As Los Angeles County attorneys sit out what they deem an unnecessary delay in the trial of former Symbionese Liberation Army member Kathleen Soliah, the Sacramento County district attorney refuses to file charges in a related case in which a woman was killed during an SLA bank robbery.
Best known for the November 1973 slaying of Oakland school Superintendent Marcus Foster and the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst three months later, the SLA was a small band of terrorists who purposed to overthrow white bourgeois capitalists. The group adopted the motto, “Death to the Fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people.”
After a shootout in May 1974, in which nine SLA members were killed by police, many of the terrorists went underground, including Hearst, who claims she was brainwashed by the group. (She was given a presidential pardon by Bill Clinton on his last day in office.)
One member who chose to remain public — albeit temporarily — was Kathleen Soliah. Just weeks after the shootout, Soliah led an SLA rally in Berkeley, Calif. Then, on April 21, 1975, SLA members robbed the Crocker National Bank at its branch near Sacramento. During the robbery, 42-year-old Myrna Opsahl was shot dead. Court records later implicated Soliah and seven SLA associates, including Hearst.
But Soliah is not facing trial for her participation in the robbery that resulted in Opsahl’s murder, and for which Soliah’s brother — fellow SLA member Steven Soliah — was acquitted in 1976. Kathleen Soliah was indicted the same year on explosives and conspiracy charges. She is accused of putting pipe bombs under two Los Angeles police cars. The bombs did not explode, and no one was hurt. But Soliah, who has lived for the last 25 years as Sarah Jane Olson in St. Paul, Minn., became a fugitive when she went underground Before she was captured in 1999, she was living as a doctor’s wife and the mother of three children.
Soliah was eventually released on $1 million bail. She claims to have had no involvement in the pipe-bomb case, though new evidence to the contrary prompted her defense attorneys this month to request a fifth continuance to revise their legal strategy.
But that isn’t the only thing her attorneys must review. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler is allowing the SLA’s entire history as admissible, opening a window for discussion of the Opsahl murder. But Opsahl’s son says Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully could have filed charges all along.
In a February letter to Scully, Jon Opsahl expresses his frustration with the delay. In Hearst’s autobiography, as well as in subsequent grand jury testimony, the heiress admits to having been a co-conspirator in the Sacramento bank robbery during which Myrna Opsahl was killed. But Scully’s office informed the family that Hearst’s testimony could not be used in court unless corroborating evidence was found.
Jon Opsahl wrote Scully, saying he learned in July that such evidence existed but was never used. According to his letter, the following evidence exists:
Eyewitnesses that identify the people who rented the SLA cars, garages and safehouses;
Fingerprints of the SLA members on the cars and in the garages and safehouses;
Fingerprints of the SLA members on documents describing the SLA plans and activities;
Keys to the car used in the bank robbery were found at the SLA safehouse in Berkeley;
Stolen ID’s used to rent the cars used in the bank robbery were also recovered;
Bait bills from the bank robbery were recovered;
The disguises used by the SLA members were recovered;
Matching ammunition and weapons were recovered.
All the physical evidence is consistent with Hearst’s account, wrote Opsahl.
“Hearst was given immunity for her cooperation and testimony. Her sentence was commuted (and now she even has a presidential pardon), but your office evidently does not feel confident enough to trust her testimony in court, nor your ability to build a case with all the physical evidence that supports it. Instead, your office has lied to our family about the case and the usable evidence and has demonstrated severe neglect in your duties,” he continued.
Jon Opsahl also claims the existence of a confession from Michael Bortin, who was in the bank. But Opsahl’s strongest criticism is directed toward Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney John O’Mara, who has headed up the DA’s investigative efforts in the case. O’Mara conducted an investigational Grand Jury in 1990, in which he questioned a variety of witnesses.
Wrote Opsahl, “In contrast to the SLA members and sympathizers who testified, Patty Hearst gave consistent and detailed testimony. O’Mara did not present any of the physical evidence that supported her testimony. He did not put the events into its proper context as a revolution conspiracy, and he did not ask the Grand Jury for indictments or direction in the case. In fact, he told the Grand Jury that nothing was gained and that the transcripts were going to be boxed and put in a warehouse somewhere. He also said that the case will probably never be examined again. He came to this final decision without informing our family, not to mention explaining his rationale.”
At the same time, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office is ready to proceed with its charges against Soliah in the car-bombing case. And the office has even uncovered new evidence relevant to the murder case: Soliah’s prints matched those at the SLA safehouses and on SLA documents, and new FBI forensic technology matched the slugs from Myrna Opsahl’s body to the ammunition recovered at the SLA safehouse in Berkeley.
Despite all the evidence, Scully’s office issued a press release in January saying the Opsahl case is still “not prosecutable.”
O’Mara did not return multiple calls for comment made over three days.
Now more than ever, time is of the essence. Three witnesses to the Sacramento bank robbery are aged and infirm. Attempts are being made to videotape testimony of the three women, but legal procedure may prevent the testimonies from being admitted as evidence if charges are not filed soon in Myrna Opsahl’s murder. Her son is at his wits’ end.
“I feel strongly, as I am sure you do, that no one should be allowed to get away with murder, and that laws against violent crimes should be enforced,” he told Scully. “It is my hope that your office will accept your compromised position and allow a different office to pursue this case to its fullest.”
Soliah’s Los Angeles case is scheduled to proceed in September.
Read related column, Who Will Be Myrna Opsahl’s Neighbor?