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SLA ARRESTS

4 SLA Figures Arrested in '75 Bank Slaying

Crime: Sara Jane Olson, the Harrises and two others are accused of a shooting described in a book by Patty Hearst.

January 17, 2002|ANNA GORMAN NANCY VOGEL and MITCHELL LANDSBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A full generation after their alleged crime, William and Emily Harris and Sara Jane Olson, co-survivors of the weird and violent revolutionary movement known as the Symbionese Liberation Army, were arrested Wednesday and charged with murdering a Sacramento-area church volunteer during a 1975 bank robbery.

A fourth person, Michael Bortin, was arrested on similar charges. The case was notorious in part because kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst admitted taking part and described in a book how the robbery and killing took place.

Hearst, who said she was brainwashed by the cult-like terrorist group, was long ago granted immunity from prosecution for her role. She told her story to at least one grand jury, but her testimony was not enough to bring charges.

The arrests came two days before Olson, who changed her name from Kathleen Soliah and spent years as a fugitive, was scheduled to be sentenced in Los Angeles County Superior Court for her role in an SLA bomb plot. Prosecutors said they acted now because they had collected enough evidence in the bombing case to file charges in the bank murder.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday February 1, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Bank robbery victim--Myrna Opsahl, a Seventh-day Adventist Church member who was fatally shot during a 1975 bank robbery allegedly involving former members of the SLA, was depositing money from a Saturday church service, not a Sunday service as reported in a Jan. 17 story in Section A on the arrest of four suspects in the case.

Olson, who pleaded guilty in the attempted bombing, has denied taking part in the robbery at a Crocker National Bank branch in Carmichael, a Sacramento suburb.

After a tearful goodbye to her husband and three daughters, she surrendered to authorities Wednesday afternoon at her lawyer's office in Beverly Hills. The other three suspects had been arrested in quick succession Wednesday morning, Emily Harris near her home in Altadena, William Harris while driving his sons to school in Oakland, and Bortin at his home in Portland, Ore. All four were being held without bail.

Murder charges were also filed against a fifth suspect, James Kilgore, who vanished years ago and remains at large.

The arrests were a bittersweet requital for the family of Myrna Opsahl, who was making a deposit on behalf of the Carmichael Seventh-day Adventist Church when she was shot at close range on April 21, 1975. She left behind a husband and four children, including a 15-year-old son, Jon Opsahl, who later became a physician in Riverside County and dedicated himself to seeing that his mother's killers were brought to justice.

"Our family has waited 26 years for this day," Jon Opsahl said at a news conference in Sacramento. Turning to Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas, he added: "It's about time."

Blanas smiled and put a hand on Opsahl's shoulder.

Opsahl said that before Los Angeles prosecutors brought evidence to the family in the summer of 2000, he and his father and siblings had largely given up. Three previous Sacramento County district attorneys did not believe there was enough evidence to file charges.

The timing of the arrests provoked questions, coming just two days before Olson's sentencing on charges of planting a bomb under a Los Angeles police car in 1975. The bomb never exploded.

Sacramento County Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. James E. Lewis said the charges--developed by a task force created last March--were primarily based on thousands of pieces of existing evidence and hundreds of statements from witnesses that were accumulated, reviewed and prepared for prosecution.

And Sacramento County Dist. Atty. Jan Scully said there is additional corroborating evidence implicating the five suspects.

"Using forensic testing procedures not available until recently," she said, "the FBI laboratory linked the lead pellets that killed Mrs. Opsahl to shotgun shells found in an SLA hide-out in San Francisco."

The 1999 arrest of Olson--who had spent 23 years as a fugitive, most of them as a middle-class housewife and mother in suburban Minneapolis--helped restart an investigation that had long since gone cold, said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. "That is what broke it open," he said.

Olson's arrest allowed Los Angeles police and prosecutors to reexamine a mountain of evidence collected by Sacramento County authorities in connection with the Carmichael robbery and murder. Authorities said Olson did not provide any information to further the bank murder case.

Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Attys. Michael Latin and Eleanor Hunter have said forensics experts linked live shells found in the bank and shotgun projectiles in Opsahl's body with ammunition in the Harrises' San Francisco apartment. Olson's palm print was also found in a Sacramento garage where SLA members stored the getaway car from the Carmichael robbery, they said.

Officials Guess at Use of Stolen Money

Hunter and Latin have said they believe the Carmichael bank robbery helped pay for bomb-making materials and for the car used to drive the conspirators to Southern California, where they then attempted to blow up Los Angeles Police Department cars, including one parked behind the International House of Pancakes on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.

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