Activist or terrorist: Trial begins for Sara Jane Olson

Court TV/October 12, 2001
By Harriet Ryan

From outside her ivy-covered stone house, Sara Jane Olson seemed to have the perfect suburban life. She and her doctor husband lived in one of St. Paul, Minnesota's nicest neighborhoods with their three accomplished daughters. She was a stay-at-home mom who filled her days with long-distance runs, volunteer jobs and acting gigs in community theater. She was active in her church and dazzled friends with her gourmet baking and endless energy.

But as she ferried her children to sports practice and took casseroles to sick friends, Olson carried a secret with her. The civic-minded soccer mom was a fugitive wanted for the attempted murder of Los Angeles police officers. Her real name: Kathleen Soliah. And in the 1970s, she was affiliated with the Symbionese Liberation Army, the violent radical group that kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst.

For 24 years, Olson kept that part of her past hidden, but on June 16, 1999, as she drove to a community center to teach a citizenship class, FBI (news - web sites) agents surrounded her minivan and arrested her at gunpoint.

"Kathleen, it's over," an agent told her.

More than two years later, the agent's words seem more like a wish than a statement of fact. Rather than accept the charges and work out a plea deal, as some other radical fugitives have done, Olson, 54, chose to fight the prosecution. She said she was completely innocent, and legally changed her name to Olson. She allied her cause with those of convicted killers Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier. Her supporters bombarded the district attorney's office and police with anti-establishment rhetoric more protest rally than PTA meeting. Her lawyers called the case a "political trial" and her defense committee passed out buttons reading, "Jail the real criminals, the LAPD (news - web sites)."

After several fits and starts, Olson's trial is finally scheduled to get underway October 15 in Los Angeles. More than a simple proceeding to determine whether Olson plotted the pipe bombing of police cruisers, the trial is shaping up to be a long, bitter rehashing of the culture wars of the 1970s.

"A forum for a trial of the political events of the '60s and '70s - the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, the anti-war movement, Nixon and Watergate years, the killings at Kent State and the nonviolent as well as violent activities of the left," the defense predicted shortly after Olson's arrest.

The trial - which the defense claims will be more complex than the Oklahoma City bombing cases or the O.J. Simpson trial - is likely to stretch six months and include exhaustive testimony about the SLA and Olson's ties to it. Jurors will hear two very different histories of the tumultuous world of radical California in the '70s. Hearst, who joined the group after her kidnapping but later said she had been brainwashed, is expected to paint Olson and the SLA as murderous criminals, while the defense is likely to argue that the real villains were '70s law enforcement agents who used lies, fear and violence to silence voices outside the mainstream.

The stakes could scarcely be higher. If convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, Olson faces a mandatory life sentence.

The Crime

When the SLA kidnapped Patty Hearst, Berkeley's wealthiest art history major and the granddaughter of publisher William Randolph Hearst, they also grabbed the attention of national media. Before snatching up the 19-year-old on Feb. 4, 1974, the SLA's notoriety was confined to the Bay area where they had assassinated the Oakland schools superintendent. In the wake of the kidnapping and Hearst's subsequent conversion to the SLA cause, however, every media outlet in the country seemed hot on the story. Newsweek put Hearst and the ragtag radicals on its cover seven times. Television stations routinely broke into regular programming with updates on the case. And even before the FBI captured the heiress and declared the SLA dead in September 1975, the first of a dozen books on the group was stocked in stores.

But the thousands of pages written on the SLA's two-year existence barely mention the crime for which Olson is being tried. On Aug. 21, 1975, two young LAPD officers, John Hall and James Bryan, were on routine patrol responding to radio calls in the city's Hollywood division. Around midnight, they took a break at the International House of Pancakes on Sunset Boulevard, parking their black and white cruiser in a space in front of the restaurant's plate glass windows. Forty-five minutes later, after a meal of pancakes and coffee, they returned to patrol.

