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'Error' led to former SLA member's early release

Former 1970s radical Sara Jane Olson was wrongly released from prison this week because of an "administrative error," a Department of Corrections official says.
Image: Sara Jane Olson
Sara Jane Olson, seen in a Los Angeles courtroom in a Jan. 18, 2002, photo, won't be eligible for release now until March 2009.Nick Ut / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Former 1970s radical Sara Jane Olson is back at the Central California prison where she had spent six years before her short-lived release on parole last week.

The one-time Symbionese Liberation Army member arrived at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla Saturday at around 9 p.m., a California Corrections Department spokesman said.

Olson was released on parole from the facility on Monday, but was intercepted at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday night.

Criticism over the early release of Olson, who lived as a fugitive for years in Minnesota, spurred a review of her sentence and the timing of her parole, Scott Kernan, the chief deputy secretary for the California Department of Corrections, said at a news conference. The review revealed that a 2004 miscalculation led to Olson being released a year too early, he said.

"The department is sensitive to the impact such an error has had on all involved in this case and sincerely regrets the mistake," Kernan said.

He said the review was ordered "after many concerns raised in the media." The union that represents Los Angeles police officers and the son of a woman killed in a decades-old botched robbery at a bank near Sacramento opposed Olson's release.

No release until March 2009
Olson, 61, was detained at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday night and told her right to leave the state had been rescinded. She was sent to stay with family in Palmdale, where authorities kept watch outside the house overnight, and was arrested Saturday and imprisoned in Corona, about 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles, Kernan said.

She will not be eligible for release until March 17, 2009, he said.

Olson's attorney, Shawn Chapman Holley, called her client's return to custody "ridiculous" and said prison officials caved in to outside influences.

"As far as we're concerned they're bowing to political pressure and they are wrong," Holley said. "It's like they make up all new rules when it comes to her. It's like we are in some kind of fascist state."

The Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents more than 9,000 Los Angeles police officers, said it was relieved that Olson had been returned to prison, but was "far from satisfied."

"Parole shouldn't even be an option for terrorists who are convicted of murdering innocent bystanders and attempting to murder police officers," said the group's president Tim Sands. "Anyone who tries to kill police officers should get significant jail time and serve their full sentence."

Reinvention as housewife
Olson, who was formerly known as Kathleen Soliah, was charged in 1975 with attempting to bomb police cars with the SLA, a group best known for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst. But Olson vanished soon after she was charged and reinvented herself as a housewife — changing her name to Sara Jane Olson, marrying a doctor and becoming a mother of three in St. Paul, Minn. She was arrested in 1999 after FBI agents acted on a tip from TV's "America's Most Wanted."

In 2001, Olson pleaded guilty to the attempted bombings. She pleaded guilty in 2003 to second-degree murder in the 1975 shooting death of a customer during a bank robbery in Carmichael, near Sacramento. After several adjustments, Olson's sentences, to be served consecutively, included 12 years for the attempted bombings and two years for the bank slaying, said Seth Unger, a Department of Corrections spokesman.

The clerical error that resulted in her release came from a failure to properly factor the Sacramento sentence into her parole calculations, Kernan said.

"This is an extremely unusual situation," said the department's general counsel, Alberto Roldan.

Roldan said the long period between Olson's crimes and her sentencing made the calculations especially difficult.

Why was error found now?
Asked repeatedly by reporters at the news conference why the thorough review wasn't done until after Olson was released, Roldan said parole calculations are done when a person comes into prison rather than when they are released, and a "triggering event" such as a court motion is required to prompt such a review.

He said Olson's sentence had been reviewed several times, and there was no special reason to review her case at the time she was freed. But he said after Olson's release, a reporter pointed out to his department that the Sacramento district attorney's office had expressed concerns about the calculations.

The SLA started in 1973 when no more than a dozen white, college-educated children from middle-class families adopted a seven-headed snake as their symbol and an ex-convict as their leader. Their slogan: "Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people."

Besides kidnapping Hearst, the group claimed responsibility for the murder of a school superintendent and was involved in an armed bank robbery and other violent activities. Eventually those activities caught up with the group's members, including Olson, who was charged in the attempted bombings.