70's Radical Pleads Guilty in Bomb Plot

New York Times/November 1, 2001
By James Sterngold

Los Angeles -- After two decades as a fugitive from charges that as a young radical she had plotted to bomb two police cars here in 1975, Sara Jane Olson abandoned years of denials and pleaded guilty today to two felony counts before a stunned courtroom.

The surprise decision was a victory for prosecutors, who had pursued Ms. Olson after she went into hiding and transformed herself into a politically committed mother and actress in a quiet Minnesota suburb. But the agreement was in the form of a highly ambiguous deal that seemed unlikely to bridge the deep divide that lies behind the politically charged case.

Immediately after the plea was taken in State Superior Court here, Ms. Olson, 54, appeared to reverse the conciliatory remarks she had made before the judge. She staunchly denied that she had actually played any role in the bombing conspiracy, which failed, and insisted that she had reversed herself only because of the change in the country's mood after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

"Given the tenor of the times," she said, she had been convinced that anyone accused of having been involved in antigovernment activities - in her case, as a purported associate of the Symbionese Liberation Army - could never get a fair hearing now.

"I'm pleading guilty to something to which I'm not guilty," Ms. Olson insisted.

Her teenage daughter, Sophia, wept quietly at her side, and her husband, an emergency room doctor, was grim, but Ms. Olson, known before she went into hiding as Kathleen Soliah, was defiant, even proud, and repeated her belief in her political agenda.

"I'm still the same person I was then," said Ms. Olson, looking, in her tasteful black pantsuit and well- coiffed hair, every inch the middle- class housewife she had become. "I believe in democracy for all people."

Then she added, "I don't have any regrets."

Under the plea agreement, the government will dismiss three other felony counts that she had faced since shortly after the failed bombing plot was discovered and attributed to the Symbionese Liberation Army. That group was best known for the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst, a member of the media family who became a gun-toting associate of the group before her own arrest and trial.

The specific charges to which Ms. Olson pleaded guilty today are attempted explosion of a destructive device with intent to murder. They involved the discovery on Aug. 21, 1975, of two pipe bombs placed under police cars here after they failed to detonate.

Ms. Olson could receive a maximum sentence of life on each charge, but appears likely to receive a term of roughly five years for each, lawyers on both sides of the case said.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers continued to joust, though, over how soon she would be eligible for parole, and that dispute appeared likely to be answered only at her sentencing.

The sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 7, and she will not have to surrender until Jan. 18, the judge, Larry Paul Fidler, said. The prosecutors have also agreed to support her effort to serve her sentence near her family in Minnesota.

While Ms. Olson characterized her sudden decision to plead guilty as an act of realism and expedience, and insisted she had never even been a member of the radical group, prosecutors here said the plea was a result of the overwhelming evidence they had amassed.

The two prosecutors who led the case, Eleanor Hunter and Michael Latin, said Ms. Olson's decision to recant her plea meant that she had lied either in court or in the hallway. They said they believed that she had changed her remarks largely to please the many friends and family members who had insisted on her innocence since she was arrested two and a half years ago.

The plea agreement brought to a close at least one chapter in the history of a group that was both murderous and farcical at times.

The prosecutors in Ms. Olson's case insisted that the matter was purely about a plot to murder policemen in retaliation for a shootout a year earlier in which six members of the Symbionese Liberation Army had died.

But the prosecutors went out of their way to trace the history of the group, to emphasize its stated commitment to political revolution, and to define it as a haven for terrorists.

The Symbionese Liberation Army was started and operated mostly in the San Francisco area. The insistence by prosecutors that the group was a terrorist organization had been the focus of bitter legal battles in recent weeks. Ms. Olson's defense lawyers had sought to exclude any mention of the word "terrorist" in the trial out of concerns that it would prejudice the jury.

The issue had not been resolved when the two sides entered secret plea talks, which began in earnest last Friday, said Shawn Chapman, one of Ms. Olson's lawyers.

Today, Ms. Olson did not directly address the radical group's actions, or fully explain how close she had been to it. But she tried to justify her actions as well meaning.

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