Sara Jane Olson freed, headed back to St. Paul

The '70s militant and longtime fugitive can serve her supervised parole in Minnesota.

Sara Jane Olson is headed back to Minnesota -- soon.

Ramsey County corrections officials may know as early as today when the 1970s militant and longtime fugitive, now 62, is expected to arrive back home in St. Paul.

Olson was released from a California prison shortly after midnight Tuesday after serving seven years for trying to blow up police cars and participating in a bank robbery in which a woman was killed. She will serve her one-year parole in Minnesota, a situation that sparked sharp public debate and prompted a protest from Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Late Tuesday, Ramsey County officials were awaiting word on when Olson was expected to leave California. Under an interstate compact, California correction officials must inform Ramsey County when Olson expects to leave that state, her expected arrival time and her mode of transportation to Minnesota, said Chris Crutchfield, spokesman for the Ramsey County Community Corrections Department. That word had not yet been conveyed Tuesday night.

One of Olson's attorneys, David Nickerson, said he was glad his client had been freed and is being paroled to Minnesota. "I think that's obviously the best place for her," he said. "That's where her family is."

Whether Olson would serve her parole in California, where her crime took place, or in Minnesota, where her family and friends live, sparked controversy in the days before the release of the former Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) member.

Police unions in Los Angeles and St. Paul urged California to keep Olson there. Pawlenty and GOP legislators made last-ditch efforts to prevent her return, with the governor arguing that Olson "is not a typical parolee. She is someone associated with domestic terrorism."

But attempts to put the Legislature on record as opposing Olson's return were blocked. And when Pawlenty asked California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to make Olson serve her parole there, Schwarzenegger said he would let his corrections officials handle the matter.

Meanwhile, California correction officials approved Olson's request to serve her parole in Minnesota, saying "studies have shown that family reunification is an evidence-based indicator of protecting the public by decreasing recidivism."

Terry Thornton, a California corrections spokeswoman, said two parole agents picked up Olson "shortly after midnight" and brought her to an office in Madera County, where she was released to her husband, Gerald (Fred) Peterson. Officials decided on the early-morning release "taking safety into consideration," Thornton said. "We were very, very concerned not only for the safety of [Olson] but of our employees as well."

Nickerson said his client probably would head to her mother's home in Palmdale, Calif., check in with her parole agent in Los Angeles County, then fly back to the Twin Cities with her husband.

Her parole conditions include prohibitions against contact with former SLA members or codefendants. Olson also must not have contact with any of her victims or their family members.

On Tuesday morning, a florist delivered a bouquet to Olson's stucco Tudor home in the Highland Park neighborhood. The delivery man persistently knocked, but no one came to the door.

A young man and woman later emerged from the home and gathered up the flowers. "The family has nothing to say," the man told reporters. "Thank you for coming." Later, he and a young woman left in a car registered to Sophia Peterson, one of Olson's daughters.

A violent past

Olson was born in Fargo, N.D., with the name Kathleen Ann Soliah and later lived in Barnesville, Minn.

For a quarter-century, she ran from her past as an SLA member. The SLA was best-known for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. Olson, in her 20s, helped hide Hearst until she was freed by rescuers. She went underground after Hearst's rescue, living in Africa, Washington state and eventually the Twin Cities, where she married, raised daughters and was active in community theater and DFL politics.

Olson was captured in 1999 in St. Paul after "America's Most Wanted" aired an episode about her. She pleaded guilty in 2001 to two violent felonies in 1975: placing pipe bombs under Los Angeles police cars and participating in a suburban Sacramento bank robbery, during which an SLA cohort shot and killed Myrna Opsahl, a 42-year-old mother of four who was there to deposit church receipts.

California court documents say Olson entered the bank carrying a firearm and kicked a pregnant teller in the midsection. The teller later miscarried.

"It does finish out this chapter, and I hope it's the last chapter," said Opsahl's son Jon Opsahl, who lives in southern California, upon hearing of Olson's release. "I'm glad she's leaving the state."

Star Tribune staff writer Jean Hopfensperger and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482 Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788

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