Only a few minutes passed before an IHOP customer noticed a "long cylinder object" in the parking stall the officers had vacated. The police were summoned and soon identified the object as a pipe bomb. An alert went out over the police radio for all officers in the city to search under their vehicles. Ten miles from the IHOP, at the Hollenbeck Police Station, a second pipe bomb was found under a parked vehicle used by a civilian anti-gang unit.

Police experts concluded the bombs were identical and deadly. Made from three-inch pipe and loaded with more than 100 concrete nails for shrapnel, the bombs were crafted to explode as the vehicles pulled out of their parking spots.

"These bombs were designed to be activated only when the LAPD officers were inside their cars, while the gas lines were full and the engine was running," prosecutors Michael Latin and Eleanor Hunter wrote in court papers filed after Olson's arrest.

The IHOP bomb malfunctioned, the experts concluded, only because Bryan pulled out of the stall at a severe angle, wrenching two detonating screws "one-sixteenth inch" apart and preventing an explosion.

"The miniscule space between the screws was the difference between life and death, not only for officers Hall and Bryan, but probably for several other innocent citizens just feet away inside the restaurant," according to the prosecutors.

The Prosecution's Case

The prosecution will try to convince jurors that the red-haired upper middle class mother at the defense table was part of the terrorist squad that planted the bombs to "further their goal of leading the country into a full-scale revolutionary war."

Despite the normal suburban life she has now, prosecutors will contend, in the mid-1970s she was a "central member of the SLA conspiracy" during its "most brutal and violent period."

"These bombs were simply a link in a continuing and escalating chain of violence launched" by the SLA, the prosecutors wrote in court papers.

No one, however, suggests that Olson was present for the founding of the SLA. Formed in Berkeley in 1973, the SLA was a tiny band of young white radicals led by a black convict. Most of the dozen or so white members were well-educated and middle class, and all were deeply involved with the city's counterculture. Several of the white members had visited California prisons to lead rap sessions for the inmates on revolutionary topics.

It was the teachers, however, who soaked up information. They came to regard the black inmates as political prisoners and the natural leaders for a counterculture revolution. When inmate Donald DeFreeze escaped from prison and joined his former visitors in Berkeley, the SLA was born. The group name referred to all types of people living symbiotically, and the members took revolutionary names for themselves. DeFreeze adopted Cinque, for example.

The group dabbled in Maoism and Marxism and railed against "the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people." For their first public act, they brutally murdered a beloved black educator in Oakland. Superintendent Marcus Foster, they explained in one of the media communiques that became their signature, was gunned down with cyanide bullets because of his one-time support for a mandatory ID card for students.

Three months later, three members of the SLA kidnapped Hearst and set off a massive FBI manhunt. For ransom, the SLA asked that all of California's poor be fed with money from "the corporate enemy of the people" - the Hearsts. The Hearsts and their family trust spent $2 million on food distribution, but on April 3, 1974, the SLA released a taped communique in which Patty Hearst called the food program a "sham" and said she had "chosen to stay and fight" with the group. The next month, police officers found an SLA safehouse in the Compton section of Los Angeles. In the shootout and fire that followed, six of the nine members - including Olson's good friend Angela Atwood - died.

Before the six SLA soldiers died, the prosecution claims, Olson was hanger-on to leftist causes, offering support to the radical underground but living in the mainstream. But the death of Atwood devastated her, prosecutors say, and afterwards, she joined Hearst and the two other surviving members of the SLA and became a gun-carrying member. Prosecutors cite her speech to an SLA memorial rally in Berkeley several weeks after the L.A. shootout. Olson gave a short, but emotional tribute to Atwood, decrying her "murder" by "500 pigs." She ended by saying, "SLA soldiers, I am with you, and we are with you."

"It was at this point that Angela Atwood's close friend, Kathleen Soliah, decided to carry the torch and become directly involved in the SLA's violent war against the United States government," according to papers filed by prosecutors.

