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SLA ARRESTS

Victim's Son Wouldn't Let the Case Die

January 17, 2002|GEOFFREY MOHAN and NANCY VOGEL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Over the years, the sight of Sara Jane Olson's face was enough to fill Dr. Jon Opsahl with anger.

It was the way she seemed to proffer a Norman Rockwell-like lifestyle as a defense to charges that, more than a quarter of a century ago when she was known as Kathleen Soliah, she allegedly helped a band of self-styled revolutionaries who gunned down Opsahl's mother as she deposited church offering receipts in a small-town bank branch.

"She was a wonderful mother and helped us out in every way, and it was kind of the parallel life that Kathleen Soliah assumed that was disturbing, how she participated in a crime that took a life and then kind of assumed [that lifestyle]--and to actually use that in her defense in some ways," said Opsahl, who was 15 when his mother, Myrna Lee Opsahl, 42, was hit by a shotgun blast at a Carmichael bank branch.

The hunt for the members of the Symbionese Liberation Army--the ragtag leftist group that had kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst--became a personal mission for Opsahl. He wanted to bring each member to justice, bring his mother's forgotten story to life, and make the SLA eat their callous words about his mother's murder.

"Emily Harris was quoted in Patty Hearst's book as saying that her death doesn't matter anyways, she was a bourgeois pig," Opsahl said. "Those words have always kind of haunted us, because having the killers, the known killers, never be held accountable kind of kept ringing true, that her death didn't matter.

"So this is very therapeutic, in the sense of realizing that it did matter. It matters a lot to a lot of people, and we're very happy to see that the killers will be held accountable now."

Opsahl, who appeared at a news conference Wednesday with Sacramento law enforcement officials, kept pressure on successive district attorneys in Sacramento, none of whom brought charges against Sara Jane Olson, William and Emily Harris and Michael Bortin until Wednesday.

Setting Up a Web Site

As time and technology changed, Opsahl took his quest to the Internet, setting up a Web site, http://www.myrnaopsahl.com, where he laid out the contours of his mother's life and the evidence he had culled over years of meeting with law enforcement investigators in Sacramento and Los Angeles.

"We know who was there when she was shotgunned to death," the site says. "We know who pulled the trigger. One of the self-confessed participants wrote a book and told us. Another of the eight broke down and told a friend."

The Riverside resident said he was insulted by the SLA's disdain for his mother, and what he thought was compelling evidence that went ignored.

Every time there was a book or movie that spotlighted Hearst or the SLA, often in a forgiving light, his mother's story got short shrift. None focused on the homemaker mother of four, a native of Cheyenne, Wyo., with Midwestern values, who grew up in Lynwood, and married a Norwegian doctor, Trygve Opsahl, whom she met when she was a nursing student at Loma Linda Hospital. He is now retired and living in Sonora, Calif.

When Olson was arrested in 1999, Opsahl thought that maybe she would tell authorities the facts about his mother's slaying.

"I thought maybe she regretted it and wanted to talk," he said. "But she quickly hid behind her lawyers and put on this soccer-mom act, and the public even came to her defense. But I said, 'Wait a minute, that was what my mom was.' "

Opsahl, now only a year younger than his mother was when she was killed and working at the same hospital where his parents met, said it paid off to be a "pest." Opsahl's resolve helped push investigators not to let the apparently model life Olson assumed after her rebel days eclipse the one that his mother always led.

On Wednesday, the slight, fit physician with green eyes and close-cropped brown hair, called himself "a small catalyst in the whole process," and said there was more going on behind the scenes that led to the four arrests.

Hope returned in the summer of 2000, he said, after the family had resigned itself to never seeing justice in their lifetimes.

"It has been a bit of an emotional roller coaster since the summer of 2000, when prosecutors brought some of this evidence to our attention," Opsahl said. "Before then, we had pretty much given up, that killers did really get away with murder sometimes and that justice in this life isn't always possible. Since then, it's been a very gratifying experience."

Sonja Brownlee, 44, Myrna Opsahl's only daughter, said the arrests should bring peace to her family, particularly to her brother Jon.

"It affected him the most deeply," she said. "He's had the toughest time. I think he's always determined that it was so wrong. For a while, I really worried that he was obsessed. But he's really healthy."

Children Followed in Mom's Footsteps

Now a pediatrician in Elko, Nev., Brownlee has three children roughly as old as her siblings were when her mother died.

Indeed, all four Opsahl children are in their 40s, and have children of their own.

"That's what I think we all really miss," Brownlee said. "She didn't get to meet any of our spouses. She doesn't know any of her grandchildren."

Opsahl said he always regretted storming out of his home on the day his mother died, in a typical teenage huff after a tiff over not having any pens around so he could do his homework. "I left without telling her 'I love you.' It was kind of a low moment," he said.

But he said he is sure she would have been proud of his efforts to bring about justice. Now, he said, it is up to the courts and prosecutors who he believes are better equipped to get a conviction than they would have been a quarter of a century ago.

"It's not a slam-dunk, but all I've ever asked is that the known killers be held accountable to the state's best abilities," he said. "The conviction is secondary."

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