Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

HEARST, SOLIAH AND THE S.L.A.

The Haunting of Patty Hearst — Kathleen Soliah

Kathleen Ann Soliah arrested (AP)
Kathleen Ann Soliah
arrested (AP)

In June 1999, after twenty-four years on the run, "Sara Jane Olson" was arrested in her upper-scale, five-bedroom Tudor home in St. Paul, Minnesota, and charged with being Kathleen Ann Soliah. For an amateur actress, she'd pulled off an impressive act. Olson initially denied the charge, and her friends and family raised the money for her $1 million bail. Many people believed that the FBI had made a terrible mistake. After all, Sara read to the blind, went to church, and advocated gun control. Yet eventually she acknowledged that she had indeed been part of the SLA but quickly moved to legally change her name to Olson. How involved she was in their crimes is unclear.

Having renounced her Republican sympathies in college, Olson met SLA member Angela Atwood through their mutual involvement in local theater. Olson sympathized with their cause and allegedly became a member of the "second team" that formed after the safe house fire. Atwood was among those who died, prompting Olson to give a fiery speech at a Berkeley rally, which was filmed by undercover police. Then she allegedly assisted Patty, along with Bill and Emily Harris. Emily recruited her into membership and she became a key player.

According to Hearst's memoir, Soliah had seemed to hardcore SLA members "too flaky to be trusted," but as their numbers dwindled, her name came to the top of the list. She was so excited to be contacted that she immediately handed over all of her ready cash to assist with the cause. She also persuaded her sister to withdraw all her funds and hand over the money, and got her brother Steve involved. "Kathy had promised," Hearst writes, "that she would do everything she possibly could to help us."

Soliah was embraced with enthusiasm, an enthusiasm that she returned. She came up with names of other radicals who would join and insisted that she was willing to take part in any warfare needed to wound the establishment. She had a friend, Jack Scott, who was a writer and who could offer safe haven across the country if they needed it. He currently lived in New York.

As Scott came into the group, Hearst viewed him as someone who believed he was smuggling slaves to freedom. He was doing something noble, and in fact offered to arrange to have them all driven across the country himself. He got his own parents to take him and Patty. On that trip, she developed her impressions of him as someone who wasn't quite okayhe talked a lot and he was nervous all the timewhile he developed his impressions of her, which he apparently kept to himself.

In short, while readers of Hearst's book get an eyewitness account of Soliah's whole-hearted involvement in several illegal activities, it's also clear that Hearst is more of a participant than she admitted when she was finally in custody. Nevertheless, her descriptions of Soliah's behavior and attitudes certainly fortify the prosecution's case. Soliah/Olson was unreservedly one of them.

In retaliation for the fatal fire, she is thought to have placed pipe bombs in the tailpipes of two Los Angeles police cruisers. Designed to blow a hundred construction nails at anyone in the vicinity, as well as kill occupants of the car, they failed to detonate. A hardware store employee identified Olson from mug shots as the purchaser of a pipe used to make the bomb, so she was indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit murder, for which she could face 20 years to life in prison.

The house where Hearst was kept (CORBIS)
The house where Hearst was kept
(CORBIS)

Ironically, it was through Olson that the FBI located and arrested Patty Hearst. In 1975, they had her under surveillance and soon discovered where the Harrises lived. Bill and Emily were arrested on September 18th, while jogging. Olson and her gang heard about the arrest on the radio, and fled. Then Olson's brother, Stephen Soliah, was caught on his way to a second safe house to warn Patty, and police soon found her there. Olson quickly went underground. By some reports, she went to Minnesota, where she met Fred Peterson, who was to become her husband. They went together for a stint in Zimbabwe, where she taught English. Then they returned to Minnesota, where Peterson was hired to be an ER physician. They had three daughters and got involved in their community.

Los Angeles Police Detective David Reyes and his partner, Mike Fanning, acquired the cold case via the son of Mervin King, the police captain who had been in charge of investigating the SLA bomb scare on the police cruisers. Reyes and Fanning started sifting through two boxes of records and soon became obsessed with finding Soliah. With help from the FBI, they interviewed Soliah's parents. They also acquired a digitally-enhanced photo from experts working for "America's Most Wanted," so they could see how Soliah would look two decades later. Her mother, who had firmly resisted giving up any information, said the photo did not look like their daughter and she pulled out a recent photo to prove it.

