Early on a Monday morning in 1975, a middle-aged woman named Myrna Opsahl walked into a Carmichael, California bank. Moments later, masked robbers burst in, announcing a holdup. When Opsahl made a sudden movement, they opened fire. The robbers escaped with $15,000, leaving Opsahl bleeding to death on the floor. It would take over 25 years, but the innocent bystander would become a nagging reminder of the Symbionese Liberation Army's pointless violence, and an icon for those in the post-9/11 world who sought to bring terrorists to justice.
At the Crocker National Bank
On April 21, 1975, Mrs. Opsahl was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The 42-year-old mother of four arrived at the bank with several other parishoners from Carmichael's Seventh-Day Adventist Church, planning to deposit the church's collection from the weekend. The S.L.A. bank robbers showed up at the same time. A local police detective described the scene to news reporters: "...as soon as they entered the bank [they] announced that it was a hold up, everyone to get down on the floor and put their faces in the rug. And with that a shot rang out hitting Mrs. Opsahl... two of the individuals vaulted the counter, start scooping up the cash. They were kicking people in the head, stepping on their faces and just shouting profanity throughout." Opsahl was taken to a local hospital, where her husband Trygve was a surgeon, but she died shortly afterward.
The Second Victim
Opsahl was not the S.L.A.'s first murder victim, though she became the first unintentional one. In November 1973, the radical group had targeted Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster, an African American community leader whose senseless slaying was incomprehensible to most Berkeley left-wingers. Russ Little, who was tried and ultimately acquitted of Foster's murder, would recall that the group's leader, Donald DeFreeze, chose Foster believing he "was the front man for some horrendous police apparatus that was set up." Such paranoia fueled the S.L.A.'s constant military drills and hair-trigger nerves. In a celebrated 1974 recording, kidnap victim-turned-fugitive Patty Hearst would memorialize fallen S.L.A. members with an ode to their violent ways. "Gabi crouched low... she practiced until her shotgun was an extension of her right and left arms. Zoya, female guerrilla. Perfect love and perfect hate reflected in stone cold eyes. Fahizah taught me to shoot first and make sure the pig is dead before splitting." Myrna Opsahl's path intersected with that of the S.L.A., ending in tragedy. Her murder would remain unsolved for decades.
Former S.L.A. member and fugitive Kathleen Soliah had adopted the name Sara Jane Olson and was living a comfortable life in Minnesota, married to a doctor and raising three daughters. She had seemingly buried her radical past. But she was apprehended in 1999, prompting two Los Angeles prosecutors to take a new look at the cold case files on the S.L.A. They decided there was enough evidence to prosecute Olson not only for explosives and conspiracy charges in Los Angeles, but also for Opsahl's murder in northern California. When they took their plan to Sacramento prosecutors and found little interest in reopening the case, the Los Angeles team approached the Opsahls. Jon Opsahl, who had been just fifteen years old when his mother died, began a public-awareness campaign, pressuring Sacramento officials to seek justice.
On November 7, 2002, over 27 years after the crime was committed, four former S.L.A. members pleaded guilty to the second-degree murder of Myrna Opsahl. At the February 2003 sentencing, Emily Harris Montague, who acknowledged she had fired the murder weapon, received an eight-year prison term. Her accomplices, including her ex-husband William Harris, Sara Jane Olson, Michael Bortin, and James Kilgore, each received lesser sentences. The former S.L.A. members expressed remorse. In court, Bortin would offer an emotional apology to the Opsahl family, saying in part, "the fact that Mrs. Opsahl was murdered unintentionally in the bank is of no consequence to the family. Or the fact that we beat ourselves up more than anyone could... A woman is dead and many people suffer from those consequences. And I can offer nothing but my apologies." And Olson offered, "I never entered that bank with the intent of harming anyone... I am truly sorry, and I will be sorry until the day I die."