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4 SLA Members Plead Guilty to Killing

They express regret as they admit roles in '75 slaying of a woman during a bank holdup.

November 08, 2002|Eric Bailey and Gregg Jones | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — Four members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the radical leftist group that cut a violent path through California in the mid-1970s, pleaded guilty Thursday to the murder of a churchgoing mother of four during a suburban bank robbery here more than a quarter-century ago.

In an emotional courtroom hearing, the four aging SLA defendants -- Emily Montague, her former husband William Harris, Michael Bortin and Sara Jane Olson -- agreed to second-degree murder charges in the 1975 shotgun slaying of Myrna Opsahl and tearfully apologized to her family.

"I do not want them to believe that we ever considered her life insignificant," said Montague, 55, who acknowledged that she pulled the trigger in the shotgun slaying of Opsahl, but told a hushed courtroom that the shotgun discharged accidentally.

The slaying was "something I've thought about every day for the last 27 years," Montague, a computer consultant from Altadena, said after the court hearing.

"I just hope that by telling the truth that it brings some relief to the family, them knowing that I'm taking responsibility."

Asked why she hadn't done that sooner, Montague paused for a second and then answered: "That's a long and complicated thing."

Under terms of a plea agreement reached after days of negotiations, Montague could spend eight years behind bars and Harris faces a seven-year sentence. Olson, who is already serving up to 14 years for attempting to bomb two Los Angeles Police Department squad cars, and Bortin are to serve six years in prison. A sentencing hearing is set for Feb. 14.

Opsahl's son, Jon, who learned of the plea agreement late Wednesday afternoon, said he was stunned that the case had come to such a sudden conclusion. Although he had hoped for a stiffer sentence, Opsahl said he accepted the penalties that the SLA foursome face.

"There was no reason to pursue any lengthier prison time," Opsahl said, noting that each of the four had remade themselves into responsible citizens with families and children.

"There is no such thing as perfect justice," he said. "There's nothing we can do that will bring my mother back to life."

His father, Trygve Opsahl, also expressed compassion for the four defendants and their families.

"I have no hard feelings for the people involved," said Opsahl, 76, a retired surgeon. "I hope they'll be able to have some life after they leave prison."

Jan Scully, Sacramento district attorney, said prosecutors agreed to the deal only after concluding that substantial legal and evidentiary hurdles remained if they went to trial. The 27-year-old case, she said, had grown musty with age, faded memories and the deaths of some witnesses.

"There comes a time when a wrong, albeit an old one, has to be addressed," said Scully, adding that the agreement was "a very difficult decision for me."

With good behavior in prison, the four SLA members could see their sentences cut roughly in half. A fifth suspect in the case, James Kilgore, remains at large. Michael Mason, FBI special agent in charge of the Sacramento office, said "we will not rest until he, too, is brought before the bar of justice."

Sacramento Sheriff Lou Blanas credited Jon Opsahl as "the man who single-handedly got us going" to reopen an aggressive investigation into the case two years ago. Opsahl, medical director at a Colton clinic, created a Web site devoted to the case and waged a persistent campaign to push authorities to bring charges against his mother's killers. He eventually prevailed after Olson was brought to trial on the Los Angeles bombing charges.

The defendants pleaded guilty before Judge Thomas M. Cecil, for the first time admitting to crimes they had long denied.

Their pleas marked what is probably the final chapter for the paramilitary band, which became notorious after it kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst from her Berkeley apartment.

Hearst reemerged weeks later as a brainwashed, carbine-toting member of the SLA. If the plea agreement had not been reached, she was expected to be the star witness for the prosecution.

Montague and Harris went to prison in 1977 for their roles in Hearst's kidnapping and a string of other crimes. They were released in 1983.

Hearst's past with the SLA, seemingly behind her, came crashing back with the 2000 arrest of Sara Jane Olson, the pseudonym adopted by SLA member Kathleen Soliah, who reinvented herself as a Minnesota soccer mom during 25 years in hiding.

Hearst was slated to be, by her own account, a reluctant witness at Olson's trial for planting bombs that failed to go off under several Los Angeles police cars.

After the arrests in the Opsahl slaying, Hearst presented a different face, calling Opsahl's murder a "violent, senseless, evil act" and suggested no qualms about testifying against her erstwhile comrades.

"They just don't have any power over me anymore," she said in an interview on CNN's Larry King program. "They haven't had for years."

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