Monday, January 10, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Radical Change?

The Associated Press

AFTER KATHLEEN SOLIAH became Sara Jane Olson, she embraced an upper-middle-class lifestyle that her former cohorts would have despised. But over 23 years as an actress, cook, mother and volunteer, the fugitive remained a dedicated activist.

In the darkened sanctuary of a former Seattle synagogue, three women methodically moved their hands from their stomachs to their hips to their breasts and back again.

They were not merely exploring their bodies, but the notion that those bodies - female bodies - define their roles in life.

Nancy Bennett, a newcomer to town, wanted badly to do this feminist play, and she shone. Womyn's Theater director Mary Montgomery was eager to cast this husky-voiced woman with fiery blue eyes and strawberry blond hair in another piece, but Bennett had to go.

"She set an absolute deadline for her last performance and said, `I can't be available after this time,' " Montgomery recalled. "And there was no explanation offered."

And so, after four performances, Bennett was gone. She left little trace, other than a review in an obscure women's journal and a red-and-gold afghan she had crocheted for Montgomery.

"I thought maybe that she had been an abused woman and had to run away from someplace where she'd been hurt," Montgomery said. "There was some urgency to her leaving."

In the 23 years since, Montgomery had all but forgotten the young actress. Then she picked up the newspaper last summer and read about the arrest of Sara Jane Olson, a 52-year-old doctor's wife, mother of three girls and respected local actress in Minnesota. The news story said Olson actually was Kathleen Ann Soliah - a Symbionese Liberation Army member charged with trying to murder police officers. She had been on the run since 1976.

Montgomery didn't recognize either name, but she knew the face immediately.

It was Nancy.

`It's over.'

Last June 16, Sara Jane Olson was on her way to teach an English and citizenship class at the Center for Victims of Torture when an agent stepped to the driver's window of her minivan.

"FBI, Kathleen," he said. "It's over."

For the better part of two decades, Soliah had been hiding in plain sight, a few hours' drive from her small-town North Dakota birthplace. The '70s radical was ensconced in a suburban St. Paul neighborhood, living in a $280,000 Tudor-style home filled with vining plants, knitted lap blankets and her collection of Depression glass, ceramic Christmas villages and porcelain dolls.

Friends and family could not reconcile the two pictures.

On the one side was a gifted actress who cooked gourmet meals for the homeless and read newspapers to the blind; who collected expensive Calphalon cookware and narrated the Christmas pageant at the Minnehaha United Methodist Church.

On the other was a revolutionary who belonged to the 1970s Marxist group that kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, gunned down a California school superintendent and shotgunned a pregnant woman to death during a bank robbery; a group whose symbol was a seven-headed cobra and whose slogan was, "Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people."

Prosecutors say the actress and sometime waitress joined the SLA after the May 1974 shootout that resulted in the fiery deaths of the group's leader and five other SLA members, including Angela Atwood, Soliah's best friend.

Two weeks after the shootout, Soliah delivered a eulogy in Berkeley's so-called Ho Chi Minh Park, declaring the five had been "viciously attacked and murdered by 500 pigs." She exhorted the SLA to fight on, adding, "I am with you."

Less than eight months before she took the stage in Seattle as Nancy Bennett, a grand jury had indicted Soliah on charges of helping to plant two nail-packed pipe bombs under Los Angeles police cruisers. Neither exploded.

Although Soliah was not charged in the bank robbery, Hearst wrote in her biography that Soliah was one of the masked robbers. (Soliah's brother, Stephen, was acquitted on charges related to the robbery.) Hearst is expected to testify at Olson's Feb. 7 trial, which promises to be a catalog of the SLA's short reign of terror.

A hearing in the case was set for today in Los Angeles Superior Court.

Soliah's attorneys deny she had anything to do with the SLA's violence. She ran to get away from the SLA, they say, and to escape tough government action against dissenters in that troubled time.

Defense attorney Susan Jordan, who has represented other former SLA members, says Kathy Soliah is the same person she was in 1975.

"She didn't go from being a terrorist to an angel," she said.

But did she do more than just change names?

