June 27, 1999: The life and times of Sara Jane Olson
- Article by: CHUCK HAGA
- Star Tribune
- March 21, 2008 - 9:59 AM
The word still carries the weight it had, the offensive and accusing weight it was meant to carry in those days of division and rage. Michael Bortin flinched when he heard it spoken again by his sister-in-law.
The 25-year-old film clip shows a defiant Kathleen Soliah standing at a microphone at the University of California, Berkeley. Her head is high, her jaw set, her voice strong.
She had organized this rally in Ho Chi Minh Park, named during the heyday of the antiwar movement for the leader of North Vietnam. The turnout was sparse, but Soliah spoke as if to the world.
It was June 2, 1974, two weeks after an army of police had decimated a squad of self-styled urban guerrillas who called themselves an army: the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). One of the six SLA members who died in the nationally televised shootout in Los Angeles on May 17 was Angela Atwood, guerrilla name Gelina. She and Kathy had worked together as waitresses and actresses. They were best friends.
The six were "viciously attacked and murdered by 500 pigs in L.A. while the whole nation watched," Kathy shouted. "Well, I believe that Gelina and her comrades fought until the last minutes, and though I would like to have her with me here right now, I know that she lived happy and she died happy. And in that sense, I'm so very proud of her.
"SLA soldiers - I know it is not necessary to say. But keep on fighting. I'm with you and we are with you!"
Bortin, whose own involvement with the SLA cost him seven years as a fugitive and time in prison, is married to Soliah's younger sister Josephine. They live in Portland, Ore., and watched the brief film of Kathy's Ho Chi Minh Park speech on a TV news program last week.
"Granted, it was a little inflammatory," Bortin said. "The word `pig' stands out. But everyone was saying it in those days. Everyone got hit over the head by one. "If that's the worst they can show to vilify her . . . "
At the Theatre in the Round in Minneapolis, actors are rehearsing
a play called "Independence" about an eccentric mother. Sara Jane Olson auditioned for the part. She didn't get it.
But she's had her share of roles and been "credited" with more: in-crowd, most-wanted. Fraternity cook, celebrity hostess. Wife, mother . . . pipe bomber? Actress, missionary teacher . . . bank robber? She has played her roles with passion and, her friends argue, with consistency.
Act 1: Barnesville to Berkeley
Sara Jane Olson claimed April 25, 1948, as her birthdate. That's the date she listed on her application for a marriage license in Hennepin County in 1980. The application form didn't ask where she was born.
Kathleen Soliah's birth certificate has her born in Fargo, N.D.,
on Jan. 16, 1947.
Her father, Martin, was a teacher and basketball coach in
Barnesville, southeast of Moorhead, Minn. He had married Elsie Engstrom, from Stewart's Point, Calif., while he was serving with the Army Air Corps during World War II. They were widely respected as friendly and hard-working people, conservative Norwegian Lutherans. Marty had a reputation for getting the most out of young people, whether students or athletes.
He had grown up in Hatton, N.D., and summers he and Elsie took the kids home to see relatives. Sheldon Green, now of Fargo, grew up a few houses from Kathy Soliah's grandparents and recalls summers spent playing baseball with her brother, Steve.
pedaled our bikes to the baseball field," he said. "We chose up sides and played ball all day.
"All's we were back then was kids. Scruffy kids."
A family picture that appeared in the Fargo newspaper in 1975, when Steve was on trial in California for an SLA bank robbery, showed Martin in 1955 with Kathy, 8, and Steve, 6, looking nicely scruffy. Josephine would have been about 4 then, brother Lance just a baby. Another sister, Martha, was born in California.
How did Martin and Elsie Soliah's three older children come to be left-wing radicals, fugitives - supporting actors in the bizarre SLA drama, their names in papers across the country?
"I have no idea," Green said. "And I doubt anyone else does."
