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SLA Bank Robbery Senseless, Hearst Says

Crime: She denounces the group that kidnapped her and voices no qualms about testifying in the case.

January 23, 2002|ANNA GORMAN and NANCY VOGEL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst on Tuesday called a 1975 bank robbery that left a mother of four dead "a violent, senseless, evil act" committed by bloodthirsty revolutionaries.

Hearst said she has no qualms about testifying against former members of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army, which kidnapped her and with which she eventually participated in two bank robberies.

"I don't have any skeletons in my closet," she said in an an appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live." "I'm not afraid to go in front of a jury."

Hearst said the Crocker National Bank robbery in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael was part of the SLA's plan to overthrow the government.

"This was not a robbery," said Hearst, who has admitted to driving a getaway car that day. "It was an expropriation. It was a combat operation."

The SLA declared war against the United States and boasted of the groups crimes as battles in that war, Hearst said. "It really was their own little jihad that they had going," she said.

Hearst, 47, is expected to be the prosecution's star witness in the case against four former radicals arrested last week in the 1975 robbery and murder. Hearst, who was granted immunity in the Carmichael case, described the crime to FBI agents in 1976 and then gave details in her 1982 book, "Every Secret Thing." She also testified in 1990 before a Sacramento County grand jury, which declined to return an indictment.

Prosecutors say Hearst's account of the crime is bolstered by physical evidence and testimony of other witnesses. But defense attorneys say she is a criminal herself and cannot be believed.

Hearst was convicted in 1976 of robbing the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco with the SLA and served nearly two years for the crime. Surveillance photos showed Hearst carrying a semiautomatic carbine. Her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, and she was pardoned by President Bill Clinton last year.

Last week, William and Emily Harris, Mike Bortin and Sara Jane Olson were charged with murder in the shooting death of 42-year-old Myrna Opsahl as she deposited church offering receipts at the bank. The four have all maintained their innocence. A fifth suspect, Jim Kilgore, remains at large. .

Hearst was kidnapped Feb. 4, 1974, by members of the SLA, a small band of radicals founded in the Bay Area in the 1970s whose slogan was: "Death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people."

During the television interview Tuesday, Hearst described her experience being kidnapped while a UC Berkeley student. She said she was locked in a closet, tortured and brainwashed to do exactly what the group's leaders told her to do.

She said the kidnapping and the Hibernia Bank robbery instilled in her feelings "of guilt and self-loathing and despair and pain that was just overwhelming."

Her life has never been the same since the armed kidnappers knocked on her door, Hearst said. "I've lived my entire adult life in many ways haunted by what happened," she said.

Hearst said she had been telling authorities for years about what happened at the Carmichael bank, and that she feels bad for Riverside County physician Jon Opsahl, who has pressured authorities to bring his mother's killers to justice.

"I felt like I was throwing down the gauntlet saying, 'Look, this is what happened,'" Hearst said. "There's a family out there that needed to know what happened."

In her book, Hearst wrote that she drove a getaway car and was parked outside the bank while Emily Harris, Olson, Kilgore and Bortin went inside. Others helped outside, she wrote.

Most of them wore disguises, including ski masks and wigs, she wrote. The book says Bortin stood on a teller's counter and waved his gun around, Olson emptied the tellers' drawers and Emily Harris shot the female customer.

Hearst, a mother of two who now lives in Connecticut, was prepared to testify against Olson in the Minnesota woman's recent attempted bombing case in Los Angeles, but said she was let off the hook when Olson pleaded guilty. Last week, Olson was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison for her role in the failed bombing plot to kill LAPD officers in 1975.

Now, Hearst said, she stands ready to tell a jury what the Harrises, Bortin and Olson did during the Carmichael bank robbery. She said the hold the SLA had over her, which she blamed for her participation in their crimes, is long gone.

"When I was in a closet and they were threatening to kill me, I was terrified of them at one time," she said. "They just don't have any power over me anymore. They haven't had for years."

Hearst described the Harrises as "extremely dedicated revolutionaries." And she said Olson was a "forceful personality" who dragged her siblings and friends into the SLA in the 1970s and who has not been completely honest about her involvement in the group.

Hearst said Olson pleaded guilty in the attempted bombing case because she was guilty and because of the evidence--including Hearst's testimony--she would have had to face at trial.

Olson made a brief court appearance Tuesday in Sacramento, where a judge appointed her Beverly Hills attorney Shawn Chapman to represent her in the murder case.

Outside the courtroom, Chapman told reporters that Olson is innocent and has no information implicating the others arrested in Opsahl's murder.

Chapman also said that Hearst has been "disbelieved in every venue" in which she has spoken about SLA activities.

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