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Ex-SLA Figure Sara Jane Olson to Be Released From Jail

A saga that began in the cauldron of California's counterculture and took a dramatic turn in a quiet middle class neighborhood in Minnesota is about to come to an end.

Sara Jane Olson, a 1970s radical who became a fugitive after attempting to kill Los Angeles police officers and participating in a deadly bank robbery near Sacramento, is scheduled to be released from a California prison next week.

Her bid for freedom after serving seven years is not ending quietly.

Police leagues in Los Angeles and Minnesota are objecting to the terms of her parole, her attorneys are nervous after Olson was mistakenly released and sent back to prison a year ago, and those in her home state have conflicting views about the return of a woman with two identities — a quiet, caring community volunteer and a domestic terrorist.

Olson was freed by California corrections officials a year ago when they miscalculated her parole date. She was re-arrested five days later as she was about to board a flight to Minnesota, the state she adopted as her home during a quarter-century on the run.

"After what happened last year, I think she won't feel comfortable until she's back in Minnesota," said David Nickerson, one of her lawyers. "She is just anxious about getting out ... until she's home, until she knows it's real. She wants to be with her family."

Olson, 62, is scheduled to be released Tuesday from the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, about 150 miles southeast of San Francisco. Where she goes next has become a point of contention.

Police leagues in Los Angeles and Minnesota are objecting to having her paroled to Minnesota. Both have written to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, urging him to have Olson serve her parole in California, where her crimes were committed.

Former Los Angeles police officer John Hall was a target in one of the 1975 attempted pipe bombings by the Symbionese Liberation Army, best known for its kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. The group planted bombs beneath two police cars, but both failed to detonate.

"That bomb should have gone off that night," Hall said. "I would have been just one of many people that would have been dead. It just brings up a lot of anger knowing that she's going to be released."

The pipe bomb, packed with nails, failed to explode as Hall and his partner pulled their cruiser away from an International House of Pancakes in Los Angeles' Hollywood Division on an August night. A similar device was found under another police car miles away.

Hall recalls a girl about 8 years old was watching from the restaurant.

"That little girl was waving at us as we drove off. If that bomb would have gone off, she would have been killed along with her family," said Hall, who served 31 years with the department. "I haven't forgiven her (Olson) in the least for what she's done and what she could have done to many more innocent people."

The SLA had a long list of high-profile crimes during the mid-1970s, including the Hearst kidnapping, assassinating Oakland Schools Superintendent Marcus Foster and the shotgun slaying of 42-year-old Myrna Opsahl. The mother of four was depositing a church collection at the Crocker National Bank near Sacramento when the group robbed it.

Olson, her red hair turned long ago to gray, was born Kathleen Ann Soliah in North Dakota and grew up in Palmdale, in the high desert north of Los Angeles.

If her release goes as planned, her attorneys say she will be paroled to her mother's house in her hometown and will have 24 hours to report to her California parole agent. Unless there is a change in her parole location, she then will be allowed to return to St. Paul with her husband, Dr. Gerald "Fred" Peterson.

The family lives among lawyers, doctors and professors in a middle class neighborhood near the banks of the Mississippi River.

"Her release of course is a great relief," Peterson said in an e-mail to The Associated Press, declining an interview. "We need to regroup in our home, and preserve our privacy as much as possible, and get our lives coordinated again. We're very happy to reunite."

Many of Olson's friends and former associates declined to comment about her release, fearing that any statements might hurt her chances of getting out on schedule.

Others said they couldn't wait to see her again, having grown to know her as a caring mother and community volunteer who hosted frequent parties at the family home.

"I'm planning on giving her a big hug when she gets back and am going to count on her to do what she did before, which was read the New York Times to the blind and volunteer in all sorts of activities to help the less fortunate," said Andy Dawkins, a longtime family friend and Democratic former state representative from St. Paul.

Not everyone will be happy to have her back. After Olson was arrested in 1999, Minneapolis gun store owner Mark Koscielski (koh-SHEL'-skee) countered supporters with bumper stickers that said "Fight Terrorism — Jail Kathleen."

Her pending release continues to draw strong emotions.

"She's a ... terrorist and she shouldn't be out of jail," Koscielski said.

Olson, then named Soliah, was in her late 20s when she joined the SLA. The small band of mostly white, college-educated children of middle-class families was started in 1973 by a black ex-convict named Donald DeFreeze.

He died with five members of the group — including Olson's best friend — in a 1974 shootout with police at their Los Angeles hideout.

Olson was in the suburban Sacramento bank when Opsahl died from a shotgun blast in the 1975 robbery that netted the SLA $15,000.

After the attempted bombings of the LAPD squad cars, she fled to a new life 1,900 miles away. She changed her name, acted in community theater, joined a church, taught English to immigrants, worked with senior citizens and raised the couple's three daughters.

She was arrested in her minivan in June 1999 on a tip from the "America's Most Wanted" television show. Supporters raised bail money selling cookbooks titled: "Serving Time: America's Most Wanted Recipes."

Jon Opsahl helped badger Sacramento prosecutors into finally filing charges against Olson and other SLA members in 2002 for the murder of his mother. He said he is glad the saga is coming to an end.

"She did her minimal time and has paid her debt to society after all these years," Opsahl said. "As far as I'm concerned, she can leave the state as soon as possible and get back to her life."