When the news came in 1975 that Steve Soliah had been Patty Hearst's lover during her time with the SLA, that he was on trial for bank robbery, that Kathy and Josephine were wanted by authorities, there were awkward moments at the Country Squire Restaurant in Hatton. People didn't talk if any members of the Soliah family were around. Many still won't, out of respect to them.
Few relatives remain in the area, and they have little or nothing to say. Alvara Soliah, 96, Kathy's great-aunt in Hatton, dismissed the affair as so much foolishness. "It doesn't amount to two pennies, I tell you," she said.
The family left Barnesville in 1956, settling in Palmdale, Calif., where Martin taught English and coached.
Kathy Soliah was popular, part of the in-crowd but friendly to everybody, high school classmate Sheri Scott said. She was busy, too: Spanish Club, Pep Club, Future Teachers of America. She played powder puff football and was a member of the Girls Athletic Association.
She graduated in 1965, as the U.S. presence grew in Vietnam. She enrolled at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and studied theater. She began dating a young man named James Kilgore.
In 1968, 1969, 1970, Kathy's conversations became more political. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. President Richard Nixon ordered the bombing of Cambodia. At Jackson State in Mississippi, at Kent State in Ohio, student protesters were shot and killed.
By 1971, Kathy had her degree in theater arts. She and Kilgore, son of a well-to-do businessman in San Rafael, Calif., moved to be with people who shared their interests and values in southern California. Kathy's parents complained that it was a commune.
In 1972, Soliah and Kilgore moved to Berkeley. It was a center of the antiwar movement. It was the place to be.
Kathy took a waitressing job at the Great Electric Underground, a
San Francisco restaurant that catered to businessmen. She became
friends with another waitress, Angela Atwood, who also wanted to be
In 1973, they quit the restaurant together when their
boss told them to wear skimpy skirts and V-necked tops to build the
They both were becoming more political, but Angela made the bigger leap. She began her association with Donald DeFreeze, a prison escapee who called himself Cinque and imagined himself a "general field marshal" leading an army of the people to victory over the "fascist capitalist insect" that controlled "Amerikkka."
In 1973, Marty Soliah went back to Barnesville for a visit. He and Ralph Mathew, an old friend, went on a fishing trip to God's River in Manitoba.
Mathew talked with a reporter in 1975. He said Marty had told him on that fishing trip that he had a good relationship with his kids. He was a little disappointed in Steve; his son was painting houses in San Francisco, not making much of his life.
But Kathy was doing fine, he said. Kathy was going to be an actress. .
Act Two: The making of a revolutionary
Despite the virulence and combativeness of her "pigs" speech at Berkeley, Kathy Soliah sounded heartbroken when she talked to her mother about her friend's death.
"Mom - gentle Angela! - How could this happen?"
They were like twin sisters, Michael Bortin said - not in their leftist politics so much as in their energy and commitment.
"These were people with straight A's in high school," he said. "They were overachievers. You're talking about America's best, young people who gave up their careers, what they were supposed to do and wanted to be."
It was the assassinations, Bortin said. It was Nixon, the Chicago riots. Above all, it was Vietnam. "We lost our faith in the country, in due process," he said. "In law and justice."
Bortin and Steve Soliah were roommates in the early '70s. They painted houses together, and they took part in political meetings and demonstrations. So did Kathy and Josephine.
"Everybody in Berkeley was pretty political at the time," Bortin said. "Vietnam was so pervasive then. There was always some step,
always something happening on a very intense scale."
Bortin took a second job delivering telegrams. Sometimes they were telegrams from the Defense Department, informing families that
a relative had been killed.
"I tore up the telegrams to give them a little extra time," he said.
In June 1975, the surviving SLA members, Bill and Emily Harris and their captive/comrade Patricia Hearst, read about Kathy Soliah's tribute to their fallen comrades. In "Every Secret Thing,"
Hearst's 1982 account of her SLA experiences, she wrote that Soliah had been considered "too flaky to be trusted with the underground activities of the SLA," but now they were desperate for money and support. Soliah was eager to help, and with Kilgore and Josephine, she raised $1,500 for the SLA. "Her consciousness was right there," Emily Harris said.
