Sara Jane Olson was back in prison Sunday, but her lawyers will go to court today to argue that her parole was illegally ended because of complaints to California authorities.
Sara Jane Olson and her husband, Dr. Gerald Peterson, were celebrating her release from prison over a plate of chicken wings Friday night at the Los Angeles International Airport when some state employees abruptly interrupted.
"They approached her and said, 'You need to come with us. This is not an arrest,'" Peterson said. "Sara very calmly understood that she needed to go with them."
Despite those assurances, Peterson said it was clear that Olson was being arrested. He decided to return to St. Paul while his wife's attorneys contest the issue.
"Our kids are mystified by this process of formal release and then rearrest," Peterson said.
Attorneys for Olson, a former Symbionese Liberation Army member, said Sunday that they will go to court today to demand her immediate release from prison.
They plan to argue that California corrections officials bowed to political pressure and illegally revoked her parole.
But Jon Opsahl, son of Myrna Opsahl, who was killed in a 1975 bank robbery undertaken by the SLA, said that if Olson -- formerly known as Kathleen Soliah -- goes free, it will mean that she will only have served time for the attempted bombing of two police cars.
She wouldn't have served a single day in prison for participating in the robbery that killed his mother, Opsahl said.
When he learned of Olson's March 17 release, Opsahl called prosecutors and corrections officials to determine whether they had made a mistake.
Olson was convicted in 2001 of trying to bomb two police cars in Los Angeles. Under 1975 sentencing laws, she got five years and four months. But a subsequent string of "violent offender hearings" and appeals of her sentences seesawed the penalty up and down before it came to rest at 12 years.
Olson also was sentenced to six years in prison in the bank robbery-murder case. That sentence was subordinated to the bombing one, which means it's automatically reduced by two-thirds, to two years, Opsahl said.
But the sentencing judge had said the terms must run consecutively. Thus, Olson's combined sentence is 14 years, 12 years in the bombing case and two years for the bank murder. Work credits and good behavior can only cut that in half, to seven years, Opsahl said. That puts her release one year away.
One of Olson's attorneys, David A. Nickerson, said corrections officials appear to be saying that they forgot to add the consecutive sentence to Olson's term. "Nobody could be that stupid as to have her in custody for six years and forget to add a second consecutive sentence in a murder case."
He said he and her other attorney, Shawn Chapman Holley, will argue that the only way she should have been sent back to prison was if she had violated terms of her parole. Locking her back up violated her rights to due process, they said.
A target for controversy?
Three of Olson's codefendants in the bank robbery case have been released without an outcry from Opsahl or police. One of them, Michael Bortin, acknowledged in an interview Sunday that he and the other SLA members got light sentences. But he said authorities seem to have a vendetta against Olson, his sister-in-law.
Bortin, now living in Portland, Ore., said that although he and the other codefendants weren't in Los Angeles for the bombings of the police cars, "we helped make the bombs."
"We were all in it together," Bortin said. "Everybody should have got the same sentence."
Opsahl said that would be fine with him, but he noted that Olson has been a lightning rod for controversy. Of those involved in the bank robbery, she was the only one charged with attempting to kill police officers. She initially denied that she was Soliah. And after pleading guilty, she tried to recant, blaming one of her lawyers for her predicament.
California corrections officials prompted a public outcry when they paroled Olson March 17 from the central California prison where she has spent the past six years. By midnight Friday, she was barred from boarding a flight to her home in St. Paul. Corrections officials held a news conference Saturday to say that they had mistakenly released her a year early. Olson was back at her old prison by Sunday afternoon.
Nickerson and Holley said that "politics" is the only explanation they have for the abrupt decision to yank Olson's parole.
"We're kind of at a loss. All we're left with is suspicions at this time," Holley said. She blamed the reversal on protests from the police union, Opsahl's family and some outraged members of the public.
Holley said that no one from the Corrections Department contacted her or Nickerson before they arrested Olson and that no one has responded to their calls since.
"That's the difference between us and China and Nazi Germany," Nickerson said. "We don't pick somebody up off the street and throw them into prison without any explanation. We think they couldn't do what they did legally, and we don't believe their recalculations."
Holley said police and others are upset that Olson got so little time under the 1975 sentencing laws. "That's fine," she said. "But we're supposed to follow the rule of law, and passion is not supposed to play a part in that. It's clear that it has."
Nickerson filed an appeal in February with the California Supreme Court, arguing that Olson's 14-year sentence was improperly calculated. He said he filed the appeal even though he expected Olson to be released this month because it could end her parole.
Peterson said his wife will persevere, regardless of the outcome of her appeals. She's looking forward to entering academia, possibly studying political science, women's studies, criminology or writing.
Opsahl said Olson should do another year in prison without whining. "My mother has been in the grave. She doesn't get any time off for good behavior or a reduction in her sentence. That was a permanent life sentence, and she committed no wrong," he said.
"And in a real strange twist of events, I think it might be a little extra justice here, because I think it's going to be the toughest year for Kathleen Soliah to serve, thinking she should have been out for good."
Staff writer Abby Simon contributed to this report. Dan Browning • 612-673-4493