Three former SLA members arraigned on murder charges

By Jim Wasserman The Associated Press
Saturday January 19, 2002

SACRAMENTO — Graying and settled into middle age, three former 1970s revolutionaries and members of the Symbionese Liberation Army were arraigned Friday on first-degree murder charges in the 1975 shooting death of a woman during a bank robbery. 

A fourth fought extradition hearings to bring him to California to face the charges. 

In dramatic scenes that played out in three West Coast courtrooms, Sara Jane Olson, Emily Harris, William Harris and Michael Bortin faced judges and prosecutors nearly 30 years after a robbery that left Myrna Opsahl, a 42-year-old mother of four, dead from a shotgun blast. 

Olson pleaded innocent to the murder charges from the April 21, 1975, robbery of the Crocker National Bank branch in suburban Carmichael, Calif. In Sacramento, the Harrises entered no plea. 

Olson, 55, who changed her name from Kathleen Soliah and was a Minnesota housewife until her June 1999 arrest on bomb charges, was arraigned immediately after being sentenced to 20 years to life in prison in Los Angeles Superior Court for conspiring to blow up police cars in 1975. 

Her arraignment followed an emotional sentencing hearing, in which family members tearfully praised Olson as a good wife, mother and daughter. 

For the first time, Olson also expressed remorse for the SLA’s violent actions during the 1970s, telling a judge and others, “Forgive me for the pain I’ve caused you.” 

In Portland, Bortin, 53, a flooring contractor, said he would fight extradition to California because he is not a fugitive. 

“I’ve been a legal resident here for all of 12 and a half years. I have my own business here, family, four kids,” he told Multnomah County Circuit Judge David Smedema. 

Later, in a basement courtroom of the Sacramento County Jail, the formerly married Bill Harris, 56, and Emily Harris, 54, respectively, a private investigator and computer consultant who once led the band of armed urban revolutionaries under the names General Teko and Yolanda, were also arraigned. 

The Harrises didn’t enter a plea during a four-minute hearing at Sacramento Superior Court Friday afternoon.  

They appeared in court handcuffed, wearing orange jail-issue pants and gray t-shirts. 

They will return to court Feb. 1 for a bail hearing and plan to enter pleas then, said Stuart Hanlon, Emily Harris’s attorney. 

“They are not guilty,” Hanlon said. 

William Harris’ wife, Rebecca Young, sat in the front row of the courtroom, but declined to comment. 

Police arrested Bortin and the Harrises Wednesday morning, while Soliah surrendered to authorities Wednesday afternoon. 

James Kilgore, 54, a fifth former SLA member charged with murder Opsahl, has been a fugitive since the 1970s. 

The four entered their courtrooms to answer for old actions during a time that’s greatly changed since the 1970s, when the SLA gained notoriety for its symbol of a seven-headed snake, passions for the poor and minorities and political rhetoric from South American revolutionaries and Communist leaders. Its members killed an Oakland school superintendent, robbed banks and kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. 

Hearst, now a 48-year-old mother of three who lives in Connecticut, is expected to be the lead witness in the case. 

In a 1976 interview with the FBI, and later in her 1982 book, “Every Secret Thing,” Hearst said Emily Harris shot Opsahl during the bank robbery. 

“Patty Hearst is the only person who can make this case,” Hanlon said. “The jury will decide if Patty Hearst’s book is truth or fantasy. That will be the issue in this trial.” 

Arrest affidavits state that four SLA members allegedly burst into bank, made off with $15,000 and shot Opsahl, who was depositing a church collection. 

Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully, citing Hearst’s FBI interview, named Olson, Bortin, Kilgore and Emily Harris as the robbers inside the bank when Opsahl was shot. She named Bill Harris and Steven Soliah, Olson’s brother, as the lookouts, while Hearst and Wendy Yoshimura drove getaway cars. 

Despite a 1976 federal robbery trial that acquitted Soliah of robbery charges and 1991 grand jury investigation that led to immunity from prosecution for Hearst, Soliah and Yoshimura, no murder charges were ever filed in Opsahl’s death until Wednesday. Sacramento authorities reopened their investigation after Olson’s 1999 arrest in Minnesota. 

After Olson’s sentencing in Los Angeles, her attorney Shawn Snider Chapman called the decision to file charges in Sacramento political. 

Olson made no deal to testify against others in the case and “there’s nothing she can offer,” Chapman said. Sacramento prosecutors have not asked Olson to testify or turn state’s evidence. 

Fresh evidence and new forensic methods will bolster Hearst’s testimony, Scully said. Arrest affidavits note that 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. Other items include bullets, shotgun ammunition, hand drawings of banks and instructions to rob banks — all found at an SLA “safe house” in San Francisco. The FBI also linked shotgun pellets found in Opsahl’s body to ammunition from the SLA house.