According to Hearst, Kathy Soliah also delivered taped SLA communiques to radio stations, set up safe houses and ran errands for the group, including shoplifting groceries. But Bortin said that Kilgore was the more accomplished shoplifter.
Kathy Soliah was arrested and convicted on a charge of larceny for attempting to steal a pair of pants, he said.
"That ended her shoplifting days before they began," he said. "She was no good at it."
Hearst's book is "self-serving," Bortin said. "She told authorities what they wanted to hear," then fleshed that out in her book.
He disputes, for example, Hearst's claim that he and Kathy Soliah were involved in the 1975 robbery of the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, a Sacramento suburb, in which customer Myrna Lee Opshal was killed.
Hearst put Emily Harris, Kilgore, Bortin and Soliah inside the bank. Hearst, outside in a getaway car, quoted Harris as saying later that she shot Opshal.
After she, Steve Soliah and others were captured and Kathy Soliah began her long run, Hearst told authorities what she knew about the Carmichael bank robbery in exchange for immunity. Steve Soliah was tried on charges relating to the bank robbery but was acquitted.
In court, the former Barnesville boy portrayed himself as a sensitive man who felt sorry for Hearst and was drawn unwittingly into the intrigues of the SLA. He never joined, he said, and he warned Kathleen about the group. But he couldn't resist the chance to meet them.
"I lived with her," he said of Hearst at his trial. "I slept with her. We felt very close to each other." He said they were planning to move to Oregon when they were arrested.
He didn't ask her about the robbery, he said, or about the money she stuffed into their refrigerator. "I had learned not to ask questions," he said.
He described meeting Hearst and the Harrises when they arrived at a Berkeley apartment that he and Kathy had obtained for them in 1974. "They were carrying suitcases and bags," he said. "They took weapons out of the bags and propped them against the walls. They walked around looking out the windows of the apartment. They seemed extremely nervous."
So was he, according to Hearst's account in her book.
"Josephine Soliah was a younger version of her sister Kathy, although somewhat heavier, and she was very quiet and shy, as if in awe of us," Hearst wrote. "Steve gave the impression of being a happy younger brother to his domineering sister. No more than 5 feet 9 or 10, he had a wispy goatee and an earring in one pierced ear, and his blond hair fell to his shoulders.
"What do you do?' " Emily Harris asked him.
"Nothin'," he said, embarrassed.
Harris dismissed him, but her husband, whose guerrilla name was Teko, offered to show him how a submachine gun worked. They talked guns for an hour. "Steve had had some practice as a boy shooting desert rats near Palmdale with a carbine," Hearst wrote, "but submachine guns appeared to hold a special fascination for him."
As the reorganized SLA planned a robbery of the Guild Savings and Loan Association on the outskirts of Sacramento early in 1975, Kathy bristled at having to repeat the smallest details over and over. "We're not stupid, you know," she told Teko. "We do have minds of our own."
That robbery went off without a hitch and netted the group more than $3,000. The April 21, 1975, robbery of the Carmichael bank yielded more, about $15,000, but Opshal's death "hung over us all," Hearst wrote. "Fear permeated everything we said or did."
A second grand jury was convened later to consider evidence in the Carmichael robbery, including Hearst's statements to authorities, but no new charges were brought.
Hearst, Kilgore, and Kathy and Steve Soliah went to a Cinco de Mayo festival in Sacramento, disguised and armed, then left the city to return to the Bay Area. Kathy Soliah and Kilgore used fake names to rent an apartment on the southern edge of San Francisco.
The others soon joined them, bringing along the group's weapons and files. For the next several weeks, according to Hearst, they planned and carried out a number of bombings.
