One of the last American radicals to come to trial for a series of guerrilla attacks and kidnappings during the Vietnam War era faces five years in prison after unexpectedly pleading guilty to the attempted bombing of two police cars in Los Angeles in 1975.
Despite a campaign championing her innocence and a dearth of hard evidence against her, Sara Jane Olson negotiated to have some of the charges against her dropped rather than proceed with a full trial and run the risk of a life sentence.
She and her lawyers believed that in the immediate aftermath of 11 September it would not be possible to get a fair hearing on a terrorism- related issue, though they decided to enter a guilty plea only after requests to have her trial postponed were refused.
She might still be imprisoned for life, her lawyers said yesterday, but a sentence of about five years was more likely.
The decision ended a 26-year saga in which Ms Olson – previously known as Kathleen Soliah – went underground to elude the law. She led a blameless existence as a suburban mother in Minnesota until she was tracked down by Los Angeles police detectives who reopened her file three years ago and advertised her case on national television.
As Kathy Soliah, Ms Olson was linked to the Symbionese Liberation Army, the group that kidnapped and then recruited the newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. She says she did not join the SLA and she is not suspected of criminal activity until after a shootout with police in 1974, in which most of the SLA was killed.
Her principal accuser has been Ms Hearst, who spent two years behind bars for her own involvement in a string of bank robberies and received a presidential pardon earlier this year. The police who tracked down Ms Olson were hoping to link her to the failed bombings in Los Angeles and to the unsolved murder of a Sacramento bank customer during a robbery in the same year.
When Ms Olson was first arrested in June 1999, it looked as if the prosecution would have an uphill battle. The only eyewitness placing her at the scene of one of the attempted bombings was a police officer who had made no mention of her during the original investigation and only "remembered" her 25 years afterwards.
But prosecutors pledged to use the history of the SLA as evidence against her, making clear they would spare no resources in building a circumstantial case. Ms Olson's lawyers were already worried before 11 September; afterwards, they felt they had no chance.
At the plea-bargaining session on Wednesday, Ms Olson looked pale and drawn and many of her family members were on the verge of tears. "I pleaded to something of which I am not guilty," she insisted outside the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.
Her prosecutors accused Ms Olson of double standards. "She was either lying in court, or she is lying to the press just to save face," the prosecutor Eleanor Hunter said.
Sentencing will be on 7 December, and Ms Olson has agreed to surrender to the authorities on 18 January.