Kathleen Soliah was born on January 16, 1947 in Fargo, North Dakota, and grew up in Palmdale, California. After graduating from high school in 1965, she studied acting at Antelope Valley College, where she became romantically involved with a young philosophy instructor and voraciously read the works of Karl Marx. Soon thereafter, Soliah enrolled at UC Santa Barbara where she became the girlfriend of fellow student James Kilgore and grew increasingly radical in her political attitudes.
After earning a degree in theater arts in 1969, Soliah moved (with Kilgore) to a commune in Monterey. The couple then relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where Soliah found work as a waitress at the Great Electric Underground (GEU), an upscale restaurant located in the Bank of America world headquarters building. Soliah soon became best friends with a fellow waitress and political radical named Angela Atwood. One day, the two women together wrote a letter denouncing their GEU managers as “agents of the ruling class” and abruptly quit their jobs. In 1973 Atwood became a founding member of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a Marxist-Leninist terror cult that sought to overthrow the U.S. government by means of guerrilla warfare. Soliah did not join the group at that time.
Soliah was deeply grieved when Atwood—along with fellow SLA members Donald DeFreeze, Camilla Hall, Nancy Ling Perry, Patricia Soltysik, and William Wolfe—was killed in a May 17, 1974 shootout with Los Angeles police. The following month, Soliah organized a memorial rally at “Ho Chi Minh Park” in Berkeley, where she told the crowd that the slain SLAers had been “viciously attacked and murdered by 500 pigs in L.A. while the whole nation watched [on telivision].” Adding that she was “so very proud” of Atwood, and exhorting the remaining “SLA soldiers” to “keep on fighting,” Soliah proclaimed: “I’m with you and we are with you!”
Before long, Soliah and Kilgore themselves joined the SLA and quickly became immersed in its criminal culture—stealing wallets, creating fake IDs, helping to plan and carry out bank robberies, and participating in several bombing attempts in 1975. Most notably, Soliah and seven SLA accomplices took part in the April 21, 1975 robbery of the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California, during which an innocent bystander named Myrna Opsahl, a 42-year-old mother of four, was shot to death.
Four months later, in August 1975, the Los Angeles Police Department found a pair of unexploded, nail-packed pipe bombs beneath two of its patrol cars. Evidence indicated that Kilgore and Soliah were responsible. On September 18, FBI agents raided a San Francisco apartment looking for Soliah. They did not find her, but they did find her brother as well as Patricia Hearst and three other SLA members. A grand jury indicted Soliah in 1976 on a number of counts (though not the Crocker Bank robbery), including one punishable by life imprisonment. But by that time she had already gone underground, and her whereabouts were unknown.
In 1977 Soliah surfaced in Minneapolis, Minnesota, under the alias “Sara Jane Olson.” With her new identity, she met a physician named Fred Peterson in 1979 and married him on March 12, 1980. Olson went on to become the quintessential “soccer mom,” running her three young daughters to school activities and participating in many community service projects and leftist political causes. In 1981, Olson and Peterson went to Zimbabwe, where Peterson worked as a physician and Olson taught drama and English. They returned to the U.S. two years later, residing in Baltimore from 1983-85, in Minneapolis from 1985-89, and in St. Paul’s Highland Park from 1989 onward. In 1992, Olson helped start the leftist Arise bookstore in Minneapolis.
In 1999, Olson was profiled twice (as the fugitive Kathleen Soliah) on the television program America’s Most Wanted. Thanks to a tip generated by the show, the FBI, which had recently put out a $25,000 reward for her capture, found Olson in Minnesota on June 16, 1999. The woman was promptly arrested for her long-ago crimes of explosives possession and attempted murder. Shortly after her arrest, she legally changed her name from Kathleen Soliah to her alias, Sara Jane Olson. She also published a cookbook entitled Serving Time: America’s Most Wanted Recipes.
During her subsequent trial, Olson changed her plea numerous times, prompting the exasperated judge to ask at one point: “Were you lying to me then, or are you lying to me now?” On October 31, 2001, Olson agreed to plead guilty to two counts of possessing explosives with intent to murder, in exchange for having the other charges dropped. She was ultimately sentenced to 5 years and 4 months in prison but clearly felt no remorse for her crimes, attributing them to youthful idealism and claiming that she had believed, at the time, that she and her SLA comrades were “saving lives.”
Soon after Olson was incarcerated, California’s Board of Prison Terms extended her bombing sentence to 14 years, due to the seriousness of the offense. Not long thereafter, the 1975 killing of Myrna Opsahl in Crocker National Bank came back to haunt Olson as well. She and her SLA accomplices had long evaded prosecution for that homicide, as the district attorneys felt that because the perpetrators wore masks during the robbery and thus could not be definitively identified, there was insufficient evidence to get convictions. But throughout those intervening years, Mrs. Opsahl’s son Jon had relentlessly continued 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 Olson to be charged with murder, along with William Harris, Emily Montague (formerly Emily Harris), and Michael Bortin. On November 7, 2002, Olson and the other three pleaded guilty to second-degree murder charges. For this, the court added six years to Olson’s existing 14-year sentence on February 14, 2003.
In July 2004, however, a Superior Court judge ruled that the Board of Prison Terms had not adequately justified its decision to increase Olson’s sentence, and threw out the original 14-year term.
On March 17, 2008, Olson was granted early release based on good-behavior credits she had earned by doing jobs at the prison. But four days later, she was re-arrested at the Los Angeles Airport after California correctional authorities discovered that she had been freed mistakenly due to an administrative error. It was determined that Olson would not be eligible for release until March 17, 2009, and she was in fact set free on that day.
Further Reading: “The Life and Times of Sara Jane Olson” (Minneapolis Star Tribune, 3-21-2008); “Hidden in Plain Sight” (People.com, 7-26-1999); “What Is the Symbionese Liberation Army?” (Slate.com, 1-24-2002); “Bomb Plot Gets Olson 20 to Life” (Los Angeles Times, 1-19-2002); “The Case Against Kathleen Soliah” (Minnesota Public Radio, 8-3-1999); “Sara Jane Olson: American Housewife, American Terrorist” (Time, 3-18-2009); “Symbionese Liberation Parolee” (NY Times, 3-21-2009); “Sara Jane Olson’s 14-Year Prison Sentence Thrown Out” (Minnesota Public Radio, 7-13-2004); “Notorious Alumni” (Inside.IDSNews.com, 2-16-2014).