Tracking more leads, the cops learned through a reporter that Soliah was interested in a deal. The L.A. police were not about to give her immunity or just a fine, so the indirect conversation was over.

They speculated that Soliah might live near her brother in Iowa and zeroed in on a professor that had a similar appearance. That proved to be a dead-end. On May 15, 1999, the "America's Most Wanted" episode about Soliah was televised, generating around twenty useless tips in response to the impressive FBI reward. Then one paid off. With the help of the St. Paul police, they stopped Soliah/Olson, now 52, for a "traffic violation" and arrested her. She surrendered but demanded her lawyer. At first, bail was denied, but then was set at $1 million.

In October, four months after Olson's arrest, Patty Hearst was ordered to appear as a witness for the prosecution, because they intended to question Olson about other SLA events besides the defunct bombs. Patty had written about Soliah's escapades in her 1982 memoir, implicating her in several crimes. Prosecutors believe that Olson had disguised herself as a man to lead a 1975 bank robbery in Carmichael, California, in which a bank customer was murdered. (Myna Opsahl, 42 and the mother of four, was there to deposit church funds. She placed her adding machine on the counter as ordered, and either Emily Harris or Kathleen Soliah allegedly pointed a shotgun at her that went off.) They escaped with $15,000.

Olson engaged Stuart Hanlon and Susan Jordon to defend her. Hanlon had been the defense attorney for other SLA members, Bill and Emily Harris (who served eight years for kidnapping).

Among the items over which the prosecution and defense argued were:

  • The taped grand jury testimony of the hardware store employee, now deceased, who identified Soliah as the purchaser of a bomb part.
  • The admission into testimony of the history of the SLA crimes.
  • The testimony of an explosives expert, now dead, who evaluated the bombs and said that they could have been fatal and that their components matched bomb-making material found in Olson/Soliahs's apartment.
  • Having cameras in the courtroom (Olson wanted them).
  • The testimony of James Bryan, a police officer who claimed that Olson, as Soliah, looked at him across the parking lot when the bomb failed to go off and she had "hatred in her eyes."

In January 2000, Judge Ideman made some rulings: the SLA history and Bryan's testimony were in, there were to be no cameras in court, and the taped testimonies of the hardware store employee was out. He also issued a strict gag orderno one involved was to discuss the case or his rulings with the media.

Another issue that suddenly arose was the need to go to Oregon to get testimony from Jack Scott, with whom Patty Hearst had allegedly had conversations while she was in the SLA. If she was going to testify, then Olson was going to discredit her, going all the way back to statements she had made under oath in 1975. Scott claimed that Patty had resisted returning to her parents, had been lovers with Willie Wolfe (rather than being raped by him), had helped to plan the kidnap to escape her impending marriage, and was the most zealous member of the SLA. He had observed her making her "daily death list."

However, Scott had throat cancer and was on his deathbed. They would have to go to him to get his statement, but the judge wasn't so sure that was legal and prosecutors delayed things further by claiming they would need a month to prepare their own questions. On the day Ideman finally granted the emergency order, February 4th, Scott succumbed to his illness and died.

Then there were further delays, Hanlon resigned in March to meet family obligations. Since Olson was now out of funds, an alternative public defender, Henry Hall, was provided by the state of California. The trial was postponed until August so he could prepare.

It did not take place in August.

While Hearst waited to see if there would indeed be a trial, President Carter interceded on her behalf with President Bill Clinton. Just before leaving office, in January 2001, Clinton issued a full pardon. Patty was grateful to have her record expunged so that she could participate as a regular citizen again, but Olson felt that this turn of events gave Patty more credibility than she deserved.

A case this old is shaky at best, and will likely be difficult to prosecute. Even in 1976, with 28 witnesses testifying before the grand jury, the case was mostly circumstantial. With the loss of several key witnesses on both sides, and with the tide of public opinion against wasting the money to prosecute Olson, it's difficult to say what will happen. However, there may yet be another interesting chapter in the strange story of Patty Hearst.

Despite tearful pleas from her daughter, Sara Jane Olson was sentenced to 20 years to life for her role in two attempted bombings in 1975. Even though she may serve as little as five years, the sentencing came just two days after Olson and four other members of the Symbionese Liberation Army were charged in a separate case with the murder of a bank customer during a 1975 robbery.

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