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Hidden in Plain Sight

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Getting ready for work on June 16, Sande Gordon, 52, turned on her TV and heard a news flash that nearly floored her: Kathleen Soliah, a.k.a. Sara Jane Olson, had just been captured by the FBI after 23 years as a fugitive. As teenagers in Palmdale, Calif., where Gordon still lived, the two girls had been best friends. Gordon had often wondered what had become of Soliah, who had been a brilliant young actress. Now she knew.

“I couldn’t believe it,” says Gordon, a single mother of two. “I said to myself, ‘Kathy, Sara Jane Olson was just another character for you. This was the greatest acting job of your life.’ ”

Indeed, it was the role of a lifetime, or nearly so, a run of more than two decades. Before she became a federal fugitive in 1976, Kathleen Soliah, then 29, was a fiery young radical, a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army. It was the SLA, one of the more virulent of the 1970s extremist groups, that kidnapped 19-year-old newspaper heiress Patty Hearst from her Berkeley, Calif., apartment in February 1974. As for Soliah, she was indicted in 1976 for conspiracy to commit murder after she allegedly planted bombs—which did not go off—beneath two Los Angeles police cars.

Sara Jane Olson, Soliah’s adopted persona, was more suburban mom than mad bomber. With her physician husband, Dr. Gerald (Fred) Peterson, 49, she lived an upper-middle-class life in St. Paul. Olson, 52, doted on their three daughters: Emily, 18; Sophia, 17; and Leila, 12. When she wasn’t acting in local theater productions, she played the gracious hostess and gourmet cook. “She was always doing things for others—always,” says Jolyn Fontaine, a lay minister at the Minnehaha United Methodist Church, where Olson narrated the Christmas pageant. She regularly read to the blind, prepared meals for the homeless and taught English as a second language. In fact, Olson was on her way to teach an English class to immigrants on the morning of June 16 when her past finally caught up with her.

Acting on a tip generated by a segment on America’s Most Wanted, agents closed in on Soliah’s gold minivan about a mile from her upscale home. “FBI, Kathleen. It’s over,” the arresting officer told her. She offered no resistance. “The officer who pulled her over thought she seemed relieved,” says James Burress Jr., the acting head of the bureau’s Minneapolis office.

For nearly everyone else—including her husband, apparently—shock was the order of the day. “Peterson called me to ask if his wife had actually been arrested and why,” says Michael Jordan, spokesman for the St. Paul police. “He sounded sincere. He said he didn’t know about her background. He couldn’t believe it.” Neither could the family’s many friends, who have nonetheless rallied around her. “The Sara Jane Olson I know is nothing like this Kathleen Soliah, fugitive,” says Andy Dawkins, a Minnesota state representative and the family’s civil attorney. Says fellow actress and longtime friend Lynn Musgrave: “She’s given back to society way, way more than anyone incarcerated could have.”

Yet prison time is just what Olson faces. After being held without bail in the Ramsey County Adult Detention Center for three weeks, she waived extradition and was flown to Los Angeles for a July 14 arraignment. If convicted, she could get 20 years to life in prison.

Why did Kathleen Soliah head to Minnesota to forge her new identity? Perhaps because she felt comfortable there. The oldest of five children born to high school teacher Martin Soliah and his homemaker wife, Elsie, she spent her early years in Barnesville, Minn. “She was smart as a whip, too smart for her own good,” says her great-aunt Alvara, 97, who recalls that by the age of 3, Kathy was already organizing theatrical performances for neighborhood tots. In the late ’50s the family moved to Palmdale, where her parents still live. In junior high, Soliah excelled at track, was a hard-core Beatles fan and dreamed of fame. “Kathy said, ‘I’m going to be a famous actress and everyone will know me,’ ” says Sande Gordon.

After graduating from high school in 1965 with a Spirit and Service Award, Soliah studied acting at nearby Antelope Valley College. It was there that her political views began to form. Gordon recalls that Soliah became romantically involved with a young philosophy teacher who introduced her to a wide range of political literature. “She used to read a lot of Marx—and she understood it,” says Gordon with a laugh.

Around this time, Vietnam began hitting home, hard. “Every week we’d open up our paper and read about someone we’d lost; the death rate from our high school was horrible,” says Gordon. “I think that’s when it started.” When Soliah moved on to study theater at the University of California at Santa Barbara, her political attitudes hardened. A series of demonstrations in 1970, in which both police and protesters turned violent, left a profound impression. “I think it was a moment that changed how she looked at things for good,” her mother told the Los Angeles Times.

Following graduation in 1969, Soliah and boyfriend James Kilgore, the son of a prosperous lumber dealer, whom she’d met at UC Santa Barbara, moved first to a commune in Monterey, Calif., then to the Bay Area, where they began to travel in radical circles. In 1972, while playing the title role in a local production of Hedda Gabler, she became close friends with her costar Angela Atwood. That friendship would prove pivotal; a year later, Atwood became a founding member of the SLA. Just six months after that, in May 1974, several members of the SLA were run to ground by authorities in Compton, Calif. A gun battle erupted; Atwood was one of six who were killed. Two weeks later in Berkeley, Soliah delivered an impassioned eulogy exhorting the SLA to continue its fight. “I am with you,” she vowed. “We are with you.” Shortly thereafter, SLA member Emily Harris contacted Soliah and later recruited her and Kilgore.

Josef Anderson, a screenwriter who knew Soliah at UC Santa Barbara, views her in the context of the times. “We had seen the Kennedy assassinations, Martin Luther King’s, and people wanted to start a revolution,” he says. The bright and idealistic Soliah, he adds, was ripe for radical plucking: “At that age you are filled with passion. You could make choices that may not be the smartest in the long run.”

