In one life, Sara Jane Olson was a doting, upper-class soccer mom who drove a Plymouth minivan and was a dynamite gourmet cook. In another, she was a terroristand a totem of the age of violent radicalism that erupted during the 1970s. Olson nee Kathleen Ann Soliah, the infamous Symbionese Liberation Army fugitive was released Tuesday from a California state prison, seven years after pleading guilty to participating in a deadly bank robbery and planting pipe bombs under police cars.
After a quarter-century on the lam, Olson's imprisonment seemed to close a sordid chapter in the strange narrative of the SLA. But her early release from prison has resurrected a simmering debate: How should society treat a woman guilty of committing abhorrent crimes but who had seemingly transformed into a productive member of society? (See TIME's Pictures of the Week)
Kathleen Ann Soliah was born in Fargo, N.D., on Jan. 16, 1947 to a close-knit, conservative Lutheran family. In high school, she was a popular student, an active member of the Spanish and Pep Clubs and a powder puff football player. She also served as a volunteer on Richard Nixon's presidential campaign.
Her politics began to shift during her time at the University of California-Santa Barbara and radicalized further following her graduation. After moving to Berkeley in 1972, Soliah befriended Angela Atwood, an aspiring actress who introduced her to members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the domestic terrorist sect best known for kidnapping media heiress Patty Hearst in 1974.
Two weeks after Atwood was killed during an SLA shootout with Los Angeles police in May 1974, Soliah used the pulpit at a Berkeley rally to issue an impassioned speech in which dubbed policemen "pigs," preached solidarity with the SLA and urged the group to "keep fighting." She joined the cause in earnest in 1975. A quarter-century later, she copped to involvement in two crimes committed that year: a bank robbery near Sacramento in which a customer, Myrna Opsahl, was fatally shot; and the planting of two pipe bombs beneath police cars. (They failed to detonate and were successfully defused.)
Soliah was linked to both crimes, but vanished before a Sept. 1975 FBI raid that netted four of her conspirators. She was indicted in absentia the following year; by then, she had resurfaced in Minnesota under the Sara Jane Olson. While working as a fraternity house cook, she met her future husband, medical student Fred Peterson. They married in 1980, bore three children, and settled in an ivy-covered stone house in St. Paul.
During her two-plus decades in Minnesota, Olson revealed little about her past but made no attempt to alter her appearance. She threw lavish parties, became a noted social activist, and even appeared in local productions of Shakespeare. But her past lurked beneath the veneer of normalcy: during the 1990s, the FBI began to close in, and Olson began attempting to contact authorities through a San Francisco reporter to discuss terms of surrender. In 1999, after the TV show America's Most Wanted profiled Soliah on the 25th anniversary of the California bank shooting, she was pulled over by police while driving her minivan.
In 2002, Olson who formally changed her name in 1999 pleaded guilty to both crimes, and was sentenced to 14 years in prison for attempted murder in connection with the pipe bomb incident. In 2008, she was briefly released when California's parole board miscalculated her parole eligibility; Olson spent five days with her family before being returned to prison. Her impending release this week also sparked a kerfuffle, with Minnesota officials including Governor Tim Pawlenty petitioning California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to force Olson to serve her parole in California, the state in which she committed her crimes. Those requests were denied.
"SLA soldiers: I know it is not necessary to say, but keep on fighting. I'm with you and we are with you!"
Delivering a speech in Berkeley's Ho Chi Minh Park on June 2, 1974, two weeks after her best friend, SLA guerrilla Angela Atwood, died during a nationally televised shootout with Los Angeles police. (Minneapolis Star-Tribune, June 27, 1999)
"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. In the end, we stole someone's life."
Apologizing during a 2002 court appearance in which she pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of Myrna Opsahl, who was killed during a 1975 bank robbery. (AP, March 17, 2009)
"Sara Jane Olson has become a symbol of particular kind of politics, a Rorschach test of personal feelings about the 1960s. My sense is her supporters are still very much behind her, while the people who quickly found her guilty haven't changed their minds either."
Peter Erlinder, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law (Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 2000)
"She fled the state, changed her name, and lived a leisurely life of lies and deception in Minnesota, while the children of Myrna Opsahl were forced to grow up without a mother."
Jeff Denham, a California state senator, in a letter to Arnold Schwarzenegger, California's governor, that requested Olson not be permitted to return to her adopted state for parole. (AP, March 17, 2009)
"To this day, it doesn't really make sense to me. She's a very gentle person. I think what Sara is guilty of is having made a bad choice of friends."
A friend of Olson's from Minnesota. (Marie Claire, June 1, 2007)
"Girl scouts, the Rainbows, Sunday school."
Olson's mother, when asked in 1975 about the interests held by her daughter, the president of her high school's pep club.
"She's led a good life and done good deeds, but if you have tried to kill cops, you're going to be in trouble."
John Walsh, host of America's Most Wanted. (TIME, June 28, 1999)