March 23: A return to prison, not St. Paul

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2008 - 12:19 AM

A review after Sara Jane Olson's release showed she wasn't supposed to be freed until 2009, California officials said. She learned the news while waiting to fly home.

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Sara Jane Olson in her 18-foot-by-18-foot dorm-like cell she shared with seven other women at Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, California, Thursday, June 1, 2006.

Photo: ROBERT DURELL, LOS ANGELES TIMES

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Sara Jane Olson's taste of freedom was short-lived.

Just days after being told she could serve her parole in Minnesota, Olson is back in a California prison, where she'll stay for almost another year.

California Corrections Department officials said Saturday that criticism of Olson's release spurred a review of her case. That review showed that her parole date had been miscalculated -- she was not supposed to be released until March 17, 2009. Chief Deputy Secretary Scott Kernan said the mistake was made in 2004.

Olson was waiting at Los Angeles International Airport to board a flight back to her St. Paul home when she learned of the turn of events, her lawyer David Nickerson said. Olson, a former Symbionese Liberation Army member, was escorted to her mother's home in Palmdale. She then was taken to a state prison in Corona, officials said.

Los Angeles police union officials had sharply criticized Olson's release after she served six years for her role in the attempted bombing of police cars in 1975 and a deadly bank robbery. Nickerson blamed that reaction for Olson's return to prison.

"They would not have done this if they had not gotten this pressure," he said. "Absolutely. This is entirely a result of police pressure.

"This is like the Gestapo picking up somebody off the street," Nickerson added. "This action is illegal. They will be sued."

Nickerson said he plans to challenge the decision on the grounds that Olson, having been placed on parole, can't be taken back into custody unless she violates the terms of her parole or commits a crime.

Reached at home Saturday afternoon in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood, Olson's husband, Dr. Fred Peterson, said he was surprised by his wife's sudden detainment. Peterson had returned to St. Paul from California earlier Saturday. Asked whether her new incarceration would be for a prolonged period, he said, "I don't know."

At a news conference, Kernan of the Corrections Department called Olson's case "extremely complicated, given the amount of changes to the sentencing laws that have occurred over the last 30 years."

Los Angeles Police Protective League President Tim Sands praised the review of Olson's case that ended with her back behind bars.

"Justice is not served if convicted murderer Kathleen Ann Soliah can simply wander back to Minnesota after having only a token sentence for murder and attempted murder,'' Sands said. "Her prison sentence is not completed until her time on parole has been served. She was a flight risk 30 years ago, and she is a flight risk now."

Olson, 61, formerly known as Kathleen Soliah, was freed Monday from the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla after serving six years. Kernan said she would be moved back to Chowchilla.

Olson had originally been ordered to serve two concurrent six-year sentences for the attempted bombing and a bank robbery in which Myrna Opsahl, a customer, was shot and killed.

Jon Opsahl, her son, had called the Sacramento district attorney's office and said he believed Olson had not served enough time.

Olson spent years on the run for those crimes, which occurred when she was a member of the SLA, an urban guerrilla group best known for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst. She had disappeared shortly after being charged with the attempted bombing and remained free until FBI agents acting on a tip following a television report on the case stopped her minivan near her St. Paul home in 1999.She pleaded guilty in 2001 to attempting to bomb Los Angeles police cars.

Olson earned credit against her sentence for working while in prison, serving on a maintenance crew that cleaned the prison's main yard.

On Wednesday, Olson was given permission to return to St. Paul by the Minnesota Department of Corrections, a department spokeswoman said. Ramsey County community corrections also approved her transfer to Minnesota, and California authorities notified the county that she had been given permission to leave California on Friday, with her arrival scheduled for no later than today.

Friends and supporters who had praised her involvement in local theater and volunteer activities during the years she raised a family in St. Paul were disappointed to learn that her release had been revoked.

"I was totally surprised,'' theater director and close friend Wendy Knox said angrily. "Who is not doing their job? To put her and her family through that is one more unconscionable act."

"This is torture," echoed Peter Rachleff, an Olson supporter from St. Paul. "For someone to be told by authorities that they are free -- and to have operated within constraint of parole and did what she was told to do, and then taken back into custody, is outrageous. We should be ashamed that anybody should be treated like this."

Santa Clara University law Prof. Gerald Uelmen said he found it "hard to imagine" that state officials could have made a mistake in calculating the amount of time Olson was supposed to serve. Uelmen, executive director of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, said he had never heard of an instance in which a prisoner was released early by mistake.

However, he added, "if she was erroneously released, they can take her back into custody until she serves her sentence" in full.

Staff writer Dee DePass contributed to this report, which also contains information from the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press. Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768

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