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Police union wants Sara Jane Olson to serve parole in California

L.A. Police Protective League says the ex-SLA member, imprisoned for trying to kill two officers, will be better monitored here than in Minnesota, near family. Her release is expected this month.

March 10, 2009|Andrew Blankstein

The Los Angeles police union Monday called on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to oppose a bid by former Symbionese Liberation Army member and fugitive Sara Jane Olson to serve her supervised parole in Minnesota, where she would be near her family.

Olson, 62, known as Kathleen Soliah during her SLA days, is expected to be released later this month from Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, where she is serving a sentence for attempting to kill two Los Angeles Police Department officers with pipe bombs in 1975.

The Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents 9,800 LAPD officers, argues that Olson's request should be denied because Minnesota does not share the same interest that California does in making sure that she fulfills the obligations of her sentence.

"We do not believe that the state of Minnesota has a sufficient interest in ensuring that Ms. Soliah does not violate her conditions of parole," union President Paul M. Weber said.

"The responsibility to ensure that Ms. Soliah follows each and every requirement of parole is one which should be undertaken by the state of California, not 'outsourced' to another state. Ms. Soliah should be allowed to travel to another state when she fulfills her obligations to California, and not a minute before."

Some legal experts have questioned the union's reasoning.

UC Irvine law professor and former Los Angeles Times reporter Henry Weinstein said that given prison overcrowding and the state's budget woes, California should be happy if Minnesota is willing to take responsibility for Olson.

"Unless they can show some reason why Minnesota is not going to do a good job in supervising her, it strikes me as a bad argument," Weinstein said. "Minnesota is not exactly some Third World country. I don't see what their argument is, other than wanting their pound of flesh to keep her here."

Southwestern Law School professor Robert Pugsley said that although he understood the union's "emotional concern," as a practical matter, Minnesota "would be no less concerned than California with someone who had her track record." He said it was in the best interests of everyone when parolees are located where they are likely to find a job or have a support network.

Shari Burt, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, said Tuesday that the state was ready to allow Olson to serve her supervised parole in Ramsey County if California authorities gave the go-ahead.

"We will do our utmost to provide the appropriate level of supervision for Sara Jane Olson," Burt said.

If her bid is approved, Olson would be one of more than 1,000 California offenders on parole supervision in other states. That, however, is a small portion of the state's total parolees. By law, the vast majority are returned to their county of last legal residence in California, barring extenuating circumstances, such as if a victim lives nearby.

The product of a middle-class Palmdale family, Olson joined the radical group SLA -- best known for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patty Hearst -- in the mid-1970s. She went into hiding after being charged with placing nail-packed explosive devices under police cars. The devices were discovered before detonation when the trigger on one malfunctioned and it failed to explode.

Known at the time as Kathleen Soliah, she changed her name to Sara Jane Olson, left California and married Dr. Gerald Peterson, an emergency-room physician. The couple lived for a while in Zimbabwe before settling in St. Paul, Minn. Olson lived the quiet life of a homemaker and mother of three daughters in a Tudor-style home in an upscale neighborhood near the Mississippi River and performed in a local theater's Shakespeare productions.

Her second life came to an abrupt end in 1999 when she was apprehended soon after being featured on TV's "America's Most Wanted" and subsequently imprisoned.

After serving six years of a 12-year term, she was released on parole last year, and corrections officials cleared a transfer to Minnesota for her.

But as she was preparing to board the plane home, she was detained by prison officials and taken to her mother's home in Palmdale. It was there that she was informed of a "computation error" in which it was discovered that she had another year to go on her prison sentence. The extra prison time meant that Olson needed to renew the parole transfer request with California and Minnesota prison officials.

Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the department was considering the request and would know whether it was approved "by the time she is released on parole."

Thornton said the exact release dates of inmates are not divulged, for safety and security reasons.

"Parole is about re-integrating prison offenders back into the community," Thornton said. "So if they are in place where they have family support or a job lined up, that increases their chances for success on parole."

--

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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