LOS ANGELES -- Changes in technology and politics, along with luck and hard work, revived the case against five former revolutionaries accused of killing a bystander during a 1975 armed robbery of a Crocker National Bank branch in a suburb outside Sacramento.
Twenty-five years ago, federal attorneys in Sacramento failed to convict an alleged member of the Symbionese Liberation Army of participating in the robbery. And for more than two decades, no further charges were filed, despite a one-man campaign by the son of victim Myrna Opsahl to prosecute members of the violent terrorist group who allegedly took part.
Finally, during its prosecution of Sara Jane Olson for an attempted firebombing of Los Angeles police cars, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office compiled enough physical evidence to file murder charges.
Olson, along with former SLA members William and Emily Harris, Mike Bortin and James Kilgore, were charged with murder this week. Four of the five were arrested Wednesday, leaving only Kilgore -- a fugitive for years -- at large. The FBI has posted a $20,000 reward for information leading to his arrest.
Experts said it remains a difficult case to prove.
The new evidence matched descriptions of the crime provided by Patricia Hearst, the newspaper heiress kidnapped by the SLA, and allegedly links the Harrises, Bortin, Kilgore and Olson to Opsahl's death.
"All the L.A. prosecutor did was compile the evidence, review it and say, 'Wow, this is a great case,' " said Dr. Jon Opsahl, the victim's son. "Somehow Sacramento County never matched up (Hearst's) statements with the physical evidence and realized what a credible case they had."
Retired Sacramento County Sheriff's Deputy Larry Stamm, who interviewed Hearst for the case in 1976, agreed that the case was dormant until Los Angeles County prosecutors reviewed it while preparing to try Olson on the bombing charge. As it turned out, they never had to go to trial in that case, because Olson, after much hand-wringing, ultimately pleaded guilty. She is scheduled to be sentenced Friday in Los Angeles Superior Court.
"Los Angeles prosecutors ... felt we had a pretty good case," Stamm said. "It was great to meet with them and listen to their theories. They had some thoughts that, had they been there 26 years ago, they might have prosecuted.
"We didn't do that," he said, "so we're here today."
Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, who took office in December 2000, said the breakthrough had come when a judge in Los Angeles ruled "that the history of the SLA, including Carmichael, could be introduced in the bombing case here because it was part of an ongoing criminal conspiracy."
With that ruling, Cooley said, Los Angeles authorities "brought to light a tremendous amount of evidence that they were prepared to present in their case."
As recently as last January, Sacramento district attorney's spokeswoman Robin Shakely said the killing at the bank in Carmichael was simply "not prosecutable." But after prodding from L.A. County prosecutors, Sacramento Dist. Atty. Jan Scully in March formed a task force to review the case.
"The state of the evidence today has convinced me that now is the time to seek justice for Myrna Opsahl," said Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully at the news conference Wednesday announcing the arrests.
Prosecutors said they can back up statements Hearst made to FBI authorities with witness accounts and ballistics evidence. "There has been some new evidence that has surfaced recently which we believe establishes additional corroborating evidence linking those named by Patty Hearst to the Crocker bank robbery and murder," Scully said.
Court papers filed Wednesday in Sacramento County Superior Court cited three new developments that prompted prosecutors to file charges.
First, shotgun pellets removed from Myrna Opsahl's body were sent to the FBI Crime Laboratory in August 2000. Through new laboratory procedures, technicians determined that the pellets matched shotgun ammunition recovered from a SLA safe house in Sacramento and that both were made at the same manufacturing plant.
Second, after Sara Jane Olson's arrest, FBI agents matched Olson's palm to a print from a garage door in Sacramento where one of the two getaway cars used in the robbery was stored.
Third, when Olson pleaded guilty in October 2001 to attempting to blow up Los Angeles Police Department cars in 1975, it helped confirm what Hearst had told authorities -- that the Crocker National Bank robbery financed the "SLA's continued revolution, including the bombings of law enforcement officials."
The bombing case was revived in 1999 after the FBI unexpectedly arrested Olson, who had changed her name from Kathleen Soliah and settled into a comfortable life in St. Paul, Minn.
Peter Keane, dean of Golden Gate University Law School in San Francisco, said he agrees that the catalyst to pursuing the Carmichael bank killing is the prosecution of Olson in Los Angeles. In preparing for Olson's trial, the Los Angeles County prosecutors studied "every nook and cranny" of the SLA and intended to present the radical group's history to a jury, Keane said.
But Sacramento County prosecutors, Keane said, still have a difficult case to prove.
"The ability to convict these people is not going to be any slam-dunk walk in the park,' he said. "If that were true, they wouldn't have waited 27 years."
On April 21, 1975, a gang of armed robbers stormed into the Crocker bank, shooting Myrna Opdahl and making off with $15,000 in cash. Opdahl had been depositing collections for the Seventh-day Adventist Church she attended. Eyewitnesses said she was shot for no apparent reason.
One of the toughest prosecution hurdles, he said, could be getting a jury to believe testimony from Hearst. Defense attorneys probably will attack her as a criminal who has benefited from telling her story to authorities and the public, Keane said, and could resurrect the infamous image of an armed Hearst standing in a threatening pose robbing a bank.
"The whole thing is still going to depend on how the jury determines the credibility of Patty Hearst," Keane said. "That's still an open question."
Hearst didn't testify in the only other case brought in the Carmichael robbery -- the failed prosecution of Steven Soliah -- in part because federal prosecutors at the time were skeptical of her account.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.