Murder victim is again lost in glare of spotlight on SLA

But fugitive's capture offers family, police a faint hope for justice

August 08, 1999|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CARMICHAEL, Calif. -- In a blur of ski masks, shouts and a shotgun blast, the Symbionese Liberation Army stormed a small bank here on April 21, 1975. Four minutes later, they just as suddenly vanished back into the underground, $15,000 richer and reveling in another successful strike against the capitalist pigs.

Much of what happened that chaotic morning remains unclear even now, 24 years later. Except for one thing: A customer named Myrna Lee Opsahl, in the bank to deposit her church's weekend collections, was killed.

Later that year, the SLA would be largely dismantled. Most of the self-styled urban guerrillas were captured -- including Patty Hearst, the publishing heiress kidnapped by the SLA in 1974 and eventually drawn into its ranks -- their string of violent crimes halted and their rambling, vaguely Marxist communiques silenced.

But Kathleen Soliah would slip through the intense manhunt. She would resurface only this June, in what apparently is the near perfect cover for a one-time revolutionary: a minivan-driving soccer mom.

With the arrest of Soliah, now calling herself Sara Jane Olson, nearly all the SLA members are accounted for. And yet, no one has been chargedwith the murder of Opsahl, a victim lost in the glare of spotlight surrounding the SLA, then and now.

"In those years, a lot of attention was on the SLA, and she kind of got forgotten," Lt. Harry Machen of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department said. "It always got to me. We were positive who did it. I was very unhappy because I thought Myrna Opsahl deserved a heck of a lot better."

Driving around the former bank building in this suburb of Sacramento, Machen is trying to reconstruct in his mind how the Carmichael robbery and escape went down. With the arrest of Soliah, a suspect in the robbery, police have reopened the case, hoping that this time, after several unsuccessful attempts to prosecute the crime, someone might pay.

A lot of people are revisiting those long-ago days -- willingly or otherwise.

Largely anonymous

On June 16, the past caught up with Soliah. Living quietly in St. Paul, Minn., with her husband, a doctor, and their three daughters, acting in community theater and volunteering for various progressive causes, she was largely anonymous until the TV show "America's Most Wanted" aired her photo and story. Several weeks later, federal agents pulled her over about a mile from her home.

"FBI, Kathleen," an agent announced. "It's over."

Neighbors, fellow church members and even state politicians rushed to offer their support. Friends and strangers quickly donated $1 million to bail her out of jail, and many declared that whatever her past, she had become a productive member of society and should not be dragged from her family to pay for long-ago and vaguely remembered crimes.

Back in California, Opsahl's family relived their own past: Once again, the radical-chic SLA was all the fascination. Once again, Myrna was lost in the hubbub.

Because Soliah was arrested on other charges -- she is alleged to have planted bombs under police cars in Los Angeles in August 1975 -- news accounts of her re-emergence mentioned Opsahl's death in the Carmichael robbery infrequently.

"Her life and death went by without much notice except among her family and friends," says Dr. Jon Opsahl, who was 15 when his mother was killed.

Opsahl is angry that so many have portrayed Soliah as just another person swept along by the revolutionary fervor of the times, rather than someone who participated in serious, violent crimes.

"When you start hearing people say, `Oh, these were just people caught in the middle of crazy times,' " he said, "the times were so crazy because people like Kathy Soliah did terrible things, not the other way around. They say Kathy Soliah became a model citizen, and I think, `Wait a minute, my mother was the one who was a model citizen.' "

Hearst's recollections

Soliah's attorney has denied that she participated in the Carmichael bank robbery. But Patty Hearst, now living in Connecticut and occasionally acting in John Waters movies, has said in her autobiography that Soliah was among the eight SLA members involved in the crime.

Four of those members, including Soliah, were picked to hold up the bank, Hearst wrote in 1981, while the others would provide backup across the street or drive the getaway cars.

The four entered the Crocker National Bank branch shortly after it opened at 9 a.m., so close on the heels of Myrna Opsahl and two women from her church that one of the SLA members held the door open for them.

But once inside, the SLA group donned ski masks and began shouting for everyone to hit the floor.

Opsahl, apparently weighed down by a heavy adding machine she was carrying to tally her church deposit, didn't get down fast enough and was shot by one of the robbers.

Emptying the drawers of about $15,000, they raced out, kicking some of the customers and staff on the ground, and jumping over the bleeding Opsahl.

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