- Kathleen Soliah, now known as Sara Jane Olson, served eight years in prison for attempting to blow up an LAPD patrol car
- Soliah and members of the Symbionese Liberation Army are best known for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patty Hearst
- Soliah is now petitioning the White House to reduce disparities in prison sentences for crack and powder cocaine.
After serving eight years of a 14-year prison sentence for attempting to blow up Los Angeles police officers with pipe bombs in the 1970s, a former member of the Symbionese Liberation Army - the group of domestic, left-wing 'terrorists' best known for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patty Hearst - is talking to reporters, and has revealed that, at age66, she is now a grandmother.
Until now, Sara Jane Olson - better known as bank-robbing pipe-bomber Kathleen Soliah - has done her best to stay out of the public eye. Following her release from a California prison in 2009, Olson has been living with her husband in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she lived as a fugitive with her family for nearly 25 years until her arrest in 1999.
Olson isn't saying much about her past, or her new role as a grandmother - she's more interested in spreading the word about her new cause: reducing disparities in prison sentences for crack and powder cocaine.
'I don't really like to talk about my personal experience in terms of my family and all that,' Olson said in an interview on Friday. 'But when I was [in prison], at some point I did adjust to it and I said, 'I have to learn something from this.'
Soliah joined the SLA in the mid-1970s after graduating from the University of California Santa Barbara. In 1974, she was a member of the group when it kidnapped Hearst to use as a bargaining chip with authorities in an attempt to get jailed SLA members released from custody.
In April 1975, Soliah was one of several SLA members who robbed Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California. During the robbery, Myrna Opsahl - a 42-year-old mother of four who was dropping off money for her church - was murdered. Additionally, Hearst later told police that Soliah had kicked a pregnant woman in the stomach during the robbery, causing her to have a miscarriage.
Four months after the bank robbery, in August of 1975, Soliah placed a pipe-bomb under an LAPD cruiser as it sat parked in front of an International House of Pancakes restaurant. Another pipe-bomb was found under an LAPD cruiser parked in front of a police precinct. Neither bomb detonated, and both were linked back to Soliah, who police believe planted the bombs in an effort to avenge the death of SLA members who'd been killed about a year earlier during a shootout with police.
As an LAPD officer noted during Soliah's 2002 sentencing hearing, a little girl was playing near the patrol car when the bomb was left underneath it, and she could have been killed if Soliah and her co-conspirators had 'successfully carried out their terrorist acts.'
After being indicted for the failed bombings, Soliah relocated to Minnesota and changed her name to Sara Jane Olson. She married a doctor and had three children - and was active in the 'progressive' community.
In 1999, after appearing on America's Most Wanted multiple times, Soliah was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder, possession of explosives, explosion, and attempt to ignite an explosive with intent to murder. She pleaded guilty in 2001 to two counts of possessing explosives with intent to murder. The other charges were dropped.
Now, Olson has returned to activism and - along with friend and next-door neighbor, Mary McLeod - filed a White House petition Thursday asking the president to exercise executive clemency for prisoners serving time under now-discarded sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine. In 2010, Congress cut those sentences to align more closely with those for powder cocaine, but that only applied to new sentences going forward. The women's petition says that left more than 5,000 prisoners still serving time longer than the new rules would require.
'There's just no good argument for that continuing to be the case, so we said let's see what we can do,' said McLeod, a retired attorney who moved into the house next door while Olson was in prison. The petition was McLeod's idea, and one of Olson's adult daughters is helping.
The interview occurred in McLeod's living room; Olson, now 66, looks fit, with long white hair and a deeply lined face. She is quick with statistics and opinions about the cause.
'The war on drugs is a politically convenient peg on which to hang a lot of things, and that has been done by a lot of politicians,' Olson said. She and McLeod, as many critics have done, said the differences in crack and powder cocaine sentences stem from stereotypes of crack as a drug for poor black people while powder cocaine is for rich white people.
In the petition, the women ask the White House to establish a panel to review individual cases of the prisoners in question, and then make recommendations to President Barack Obama about which of them deserve to be released. That would mimic the 1974 process by which President Gerald Ford commuted sentences of large numbers of Vietnam draft evaders.
Anyone can file a petition to the White House, but it requires 100,000 signatures in 30 days to trigger an actual White House review. And that's no guarantee of action, either. Olson and McLeod are trying to circulate it widely in activist circles, and have posted it on Change.org, an online petition platform. Two days after its posting, the petition — one of more than 100 on the White House site https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/ was nearing 100 signatures.