Kathy and Steve Soliah were willing and eager participants,
After a pipe bomb destroyed a police car in Emeryville, on the edge of San Francisco Bay, the group issued a communique: "The explosion at the Emeryville Station of Fascist Pig Representation is a warning to the rabid dogs who murder our children in cold blood. Remember, pigs: Every time you strap on your gun, the next bullet may be speeding towards your head, the next bomb may be under the seat of your car."
Again, this is Patty Hearst's account, written after she received immunity from prosecution for any part she may have played in these actions.
In August, part of the group - including Kathy Soliah - drove to Los Angeles and planted bombs by two parked police cars, Hearst wrote. They were large pipe bombs packed with heavy construction nails.
On Aug. 22, 1975, two LAPD officers pulled out of a pancake house parking lot. Passersby noticed something fall away from the car. When it was found to be a bomb, a search was ordered of all LAPD vehicles, and another bomb was found attached to the bottom of an unmarked police car. The bomb squad disabled it.
Police traced the bomb parts, which they said led them to two suspects: Kathy Soliah and Kilgore.
The FBI and LAPD interviewed Soliah's parents, who denied even knowing where their children lived. Then, on Sept. 18, 1975, FBI agents raided a San Francisco apartment looking for Soliah - and found instead her brother, three others with SLA connections and Hearst.
A grand jury indicted Kathy Soliah in 1976. But she was gone.
Act Three: Hiding on stage in St. Paul
In about 1977, Kathleen Soliah - newly arrived in Minnesota, approaching 30 and calling herself Sara Jane Olson - talked with Tracey Baker about a book that Baker was working on.
The book's title: "Every Woman Tells a Story."
"She said that she had just moved here from Seattle, and she was interested in working with us," said Baker, now assistant director of the Minnesota Historical Society's reference department. "But after a while she wanted something more active, and she moved on."
At about the same time, Soliah met Lenore Burgard, director of adult special education at the University of Minnesota. Burgard also was involved in various political activities, and Soliah had been referred by a friend in Unity Theater, a politically charged acting troupe in Minneapolis.
But Soliah had a more immediate proletarian need. She had just taken a job as cook at a fraternity on University Avenue, and she needed to study.
"She borrowed my car to take home books she had checked out on quantity cooking," Burgard said. "I don't think she was much of a cook then."
She got better.
"Her parties were just incredible," said Baker, who stayed in touch socially. "She would lay out this food - the entire table in the formal dining room full of food: four or five major meat dishes, and she had lasagna, with separate salad and dessert areas. It was just a party, but it was like a wedding feast."
The guest list was as broad and varied as the food: doctors, theater people, activists, neighbors and friends. After she was married, her Halloween and New Year's Eve parties brought together the likes of the banker-economic developer Yanisches, Steve and Rebecca, with people from Jobs Now.
Steve Yanisch had returned to Minneapolis in 1977 after business graduate school in Mankato when he and Fred Peterson, a medical student, agreed to share an apartment on 10th Avenue S.
"Fred got to know Sara, and they got romantically involved," he said. "She moved into our two-bedroom unit with Fred." It wasn't crowded, Yanisch said, because he was spending a lot of time with Rebecca. They were married in 1978. Fred and Sara were married on March 12, 1980.
"We've stayed friends, me more so with Fred," Steve Yanisch said. "When my dad had surgery, Fred was there. When my dad died, Fred was there."
Sara Olson is passionate, he said. "You have to fight to get your thoughts and words in. She requires an energy level to keep up with the discussion. She thinks, and she cares.
"I remember standing in her kitchen at a New Year's Eve party, talking a long time, and most of it was me listening to her talk about having three teenage daughters. She knew so much about her daughters' lives, and I thought, `This is a pretty good mom.' "
When they talked politics, he listened, too.
"As I've gotten older, I would characterize myself as a centrist Democrat," Yanisch said. "She follows global issues much more than I do, and she is much more conversant on Guatemala, Africa. Listening to her, I'm embarrassed what I don't know.
"But I'd never use the word `frightening' about her. She had study groups, and they enjoyed the intensity of the debate."
