- Founding member of the Symbionese Liberation Army
- Member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War
- Convicted murderer
Born in 1945, William “Teko” Harris was the son of an Air Force lieutenant. After enlisting with the U.S. Marines in 1965 and then completing a combat-free tour of duty, he settled in Indiana and joined the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In 1968 Harris met his future wife, Emily Montague, while earning a master’s degree in theater at Indiana University. In the early 1970s the Harrises 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 young 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 Harris became a founding member 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. Among his comrades in the fledgling organization were some of the radicals whom he had previously met through the BCA.
In May 1974, shortly after six SLA members had been killed in a two-hour shootout with police in South Central Los Angeles, the radical sports writer and activist Jack Scott helped the Harrises and Patricia Hearst relocate to rural Pennsylvania; the trio eventually returned to the West coast that autumn.
On April 21, 1975, William Harris and Steven Soliah served as lookouts for four fellow SLAers—Emily Harris, Kathleen Soliah (Steven’s sister), Michael Bortin, and James Kilgore—as they held up the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California. (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.
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 a May sporting-goods store robbery in Los Angeles, and (b) participated in the February abduction of heiress Patricia Hearst. Mr. Harris was sentenced for these crimes in 1976 and served a total of seven-and-a-half years in prison, during which time he and his wife, Emily Montague Harris, divorced.
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 Harris to be charged with murder, along with Sara Jane Olson (formerly Kathleen Soliah), Emily Montague (formerly Emily Harris), and Michael Bortin. At the time of his arrest, Harris was working as an independent private investigator in San Francisco. Previously, he had been a private investigator for a number of criminal defense attorneys.
On November 7, 2002, the Harrises, Olson, and Bortin all pled guilty to second-degree murder charges vis-à-vis Myrna Opsahl. William Harris served eight years in prison for his role in that crime.
Further Reading: “A Radical Change in Lifestyle” (Los Angeles Times, 1-11-2000); “The SLA Is the CIA” (by Mae Brussell, from The Realist, February 1974); “What Is the Symbionese Liberation Army?” (Slate.com, 1-24-2002); “Tania’s World: The Inside Story of the Patty Hearst Kidnapping, Part Two: People in Need” (Rolling Stone, 11-20-1975); “Death to the Fascist Insect: Looking Back 40 Years, Does the SLA Make Any More Sense?” (California Magazine, Fall 2014); The Encyclopedia of Kidnappings (by Michael Newton, 2002, pp. 135-137); “Ex-SLA Members Want out of Jail” (San Francisco Chronicle, 2-1-2002); “New Life, Old Murder: Ex-Radical Emily Harris Faces Charges 19 Years after Release from Prison” (Seattle Times, 6-15-2002); “27 Years Later, 4 SLA Figures Arrested” (San Francisco Chronicle, 1-17-2002); “The SLA’s Final Chapter” (CBS News, 3-4-2002).