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Olson Sentenced to 14 Years in Prison; Parole Possible in 8

State board cites violent nature of former Symbionese Liberation Army associate's crime and the fact she was a fugitive for 24 years.

October 17, 2002|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

CHOWCHILLA — The state Board of Prison Terms ruled Wednesday that Sara Jane Olson, convicted last year in a failed bomb plot to kill Los Angeles Police Department officers, should serve 14 years for her crime.

The former associate of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army will not be eligible for parole until at least 2010.

The board made its decision at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, after an emotional 1 1/2-hour hearing at which Olson and two intended victims of the 1975 bombing attempt testified. Olson's lawyer had asked that she serve no more than five years and four months.

Board commissioner Tom Bordonaro said the three-member panel has a duty to protect the public from "extraordinary crimes." The board based its decision on the fact that Olson was a fugitive for nearly 25 years, the multiple intended victims and the violent nature and seriousness of the crime, Bordonaro said.

"Only by virtue of circumstance did the bomb not discharge," he said. "It would have surely taken the lives of the officers along with great probability of those who were in the immediate vicinity."

Olson appeared at the hearing wearing the prison uniform of jeans, a white and blue jersey and tennis shoes, and much of the time appeared to be on the verge of tears. Olson, who changed her name from Kathleen Soliah, told the commissioners that she has had a lot of time in prison to think about what she did and what she could have done differently.

"I'm incredibly sorry," said Olson, 55. "Of course, I can't take it back so I have to take responsibility, and that's what I'm doing now."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Latin, however, disputed that remark:

"This is a textbook example of somebody who did not take responsibility," he said. "She took desperate and elaborate measures to avoid responsibility."

Olson pleaded guilty last year to two charges of attempting to bomb two Los Angeles police cars in what prosecutors said was a plot to avenge the deaths of six Symbionese Liberation Army members during a shootout with Los Angeles Police Department officers a year earlier. Olson had lived as a suburban mom while on the lam for nearly a quarter century before her arrest in 1999.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler sentenced her in January to 20 years to life in state prison, but warned her that the state board has the authority to make the final decision, and that she could spend the rest of her life behind bars.

The board has the power to set Olson's sentence because the crime was committed before 1977, when California sentencing laws changed.

The board is permitted to hold hearings to determine whether such inmates are "serious offenders" and should have their sentences extended.

As the hearing started, Olson began crying and wiped her eyes. When the commissioner asked her if she was OK, she responded, "No I'm not, but there's not much I can do about it."

LAPD Officer John Hall, who narrowly escaped death from one of the bombs, said, "It has taken 27 years to bring this defendant to justice for this cowardly act ... I would hope you would protect our citizens from terrorists -- both past and present."

Retired officer Marty Feinmark, who found the other bomb beneath an unmarked car, echoed those thoughts. "Just because we weren't blown up or anybody else wasn't blown up, that means nothing," he said. "The intent was there."

Olson was indicted by the Los Angeles County Grand Jury in 1976 on charges of conspiring to murder police officers by planting the bombs. She is also charged with murder in a Sacramento-area bank robbery that left a mother of four dead.

The board heard arguments from both sides and asked Olson several questions, including why she fled. Her attorney, Shawn Chapman, responded, saying that her client left town before an indictment was issued, but acknowledged that she fled because she saw her friends and brother arrested for crimes committed by the SLA. Chapman also said that Olson admits she helped the SLA, but denies making pipe bombs or planting them beneath police cars.

Chapman urged the board not to extend the sentence, arguing that her client has been a law-abiding, peaceful and productive member of society since the crimes were committed. Olson, a mother of three from St. Paul, Minn., read to the blind, taught English classes and tutored drama students, she said.

"She poses no threat of danger whatsoever to society," Chapman said, adding that she is being punished. "She is serving hard time."

Latin argued that Olson should serve the maximum sentence of life in prison, with the earliest parole possibility in 14 years. He stressed that the nail-packed bombs, the largest ever recovered in California, were sophisticated, well built and extremely powerful.

"It is not an exaggeration or use of rhetoric to call this act an act of terrorism," Latin said. "There's no question that it was."

Since last May, Olson has been at the state prison in Chowchilla, where she is housed in a dormitory-like room with as many as seven other women. Because of her notoriety and escape potential, she does not have access to educational or vocational programs, prison officials said. She is also on a waiting list for a job at the prison. The prison houses about 3,150 inmates, including 14 women on death row.

After Wednesday's hearing, Chapman said she plans to appeal the decision, which is expected to be final in 90 days.

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