Soliah and Kilgore began by renting safe houses for the SLA and procuring food. “Jim and Kathy did not go out shopping as much as they went out shoplifting,” Patty Hearst recounted in her 1982 book Every Secret Thing. “They were masters at it. They came back with steaks and chops and fancy desserts.”

But in August 1975, they allegedly planted pipe bombs under two LAPD cars in retaliation for the Compton shoot-out. Although the bombs were discovered and disarmed before they could explode, the act sent shock waves through the LAPD. “When a bomber puts a bomb down, he doesn’t know if he’s going to kill the people he targeted or four kids walking by,” says former Los Angeles police captain Mervin King, 84, who was in charge of the Compton shoot-out and also took over the bombing investigation. It was less than a month after the bomb scare that police searching for Soliah and Kilgore in San Francisco found five other SLA members—including Hearst, who would later serve two years in jail for her participation in a 1974 bank robbery. (Today, the married mother of two still maintains that she was coerced.) Soon after Hearst’s discovery, what was left of the SLA disbanded. Kilgore and Soliah went their separate ways.

In 1976, Soliah arrived in Minnesota with a Social Security card that identified her as Sara Jane Olson, an assumed identity that shaved 13 months from her age. It was a shrewd alias; the Minneapolis phone book alone has 14 pages of listings for Olsons. But far from keeping a low profile, Soliah kept her striking long red hair and made a new life. Her first job was as a live-in cook at a University of Minnesota fraternity house. She fit right in with the campus scene, volunteering at the May Day Bookstore Collective and hooking up with a group of counterculture activists. For a fugitive, says Robert McDowell, a Minnesota private investigator, “she was an anomaly: She wasn’t afraid to be in public.”

Around this time, Soliah moved next door to Fred Peterson, a Harvard-educated general practitioner who was interning in Minneapolis. They married on March 12, 1980, and later that year their first daughter was born. By the birth of their second, they’d moved to Zimbabwe. Peterson “had to do an internship for his medical training,” says family friend Dawkins, “and he wanted to go where he could contribute the most.” While Peterson interned, Soliah taught drama and English.

By 1985, after a two-year stopover in Baltimore for Peterson’s continued medical training, the family was back in Minneapolis, living in a bungalow on a quiet block near the Mississippi River. Four years later, they crossed the river and moved into an ivy-covered Tudor in St. Paul’s Highland Park, one of the city’s fancier neighborhoods.

By this time, Peterson was a well-regarded emergency-room physician at St. Paul’s United Hospital. He and Sara Jane were often seen jogging through the neighborhood. They entertained frequently at home, throwing fund-raisers for their youngest daughter’s soccer team and parties that mixed their liberal political friends with those from the medical and theatrical worlds. “She’s an unbelievable cook,” says Mike Whalen, a friend. “I remember these cheesecakes two feet high.” Although Soliah continued to act in local productions such as Macbeth and The Lion in Winter, her leading role was mother to her three daughters. “Sara Jane lives for those children,” says Lynn Musgrave.

Although Soliah’s whereabouts remained a mystery to authorities, old allies knew she was alive and well. “I’d hear about her on and off,” says attorney Stuart Hanlon, who defended SLA founders Bill and Emily Harris, each of whom served eight years for the Hearst kidnapping. “People said she was doing fine but that she just missed her parents and her family.” According to the Los Angeles Times, Soliah saw her family at least twice, once at a park in Santa Clarita, Calif., in the early 1980s and again at a 1987 reunion with her mother and siblings somewhere in the Midwest.

Meanwhile, Mervin King, who retired from the LAPD in December 1976, could never quite shake the Soliah case. “You don’t like to have a loose end like that,” he says. About five months ago his son Tom, 51, who in the intervening years had climbed from police rookie to seasoned investigator, decided to assign two of his best detectives to the case.

While the police were reinterviewing Soliah’s old friends and family, the FBI approached America’s Most Wanted with a request to do a story about her and Kilgore, the only two remaining SLA fugitives. The FBI suggested the 25th anniversary of the Compton shoot-out as a news peg. “I frankly didn’t think we would have much luck,” says John Walsh, the show’s host. “We thought possibly, probably, she either might be dead or living in another country.” Instead, the 4½-minute segment that aired May 15 generated 20 tips—including the one that led to Soliah’s arrest.

Although it is always unwise to predict a jury verdict, former L.A. County district attorney Ira Reiner believes that a conviction—if the case is not plea-bargained and goes to trial—will be hard to come by. “There was no physical harm done,” he notes, “and it appears she has led a law-abiding life since then.” Even Mervin King says he “could care less what they do to her, if anything.” But he adds that “in fairness to people who would have been killed” had the bombs exploded, the case should be brought to trial. “I feel sorry, really sorry,” he says, “that her family, especially the kids, have had this come to their attention.”

For now, at least, Olson’s family seems to be bearing up. At Sunday services at the family church on June 27, Peterson, who has declined all interview requests, spoke briefly about his hopes for the future. “I predict,” he said, “that within three to six months we’ll be a family again!” In fact, the judge at her Los Angeles arraignment may permit Soliah to post bail and to return to St. Paul to await trial.

Yet even if Soliah avoids prison time, things are never likely to be quite the same again. Psychotherapist Pauline Boss, author of Ambiguous Loss, cautions that Soliah’s husband and children may no longer know what they can believe. “They don’t know what is true and what isn’t,” she says. A secret, she adds, “screws up intimate relations between parent and child and certainly between spouses.” For Soliah, that may be the harshest punishment of all.

Jill Smolowe

Ron Arias and Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles, Johnny Dodd and Lyndon Stambler in Palmdale, Colleen O’Connor in San Francisco, Margaret Nelson in St. Paul, Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C., and Kate Klise in Missouri