California due to release 1970s radical Olson
By DON THOMPSON
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A saga that began in the violent cauldron of California's 1970s radical counterculture and took a dramatic turn into a quiet middle-class neighborhood in Minnesota is about to come to an end.
Sara Jane Olson, who was a fugitive for a quarter-century after attempting to kill Los Angeles police officers and participating in a deadly bank robbery near Sacramento as a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, is scheduled to be released from a California prison next week.
Her bid for freedom after serving seven years is not ending quietly.
Police leagues in Los Angeles and Minnesota are objecting to the terms of her parole, her attorneys are nervous after Olson was mistakenly released and sent back to prison a year ago, and people in her home state have conflicting views about the return of a woman with two identities — a quiet, caring community volunteer and a domestic terrorist.
Olson was freed by California corrections officials a year ago when they miscalculated her parole date. She was re-arrested five days later as she was about to board a flight to Minnesota, the state she adopted as her home during her life on the run.
"After what happened last year, I think she won't feel comfortable until she's back in Minnesota," said David Nickerson, one of her lawyers. "She is just anxious about getting out ... until she's home, until she knows it's real. She wants to be with her family."
Olson, 62, her red hair turned long ago to gray, is scheduled to be released Tuesday from the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, about 150 miles southeast of San Francisco.
Where she goes next is a point of contention. Police leagues in Los Angeles and Minnesota object to having her paroled to Minnesota. Both have written to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, urging him to have Olson serve her parole in California, where her crimes were committed.
Former Los Angeles police officer John Hall was a target of one of two 1975 attempted bombings by the Symbionese Liberation Army, the urban guerrilla group most notorious for its kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. The pipe bombs were placed beneath two police cars.
One bomb, packed with nails, failed to explode as Hall and his partner drove away from a restaurant in Los Angeles' Hollywood Division on an August night. A similar unexploded device was found under another police car miles away.
"That bomb should have gone off that night," Hall said. "I would have been just one of many people that would have been dead. It just brings up a lot of anger knowing that she's going to be released."
Hall recalls that a girl about 8 years old was watching from the restaurant.
"That little girl was waving at us as we drove off. If that bomb would have gone off, she would have been killed along with her family," said Hall, who served 31 years with the department. "I haven't forgiven her (Olson) in the least for what she's done and what she could have done to many more innocent people."
In addition to the attempting bombings and the Hearst kidnapping, the SLA had a long list of high-profile crimes during the mid-1970s, including the assassination of an Oakland schools superintendent and the shotgun slaying of Myrna Opsahl, a 42-year-old mother of four who was depositing a church collection at a bank near Sacramento when the group robbed it.
Olson was in the bank during that 1975 heist, which netted the SLA $15,000.
After her 1999 arrest, she pleaded guilty to the attempted bombings of the police cars and the death of Opsahl.
Olson, was born Kathleen Ann Soliah in North Dakota and grew up in Palmdale, in the high desert north of Los Angeles.
If her release goes as planned, her attorneys say she will be paroled to her mother's house in Palmdale and will have 24 hours to report to her California parole agent. Unless there is a change, she then will be allowed to return to St. Paul, Minn., where she changed her name and married Dr. Gerald "Fred" Peterson.
"Her release of course is a great relief," Peterson said in an e-mail to The Associated Press, declining a request for an interview. "We need to regroup in our home, and preserve our privacy as much as possible, and get our lives coordinated again. We're very happy to reunite."
Many of Olson's friends and former associates in Minnesota declined to comment about her release, fearing any statements might hurt her chances of getting out on schedule.
Others said they couldn't wait to see her again.
"I'm planning on giving her a big hug when she gets back and am going to count on her to do what she did before, which was read the New York Times to the blind and volunteer in all sorts of activities to help the less fortunate," said Andy Dawkins, a longtime family friend from St. Paul.
Not everyone will be happy to have her back. After Olson's arrest in 1999, Minneapolis gun store owner Mark Koscielski (koh-SHEL'-skee) countered supporters with bumper stickers that said "Fight Terrorism — Jail Kathleen."
"She's a ... terrorist and she shouldn't be out of jail," Koscielski said.
Olson, then Soliah, was in her late 20s when she joined the SLA. The small band of mostly white, college-educated children of middle-class families was started in 1973 by an ex-convict named Donald DeFreeze. He died with five members of the group in a 1974 shootout with police at their Los Angeles hideout.
After the attempted bombings of the LAPD police cars, Olson fled to St. Paul, 1,900 miles away, where she acted in community theater, joined a church, taught English to immigrants, worked with senior citizens and raised the couple's three daughters.
She was arrested in June 1999 on a tip from the "America's Most Wanted" television show.
Opsahl's son, Jon Opsahl, said he is glad the saga is coming to an end.
"She did her minimal time and has paid her debt to society after all these years," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, she can leave the state as soon as possible and get back to her life."