It was eight years ago last Saturday that the FBI ended its 24 year manhunt for Kathleen Soliah, who’d been living in Saint Paul as Sarah Jane Olson for a couple of decades. Married to a local doctor who professed unawareness (successfully, even though he’d been a student radical in the sixties as well) that he’d been harboring a fugitive involved in a a murder and conspiracy to blow up police cars with the cops still in them.
She was arrested in leafy, “Leave It To Beaver”-esque Highland Park, where she’d lived for most of two decades.
The incident uncovered an old, fermenting rift in Twin Cities’ society; people who believed that since Olson/Soliah had spent two decades working as a politically-correct, ultraliberal DFL pseudo-radical, active in pro-“choice” and gun control and getting out the vote for far-left DFL candidates, that she’d more than paid her penance for her role in a conspiracy that, after all, had been back in the seventies when everyone was doing it, or wanted to, versus people who believed laws were for everyone.
On the first side; many of the Saint Paul DFL’s leading lights, who pitched in hundreds of thousands of dollars for Olson/Soliah’s legal defense fund and insisted loudly, sometimes shrilly, that Olson had more than paid her debt to society by just plain being her.
Tara McKelvey interviews Fred Peterson and Sophia Peterson, Olson/Soliah’s husband and daughter, in Marie Claire.
I am prepared for some version of radical when I walk into the Highland Grill, a diner in downtown St. Paul, where I am meeting Fred Peterson for the first time. Instead, I get Middle America academic: Sitting patiently in a booth, Fred is wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a long-sleeved, black shirt. His gray-speckled beard matches his shaggy gray-brown hair, which is casually brushed off his forehead. I am surprised that daughter Emily has come with him. Slender, with long eyelashes, heavy mascara, and thick hair reaching past her shoulders, Emily maintains a defensive posture. On the subject of the SLA’s radicalism, she says, “Back then, everyone was.”
At 26, Emily is almost the same age as her mother was during the raid in ’74. “She lived in Berkeley,” Emily says, trying to explain her mother’s affiliation with the SLA. “It was kind of normal.”
I’m starting to see the problem here; it won’t be the last time.
Dr. and Sophia Peterson on the shootout that killed six SLA members:
“That became Sara’s private business,” says Fred. “The LAPD massacre of the SLA was a bellwether event-the first televised SWAT team -” “Team murder,” Emily interrupts.
On harboring a fugitive – knowingly or not – for 20 years, former SDS member Peterson:
“You know, The Fugitive Becomes a Soccer Mom. They’re all stereotypical images of deceit. None of that applies when you’re just living a life and raising kids. People would say to me, ‘How could you accommodate such a depraved criminal mind? How can you live with the knowledge of what happened in the past?’ It captures the American psychodrama. But it was not real.”
I wonder if it was real for Myrna Opsahl’s? Opsahl, whose death at the hands of those who became “unreal” fugitives, including Fred Peterson’s wife, was fobbed off by the SLA’s Emily Harris (as quoted by Patty Hearst) with the following statement:
Oh, she’s dead, but it really doesn’t matter. She was a bourgeois pig anyway. Her husband is a doctor. He was at the hospital where they brought her.”
Maybe Sophia Peterson never read that statement:
“I always tell people she wasn’t a terrorist. She was an urban guerrilla,” says Emily, smearing Blistex on her lips while waiting for the waitress to return. Like her mother, Emily has long hair and pale skin-a classic beauty. Today, she’s wearing a pink blouse that’s peeking out from beneath a worn, black leather jacket.
Along with her looks, she’s inherited her mother’s passion for social issues, working as a Head Start teacher with homeless 3- and 4-year-olds from a Minneapolis shelter to help them prepare for kindergarten. “It’s hard,” she says. “A lot of these kids don’t even have coats or boots.”
But on the other hand, most of their mothers weren’t slaughtered by ideologues, either.
Let me digress here; I remember seeing the photos of the Peterson girls – and Dr. Peterson, for that matter – around the time of the arrest. I figured there’s no way Dr. Peterson didn’t know she was a fugitive, especially when I heard about his background in the SDS. But my heart went out to the kids, who were in their early and late teens at the time. They didn’t ask for any of this. Did they?
Well, not at the time. But it seems to be a family legacy; a second generation of children of immense privilege wrapping themselves in phony “revolution” and…
“In the end,” she says of Olson’s sentencing, “we had to watch our mother be pulled away by two big cops. The aftereffects have been debilitating. I don’t know if people can understand that.” …Sophia comes back downstairs and tells me no one can understand the suffering her family has experienced. She has a flair for drama: Describing her mother’s reaction to the second World Trade Center tower collapsing, Sophia places her hand over her heart and slouches toward the ground: “She said, ‘I’m screwed.'”
On the one hand, I can’t imagine the trauma.