Fitting in

Sara Jane Olson was a good name to choose. It fit well in the Scandinavian fabric of the Twin Cities and even matched her Norwegian roots.

Sometime in 1977, Lenore Burgard received a call at the University of Minnesota, where she was an administrator. Sheila Reiser, a theater director back from a stint in Seattle, was sending an actress friend to see her.

Olson was cooking at the Chi Omega sorority house but had little experience preparing food for large groups. Reiser, who had directed a piece for the Womyn's Theatre, wanted to know if Olson could use Burgard's faculty card to check out cookbooks from the library.

Burgard liked the tall redhead immediately.

"She was smart, and she was politically left-wing, and she was on top of things."

Olson already was becoming part of the local acting scene, performing in Shakespeare's "Two Gentleman of Verona," among other productions.

The following year, Olson met a young medical intern who lived next door and who shared her passion for jogging. Before long, she and Gerald "Fred" Peterson were living together.

Peterson played trumpet in a reggae band called Pressure Drop. After a gig, the party would move to Fred and Sara's. They would push the dining table against the wall and roll up the rugs.

"It was common to have 30 to 40 people at Fred and Sara's house Friday night or Saturday night and dance to the wee hours of the morning," recalls Andy Dawkins, a lawyer and now state representative.

On March 12, 1980, Olson and Peterson were married in a civil ceremony at the Government Center in downtown Minneapolis.

While Peterson practiced medicine, Olson practiced politics.

Brendan Coleman met Olson through the Twin Cities Committee for the Liberation of Southern Africa. He remembers her not as a radical, but as a quiet, dedicated worker who led by example.

"If a task came up and everyone looked around the room, she would be the one to say, `I'll do it.' " said Coleman, director of contemporary music at the Minnehaha church.

She especially was interested in the independence struggle in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe's name during white-minority rule). Tony Mtero, a refugee then studying at the University of Minnesota, says the couple always were attending meetings and helping to raise money.

"She was eager to know and learn," Mtero said from Harare, the Zimbabwe capital, where he is director of social welfare services.

In February 1981, five months after the birth of Emily, her first child, Olson and her family were on their way to the newly independent African nation.

Working through the international charity Oxfam GB in England, the couple were placed in Mount Darwin, a tiny northeastern outpost near the Mozambique border. Their home was a relatively luxurious, six-room bungalow on the outskirts of town.

Peterson's job was to re-establish health care in the villages and missions of the war-ravaged countryside. Elias Marama was assigned by the local Catholic diocese to work with Peterson.

Marama says Olson, whom he and others knew as Mrs. Peterson, often would accompany them on their trips into the bush, rumbling down dirt roads in a mine-proof Land Rover - sometimes with Emily in tow.

Olson, he said, "would hand out things. She would help with the weighing of children, this sort of thing."

Not content just to play the doctor's wife, Olson volunteered to teach English and drama at a middle school. Marama remembers her working after hours, "helping with children who were kind of finding difficulty in school . . . holding discussion groups with young people, with old-age groups."

On April 20, 1982, a second daughter, Sophia, was born in the regional hospital in Bindura. The couple gave her a Shona middle name, Shorai.

In September 1982, the family left Africa and eventually relocated to Baltimore. Peterson would study in the environmental-health department at Johns Hopkins Medical School; Olson enrolled in the Baltimore International Culinary Arts Institute.

Dressed in a white jacket and scarf and a white chef's hat, the 36-year-old Olson immersed herself in the world of soup stocks and meat identification. Most of her fellow students were half her age.

Randy McGuffin, 18 at the time, remembers this older red-haired woman with an artistic flair who cheerfully did everything assigned to her - from washing dishes at L'Ecole, the 60-seat student restaurant, to sweeping the parking lot.

Unlike most of the others, she had no desire to cook professionally, he says.

"She claimed to be going to school just to learn to cook - how to be a better wife kind of thing," said McGuffin, who now runs two trendy Arkansas restaurants.

Olson got on well with her classmates and often would tag along to a local bar for an after-class beer. But McGuffin says he learned quickly what topics to avoid.

"You just didn't go in the direction of politics, anything like that, because she was very strongheaded," he recalled. "It would just ruin everything."

