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‘70s radical sentenced, then is arraigned again

SHARE ‘70s radical sentenced, then is arraigned again

LOS ANGELES — In a teary, 55-minute court session, Sara Jane Olson was sentenced to 20 years to life on bombing charges Friday and, minutes later, arraigned on murder charges connected to her life with the Symbionese Liberation Army more than a quarter of a century ago.

The hearing capped a stunning week for Olson and other associates of the once-feared SLA.

On Wednesday, she was arrested on charges of murdering Myrna Lee Opsahl during a 1975 bank robbery in Carmichael. Four others associated with the SLA — William Harris, Emily Harris, Michael Bortin and James Kilgore — also were charged.

Friday, the Harrises were arraigned in Sacramento, while Bortin appeared in court in Portland, Ore., to fight extradition. Kilgore is a fugitive on unrelated charges.

But those matter-of-fact proceedings paled beside the emotion-racked court session in Los Angeles.

Frequently bursting into tears while her family gave testimonials and dry-eyed when police officers talked about their close brush with death at her hands, Olson spoke briefly before she was sentenced and came the closest she has ever come to an apology.

"If I did something that caused harm to anyone, I am truly sorry," she said. "I apologize to anyone I did that to."

"I accept responsibility for any pain I've caused, and I'm truly sorry," said Olson, 55, who pleaded guilty in October to two counts of trying to bomb Los Angeles police cars with intent to murder in 1975. After the failed bombings, she became a fugitive, changed her name from Kathleen Soliah and settled in St. Paul to raise a family.

Behind her, one entire row of the courtroom was filled with her relatives — her husband of 23 years, Dr. Fred Peterson, a Minnesota emergency room physician; their three daughters, Leila, 15, Sophia, 19, and Emily, 21, all fresh-faced and dressed and coiffed immaculately.

Olson's chin trembled with emotion when she looked over at her family, knowing that in two hours she would be back in a Los Angeles County jail suit and awaiting a shackled airplane flight to Sacramento.

In the same row were her parents — her mother, Elsie Soliah, made a fiery speech accusing the FBI and police of misleading her daughter when they questioned her years ago — her brother, Steven Soliah, who sat grim and silent. Court records say he was one of the eight alleged robbers in Carmichael, but he was given immunity from prosecution after testifying before a Sacramento grand jury.

Two rows back were Dr. Jon Opsahl and his wife, Teresa. Opsahl had pushed prosecutors to file charges in his mother's death. That campaign got a boost in 1999, when Olson was arrested after spending 23 years as a fugitive.

As the Olson family members made their brief speeches, the mood in the packed courtroom grew somber, and several people dabbed at their eyes.

At the end of her speech, Elsie Soliah said, "Please know our daughter is a good person." Then she turned and bent down to hug Olson, who was seated a few feet away. A sheriff's deputy instinctively approached the two women — defendants aren't supposed to be hugged — but Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler unobtrusively waved the deputy off. Mother hugged daughter, and daughter burst fully into tears, hugged her mother back and said over and over, "You're so nice, you're so nice."

When Olson's daughter Leila got up to say, between bouts of weeping, that "she and my father brought me up in a home filled with love," Olson again broke down, particularly when Leila went over and hugged her.

But there were no hugs and tears when Los Angeles Police Officer John Hall got up to say that when a bomb was placed under his police car in August 1975, he was eating dinner in a "full restaurant," whose plate glass window was 5 feet from his patrol car.

"It horrifies me to think that the lives of dozens of people would have ended because of these terrorist activities," Hall told the court.

Another officer, Martin Feinmark, who retired two years ago and was another intended bombing victim, said, with reference to the coming murder case in Sacramento, "I hope that Ms. Olson, if she is convicted, can apologize to (the Opsahl family)."

He also said that the police car that Olson has admitted trying to bomb was actually a community service car and that the next person to drive it would have been "a civilian carrying a car full of children."

Under a 1977 change in state sentencing laws, Olson should be eligible for parole in five years and four months. Her defense attorney, Shawn Chapman, said that "if she behaves herself," that could even be cut in half and she would serve two years and eight months. Whether she gets out that early depends on the state Board of Prison Terms.

After she was sentenced, she pleaded not guilty to the murder charges and bail was set at $1 million, a point made moot by the start of her prison term.

After the court session, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley praised his two prosecutors, Michael Latin and Eleanor Hunter, and said that one of the lessons that could be drawn from the emotional hearing is that there are "really decent people, such as the friends of (Olson). A lot of collateral damage was done. When they get caught, a lot of other people suffer — family and friends suffer."

But in a clear reference to Olson's supporters' frequent mentions of her abilities as a cook, Cooley said, "I thought of Myrna Opsahl, and all the meals she didn't get to cook."

And Jon Opsahl, who has spent nearly two years with this case, said after the roller-coaster court ride, "I actually felt sorry for the family and friends of Sara Jane, and for their loss. When it comes to violence, nobody wins."

Asked how he felt about Olson's prison sentence, he said, "The sentence is immaterial. She's already facing murder charges and life in prison," if convicted.

And when asked about her apologies in court, Opsahl said, "That apology was too little, too late."