Accuracy in Media

Former 1970s militant and longtime fugitive Sara Jane Olson returned to her St. Paul home on Wednesday evening [March 16] to try to put her life back together after seven years in prison.” — Minneapolis Star Tribune

She is a woman who could not outrun her dark past. Her quarter-century of hiding in plain sight was triggered initially by her decision to place shrapnel-laden pipe bombs under LAPD squad cars, then by her decision to be an accessory to a murder during a bank heist at Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California, in 1975. Such decisions have consequences.

During the robbery, a woman depositing church offerings from the previous day was gunned down in cold blood for no apparent reason , by a fellow member of Sara Jane Olson’s disjointed, wild-eyed radical 1970’s group, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).

Sara Jane , alias for Kathleen Ann Soliah, a Scandinavian born into a modest home in Barnesville, Minnesota in 1947 (her dad a coach there) and raised in Palmdale, California, was an unlikely candidate for joining in the SLA violence. Called shy, even withdrawn by childhood friends, she expressed herself in class plays and in book reviews recited from behind oversize glasses, somewhat of a wallflower at social events.

Yet she was a fiery, tub-thumping SLA radical, a member of that far left-anarchist group of hate-Amerika crazies infecting our country in the 1970s. They engaged in bloody shootouts with police (whom they called pigs), burned down “safe” houses, kidnapped and held for $6 million ransom — before proselytizing her to favor their “causes” — newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst. The term implacable loonies best described them.

They also hit banks for fun and to support their whacks at the thin blue line and an Establishment. They smolderingly despised.

Coming back home last week to her native Minnesota, Sara Jane was all quiet. Nary a word, or even a wave to reporters. Family and friends embraced her at the baggage claim at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport after her flight from Sacramento. It was a sort 15-minute drive whisking her to her ivy-covered home in the upper-middle class Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul where she had been arrested in 1999.

Her car sped by a small army of onlookers and reporters, into an attached garage for unloading apart from onlookers. Neighbors casually strolled by, some with dogs on leashes; a few kids perhaps wondered why all the commotion on their street. Trucks with satellite TV antennae pointed skyward, ready to broadcast something, anything, a glimpse of the coming-home-again convict, a celebrity wave perhaps, for their 6 p.m. newscasts. They returned to their studios empty handed.

Sara Jane was “wearing a tan trench coat and a happy smile,” according to the Star Tribune. Her once-dishwater blond hair had turned as if bleached, into silver-gray, and put up in a bob. She wore dark sunglasses, hiding the trace beginnings of crows feet at the corners of her Nordic blue eyes. Seven years in prison had not been kind to the now 62-year old.

Her heroic husband, Gerald (Fred) Olson, MD, drove his one-time fugitive wife home, into their garage, “dodging a sea of reporters and photographers,” says the Star Tribune. Down went the roll-top door behind them. Home again, at last!

A girl-woman who answered the door-knocking of a pesky reporter said: “My mother is home and she’s happy. Please give us privacy.”

Sara Jane’s return had been challenged by Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and the Los Angeles Police Protection League, the police union, as somehow illegal, but this was not “pushed.” The governor and police union had requested she stay in California for her parole. No deal. (A bill at the Minnesota Legislature supporting Gov. Pawlenty’s request was NOT taken up by the Democrat-controlled House and Senate in St. Paul. Call this ah ha, merely “interesting”?)

Sara Jane’s subdued return was in stark contrast, as news media say, to her arrest in 1999. She did not much dodge picture-taking then, or fail to speak to the press. At first she denied heatedly she was even Soliah. (Fingerprints did her in.) She insisted she was swept up helplessly back then, like others, in the vortex of radicalism during and in the wake of the Vietnam War.

It was the Sara Jane-as-victim. Unapologetically she stood by it. She was the very picture of hubris then, displaying no apparent remorse, much less total acknowledgment of her 70s’ crimes. Even after her guilty plea in California in 2001 she retracted it once, then reinstated it after a judge’s severe tongue-lashing.

To reporters and media, anyone who’d listen, she’d plugged her 100-page cookbook. Proceeds went to her legal defense fund and bail bond money. (She was once released on $1 million bail into the arms of her loving husband.) Sales of the book, jovially titled “Serving The Time: America’s Most Wanted Recipes,” were brisk at first. (A St. Paul newspaper guy I know wondered aloud if the cookbook had a recipe for cooked goose. Every dark side has its lighter side.)

At first Sara Jane was charged only with placing the pipe bombs. Later she was convicted also of conspiracy in the bank lobby murder. In that robbery, with a masked Sarah Jane on hand, Patty Hearst wielding an automatic rifle, a fellow SLA member murdered bank depositor Myrna Opsahl, mother of four, wife of a surgeon.

On the lam Sara Jane hid incognito in North Dakota with her grandparents, then moved to Seattle (after it became “too hot” in North Dakota). In Seattle she got a job and worked as a community theater player under the novel-like name “Nancy Bennett.” Then back to her native Minnesota to meet and marry a respected St. Paul surgeon.

Sara Jane became a “DFL” activist. (In Minnesota DFL stands for Democrat Labor Party.) One of her best friends was state Senator Sandra “Sandy” Pappas (DFL-St. Paul) who served at the time, ironically as it turned out, as Chair of Senate’s Law Enforcement Committee. No kidding.

Upon learning Sarah Jane was arrested, Pappas was outraged (OUTRAGED!), as were others in her circle of friends. In a hiss-fit press conference, Senator Pappas said the FBI ought to be ashamed of itself for “not searching for the real criminals.” (Evidently planting pipe bombs under LAPD squad cars did not quality as a crime?) Another Friend of Sara Jane (“FoSJ”), also a high profile local politico, labeled her arrest and forthcoming prosecution, a “witch hunt” of all things.

A front-page Star Tribune headline noted the knee-jerk reaction to her arrest: “Support grows for jailed revolutionary.” (One would think, maybe, Patrick Henry had been arrested?) There were “teas,” and other fund-raisers for Sara Jane to pay the hefty legal fees. 

Sara Jane served just half of a 14-year sentence. Her prison behavior, exemplary, lessened her sentence. Her arrest in 1999 had blown her who’d-think-it cover as devoted, loving wife, soccer mom, community theater actress, and “D” party activist. By all accounts she was a gracious, outgoing, friendly hostess, the perfect doctor’s wife, super mom to their two daughters.

In this sense, her arrest was another personal tragedy.

After Sara Jane was convicted in a second trial, for conspiracy to murder bystander Opsahl in the bank hold-up, the victim’s son Jon Opsahl, now all grown up, spoke movingly at the pre-sentencing hearing. He described the SLA as “…a group of monsters, pathetic, deranged revolutionaries who simply decided one day to make my mother instantly and permanently expendable.”

On March 16, 2009, Sara Jane Olson, “1970s’ militant,” was released from prison after seven years, returning home wordlessly wearing a “a tan trench coat and a smile” behind darkly-tinted sunglasses. Crime, it does have consequences.

Guest columns do not necessarily reflect the views of Accuracy in Media or its staff.

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