In 1984, after Peterson earned a master's degree and Olson a restaurant skills certificate, the family returned to Minneapolis and settled into the kind of upper-middle-class life Kathy Soliah once openly despised. But there were signs that the front was wearing thin.

According to some reports, Olson, working through intermediaries, tried to reach a plea agreement in the late 1980s. But the bargain fell through when prosecutors failed to rule out jail time.

So Olson went about her life. She had her third child, Leila, in 1987, and took on more causes.

In 1993, she helped found ARISE! Bookstore and Resource Center to support "community-based action groups of a progressive social and political nature." The next year, Coleman persuaded the family to join his church.

In the fall of 1995, Olson showed up at the state Services for the Blind to audition for a volunteer position reading newspapers over the telephone. Laurie Knudsen noticed the things a sightless person would - Olson's firm handshake, her conservative use of perfume.

And she caught something touching in that mature, contralto voice - a slight nervousness.

"Most of the people I know who do act get lots of butterflies when they're going for auditions," said Knudsen, who runs the dial-in news program.

Almost every Monday for the past four years, Olson arrived around 7 a.m. to read her sections.

All the time, she was running.

She tied for ninth place in her age bracket last year among Minnesota half-marathoners. Her performances earned her a mention in the USA Track and Field yearbook.

And she continued acting.

In 1990, she performed a one-woman play on the suffrage movement, appearing before the Minnesota legislature. This past March, Olson won best-actress honors at a community theater festival.

And last year, she performed in a play on which she and her youngest brother, Lance Soliah, had collaborated - although the author was listed in programs as Lyman Field.

Family members say they resumed open relations with Olson 10 years ago after an FBI agent told them she was no longer of interest.

"We actually felt that it was all right for us to meet with her," said Elsie Soliah, her mother. "Otherwise, we would not have done it."

In a strange way, she feels partly responsible for her daughter's predicament. "We always told her to try to help people, and she always did," Mrs. Soliah said.

During all this time, the only run-ins Olson had with police were speeding tickets she got from running back and forth to all of her engagements.

Then it all came crashing down.

Olson was negotiating surrender when the television show "America's Most Wanted" aired a program on May 15 to mark the 25th anniversary of the deadly SLA shootout.

Her brother-in-law Michael Bortin, who acted as intermediary with government officials, said, "They were . . . willing to give her at least close to what Bernadine Dohrn (an alleged conspirator in a series of bombings by the Weather Underground) got, which was probation and $1,500 fine. But that was before she was caught and there was all this media onslaught."

In June, she was on a plane to California for arraignment on the 23-year-old indictment.

Olson spent a month in jail before a group of 250 friends raised her $1 million cash bail.

Marilyn Murray, a fellow Twin Cities actress, was at the family's home when Olson returned from California. Olson looked weary and "talked about . . . how shockingly terrible, awful it was to be in jail. She had to borrow some toothpaste from an indigent person and brush her teeth with her finger."

But two months later, Olson was back to her old self. When her husband turned 50 in August, they celebrated in typical Sara Jane style.

"She had everything in the world you could imagine for putting together a Mexican dinner that night," Murray said. "Just heaps of shredded chicken and cheeses, and the beans and the fresh salsas."

In September, Kathleen Ann Soliah legally became Sara Jane Olson. Olson instantly aged a year, dropping her false birthday of April 25, 1948, for the real one of Jan. 16, 1947.

Olson has come out fighting. She and the same friends who helped with her bail are raising defense funds with a tongue-in-cheek cookbook: "Serving Time: America's Most Wanted Recipes from Sara Olson, Her Family and Friends."

In late October, Olson accused the L.A. district attorney's office of trying to put her on trial for SLA activities she had no part in.

"I'm an ordinary American woman," she said at a news conference in Minneapolis. "I believe that I am being prosecuted for the last 23 years of my life as much as for those that preceded them."

Her sister Josephine Bortin also feels that Olson's comfortable, middle-class life - "she can make Martha Stewart seem like a hippie by comparison now" - is held against her by prosecutors. "If Kathy was caught, and she had three kids and was divorced and lived in poverty, or near poverty, it would be `Kathy who?' by now."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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