Born in Baltimore on February 11, 1947 as Emily Montague Schwartz, Emily Harris was raised in a wealthy conservative family in Clarendon Hills, Illinois. She graduated from Indiana University with an English degree in 1969, and in 1970 she met William Harris, whom she married the following year. In 1971 in Bloomington, Indiana, Ms. Harris taught a junior high school course on Communism. Also in the early ’70s the couple followed a young radical named Angela Atwood to San Francisco, where they became involved with the Black Cultural Association (BCA), a black inmate organization that was active in California’s Vacaville Prison at that time. Coordinated by UC Berkeley instructor Colston Westbrook, the BCA brought a number of white radicals—like the Harrises, Angela Atwood, Russell Little, William Wolfe, Joseph Remiro, and Nancy Ling Perry—to the prison to tutor black inmates (like Donald DeFreeze) in political science, black sociology, and African heritage. Over time, the BCA became increasingly political and ever-more committed to black nationalism. “In the eyes of the young radicals,” says PBS.org, “the black prisoners, no matter what their crime, took on heroic proportions as political prisoners, oppressed by a racist and corrupt American society.”
In 1973 Emily Harris and her husband became founding members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a pro-Marxist, California-based terrorist group that sought to overthrow the U.S. government by means of guerrilla warfare.
On May 16, 1974, Emily and William Harris robbed a Los Angeles sporting goods store. Their escape was facilitated by fellow SLAer Patricia Hearst, who, from a nearby vehicle, fired 27 bullets at the building while the Harrises fled. The following day, six SLA members—William Wolfe, Angela Atwood, Donald DeFreeze, Camilla Hall, Nancy Ling Perry, and Patricia Soltysik—were killed in a two-hour shootout with police at their hideout in South Central Los Angeles. Immediately after that shootout, the Harrises and Patricia Hearst fled, with the help of radical sports writer and activist Jack Scott, to rural Pennsylvania. They eventually returned to the West coast in the fall of that year.
On April 21, 1975, Emily Harris—along with Kathleen Soliah, Michael Bortin, and James Kilgore–—held up the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California. William Harris and Steven Soliah (Kathleen’s brother), served as their lookouts, while Wendy Yoshimura and Patricia Hearst drove the getaway cars. During the robbery, Emily Harris shot and killed a 42-year-old innocent bystander named Myrna Opsahl, who was a church secretary and the mother of four children. Reflecting afterward on Opsahl’s death, Ms. Harris said: “Oh, she’s dead, but it doesn’t really matter. She was a bourgeois pig anyway. Her husband is a doctor.”
In September 1975 the Harrises were arrested on multiple kidnapping charges related to a pair of 1974 cases where they had: (a) taken two hostages during the sporting-goods-store robbery in Los Angeles, and (b) participated in the February abduction of heiress Patricia Hearst. Ms. Harris was sentenced for her involvement in these crimes in 1976 and went on to serve just over seven-and-a-half years in prison, during which time she and her husband, William Harris, divorced. Also during her time behind bars, Ms. Harris came out as a lesbian.
After her release from prison in 1983, Ms. Harris worked as a computer consultant for Unisys, the Disney Channel, MGM Studios, Paramount Pictures, and Spelling Productions.
Meanwhile, the 1975 Opsahl murder case languished for many years as prosecutors did not believe that they had enough evidence to convict the perpetrators, who wore masks during the bank robbery and thus could not be definitively identified. Mrs. Opsahl’s son Jon, however, relentlessly continued, year after year, to pressure political and law-enforcement authorities to bring his mother’s killers to justice. His persistence finally paid off on January 16, 2002, when newly uncovered evidence—derived from groundbreaking forensic technology that now enabled the FBI to link shotgun shells removed from the victim’s body to those that had been found in an SLA hideout—made it possible for Ms. Harris to be charged with murder, along with William Harris, Michael Bortin, and Sara Jane Olson (formerly Kathleen Soliah). On November 7, 2002, all four pleaded guilty to second-degree murder charges. Emily Harris served eight years in prison for the crime.
Further Reading: “Sara, Patty, Emily, Squeaky: Four Women in California Who Took Trips into Terror” (People.com, 10-6-1975); “The SLA Is the CIA” (by Mae Brussell, from The Realist, February 1974); “What Is the Symbionese Liberation Army?” (Slate.com, 1-24-2002); “The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army” (PBS.org); The Encyclopedia of Kidnappings (by Michael Newton, 2002, p. 137); “Notorious Alumni” (Indiana Daily Student, 2-16-2014); “The SLA’s Final Chapter” (CBSnews.com, 3-4-2002); “SLA’s Yoshimura Keeps Mum While Ex-Comrades Serve Time” (San Francisco Chronicle, 12-27-2003); “Son’s Fight Ends in SLA Arrests” (Associated Press, 1-17-2002).