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New Life Vs. Old Murder

Emily Montague put her violent past as Emily Harris behind her. To some it's unfathomable that she now faces trial in a 1975 bank killing.

June 07, 2002|MITCHELL LANDSBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a young FBI agent in the mid-1970s, James Botting spent 18 months looking for Emily Harris and her fugitive band of Symbionese Liberation Army terrorists. Roaming the country, he kept her wanted poster in his briefcase and her face--bright, blue-eyed, imperious--ever present in his mind.

Twenty-five years later, when it no longer mattered, he found her.

By that time, Botting had left the FBI and become head of security for MGM Studios in Santa Monica. There, he was stunned to discover Harris working for the studio under a new name as a highly paid, highly respected computer programmer.

The face hadn't changed, Botting noticed. But just about everything else had.

No longer a fugitive, no longer an avatar of armed revolution, Emily Montague--the name she had taken after she was released from prison in 1983--was now a quiet, middle-aged, middle-class computer consultant with a six-figure salary and a comfortable home in Altadena. She had paid a debt to the society she once battled: more than seven years behind bars for kidnapping, robbery, auto theft and other charges. Now she had a dog, a sensible wardrobe, a loving family, a long list of charitable activities. Divorced from Bill Harris, she had a long-term, committed relationship with another woman.

Once considered one of the country's most dangerous criminals, she was now, by all outward appearances, a pillar of the community.

Paralyzed by professional propriety, Botting couldn't bring himself to approach her.

"I would have loved to sit down and just talk to Emily off the record, but neither one of us could do that," said Botting, who has since left MGM and is chief of police for the Ventura Community College District. "So I never did. We never talked; she probably never knew I existed--and then this whole thing came down a few months ago."

In January, Harris was arrested on murder charges. She, her ex-husband and three other people associated with the SLA are accused of shooting to death a bystander during a 1975 bank robbery in Carmichael, a Sacramento suburb. She is now free on $1-million bail pending a trial next year.

The case has brought on stage, for one more encore, the most operatic and violent of the radical groups to emerge from the leftist antiwar movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Melding black ex-convicts with white, college-educated radicals, the SLA preached a "symbiosis" of races that would throw off the "puritan capitalist ethics of competition, individualism, fascism, racism, sexism and imperialism."

And so, out of the shadows has emerged Emily Harris, SLA code name Yolanda, who at 55 might be settling into a comfortable middle age, were she not accused of pulling the trigger on Myrna Lee Opsahl.

It was a blast that did not echo loudly at the time. Initially, it seemed another random act of violence, and wasn't publicly linked to the SLA. Even after the group was blamed, the Opsahl murder never achieved the Day-Glo celebrity of the SLA's signature acts of mayhem, which included the assassination of Oakland schools chief Marcus Foster, the kidnapping of publishing heiress Patricia Hearst, and an apocalyptic shootout with Los Angeles police in which six SLA "soldiers" died with their hide-out in flames.

No one had ever been charged with the murder. Prosecutors at the time said they simply lacked the evidence. One SLA associate, Steven Soliah, was charged with the robbery, but he was acquitted, seemingly ending any likelihood that anyone would be held accountable for Opsahl's death.

That seemed true even after Hearst wrote her 1982 memoir, "Every Secret Thing." It dramatically described Hearst's kidnapping and conversion to the SLA's cause, but also included a detailed description of the Carmichael robbery.

In a passage that came to haunt Myrna Opsahl's family, Hearst wrote that after the holdup, Emily Harris admitted she had shot a woman.

"It doesn't really matter," Hearst quoted her as saying. "She was a bourgeois pig anyway. Her husband is a doctor."

Harris denies taking part in the robbery, much less killing Opsahl, much less bragging about it. "Unequivocally, I was not involved," she said in an interview in 1999.

Harris gave that interview not long after the arrest in Minnesota of Steven Soliah's sister, Kathy Soliah, who had been living for years as a fugitive under the name Sara Jane Olson. She was charged with, and ultimately convicted of, trying to bomb two Los Angeles Police Department squad cars for the SLA.

Friends said Harris knew Olson's arrest could lead prosecutors to reopen the Opsahl murder case. That Harris did not flee, despite having the opportunity and means to do so, shows how much she has changed, these supporters say.

To take a measure of how far Emily Harris has traveled since her days as an urban guerrilla, scurrying from one low-rent SLA safe house to another, one need only drive by the home in Altadena that she bought in 1995 and occupies with her partner, Noreen Baca.

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