Four Ex - SLA Members Set for Sentencing

New York Times/February 14, 2003

Sacramento, Calif. -- They were radical firebrands in the 1970s whose pictures glared from wanted posters.

But after years of building law-abiding lives in society's middle class, members of the once-notorious Symbionese Liberation Army -- William Harris, 58, his former wife Emily Montague, 55, Michael Bortin, 54, and Sara Jane Olson, 55 -- now admit their involvement in a bungled 1975 bank robbery and killing.

They have apologized and expressed grief over the death of 42-year-old Myrna Opsahl during the heist, which preceded by two years the SLA's kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst. Each agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder rather than face trial.

On Friday, they were scheduled to be sentenced to between six and eight years each.

A fifth SLA member in the case, James Kilgore, 55, who built a new identity and life in South Africa, recently was extradited and is being prosecuted separately.

Only Harris has objected to the length of his sentence. He was expected to be sentenced to seven years because prosecutors saw him as the leader. Harris' lawyer, Charles F. Bourdon, claims his client was not in the bank and did not learn of the shooting until he met up with the group after the robbery.

In a pre-sentencing memorandum, Bourdon said Harris had an exemplary rehabilitation after he and his ex-wife served nearly eight years in prison for the kidnapping of heiress Patricia Hearst.

"Bill Harris is and has been for decades a decent, law abiding, honest, and productive member of society,'' the memo said.

It also disclosed for the first time that both Harris and his ex-wife tried to negotiate a second-degree murder plea when they were sentenced in the Hearst kidnapping 25 years ago. The Harrises' former lawyers, Leonard Weinglass and Susan Jordan, said they were told it was unlikely the Harrises would ever be prosecuted for the bank robbery due to insufficient evidence.

The Harrises divorced after their release from prison. Emily Harris took up computer work and Harris became an investigator for a San Francisco law firm where he met and married attorney Rebecca Young. They bought a home in Oakland where they live with their two sons, now 8 and 14.

Young submitted a letter of her own to Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Cecil, expressing her grief for the Opsahl family while seeking "tender mercies'' for her husband.

"An extra year for Bill is an extra year for his boys,'' she wrote. "Bill's absence from our lives will be profound and will be felt daily. Bill is the one who has taken these children to school every day for the last five years.''

Montague's lawyer, Stuart Hanlon, has said she does not want to comment on the upcoming sentence. She will receive eight years in prison as the shooter. Montague has said the gun discharged accidentally and expressed deep regret over Opsahl's death.

Olson, whose arrest after 25 years as a fugitive began the chain of events leading to the plea agreements, hopes to have her sentence reduced, said her lawyer, David Nickerson. Olson, who built an underground life as a married mother of three children in St. Paul, Minn., will receive a six-year sentence under the plea agreement.

Her case, however, is complicated by her guilty plea to attempted bombing charges in Los Angeles that brought her a sentence now set at 14 years. Sentencing guidelines give her a total sentence of 16 years, Nickerson said.

Bortin, a flooring contractor who also agreed to a six year sentence, said recently he was resigned to his fate.

"I got what I deserved,'' he said. " Just because you've been a good boy for 20 years doesn't mean you don't have to pay.''

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