- Former member of the Symbionese Liberation Army
The son of an attorney who specialized in capital-punishment cases, Michael Bortin was born in 1949. He attended Lowell High School in San Francisco and then enrolled at UC Berkeley, but soon dropped out. Bortin thereafter worked for a year at what he termed a “shi**y job” at Western Union, and spent much of his free time abusing hallucinogenic drugs in Haight-Ashbury.
In 1968 Bortin volunteered for Democrat Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign, going door-to-door to contact potential voters in Oakland’s black neighborhoods. He was devastated when Kennedy was assassinated in June of that year. Shortly after the August 1968 DNC Convention in Chicago, a disillusioned, embittered Bortin joined the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and told the organization: “I’m willing to burn down ROTC buildings.” “After Bobby [Kennedy] was killed,” Bortin later recalled, “something grew inside me that has been there ever since—It was the realization that I really hate this country. I hate it totally.” On yet another occasion, Bortin elaborated:
“Before Bobby Kennedy was killed, I had hope within the system. But not after that. Especially with black people…. [T]hat issue was more important to me in the long run…. I mean, it was like he was a savior to the black community from what I could see.… To me, [RFK’s assassination] was even more devastating than [that of] Martin Luther King … We were just so shocked at how bad our country had become that we didn’t want any part of it…. [E]verything stemmed from that. We had to make … everything we did an in-your-face statement. It was almost like a kid that decided their parents were just disgusting people…. [W]e just felt like there was no future.”
Bortin expressed his boiling rage against America in a variety of ways: e.g., starting riots, shutting down the UC-Berkeley campus, burning flags, overturning police cars and setting them ablaze, and throwing bricks in the faces of police officers. In 1972 he was arrested for his role in a conspiracy to blow up a Berkeley campus building, and spent 18 months in prison before being paroled.
In 1973 Bortin joined the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a California-based, Marxist-Leninist terror cult that sought to overthrow the U.S. government by means of guerrilla warfare. When the SLA famously kidnapped the heiress Patricia Hearst in February 1974, Bortin became intoxicated by the sense of power that he and his comrades felt. “[The Hearst kidnapping] was what we always wanted in a way,” he recalls. “It was like a dream that you didn’t want to wake up from because, first of all, it was instant gratification. The SLA said, ‘food program’—[and] there was a food program, just like that.” (This was a reference to the SLA’s demand that Miss Hearst’s father, in exchange for his daughter’s release, initiate a multimillion-dollar food-giveaway program for poor people.)
On April 21, 1975, Bortin—along with fellow SLA members Emily Harris, Kathleen Soliah, and James Kilgore—held up the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California. William Harris and Steven Soliah 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 bystander named Myrna Opsahl, who was a church secretary and the mother of four children.
Bortin subsequently denied his involvement in the Crocker National Bank episode and claimed that he had never been an SLA member, but only a sympathizer. In 1976 he told a probation panel that on the day of the robbery, he was not even in the bank. In the absence of solid evidence to the contrary—the perpetrators wore masks during the Crocker Bank robbery and thus could not be definitively identified—Bortin was not formally charged. Fearful, however, that his good luck might someday run out, Bortin soon went underground and lived as a fugitive from 1977-84. Then, when his cancer-stricken mother was on her death bed in May 1984, Bortin went to visit her in California and then turned himself in to authorities. He spent the next 18 months in prison, as punishment for having violated his 1973 parole by associating with the SLA.
After serving out his prison sentence, Bortin no longer hid from the law. In 1989 he settled in Portland, Oregon and married Kathleen Soliah’s sister Josephine, who went on to bear him four children. Bortin supported his family by working as a hardwood floor installer.
Meanwhile, the 1975 Opsahl murder case languished for years on end, as prosecutors continued to doubt that they had enough evidence to get convictions. In 1991 a grand jury again questioned Bortin regarding that case, but he continued to maintain his innocence, and still no charges were filed against him. But Jon Opsahl, the son of the innocent woman who had been gunned down in that robbery, 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 murder charges to be brought against Bortin as well as William Harris, Emily Harris, and Sara Jane Olson (Kathleen Soliah). On November 7, 2002, all four pleaded guilty to second-degree murder charges. On February 14, 2003, Bortin was sentenced to six years in prison. At his sentencing, he somberly stated that he and his SLA comrades had spent many years privately “beat[ing] ourselves up” for their wrongdoing. “I can offer nothing but my apologies,” Bortin told Myrna Opsahl’s children and widowed husband. “I’m sorry.” He was subsequently paroled in February 2006.
Further Reading: “SLA Member Gets 6-Year Sentence” (Los Angeles Times, 5-11-2004); “Remembering an SLA Terrorist” (by Stephen Schwartz, 2-20-2003); Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love (by David Talbot, 2012, pp. 198-199); “Why Revolution?” (PBS.org); “The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army” (PBS.org); “What Is the Symbionese Liberation Army?” (Slate.com, 1-24-2002); “Death to the Fascist Insect: Looking Back 40 Years, Does the SLA Make Any More Sense?” (California Magazine, Fall 2014); “Bortin Insists on His Innocence” (The Oregonian, 3-19-2002); “Notorious Alumni” (Indiana Daily Student, 2-16-2014); “Life After the SLA” (Seattle Times, 1-24-2000); “A Radical Change in Lifestyle” (Los Angeles Times, 1-11-2000).