Former SLA fugitive Olson sentenced to 20 years to life

AP Special CorrespondentLOS ANGELES (AP) -- With friends and family sobbing in the courtroom, former Symbionese Liberation Army fugitive Sara Jane Olson was sentenced Friday to 20 years to life in prison for conspiring to blow up police cars in 1975.

In her first statement of contrition, Olson told a judge and those who were affected by the actions of the violent 1970s group, "Forgive me for the pain I've brought you."

But she denied trying to murder officers by planting bombs under the two Los Angeles police cars to avenge the deaths of six SLA members during a shootout with authorities in 1974. The bombs didn't explode.

Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler sentenced Olson to two consecutive terms of 10 years to life.

Immediately afterward, Olson pleaded innocent to robbery and murder charges in another decades-old crime: the 1975 SLA bank holdup in which a bystander, Myrna Opsahl, was killed.

Olson has long denied taking part in the robbery in Carmichael, a suburb of Sacramento. She and four other former SLA members were charged in the case this week; two of them, former couple Bill and Emily Harris, were expected to enter innocent pleas in a Sacramento courtroom later Friday.

Olson, 54, was a fugitive in the bombing conspiracy case for more than 20 years until her arrest two years ago in Minnesota. She had changed her name from Kathleen Soliah, married a doctor and had three children.

Before Olson was sentenced, her daughter Leila sobbed aloud as she told the court: "She is one of the best mothers anybody would ever want."

Olson chocked back tears as her husband, Gerald Peterson, said the two had been happily married for 23 years.

"To my lovely wife Sara, California is now entrusted to clothe you, to feed you, shelter you and correct you and try you," he said. "But this family of ours and our dear friends will not be diminished in our love for you and our respect for you. We will always stand by you until you come home."

When her turn to speak came, Olson addressed her family and friends.

"I still maintain I didn't participate in events in Los Angeles," she said. "I hope you'll forgive me the pain I have brought you. ... I am a person in court today who truly, while grateful for all that I had -- my life has had quite a lot as you can see.

"For any mistakes that I have made, I accept responsibility for any pain I have caused. I accept responsibility and I am truly sorry."

The SLA began in the fall of 1973 when a handful of white, college-educated children of middle-class families adopted a seven-headed snake as their symbol, a black ex-convict as their leader and the phrase, "Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people" as their slogan.

The group derived its name from "symbiosis," a biological term referring to unlike organisms coexisting harmoniously for mutual benefit.

The SLA claimed responsibility for the murder of Oakland Schools Superintendent Marcus Foster, because he supposedly favored a police plan for students to carry identification.

But the group is best known for the 1974 kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst, who later joined the group in robbing banks and could become a key witness in the Carmichael trials.

The long-dormant case gathered legal momentum after Olson's arrest. Prosecutors say they have new information, and the FBI has linked shotgun pellets found in Opsahl's body to ammunition from an SLA house.

Court files also say Olson's palm print matches prints on the door of a Sacramento garage where the group stored a getaway car.

Olson's bombing case had seesawed since Oct. 31, when she announced a surprise decision to plead guilty to possessing bombs with intent to murder police officers.

Her plea was immediately thrown into question when she told reporters she was really innocent and had pleaded guilty because the Sept. 11 attacks had created a climate in which anyone accused of domestic terrorism could not be acquitted.

She was ordered back into court, where she eventually lost a battle to withdraw her plea and go to trial.

John Hall, one of the Los Angeles officers targeted that long-ago day, also testified Friday. He described seeing a child in a restaurant window the night the bomb was discovered.

"Your honor, it horrifies me to think that the lives of dozens of innocent people, like that child in the window, would have ended in an instant had the defendant and co-conspirator successfully carried out their terrorist acts," he said.