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Five SLA members face murder charges



SACRAMENTO, California (CNN) -- Five former members of the Symbionese Liberation Army -- including Sara Jane Olson -- were charged Wednesday with first-degree murder in an April 1975 bank heist and shooting death of a woman, authorities said.

Three of the SLA members were arrested earlier in the day. Olson turned herself in to authorities around 4:30 p.m. at her attorney's office in Los Angeles, a lawyer in the firm said.

Olson, who was captured in Minnesota in 1999 after two decades on the run, was free on bail on separate charges in the attempted bombings of two Los Angeles police cars in 1975 and was scheduled to be sentenced Friday.

Shawn Chapman, Olson's attorney, said it was her client's birthday Wednesday, and it turned into a bittersweet celebration.

"She is innocent of these charges, she has always said that," Chapman said, adding that five previous Sacramento district attorneys had decided that this case was not prosecutable.

James Kilgore -- the fifth person charged Wednesday -- has been a fugitive since 1976.

Kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, who drove the getaway car in the robbery, was not charged because she was granted immunity from prosecution in the case years ago.

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The family of the woman killed during a 1975 bank robbery expressed relief when five former members SLA members were charged in the slaying. KCRA's Tana Castro reports (January 17)

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Gallery: The Symbionese Liberation Army 
 

The charges against the five former SLA members relate to the April 21, 1975, bank robbery of Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California, in which Myrna Opsahl -- a 42-year-old mother of four who was depositing money for her church -- was shot and killed.

Opsahl's husband was a doctor who was called to the emergency room that day only to find his wife dead on the operating table.

"There is now both direct and circumstantial evidence sufficient to file charges and begin criminal charges for the murder of Myrna Opsahl," said Jan Scully, the Sacramento County district attorney. "We all agree that after almost 27 years, justice has not been served."

Four of the charges were against the SLA members who allegedly entered the bank and one was against the SLA ringleader accused of standing guard outside. If convicted, each would face a life sentence under the laws at the time, Scully said.

The Sacramento County Sheriff's Department conducted simultaneous arrests in three different locations Wednesday morning.

Bill Harris -- the SLA field marshal known as Teko who is believed to have stood watch outside the bank -- was arrested in the San Francisco area; his former wife Emily Harris was arrested at her home in southern California; and Michael Bortin was arrested in Portland, Oregon, officials said.

The district attorney said new evidence had emerged "which we believe establishes corroborating evidence linking those named by Patty Hearst to the Crocker bank robbery and murder."

For instance, Scully said, forensic evidence matched pellets from Opsahl's body to shotgun shells found inside an SLA safe house in San Francisco.

In her 1981 book, "Every Secret Thing," Hearst said Emily Harris pulled the trigger and afterward defended the shooting by saying Opsahl was from the upper class.

"She was a bourgeois pig anyway. Her husband is a doctor," Hearst quoted Emily as saying.

After learning of Wednesday's arrests, Jon Opsahl, one of Myrna's sons, referred to that quote, saying, "Those words have always kind of haunted us.

"I'm very happy to see the killers be held accountable," he said. "It's about time."

In her book, Hearst said two others participated in the bank robbery -- Stephen Soliah, whom Hearst said also stood watch outside, and Wendy Yoshimura, whom she claimed drove a second getaway car. Soliah is the brother of Olson, who went by the name of Kathleen Soliah at the time.

Scully said Hearst, Stephen Soliah and Yoshimura cannot be prosecuted because they were given immunity for testimony in grand jury proceedings years ago.

Craig Hill, a sergeant with the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, hailed the charges as a tremendous feat after investigators combed through thousands of pieces of evidence.

"This is a tremendous accomplishment," he told reporters.

Hearst was prepared to testify against Olson about her SLA activities. The case never made it to trial because Olson pleaded guilty last year in the attempted police car bombings. She tried to rescind her plea, but a judge rejected her motion.

Sacramento County Sheriff's Department spokesman Sgt. James Lewis said in an interview Wednesday with CNN's Aaron Brown that Hearst may be called upon after the latest arrests.

"I would anticipate that her testimony will be an aspect of the case," he said.

Hearst, the granddaughter of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, was convicted for her part in a bank robbery by the SLA the year before in a much-publicized 1976 trial in which she was defended by F. Lee Bailey. She was sentenced to seven years.

Hearst, who said she was brainwashed by the SLA, served about two years before President Carter commuted her sentence, and she was released in 1979. President Clinton pardoned her in January 2001.



 
 
 
 


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