Olson Admits Guilt In '75 SLA Killing

St. Paul Woman Surprises Friends With Plea, Says She's 'Sorry Until Day I Die'

Channel 4000 News/November 8, 2002

Four former members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, including Sara Jane Olson of St. Paul, accused of killing a woman during a 1975 bank robbery pleaded guilty to second-degree murder Thursday.

They face prison terms of six to eight years in the plea agreement they entered in Sacramento County Superior Court.

Emily Montague received the longest term, eight years, reflecting prosecutors' assertion that she was the one who pulled the trigger in the shotgun slaying of 42-year-old Myrna Opsahl during an April 21, 1975, bank robbery at Crocker National Bank in suburban Sacramento.

Olson, 55, who is serving a prison sentence for a Los Angeles pipe-bombing attempt, will receive a six-year sentence under the plea agreement. Sentencing is set for February in her case. She will be allowed to withdraw her plea if the state's parole board disagrees with that agreement, authorities said. In court, the defendants all apologized.

"I'm truly sorry and will be sorry until the day I die," Olson said.

All belonged to a 1970s revolutionary band that kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst, who was expected to be the government's chief witness in their trial tentatively scheduled for next year.

The guilty pleas essentially mirror Hearst's account of a bank robbery that wound up with an unintentional shooting.

Olson had been living a quiet, upscale life in St. Paul when police pulled her over in her minivan in St. Paul on a summer day in 1999, whisked her to California for arraignment on the pipe-bomb charges where she vehemently denied the charges.

She eventually pleaded guilty to lesser charges, hoping she would be transferred to Shakopee to serve her sentence in the womens' prison there to be close to her family.

But before her sentencing the charges arose in Sacramento on the bank robbery murder.

Olson, the only defendant in custody, appeared in court Thursday wearing orange pants, a yellow top, and was shackled at the wrists and ankles.

While she denied the charges initially, her family and friends rallied around the mother who was an active volunteer in St. Paul and a well-known actress in community theater.

Her friends raised more than $1 million for her defense and stood behind her during the case.

The plea came out of the blue to some of Olson's friends back in the Twin Cities, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

"They've all pleaded guilty? I'm totally shocked and surprised," Andy Dawkins, a state representative from St. Paul who knew Olson for two decades before her past came to light, told the newspaper. "But I've been continuously shocked and surprised throughout this. I didn't have any idea this was coming."

"I'm not really surprised," Pat Kramer, a neighbor, is quoted as saying by the newspaper. "She was facing a pretty long prison term if they found her guilty. Six years is a long time, but at least this way she'll be able to go back to her husband and family."

William Harris, 57, of Oakland, faces a seven-year sentence after his guilty plea, unless he can convince prosecutors and judge to lower it to six years, which Judge Cecil Thomas called "an uphill battle." Harris was previously married to Montague.

A fifth suspect in the case, James Kilgore, 55, has been a fugitive since the 1970s.

Michael Bortin, 54, a Portland, Ore. flooring contractor, also received a six-year sentence.

The pleas came as authorities were preparing their arguments in the 27-year-old case. They cited new forensic evidence in bringing the charges after Olson's arrest.

All agreed to pay restitution if requested by the family, and to give up any rights to profit from selling their version of the high-profile national case.

"I just hope that by telling the truth, it brings some relief t the families," Montague said.

And Bortin apologized to his fellow 1960s activists.

"I feel terrible for all the nonviolent people that were really idealistic and well intentioned in the 60s. We kind of deflected some bad karma on them," Bortin said.

Myrna Opsahl's son, Jon Opsahl, who led the fight to see his mother's murderers arrested and tried, was in the front row of the courtroom, sitting next to his father.

"I can't say that I'm real happy about all of this," Opsahl said. "I'm glad that this whole thing is over. And I'm also glad that the truth and justice prevailed, finally, here in the end."

A smiling Opsahl declined comment, saying "I want to see it before I believe it."

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