4 in Radical Group of 70's Are Sentenced in Murder

New York Times/February 15, 2003

Sacramento -- In an emotionally wrenching hearing that took the authorities nearer to closing the books on the radical Symbionese Liberation Army, four former members of the group were sentenced today to state prison terms ranging from six to eight years for the murder of a bank customer during a robbery nearly 28 years ago.

The self-styled revolutionary band burst on the national scene with the kidnapping of the newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst in 1974. Ms. Hearst aided in the robbery on April 21, 1975, at a branch of Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, Calif., just north of here, but was granted immunity in return for her testimony. The only trial in the case ended in an acquittal in 1976.

For the family of the murder victim, Myrna Opsahl, the sentencing was a victory in a persistent campaign to bring the killers to justice. A photograph of Mrs. Opsahl, who was killed by a shotgun blast as she waited to deposit her church collections, stood on an easel in the courtroom.

Her son, Jon Opsahl, said at the hearing, "For nearly 28 years, I have lived with the fact that monsters do exist, the homegrown terrorism is real, that the incomprehensible happened, and that beyond our family and church, no one else seemed to care, including and especially the defendants."

Sentenced under an agreement with prosecutors to each plead guilty to second-degree murder were William Harris, 58; his former wife, Emily, 56, who remarried and is now known as Emily Montague; Sara Jane Olson, 56; and Michael Bortin, 54. Judge Thomas M. Cecil of Superior Court sentenced Ms. Montague, who fired the shotgun that killed Mrs. Opsahl, to eight years, and Mr. Harris to seven years. Mr. Bortin and Ms. Olson were each sentenced to six years.

A fifth suspect, James Kilgore, was arrested recently in South Africa and awaits trial in San Francisco on federal explosives charges.

Before the sentencing, Mr. Harris, his hair and beard now gray, spoke to the court, but faced the Opsahl family seated in the first row, and sometimes directed his remarks directly to Jon Opsahl.

"It is your day, and I apologize," Mr. Harris said. "But you're not going to walk out of here thinking justice was done."

He went on: "We are truly abstraction because we are the hated monsters for 30 years. There is nothing I can do. I've thought about your mother. To me, your mother has never been an abstraction. You have never been an abstraction to me."

Ms. Montague spoke briefly, saying, "For the rest of my life I will feel a deep sense of sadness." Her voice was inaudible to many of the more than 100 people in the courtroom.

Ms. Olson, whose arrest in June 1999 after years as a fugitive helped reinvigorate the case, did not speak. In 2001, Ms. Olson, who was known at the time of her crimes as Kathleen Soliah, pleaded guilty to attempting to murder two Los Angeles police officers with a bomb planted under their car in 1975. She has been sentenced to 14 years in that case.

She was arrested in Minnesota, where she lived with her husband, an emergency room physician, and their three children. Her brother Stephen Soliah was acquitted in the 1976 trial for the bank robbery. He was in the courtroom today to watch the proceedings.

After that trial, the case drifted for years as Sacramento prosecutors said they lacked enough evidence to bring the case to trial.

But after the arrest of Ms. Olson, Los Angeles prosecutors began pushing their colleagues in Sacramento to reopen the case.

In August 2000, Los Angeles prosecutors flew to Sacramento to make their case with Jan Scully, the district attorney. They had prepared a computer-assisted demonstration of the evidence, but she did not watch it.

Ms. Scully told reporters today that she instead read a paper version of the presentation because her deputy who handles homicide cases was not present.

She bristled at suggestions that she and her predecessors had dragged their feet. "I still say this case has never been and continues not to be a dead-bang case," Ms. Scully said. "We were very cooperative."

Judge Cecil said he hoped the sentences would bring "a modicum of closure to all parties involved." He said the four defendants were not considered risks to the public.

"We have watched all four behave positively," he said.

The State Board of Prison Terms will decide within the next 120 days whether the sentences are appropriate. Ms. Scully said she would oppose lengthening the terms for the four defendants.

When Ms. Olson pleaded guilty in Los Angeles, her original agreement called for a term of five years, four months. The Board of Prison Terms, however, imposed a 14-year sentence.

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