Baker gave her daughter's baby clothes to Olson when Emily, the first of Olson's three daughters, was born. "Then she and Fred went off to Africa. That had to be 1980, '81."
They went to Zimbabwe, where Peterson worked as a physician and Olson taught drama and English and gave birth to Sophia. Peterson worked through a British medical missionary group, Steve Yanisch said. It was largely volunteer work, and it was a tough time for Olson.
"His work took him away from her quite a bit," he said. "She felt the gender politics over there; her standing wasn't the same as it was in the United States."
They "absolutely did not" go to Africa to hide, Yanisch said.
Olson and Peterson lived in Baltimore briefly when they returned from Africa, Baker said, so that Peterson could take courses on tropical diseases at Johns Hopkins University.
Back in Minnesota, Olson resumed acting. She played major roles in "Macbeth" and "King Lear." A critic called her "vibrant" as a countess in a 1993 play, "All's Well That Ends Well."
The federal fugitive even performed a one-woman show for members
of the Legislature.
The Highland Park Villager newspaper last week went into its files for pictures and a story about one of Olson's smaller-stage appearances - at Highland Park Elementary School in 1990. She played Julia Bullard Nelson, an early social activist in Minnesota, in a play called "A Woman of Purpose."
"People don't have to be powerless," Olson said then, explaining Bullard's story. "But it's not easy to change things, and you don't always get respect."
Pam Nice directed Olson last year in "A Fair Country," which dealt with apartheid, at Theatre in the Round.
"The character she plays is caught in a moral dilemma," Nice said. "She's somewhat on the edge and goes through a nervous breakdown. Sara had to capture that, and she did.
"During rehearsals, she would talk with other members of the cast about her experiences in Africa, especially what it must be like for a woman over there."
She talked about her children - Leila is the youngest - and asked for time off from rehearsals to attend their plays. She talked about social-justice issues. But she did not talk about the past.
"I know we shared a lot, living and growing up at that time, being active in the '60s and '70s," Nice said. "We would talk in generalities about what it was like to be a college student at that time: the idealism and fervor and political commitment.
"Politics meant a lot to her, but she never talked about any specific protests."
Olson immersed herself in local politics, too, favoring candidates and causes that leaned to the left. Food was a frequent medium. She held parties for St. Paul mayoral candidates Andy Dawkins and Sandy Pappas.
In 1992, she helped start the leftist Arise bookstore on Lyndale Avenue S. in Minneapolis. She volunteered at the store, ordering books, working the counter and cleaning up.
"She was real down to earth - not a lot of rhetoric," said Mike Whalen, another of the store's founders. "She'd show people how to get on Word Perfect to do a leaflet, or get on the Internet if you were doing some type of event."
Soliah and Peterson lived at 4612 43rd Av. S. in the late 1980s. They moved into their two-story, ivy-covered stone house in St. Paul in 1990.
One of their neighbors in Minneapolis was Pat Lovelette. "I'd see them going out running," she said. "They were outside a lot. But what I remember best is that the kids were always doing something imaginative. They were beautifully behaved children.
"Sara and Fred were . . . I don't want to say hippies. They were free spirits, concerned about the environment and things, being healthy and helpful. I saw them as people to look up to, not odd. They were responsible. That's a good word to describe them."
In the days since her June 16 arrest, Olson has been almost canonized: reader of newspapers for the blind, volunteer among victims of torture, organizer of soup kitchens. She taught disadvantaged children in summer camp and narrated the Christmas pageant at Minnehaha United Methodist Church in Minneapolis. Her husband, who played in the reggae group Pressure Drop, plays trumpet in church.
Bortin, the brother-in-law, said the Sara Jane Olson who has been portrayed as such a good citizen in St. Paul should not be contrasted to the young radical he knew in California.
"There's not this dichotomy between what Kathy was and what she is now," he said. "She was doing the same things in the early '70s.
"You can't fake a resume for 25 years. It's who she is - just the same Kathy. She was just as wonderful then. She just wasn't rich."
