, admitted she did it, she tried to blow up Los Angeles police cars as a young leftist radical 26 years ago. After two years of fiercely denying charges she had conspired with the Symbionese Liberation Army, the doctor's wife and mother of three pleaded guilty.

Then she walked out of the courthouse, 2,000 miles from home, and proclaimed her innocence.

"It's all so sad, all of it," said Beth Leonard as she unpacked groceries in the upscale Highland Park neighborhood Thursday night. "Her husband, her daughters, herself. I don't know all the details. I don't know anyone who does. I just think a fair punishment will be hard to decide--and no matter what, it will be sad."

Neither Side Expected Plea

The story of the former Kathleen Soliah, who changed her name and spent 25 years on the lam being what President Bush might call "a good American," has captivated the Twin Cities.

Residents, who awoke Thursday to banner headlines announcing Olson's plea on the cover of both local papers, have followed every twist and turn in the case.

Those who, since her capture in 1999, have taken to hawking anti-Olson bumper stickers, hoped Olson's winding legal path was leading her to a conviction and a long sentence. So did many in California law enforcement, who believe Olson may also have participated in a 1975 bank robbery that left one customer dead.

Those who raised $1 million in 10 days to bail her out of jail hoped prosecutors would view 25 years of good citizenship as a fair repayment to society, as well as ample evidence of rehabilitation.

No one on any side, it seems, expected her to plead guilty in an arrangement that prompted her attorneys to say they expect five years when she is sentenced in December, but the judge to remind her she could still get life in prison.

And it all became more curious still Thursday when Judge Larry Paul Fidler, apparently responding to Olson's contention inside his courtroom that she is guilty and outside that she is not, announced he would hold a hearing next week to decide whether he should reject her guilty plea.

Andy Dawkins, a longtime friend of the family, heard the news when he stepped off a plane Wednesday evening.

"I was shocked, dismayed," he said, repeating the refrain of many over the last two years. "The woman I knew for 20 years was a wonderful, great, outstanding woman."

'They Asked for One Continuance Too Many'

The unmasking of Sara Jane Olson, 54, began June 16, 1999, when her neighbors started to learn what her husband, Dr. Gerald "Fred" Peterson, had known, authorities believe, since before they married: that her given name was Kathleen Soliah, and that the U.S. Marshals Service, the FBI and the LAPD, among others, wanted to speak to her.

At 8:15 that morning, Olson backed the family's new minivan out of the driveway at their Tudor-style home. She headed northwest along the green, winding streets that meander through this upper-middle-class neighborhood.

Six minutes later, police and federal agents pulled the minivan over and surrounded it. Olson stepped out of the car and onto the national stage, a soccer mom turned captured fugitive. And the more her neighbors and friends learned, the better the story became.

She was a contemporary of kidnapped-heiress-turned-SLA bank robber Patty Hearst. She was accused of conspiring with SLA members in planting two pipe-bombs filled with carpenters' nails, neither of which exploded, on the underbellies of LAPD squad cars.

She also had moved with her husband to Zimbabwe in the early 1980s, where he treated the poor and she taught them English and drama.

In St. Paul, she went to a branch of Minnesota State Services for the Blind each Monday at 8:30 a.m. She recorded a week's worth of local newspapers, so the sightless could phone in and get the news.

She acted in local plays, sponsored Democratic fund-raisers and doted on her three teenage daughters.

As to her past, "I don't think she left any hints at all," friend and fellow local actor Fiacre Douglas told The Times the day after her arrest.

In recent months, many here had become increasingly uneasy with Olson's frequent requests for delays to the trial, and even more so with her ever-changing legal team.

The trial was set to begin April 30, but was halted so her lawyers could appeal to a higher court for delay.

More delays pushed the date back to Oct. 15.

"If she would have come clean right away, she would have been more sympathetic," said Jim Odeen, whose son James III was among the few seeking candy in the neighborhood on Halloween. "This has gone on so long, it made her look like she was hiding something. She could have been out [of prison] by now."

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