On the other hand, I know one family who can. Perhaps young Sophia needs to talk to these people – the family of Myrna Opsahl, the woman that their mother was convicted of murdering. Click on the link and read the entire site – including all the damning evidence against Soliah/Olson – before you go assigning too much sympathy.
As to Sophie Peterson’s 9/11 tableau – perhaps that was one “good” side-affect of the terrorist attacks; never again, G-d willing, would middle America look at terrorists with the same gauzy, soft focus that Soliah’s generation handed down to us.
I don’t know where Nick Coleman stood on Soliah/Olson eight years ago – I was busy with other things, and not reading him regularly in those pre-blog days – but he makes an appearance:
“She betrayed the people who befriended her by having lived this secret life. Her family and her friends have suffered incredibly,” he says. “At some point, you have to face these charges. And even though she had a family, the only honorable way out of this dilemma was to turn herself in. I’m kind of mad about it, to be honest.”
But as all of us who live in St. Paul remember, it was the smug moral equivocation of Soliah/Olson’s fellow Highland Park DFL cronies that set the tone of the day. Prominent DFL politicians led the fund-raising and the demands that justice be set aside for one of their own who’d proved herself, if not repentant for murdering Myrna Opsahl and plotting to kill Los Angeles cops with firebombs, at least a good DFLer. A pre-Powerline John Hinderaker and Scott Johnson wrote a seminal excoriation of this crew, “Kathy’s Clowns“, in the American Enterprise back in the winter of ’99:
The local response to her arrest was a vast outpouring of support. Democratic state legislators and former St. Paul mayoral candidates Andy Dawkins and Sandy Pappas were her most outspoken and visible defenders. Pappas, for whom Soliah had raised campaign funds, attacked the FBI for tracking her down and wondered aloud, “Don’t they have any real crimes to fight?” It is difficult to imagine what crimes Ms. Pappas considers more “real” than murder, bank robbery, and attempted murder. Welfare reform, perhaps.Dawkins’ comments on the case were equally bizarre. He has invoked events from Selma, Alabama to Kent State in defense of Ms. Soliah, as though they could somehow explain why it was reasonable to rob banks, assault bank customers, kill Myrna Opsahl, and attempt to murder war veterans and policemen. Dawkins says that the allegations against Soliah, if true, represent “a momentary lapse in judgment.”It is perhaps not surprising that Soliah would receive support from Democratic officeholders of the flakier sort. What is more surprising is the undeniable grass-roots movement that has emerged on her behalf. Soliah’s friends and allies have produced a cookbook containing her favorite recipes, held benefits to demonstrate their support, and raised $1 million to bail her out of jail. Local church groups and the “theater community,” in which Soliah was active, have rallied to her defense.
No less interesting than the magnitude of Soliah’s support are the virtues with which her advocates credit her. She is described as a “Democratic activist,” “a true humanitarian,” a “social activist, marathon runner, volunteer and soccer mom,” an actress who hosts fund raisers for Democratic candidates, a gourmet cook who “is involved in every peace and justice issue that comes along.” Peace and justice. Soliah’s brother encapsulated her defense in these words: “There’s not this dichotomy between what Kathy was and what she is now. She was doing the same things in the early ’70’s.” Terrorist or soccer mom; there’s not much difference, from a leftist point of view, as long as you’re devoted to “peace and justice.”
But eight years later, some of the neighbors – the “clowns” – still haven’t gotten the word (emphasis added):
Olson was a “spectacular artist,” says a friend and member of their church. [A community theater colleague] recalls how Olson used to appear in local theater productions. “That woman does have charisma. To this day, it doesn’t really make sense to me. She’s a very gentle person. I think what Sara is guilty of is having made a bad choice of friends.”
Not a woman who needs redeeming, then?
“Redemption?” she shakes her head. “For Sara, I don’t see any – she was already rehabilitated, if that needed to be done. She’s [in prison] to be punished.”
“If that needed to be done”.
McKelvey closes the piece:
It’s 11 o’clock at night, hours after my visit with Sophia at the family home. In my hotel room, I log on to my computer. I’m surprised to find an e-mail from her. In a heated, 17-line message, she says she wants nothing more to do with the article. It’s an emotional outpouring, and she sounds angry and paranoid-convinced I will distort her version of events…I wonder why she has decided to tell me this now. She’d known for weeks about the story; my business card was tacked up on her bulletin board.
Fred, too, retreated after our meeting in the diner, though in less explosive terms, expressing mixed feelings about the “tough questions” I’d asked. “Sara would express caution for sure-if not be outright chagrined,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Thanks for dinner?”
Via e-mail, I ask Emily if I can see her again. She wrote back this: “We, as a family, have experienced a deep hardship and sadness with our mother being away from us. About meeting with you on Sunday, I will have to see if I feel up to it on that day. I have your cell phone.”
She never called.
Kudos to McKelvey, who left the big questions – “do these people really believe all this everyone was doing it crap?” – for us to answer for ourselves.
(Thanks to commenter Soliah.com for the pointer)