Sentence ends Symbionese Liberation Army’s long, violent saga

SACRAMENTO The long, violent saga of the Symbionese Liberation Army finally came to an end.

SLA member James Kilgore was sentenced to six years in state prison Monday for the killing of a suburban Sacramento housewife during an April 1975 bank robbery that netted the would-be revolutionaries $15,000.

Kilgore, 56, who evaded authorities for more than two decades before his November 2002 arrest in South Africa, was the last of five SLA members sentenced for the shotgun slaying of 42-year-old Myrna Opsahl, a mother of four who was in the Crocker National Bank depositing a church collection.

” I can say if there is one day in my life I could live again, it would be that moment,” said Kilgore, as he apologized to the Opsahl family inside Sacramento Superior Court.

“I accept full responsibility for my actions on that day,” said Kilgore, a former San Rafael High School honors student and one-time economics major who became an SLA bomb maker and eventually a professor at the University of Cape Town.

The SLA was a band of 1970s California revolutionaries who achieved notoriety amid the anti-Vietnam war movement for murdering Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster, kidnapping newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, setting off bombs and robbing a string of California banks.

From its base in the Bay area, the heavily armed SLA adopted a curious and confused brand of political rhetoric and personal nicknames that borrowed from South American revolutionaries and Communist leaders. Led by ex-convict Donald DeFreeze, the SLA captured attention with its seven-headed snake symbol, passions for the poor and minorities and its merger of black ex-convicts, ex-Vietnam veterans and radical college-educated children of middle class families.

After kidnapping Hearst, the group forced her wealthy parents to donate millions of dollars in food to the needy in exchange for their daughter’s release. Hearst eventually adopted the nickname “Tania” and helped the group rob banks in California.

Though six founding members died in a fiery May 1974 shootout with Los Angeles police, the rest, including some with aliases, reached their 50s as graying parents and productive citizens with jobs and prominence amid their middle class and suburban surroundings. All, in courtroom statements during the last 1 years, have disowned their youthful revolutionary zeal and apologized to other 1960s and 1970s social advocates for deflecting “bad karma” onto their nonviolent movements.

Monday’s sentencing also ended a long crusade by Opsahl’s surviving family members and law enforcement investigators to find former SLA members who had disappeared, and get prosecutions in the 29-year-old bank robbery and murder.

Though Sacramento County prosecutors declined for years to press charges, fearing fading memories and evidence that wouldn’t hold up in court, District Attorney Jan Scully ordered arrests of four former SLA members in January 2002 and reached guilty pleas 10 months later. Among those now serving six- to eight-year terms in California prisons are Emily Montague, 57, of Altadena; her former husband, William Harris, 58, of Oakland; Michael Bortin, 55, of Portland, Ore.; and Sara Jane Olson, 57, of St. Paul, Minn.

Montague admitted pulling the trigger of the shotgun that killed Opsahl, but said the gun went off accidentally.

In her 1982 book about her time with the SLA, “Every Secret Thing,” Hearst wrote that Kilgore and Bortin quickly pointed fingers at Montague over Opsahl’s killing, calling it a “sloppy job” that could eventually take them all to the gas chamber.

Opsahl’s husband, Trygve, a retired surgeon, reacted to Kilgore’s apology Monday, saying, “At least he acknowledged what they did. It certainly helps some, but all this will be with us.”

Beckey Fischer, 48, a bank teller the day of the robbery, told Kilgore of years she spent reliving the gun pointed at her face and the threats that the robbers would kill them.

She expressed relief that after almost three decades authorities brought “you rotten people to judgment for this heinous murder.”

Kilgore, married to an American and father of two boys, showed no emotion.

Kilgore pleaded guilty to the second-degree murder charge in February, but was first sentenced last month in U.S. District Court in San Francisco to 54 months in federal prison on explosives and passport fraud convictions.

State prison authorities have said the five former SLA members could serve about half their sentences if they behave and enroll in work and school programs.

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