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SLA ARRESTS

Graying Ex-Radicals Share a Bitter View of Their 'Reckless' Past

January 17, 2002|ANN W. O'NEILL and RICHARD WINTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Neither spoke proudly of the past. One of the last times William Harris agreed to discuss his leadership of the Symbionese Liberation Army--and the terror it spread in the mid-1970s--he was characteristically harsh.

"Did I accomplish anything?" he mused over breakfast in San Francisco more than two years ago. "Yeah, I accomplished ignominy."

Emily Harris, his former wife and onetime partner in crimes that galvanized America, including the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst, was equally blunt: "I made choices," she said during an interview arranged with great secrecy in Burbank, "and, looking back now, I think some of those choices were extremely reckless and ill-conceived."

On Wednesday--nearly 27 years after the fact--when William and Emily, and former cohort Michael Bortin, were arrested in the 1975 murder of Myrna Opsahl, a mother of four gunned down during an SLA bank robbery in the town of Carmichael, near Sacramento.

Also taken into custody in connection with the killing was Sara Jane Olson. She surrendered two days before her scheduled sentencing for for attempting to bomb Los Angeles police officers by planting explosives under their squad cars. Olson had been a fugitive for more than 23 years.

As with Olson's 1999 capture on those charges, the arrests Wednesday yanked a cast of former renegades out of middle-class lives that were uneventful for years.

William Harris, 57 and remarried, served nearly eight years at San Quentin for some of his SLA activities but managed to move to the other side of the law, working in recent years as a private investigator.

For a while, he conducted investigations for the district attorney's office in San Francisco, but his felony record kept him from obtaining a state license he sought in 1995 to continue that work, according to a state official.

Harris subsequently moved back into private investigation by joining with a licensed partner and has been working for San Francisco criminal defense attorney Stuart Hanlon. Hanlon has represented Emily Harris.

Harris and his current wife, Rebecca S. Young, a San Francisco attorney who works with Hanlon, live in Oakland with their two sons, ages 13 and 7. Harris was taken into custody Wednesday morning while driving the boys to school, Young said.

She learned of the arrest when the boys phoned her, she said.

Emily Harris, 55, boasted of waging a hunger strike in the women's prison in Frontera to get a coveted slot in the institution's computer training program. After serving almost eight years, she parlayed her new skills into a career. Living under her maiden name, Emily Montague, she became a computer consultant and shared a home with another woman in Altadena.

A neighbor in the upscale section of Altadena--home to corporate executives and engineers at Pasadena's nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory--remembered taking a young daughter trick-or-treating at the home.

"She saw my daughter and was so nice," Gilien Silsby said of Emily. "She said she was cute and gave her a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. . . . I cannot believe she is Emily Harris and we lived across the street from her all this time."

The third suspect arrested Wednesday, Bortin, had been living in Portland, Ore. In 1988, he married another former SLA member, Josephine Soliah--the sister of Sara Jane Olson. They are raising four children, the youngest of whom is 12. Bortin has spent 20 years running a hardwood flooring business, and has denied any involvement in the Carmichael robbery, according to his wife.

"It was pretty shocking," Soliah-Bortin said of the arrest. Police officers in bulletproof vests forced Bortin to the ground and pointed guns at his head as they handcuffed him, she said.

"All I know is they did a bit of overkill this morning," she said. "We weren't going to come out with guns ablazing. We're just two middle-aged, middle-class, hard-working people who were not expecting this."

During an interview with The Times shortly after Sara Jane Olson's arrest put the SLA back in the news, Bortin talked of the two former leaders of the movement--William and Emily, or Teko and Yolanda, as they were known among followers--as if they had become two members of the local PTA.

"They're middle-class people," Bortin said at the time. "People drift toward what they're meant to be."

The Harrises were products of well-to-do Midwestern families. William became a U.S. Marine and earned a master's degree in urban education. Emily was a straight-A student and college sorority sister.

They became embittered, however, at what Emily later described as a "loss of hope" in America.

"We were reacting to the war in Vietnam, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers, government surveillance," she said when interviewed by The Times in 1999. "We felt a revolution was going to happen. By 1972 and '73, we realized the world wasn't going to change."

They tried to orchestrate that change themselves through a violent anti-establishment campaign.

When interviewed by The Times, William Harris talked about the revolution he tried to lead by observing the spectacular way in which it failed.

"If you do something and you succeed," he said, "then you're a revolutionary of high quality and you get to be George Washington, the father of the country. But if you challenge power and you're rubbed out, you're in the trash bin of history."

He also pondered the day--which has now come--when he would have to tell his sons about his SLA past. His oldest was 11 at the time.

"He knows something's going on," Harris said. "I'll sit down with him when he's 18 and try to explain it to him."

*

Times staff writers David Ferrell and Anna Gorman contributed to this report.

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