They claim Olson lived in the group's apartments, trained with their weapons, and helped to plot and carry out dozens of crimes designed to "bring strength and respect to the SLA." Among those offenses, the prosecution alleges, was the bank robbery in Carmichael, near Sacramento, during which customer Myrna Opsahl, a mother of four depositing funds for her church, was killed. No one has ever been convicted in the robbery although Olson's brother, Steven Soliah, was tried and acquitted.

Prosecutors say the SLA bankrolled its bombing operations with money from robberies. In August 1975, the group was bent on attacks that would put the SLA back in the spotlight. They discussed ambushing a restaurant frequented by San Francisco cops. They drew diagrams of courthouses and police stations as potential targets. They bought materials and made pipe bombs. In the town of Emryville, they destroyed a police car. In Marin County, they bombed two cruisers. And August 21, the prosecutors contend, Olson her boyfriend, James Kilgore, and SLA leader Bill Harris drove to Los Angeles and planted the bombs under the squad cars.

The State's Evidence

Prosecutors Latin and Hunter have acknowledged that winning a conviction against Olson for murder conspiracy will be difficult. After two and a half decades, memories have faded, evidence has disappeared and witnesses have died. For example, James Marshall, a plumbing supply store employee who said Olson bought pipe caps from him the day before the bomb attempt, died before her arrest, and the jury will not hear about his identification.

To strengthen their case, the prosecution plans to tell the jury about the entire disturbing history of the SLA. Scores of witnesses - from bystanders at bank robberies to the FBI agents who hunted the SLA - will recount their small part in the story.

It's an approach that has met strenuous objections by the defense.

"They just really want to taint her and tarnish her and make her look like she's this bad person because they say she hung around with these people who did these horrible things," said one of Olson's lawyers, Shawn Snider Chapman.

The prosecution will also call on forensic experts to testify that the bombs in L.A. matched wire, screws and other bomb-making components found in an SLA apartment in San Francisco. Police officers will testify that Olson's fingerprints were found in the apartment and on the door of the closet where the bomb supplies were kept. The prosecution also plans to show jurors a letter purportedly in Olson's handwriting requesting an order of 200 feet of fuse just two weeks before the attempted bombings.

Prosecutors hope the SLA witnesses and the forensic evidence will meld into one account corroborated by their star witness, Patty Hearst.

Hearst served two years in prison for an SLA bank robbery. Her sentence was commuted by President Carter, and she was pardoned by President Clinton (news - web sites). Now a suburban mother like Olson, Hearst is expected to testify that Olson was deeply involved in the SLA after the shootout.

In her autobiography, Hearst claims Olson was inside the Carmichael bank during the robbery when another SLA member, Emily Harris, fired the fatal shot. Hearst also charges that Olson, Kilgore and Bill Harris went to L.A. in August 1975 intending to bomb a veteran's convention. They thought convention security had spotted them, however, and settled for placing two pipe bombs under police cars.

"Ms. Hearst will commit the ultimate sin, according to the manifesto of the SLA, by cooperating with the People and telling the truth about the SLA and their activities when she testifies," the prosecutors wrote. "Her testimony will undeniably be powerful evidence of the defendant's guilt."

The prosecution may also call former LAPD officer Jay Bryan, the only eyewitness to put Olson at the crime scene. Now retired and living in Missouri, Bryan says he remembers seeing Olson walk across the parking lot with two men moments before he and his partner unwittingly entered a bomb-rigged car.

"He remembers her face vividly because when she turned to look at him, he noticed a look of absolute 'contempt and hatred in her face,'" according to a police report.

But Bryan, who left the force because of the stress of the attempted bombing, didn't tell investigators about seeing Olson until November 1999, almost 25 years after the crime. When he gave the account to investigators, Olson's arrest had been widely covered in the media and Bryan was preparing a civil suit against her.

