Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Emily Harris
The Unquiet Death of Myrna Opsahl
by Robert A. Waters

At 9:01 A.M. on April 21, 1975, Myrna Opsahl, 42-year-old wife, mother and nurse, walked into the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California.  With two other members of her Seventh-day Adventist Church, she planned to deposit the congregation’s weekend collection.  As Opsahl entered, four members of a self-styled leftist militant group called the Symbionese Liberation Army pushed in behind her. 

Emily Harris, her husband William Harris, Michael Bortin, and Kathleen Ann Soliah, wore heavy coats and masks.  Emily, holding a shotgun loaded with buckshot, screamed for patrons to get down on the floor.  “Get your noses on the carpet…noses on the carpet.”

Opsahl, holding the church’s cash-box, didn’t move fast enough.  A blast from Harris’s shotgun ripped open her abdomen.  She fell to the floor, bleeding out.

The robbers ignored the dying woman and continued with their heist.  Cosmo Garvin, of the Sacramento News & Review, wrote: “Bank customers described one of the robbers (Soliah) as a woman in her mid-20s who wore a green bandana over her face, held a pistol in one hand, while keeping an eye on her wristwatch, and periodically shouted out how much time had elapsed.  Another bandit leapt the bank counter and emptied the money from the teller drawers, caching some $15,000.”  The robbers fled the scene of the crime in a Pontiac Firebird.

Meanwhile, Opsahl bled to death.

The SLA was already notorious for kidnapping Patty Hearst and murdering Marcus Foster, superintendent of schools in Oakland.  In her book, Every Secret Thing, Hearst claimed that Emily Harris said she accidently pulled the trigger.  But making light of Opsahl’s murder, Harris said: “Oh, she’s dead, but it really doesn’t matter.  She was a bourgeois pig anyway.  Her husband was a doctor.”

In the mid-1970s, many SLA members went into hiding.  Helped by families, radical friends, and other leftists, they blended into society, eventually becoming bourgeois pigs themselves. 

For nearly three decades, Sacramento prosecutors refused to indict anyone for the murder, claiming there was not enough evidence to convict.

And there the case might have lain dormant.  Except Jon, one of the sons of Myrna Opsahl, refused to let it lie.  People Magazine’s Thomas Fields-Meyer described how Jon learned of his mother’s murder: “A school nurse walked into Jon Opsahl’s Sacramento High School classroom and whispered something to his teacher.  The teacher began to cry.  Then the nurse led Jon in silence to the principal’s office, where he found his brother and sister.  All three were rushed to a local hospital, where Jon’s father, Trygve, eyes red with tears, was waiting.  ‘Mommy has been shot...’ he told them.  ‘She’s dead.’”

As the years passed, Jon became a physician.  He married and had children, but the wound in his gut was still raw.  Why weren’t the killers of his mom in prison instead of living normal, everyday lives?  He began harassing prosecutors with numerous phone calls.  He set up his own web page asking for more information about the murders.  And he began periodically sending postcards with his mother’s picture on it to prosecutors.  Just to remind them that at least her family hadn’t forgotten.

In the meantime, Patty Hearst was convicted of robbing the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco.  President Jimmy Carter soon commuted Hearst’s prison sentence and Bill Clinton pardoned her.  (In the Crocker Bank robbery, Hearst waited in a VW van which served as a switch car.)  Steven Soliah, Kathleen’s brother and allegedly one of the getaway drivers, was tried and acquitted of the Crocker robbery.  Emily Harris served a short prison sentence for helping to abduct Patty Hearst, then became a computer consultant for MGM and other film production companies.  

In the months after the bank robbery, Kathleen Ann Soliah placed two pipe bombs underneath police cars.  Fortunately, the bombs were discovered before they detonated.  Soliah then went underground, moving back to her home state of Minnesota.  There she morphed into Sarah Jane Olson, married, and had three children.  For more than two decades she lived in anonymity, evidently unbothered by her part in the murder of an innocent victim, or her attempts to murder police officers.

Finally, 28 years later, the wheels of justice began moving forward in the Opsahl murder case.  The murderers were tracked down and arrested.  With several of their former terrorist cohorts prepared to testify against them, the four pleaded guilty to second degree murder.  Emily Harris Montague received eight years; Bill Harris got seven years; and Michael Bortin and Sara Jane Olson were sentenced to six in prison.  (In addition, Olson received 14 years for attempting to murder a police officer—for all her crimes, she served only seven before being paroled.)

At the hearing, Jon Opsahl said: “For nearly 28 years, I have lived with the fact that monsters do exist, that hometown terrorism is real, that the incomprehensible happened, and that beyond our family and church, no one else seemed to care, including and especially the defendants.”

All the defendants were released long ago.  Those few years they spent in prison were just a hiccup in the vile lives of Montague, Harris, Bortin, and Olson.

Unfortunately, Myrna Opsahl, a productive, innocent victim, has been dead and largely forgotten for all these decades.

Where did justice go?