Like most of her friends in the Twin Cities, Rebecca Yanisch said she never picked up a sense that Olson carried a heavy secret.
"I come from a strong family background, so I'd ask questions about her parents," she said. "When her kids were born, I asked how they felt about the grandkids. She just said that they lived in California, and they weren't close."
Soliah attended a reunion years ago in a park in Santa Clarita, Calif., near Palmdale, according to family members. But a lawyer had warned her earlier that she was being too casual and might be detected, so she cut off most contact.
At least twice in the past 10 years, Soliah has made overtures about coming in from the cold.
Larry Hatfield, a San Francisco reporter who has covered the SLA story since it started, acted as an intermediary this year between Soliah's family and authorities. Bortin asked him to tell police that Kathy would surrender if she could get probation and a fine, no jail time. The police said they'd talk, but they wanted to see her. The Soliah side "got a little antsy," Hatfield said.
When the FBI offered a $20,000 reward on the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles shootout and went to "America's Most Wanted," negotiations stopped.
Bortin believes that the FBI has known all along where Kathy was. They wanted to raise her profile with the TV broadcast, he said, and then make the dramatic arrest, even though they told her parents 10 years ago that she was no longer being sought. The FBI and LAPD deny that they ever stopped looking for Soliah.
When her 1998 Plymouth minivan was stopped and surrounded by St. Paul police, officers from Los Angeles and FBI agents, Olson was on her way to teach classes, English as a second language and citizenship, at the Ronald M. Hubbs Center for Lifelong Learning in St. Paul, as she has done every Wednesday for years.
Tom King, the LAPD detective who supervised the investigation and son of the man who supervised the 1974 SLA shootout, said Soliah seemed "somewhat surprised and somewhat relieved."
Epilogue: Confined, concerned, center stage
At her arraignment in St. Paul, Soliah, wearing an orange prison uniform, waved and blew a kiss to her family. Two of her daughters sobbed. Peterson put an arm around Leila to comfort her.
Ramsey County District Judge Kathleen Gearin, finding that the 1976 grand jury indictment in Los Angeles County included a count punishable by life imprisonment, denied bail. So Soliah remains in jail, a marathon runner confined now to a cell 4 feet by 6 feet.
Tracey Baker, who has known Olson since she arrived in the Twin Cities more than 20 years ago, was alarmed by the picture of a haggard woman that appeared in papers after her arrest. "It looked like everything had been taken out of her," she said.
But she was heartened to hear that Ramsey County's newest prisoner was expressing concern for other prisoners. "That's Sara," she said. "This will reenergize her."
Outside her cell, it's 1970 again. People are arguing Vietnam and protest, law and conscience, left and right. Many of Soliah's defenders are 50, 55 years old, some of them perhaps carrying old baggage of their own. Many of her critics, insisting that she be prosecuted vigorously and, if convicted, punished to the max, are under 30.
Highland Park neighbor Sharon Skarda wants to draw a line between then and now.
How could this woman be a radical fugitive? "I wasn't aware she had been to Africa," she said. "She never hit me up for anything. She never pushed me into anything.
"It's just a hard, hard thing to understand. I'm 58. I was having kids when those kids in the 1960s and '70s were marching down Snelling Avenue.
"I want things to be the way they were. I want to see Sara running up the hill again with her red ponytail flapping in the breeze.
"I know Sara Olson. I don't know the other person."
About this report
This article is based on interviews with friends, family members and acquaintances of Kathleen Soliah, and with other sources, as well as court records, newspaper clippings, wire service reports and two books: "Every Secret Thing" (1982) by Patricia Campbell Hearst with Alvin Moscow, and "The Life and Death of the SLA" (1976) by Les Payne and Tim Findley with Carolyn Craven.
Kathleen Soliah, also known as Sara Jane Olson, and her husband, Dr. Gerald Frederick (Fred) Peterson, did not respond to requests for an interview. Patricia Hearst, now Patricia Shaw, also did not respond.
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