He acknowledges he never wrote a report about the woman in 1975 and never told the grand jury investigating the bomb plot about her, but he claims he told others at the time, including a sergeant at the scene and his partner. He says he even kept her wanted posted framed on the wall of his office during her two decades on the run.

"I thought about it all the time," he said.

The Defense

From the time she was arrested in her minivan, Olson has maintained she was never a member of the SLA and had nothing to do with the L.A. bombing plot. Her defense likes to pooh-pooh the prosecution, calling its case a "sinking ship" and deriding witnesses such as Bryan.

"It's a tie as to who is the least credible witness - him or Patty Hearst," Chapman said recently. She claims that the hard evidence they have proves only that Olson knew people in the SLA. Her fingerprints were among 10 sets found in the San Francisco apartment and, her lawyers contend, show only that she and many others were guests there.

But the defense has had more than its share of problems in preparing for trial. Two lawyers took the case only to drop it for personal reasons as the trial date approached. Olson's current team has repeatedly asked for continuances, saying it needs more time to sort through reams of prosecution evidence about the SLA. In March, one of her lawyers told a judge that a potentially damaging police report about fuses Olson allegedly bought languished for months in their office before being flagged.

When they do go before a jury, her lawyers have two challenges: to convince a panel she had nothing to do with the L.A. bombs and to explain why, if innocent, she fled and lived as a fugitive for 24 years. To do that, they are expected to try first to chip away at the credibility of the key prosecution witnesses, Bryan and Hearst, and then to suggest that lawless behavior by police and FBI agents in the '70s made Olson believe she would never get a fair hearing and might actually be killed by authorities if caught.

Chapman, who describes Hearst as "ripe for destruction," says the defense will have little trouble undermining the heiress's account. History has shown that she is a bad witness, Chapman says. Hearst testified at her bank robbery trial in 1976, and the jury rejected her claims that she was coerced and threatened into joining the SLA. Hearst's testimony, the defense will argue to jurors, is suspect because she cooperated with authorities in hopes of securing a commutation and ultimately pardon. The defense plans to call acquaintances of Hearst from the '70s to refute her.

"Her cooperation was saying everybody else did bad stuff except me ... but there are a number of people who know that that was not the case," Chapman said.

Bryan's credibility is also in the defense's crosshairs. Olson's lawyers charge that he concocted his story to advance his civil suit after the testimony of Marshall - then the only eyewitness - was excluded. The defense also noted his stress disability and suggested he was mentally unfit to testify.

"Suddenly after Sara Jane Olson is captured and he files a civil lawsuit against her asking for millions of dollars then suddenly he remembers her face and would never forget it," said Chapman. "He would be a wonderful witness for the defense and I hope he's called."

In addition to discrediting the prosecution's key witnesses, Olson's defense is likely to point an accusatory finger at the LAPD, hardly a popular institution in downtown Los Angeles where the case will be tried.

Olson's lawyers say she fled California in 1975 and changed her name not because she was guilty, but because she feared being killed at the hands of the police. To justify her fear "of government reprisal for her association with SLA members," Olson points to the 1974 Los Angeles shootout. The siege of the SLA safehouse was carried live on television, and the police were widely criticized for their handling of the standoff.

In court filings, Olson's defense team suggests at least two of the six who died were shot as they tried to flee a burning building and "the use of deadly force was unreasonable under the circumstances."

Atwood and the others, Olson contends, "were targeted for death by the LAPD." A key investigator in Olson's case was a sniper during the shootout, according to the defense, and Olson claims she feared the same fate.

"The thinking at that time was that if you were in any way associated with any group that speaks out or speaks differently that you are in danger," said Chapman.

The defense team says no decision has been made about whether Olson will testify in her own defense. With her acting background, Olson is comfortable speaking in public, and Chapman says she is eager to "declare her innocence from the rooftops."

"She wants to testify," Chapman said, "but we're going to wait and see."

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