Ex-1970s radical freed from Chowchilla prison

CHOWCHILLA, Calif. (AP) Sara Jane Olson, the 1970s radical who assumed a new identity as a Minnesota housewife while spending a quarter century as a fugitive, was released from prison Tuesday, a corrections spokeswoman said.

Olson, 62, was freed just after midnight from the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, in the heart of the state's farm country about 150 miles southeast of San Francisco, said corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton.

Thornton said two parole agents took Olson to an office in Madera County, where she was processed and released to her husband, Dr. Gerald "Fred" Peterson.

Olson served seven years -- half her sentence -- after pleading guilty to placing pipe bombs under Los Angeles Police Department patrol cars and participating in the robbery of a bank in a Sacramento suburb in which a woman was shot to death. The crimes took place while she was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, most notorious for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.

She was released by mistake a year ago after California corrections officials miscalculated her parole date, joining her family for five days before she was re-arrested. Authorities now say she has served the proper seven-year sentence.

It wasn't immediately clear when Olson would head back to St. Paul, Minn., where she lived during her years as a fugitive.

She was expected to first go to Palmdale, home of her mother, Elsie Soliah. Olson's surname is Soliah. Witnesses said Elsie Soliah and another woman had left at about 8 a.m.

Neighbor Caleb Barreto called Soliah "a really nice, lovely person," and said he didn't know anything about the case involving her daughter.

One of Olson's attorneys, David Nickerson, said he was glad his client was out of custody and being paroled to Minnesota, rather than being required to stay in California.

"I think that's obviously the best place for her. That's where her family is," he said. Nickerson said he had not talked to Olson since her release.

Parolees typically have a week to report to the state in which they will serve their parole, corrections department spokesman Oscar Hidalgo said.

Critics, including police protective leagues in Los Angeles and Minnesota, had urged Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to have Olson serve the remainder of her time in California. They said Olson should finish her parole where her crimes were committed.

"I think today is a slap in the face of California law enforcement and (other) law enforcement ... with her release and the governor's abdicating his responsibility to let her leave the state and go back to Minnesota," Los Angeles Police Protective League President Paul Weber said in an interview. "The police officers here and around the state are outraged."

Schwarzenegger deferred to the corrections department. Thornton, the corrections spokeswoman, said parole decisions are intended to give former prisoners the best chance of reintegrating into society and avoiding re-arrest.

"Being with their family increases the chances that they will succeed on parole," Thornton said.

More than 1,000 California parolees are being supervised in other states.

In Minnesota, Olson developed an identity that was worlds apart from her California past. She volunteered in social causes and acted in community theater while raising the couple's three daughters. The Olson home was a frequent site of dinner parties.

When she returns, she'll likely assume the type of comfortable, middle class lifestyle she once denounced as a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, settling into her St. Paul neighborhood among lawyers, doctors and professors.

Her past resurfaced in 1999, when she was profiled on the television show "America's Most Wanted," and a tip led to her arrest.

The SLA was a band of mostly white, middle class young people. In addition to the Hearst kidnapping, it claimed responsibility for assassinating Oakland Schools Superintendent Marcus Foster and was involved in a shootout with Los Angeles police officers that killed five SLA members.

In a sign of those turbulent times, the group adopted a seven-headed snake as its symbol and the slogan "Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people." Olson was known then by her birth name, Kathleen Soliah. Her brother, Steven, was acquitted of charges that he was involved in the fatal bank robbery. He declined to be interviewed at his Berkeley home Monday night.

"We were young and foolish. We felt we were committing an idealized, ideological action to obtain government-insured money and that we were not stealing from ordinary people," Olson wrote in an apology before her sentencing for the bank robbery. "In the end, we stole someone's life."

The terms of Olson's yearlong parole specify that she cannot associate with former SLA members or co-defendants, including her brother.

All but one other former SLA member have been released from prison after pleading guilty in 2002 to taking part in the 1975 robbery of Crocker National Bank near Sacramento. Myrna Opsahl, a 42-year-old mother of four who was depositing a church collection, was killed during the robbery.

Emily Montague-Harris was paroled in February 2007 after serving half her eight-year sentence. She says she accidentally fired the shotgun that killed Opsahl.

Montague-Harris' former husband, William Harris, was paroled in September 2006 after serving half his seven-year sentence for acting as a lookout during the robbery. The couple previously spent eight years in prison for the Hearst kidnapping.

Hearst herself spent nearly two years in prison before her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter. She was pardoned by President Clinton in 2001.

Michael Bortin was paroled in February 2006.

Only James Kilgore remains in prison. He eluded capture in South Africa until his arrest in November 2002 and was sentenced in May 2004. He is scheduled for release in May.


Associated Press writers Thomas Watkins in Palmdale and John Mone in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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