Symbionese terrorist comrade of Patty Hearst to be released

After 25 years on the run and seven years in jail Sara Jane Olson set to walk free
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The Independent US

After seven years behind bars, a notorious former terrorist comrade of Patty Hearst will today walk free from a Californian prison and resume life as a Midwestern "soccer mom", following a controversial decision to allow her to serve parole in her affluent family home in suburban Minnesota.

Sara Jane Olson, who during the 1970s was known as Kathleen Soliah, a leading member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, is due to be released from a jail in rural Chowchilla at lunchtime, after serving half of her sentence for attempting to kill two Los Angeles policemen with pipe bombs in 1975.

Her freedom opens a fresh chapter in an extraordinary saga that began when Olson, now 62, helped mastermind a string of guerrilla attacks by the radical left-wing organisation, including an armed raid on a bank in Sacramento, California, in which a bystander was murdered.

Olson spent 25 years on the run, evading arrest until 1999, when an appeal on the TV show America's Most Wanted led to a tip-off that she was living incognito in St Paul. Friends in the city knew her as a happily married housewife, mother of three daughters, charity volunteer and stalwart of the local amateur dramatic scene.

The subsequent treatment of Olson and three former SLA colleagues, who pleaded guilty to second degree murder in 2002, has divided opinion. Supporters, who include many left-leaning activists, politicians, attorneys and academics from her native Minnesota, say her crimes should be understood in the context of the turbulent era that inspired them. However, many on the right still view Olson as a terrorist. During the SLA's guerrilla campaign, she attempted to kill police officers by planting bombs under two patrol cars (they failed to explode) and was part of a group which raided Crocker National Bank, killing Myrna Opsahl, 42, a mother of four children who was trying to deposit a church collection.

This week, the Los Angeles Police Protective League called on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to force Olson to serve parole in California, where her crimes were committed. "We do not believe the state of Minnesota has a sufficient interest in ensuring that Ms Soliah does notviolate her parole," said a spokesman.

The SLA, a self-styled urban guerrilla organisation dedicated to overthrowing Western capitalism, was started in the early 1970s by a group of university-educated radicals from middle-class families. It achieved global notoriety by kidnapping the newspaper heiress Patty Hearst who, in a famous example of Stockholm syndrome, swiftly converted to the cause and joined in the group's activities.

After Opsahl's death, Olson left the group and began a new life. In 1980, she married Dr Gerald Peterson, an emergency room physician known to friends as Fred. They briefly lived in Zimbabwe before moving to Minnesota to bring up their family in a mock Tudor house near the Mississippi.

Olson's 25 years on the run ended when police pulled over her mini-van. After the arrest, neighbours paid tribute to Fred and Sara Jane's dinner parties, and said she was a star of local theatre productions.

Friends and family have refused to discuss her release, with the exception of Andy Dawkins, a Democratic former state representative, who said: "She was a wonderful asset to our community."