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Payback from a long-forgotten account

Saturday, March 10, 2001

Members of the Symbionese Liberation Army took Myrna Lee Opsahl's life in a bank robbery 26 years ago, but it remained for one of their ranks, Kathleen Soliah, to transcend mere murder with a strange sort of identity theft.

Opsahl was a church-going mother of four children, a one-time medical missionary, who married a doctor and volunteered with charities. She was in the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, a Sacramento suburb, on April 21, 1975, depositing that weekend's church collection, when the SLA, wearing ski masks, burst in. Emily Harris later told members her shotgun had gone off accidentally. Her companions left Opsahl to bleed on the floor while Soliah, according to the account of getaway driver Patty Hearst, pillaged the cash drawers and gave a pregnant teller a good kick in the gut. The teller later miscarried.

According to Hearst's account, both in her 1981 book and in her 1990 testimony before a Sacramento grand jury that failed to indict anyone, SLA members comforted themselves with Emily Harris' explanation: Opsahl was a member of an expendable class. She was "a bourgeois pig," a doctor's wife.

Jon Opsahl was 15 when he was pulled out of school, driven to American River Hospital and told by his father that mom was dead.

"A lot of it was a blur after that," Opsahl said. His father, Trygve, was the stoic one. He had scheduled surgery that afternoon and, somehow, went ahead with it. Jon was sent back to gym class. "People just fled, just ran away. They didn't know what to say."

Kathleen Soliah vanished after she was indicted in a spate of bombings, none fatal.

When the FBI caught up with her two years ago, she had turned herself into Sara Jane Olson, mother of three, community volunteer, veteran of charity work in Africa, and a practicing Methodist living in an upscale neighborhood in St. Paul, Minn. She could afford it. She is a doctor's wife.

"She didn't just take my mom's life. She helped take her life and then assumed the life she'd had," Opsahl told me.

Members of Olson's church in Minneapolis raised money to cover her $1 million bail. A fund-raising cookbook was issued, featuring Olson on the cover of "America's Most Wanted Recipes." In interviews, they talk a lot about the way people were vs. the way they are now and how nobody got hurt in the bombing attempts linked to Soliah.

When a Los Angeles judge ruled prosecutors could bring other SLA deeds into the trial on the bombing charges, the Carmichael robbery suddenly swung over Olson like the sword of Damocles.

"I'm outraged at what has happened," she wept to reporters on the courthouse steps. "This is a case in which they're trying to take away my freedom forever and destroy me and my family."

Jon Opsahl, whose own family never closed its wounds, has found one constant in his life. People still don't know quite what to say to him about his mother's murder.

A strange diffidence was palpable in the way the Sacramento County District Attorney's office 10 years ago assembled a grand jury, immunized some witnesses, then gave up.

When Kathleen Soliah's brother, Stephen, gave evasions and non-answers, prosecutor John O'Mara told jurors, "He's not going to tell us anything."

O'Mara said he'd write a report for his boss, then gather up the transcripts "and I will put it in about 15 boxes and put it in a warehouse somewhere. So, I doubt very seriously the case will ever be examined again ... we will put it all together in one spot and tell them to save it, and who knows."

Who knew?

As it turns out, fingerprints on documents, handwriting on notes, even a chemical match between the metal pulled out of Myrna Opsahl and the shells found in a drawer at one of the safe houses Soliah rented, all seem to support Hearst's testimony that Soliah was part of the raiding party the day Opsahl was gunned down.

"We were told all these years it was not prosecutable. Now we're finding out it was," said Opsahl. "I'm almost as frustrated and angry at the Sacramento DA's office as I am at the SLA."

Now, a month away from a trial date in the Los Angeles case, a task force has begun to reexamine the Crocker Bank robbery. Patty Hearst, now Patricia Hearst Shaw, will testify under immunity. Her family paid the largest share of a $210,000 out-of-court settlement with the Opsahl family. After fees, it came down to $140,000 -- the price of a mother. Jon's share covered not quite one year of medical school.

Unlike the SLA, Jon Opsahl does not believe in death penalties, legal or extralegal, nor does he much care if Olson is returned to her family on the virtue of a light sentence that recognizes some form of self-reformation.

"I just want the system to do its job ... that the people that did this be held accountable. Whether they win, lose or draw on any trial, that's beside the point."

What Jon Opsahl wants is for someone empowered to do so to explain something to his mother's killers: she was not expendable.

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