FBI Arrests Longtime Fugitive Soliah

The Associated Press/June 17, 1999
By John Nemo

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - In more than a decade of community theater work, the reviewers were almost always kind to Sara Jane Olson.

One singled her out as the strongest performer in a 1990 production of ``King Lear.'' Another praised her ``vibrant'' 1993 performance in ``All's Well That Ends Well.''

The critics had no idea what an actress she was. If the FBI is right, Sara Jane Olson - a 52-year-old mother of three who lived with her doctor husband in an ivy-covered home in an upscale neighborhood - is really Kathleen Ann Soliah, a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the band of 1970s radicals who kidnapped Patricia Hearst.

Agents arrested the fugitive Wednesday after receiving tips from viewers of ``America's Most Wanted,'' which featured her in a recent broadcast. The FBI offered a $20,000 reward for Ms. Soliah last month, on the 25th anniversary of a Los Angeles shootout that killed six SLA members.

Ms. Soliah has been wanted since 1976, when she was indicted in Los Angeles on murder conspiracy and explosives charges for allegedly placing pipe bombs under two police cars. The bombs did not explode.

She was to be arraigned today. California is expected to seek extradition.

In a federal warrant drawn up this year, authorities said that in 1984 her husband was aware of her true name and fugitive status. It was unclear whether she was married at the time to her current husband, Gerald Peterson. They bought their St. Paul house in 1989.

Peterson said neither he nor his children had any inkling of his wife's double life.

``I know nothing about that,'' he told the Los Angeles Times. ``I'll tell you the truth, I'm totally shocked.''

No one at the house would comment Wednesday. But Soliah's parents, Martin and Elsie Soliah of Palmdale, Calif., said Peterson knew his wife was wanted.

``She told him about her situation when they got serious,'' Mrs. Soliah told the Times. ``He understood.''

Sometime in the late 1970s, Ms. Soliah arrived in the Minneapolis area, where she moved next door to Peterson, then a medical intern.

Mrs. Soliah said the two lived for a number of years in Zimbabwe, where Peterson worked as a physician and her daughter taught drama and English. There, her daughter gave birth to the second of their three daughters.

Kathleen Soliah and her husband returned to the United States in the mid-1980s, the Soliahs said, settling in Minnesota after a brief stay in Baltimore.

The FBI said she took the last name of Olson, which is common in Minnesota because of the large number of people of Scandinavian descent.

Detectives described Ms. Soliah as being surprised by her arrest - and relieved at the same time.

``We've got a pretty good fingerprint identification that she's the person we're looking for,'' said James Burrus Jr., the agent in charge of the Minneapolis FBI office.

Her capture closes a chapter in one of the most sensational news stories of the 1970s.

The SLA, a band of anti-government radicals with a seven-headed snake as their symbol, kidnapped Ms. Hearst from her Berkeley, Calif., apartment in February 1974. She was 19.

The group demanded that the newspaper heiress' parents, Randolph and Catherine Hearst, distribute $2 million worth of food to the needy before it would discuss freedom for their daughter. The demand later climbed to $6 million.

But then Ms. Hearst changed into Tania, a member of the group that took her prisoner. Two months after the kidnapping, she was photographed carrying a carbine during an SLA holdup of a San Francisco bank - the robbery for which she eventually was convicted and sent to prison.

In May 1974, as people watched on live TV, Los Angeles police trapped heavily armed SLA members in a house and riddled it with bullets. The group's leader, an ex-convict who called himself Cinque, and five other SLA members died.

Ms. Soliah did not participate in the shootout or the Hearst kidnapping.

Ms. Hearst went underground and didn't emerge until 1975, when she was arrested in San Francisco. Although she claimed she was the victim of brainwashing, she was sentenced to seven years for the bank robbery. She served two years before President Carter commuted her sentence.

Today, she is a married mother living in Connecticut, and a sometime actress and author.

``This is all so old,'' she told WCBS-AM. ``I don't want to be drawn into all of this.''

The federal warrant charges Ms. Soliah with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. It also also said she attempted to negotiate a surrender in 1989 through her lawyer, but talks failed because she requested complete immunity.

Soliah's parents took offense to FBI allegations that she was a terrorist.

``She was not among the students who were causing problems,'' Mrs. Soliah told the Antelope Valley Press in Palmdale.

Soliah told the Daily News of Los Angeles that his daughter was in Guatemala in August 1975, when authorities say she tried to blow up the police cruisers.

Ms. Soliah's neighbors described her as a well-spoken and friendly woman, and an avid jogger and gardener. Pat Kramer, who lives across the street, said she was a ``very down-to-Earth person'' who would bring a casserole to block parties.

At least one other former SLA member is still at large: James Kilgore, Ms. Soliah's boyfriend in her SLA days. He was profiled on the same ``America's Most Wanted'' show as Ms. Soliah, but FBI spokeswoman Coleen Rowley said she wasn't aware of any leads on Kilgore.

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