Election Section

Ex-cops, prosecutors tell of long road to SLA arrests, charges

By Jim Wasserman, The Associated Press
Friday January 18, 2002

SACRAMENTO — The shotgun pressed against Myrna Opsahl’s left side and went off with a loud explosion. Then, fallen flat on the floor of Crocker National Bank, she began to bleed. 

“She was torn up,” said Terry Dyer, then chief of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department robbery unit. 

Opsahl was shot shortly after 9 a.m. on April 21, 1975, when four armed and masked robbers burst into the bank’s branch in suburban Carmichael. 

As she announced first-degree murder charges against five former Symbionese Liberation Army members almost 27 years later, Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully said the robbers pointed weapons “at customers and employees and threats and demands were made.” 

In Los Angeles, Oakland and Portland, Ore., Wednesday, police arrested former SLA members Emily Harris, William Harris and Michael Bortin. Sara Jane Olson, facing sentencing Friday for a failed 1975 plot to bomb a Los Angeles police car, also surrendered to police. Also charged was former SLA member James Kilgore, who’s been a fugitive since the 1970s. 

Olson’s sentencing is set for 10 a.m. Friday in Los Angeles Superior Court. She faces 20 years to life in prison for the bombing attempt, which she said was to avenge the death of six colleagues in a 1974 police shootout in Los Angeles. 

Opsahl, 42 and a mother of four, arrived at the bank as she frequently did, to drop off a collection from her Carmichael Seventh-Day Adventist Church. 

But her routine collided with the SLA and its radical agenda, a notorious after-echo of the 1960s anti-war movement. Using a seven-headed snake as its symbol, the SLA was a volatile mix of black ex-convicts and middle-class college students that achieved notoriety for bank robberies, kidnapping newspaper heiress Patty Hearst and forcing her wealthy parents, Randolph and Catherine Hearst, to distribute millions of dollars of food to the needy. 

The April 1975 robbery, Patty Hearst wrote in her 1982 book, “Every Secret Thing,” was the group’s second in Sacramento. Two months earlier, they had robbed the nearby Guild Savings and Loan for more than $3,700. 

Now, using guns bought from that heist, Hearst wrote, they were doing it again. 

As Opsahl lay dying, “the robbers stole cash from the tellers’ drawers and fled from the bank with about $15,000 in cash,” Scully said this week. 

They had a car parked across the street, former Sacramento Sheriff’s Capt. Larry Stamm recalled, and lookouts were ready to kill police who responded to the robbery. 

“They were well prepared to do that,” Stamm said. 

Bill Harris and Steven Soliah watched outside, Hearst wrote, while she and Wendy Yoshimura drove the getaway cars. Scully, using Hearst’s book and testimony she gave to authorities after her September 1975 arrest, named Emily Harris, Bortin, Kilgore and Olson, then going by her original name, Kathleen Soliah, as the robbers. Hearst also said Emily Harris shot Opsahl. 

Hearst, who now goes by her married name of Patricia Hearst Shaw, is expected to be the leading witness against the five. She, Steven Soliah and Yoshimura were granted immunity for their involvement in the robbery in exchange for their testimony before a 1991 grand jury, Scully said. 

After the robbery, Hearst wrote, the group pointed fingers over Opsahl’s killing. One called the robbery a “sloppy job” that could lead them to the gas chamber. A “simple stickup” had become a huge problem. 

Emily Harris, Hearst wrote, said the shotgun went off by accident, but that it didn’t matter. Opsahl, Hearst quoted Emily Harris as saying, “was a bourgeois pig anyway.” 

Compounding the Opsahls’ agony that day was that her husband, Trygve, was the surgeon on duty at the hospital where his wounded wife arrived. He couldn’t save her. 

Sheriff’s patrols arrived minutes after the robbers fled the scene. Dyer, whose staff was short on resources, welcomed the FBI’s help. And a federal detective, Fred Shirasago, broke a nearly 2 1/2-month mystery when he identified a fingerprint on the back of a license plate as that of an SLA member. 

“After we narrowed it down to the SLA,” Dyer said, “we knew what we were doing.” 

That led to the 1976 federal trial of Steven Soliah, who was acquitted. Soliah, claiming an alibi, said he wasn’t at the scene. Scully called his alibi “bogus” Wednesday. 

Since then, authorities have faced a long dry period. 

The 1991 grand jury failed to produce indictments. Indeed, four district attorneys didn’t bring criminal charges, Scully said, “for various legal reasons” she declined to define. 

It was the June 1999 arrest of Olson, the name Kathleen Soliah took after she fled California for a new life as a Minnesota housewife, led to a fresh review. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office reported it provided new evidence to Sacramento authorities. Opsahl’s son, Riverside doctor John Opsahl, who was 15 when his mother was killed, also publicly pressured Scully. 

After Olson pleaded guilty in October to the attempted Los Angeles bombing, Scully said, she assigned investigators to re-examine the 1975 case. That review included new evidence. 

Affidavits filed in Sacramento Superior Court for Wednesday’s arrests revealed many of the details, including items found at the SLA’s San Francisco “safe house.” The FBI also linked shotgun pellets found in Myrna Opsahl to ammunition from the SLA house. 

The files also say Olson’s palm print, taken during her 1999 arrest, matches palm prints on the door of a Sacramento garage where the group stored a getaway car.