SLA's past still haunts alleged activists
By Jim Wasserman
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The bank robber in a ski mask pressed a shotgun to Myrna Opsahl's side and killed her with a single blast, the result of a holdup by a 1970s group known for its revolutionary rhetoric.
According to a later account, the alleged killer claimed the shooting was an accident but that it didn't matter because the victim "was a bourgeois pig anyway."
This week, police and prosecutors moved on homes of quiet middle-aged residents allegedly linked to the 1975 robbery, triggering a court fight sure to revive memories of the revolutionary passions and rhetoric from a different era.
The Symbionese Liberation Army emerged from the ashes of the 1960s anti-war movement and was blamed for several violent acts in the 1970s.
Merging black ex-convicts and middle-class college graduates, the group achieved notoriety for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst and forcing her wealthy parents to donate millions of dollars of food to the needy. The SLA's actions were fed by the rhetoric of militant revolutionaries, together with a passion for minorities and the poor.
Opsahl's routine, dropping off a church collection at the bank, had collided head-on with the radical SLA. Four armed robbers burst into the bank in Carmichael, Calif., shot Opsahl and escaped with $15,000, dropping as much cash as they kept.
Opsahl's son, physician Jon Opsahl, has dedicated much of his adult life to bringing his mother's killers to justice.
"This is very therapeutic," he said after the charges were filed against the former SLA members.
Police in Los Angeles, Oakland and Portland, Ore., arrested former SLA members Emily Harris, William Harris and Michael Bortin on Wednesday morning. Sara Jane Olson, already facing sentencing today for a failed 1975 plot to bomb a Los Angeles police car, surrendered to police after she was charged in the robbery. Also charged was former SLA member James Kilgore, a fugitive since the 1970s who remains at large.
Olson's brother, Steven Soliah, was acquitted in a 1976 federal trial for the Carmichael robbery.
Hearst, at the center of a kidnapping drama that consumed the world's attention, is expected to be the prosecution's leading witness in the robbery case.
In a 1982 book called "Every Secret Thing," Hearst said Emily Harris shot Opsahl. She also named the robbers and lookouts and detailed her own role as a getaway driver.
Hearst wrote that Harris answered a colleague's question about Opsahl's condition by saying, "Oh, she's dead. But it really doesn't matter. She was a bourgeois pig anyway. Her husband is a doctor. He was at the hospital where they brought her."
She explained in the book, "Emily told us the shotgun had gone off by accident. She had told the woman to get down on the floor, but the woman had not moved fast enough to suit Emily. So Emily thrust the shotgun forward to threaten her, and the gun had gone off."