Cannonfire: SLA Worked for the “Man”


Joseph Cannon
Cannonfire
March 18, 2009

This post will have the greatest meaning for older people. Nevertheless, I hope that younger folk will pay attention, because this strange and complex tale from days of yore has a lesson for our own time.

Back in the 1970s, paranoia buffs (especially conspiracy queen Mae Brussell) argued that the Symbionese Liberation Army — the “Marxist” terrorist group that kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst — was a sham. It was, to use the terminology of General Kitson, a “pseudo-gang.”

Obama
Donald Defreeze and Patty Hearst robbing Hibernia Bank in San Francisco.

(If you are unfamiliar with that phrase, go here and scroll down for the scoop on Kitson, who was a very important figure in the history of counterinsurgency.)

While I can’t go all the way with Mae, who said many loopy and wrong-headed things, I do think that her SLA conspiracy theory is more than just a theory. If you read the SLA literature carefully — and quite some time ago, I read all the books, including the transcript of Patty’s trial — you’ll see many indicators that the tale has always had a hidden side.

The oddest birds in the SLA aviary were those two notorious “radicals” William and Emily Harris, who somehow managed to avoid the police shoot-out and conflagration in Los Angeles which killed Donald DeFreeze and most of the other SLA cadre in May, 1974. That fire — which took place only a few months after the kidnapping of Patty Hearst — shocked the public, especially when it was revealed that one of the SLA women was shot while trying to escape the blaze. (At the time, right-wingers applauded the cremation of the SLA — yet conservative Americans were later infuriated by the similar Waco and the Randy Weaver incidents. Go figure.)

The Harrises came from Bloomington, Indiana — where, according to local news reports, they functioned as police informants. “Narcs,” to use the argot of the time. (This account lacks footnotes, at least in its published version, but I recall seeing newsclips which prove the point.) William Harris, a former Marine, had shown no interest in radical politics before his sudden move to California in 1972. Once on the West Coast, he immediately set out to ingratiate — or infiltrate? — his way into various left-wing organizations.

Many of the more suspicious lefties of that era tended to view the Harrises as the true leaders of the SLA.

The man generally generally credited with heading the group, Donald DeFreeze (or “Cinque” — always hilariously mispronounced as “Sin-cue”) was really just the front man. He was, to put the matter bluntly, an idiot — a blowhard, a wanna-be badass. A perfect dupe.

Like the Harrises, he had a history as a police snitch throughout the 1967-69 period. He spied on the Panthers and other “black power” groups. The cops used him up and spat him out the moment he started to show pangs of conscience.

Between his “snitch” period and his SLA period, Defreeze spent some time in Vacaville and Soledad prisons, due to an exchange of gunfire with a bank guard. There, he came under the special care of a CIA psychologist named Colston Westbrook. Previously, Westbrook had conducted interrogations in Vietnam — yet he was allowed to teach special classes in communism to black inmates in Vacaville!

Westbrook made sure that DeFreeze was granted special treatment — for example, DeFreeze was permitted to use marital trailers even though he was not married. Eventually, he was allowed to walk out of the joint in March of 1973. His “escape” was attended by no barking dogs, no searchlights, no Tommy Lee Jones, and no news coverage.

The SLA was formed later that year, after he met up with the Harrises. Patty was kidnapped in February of 1974. For months, the story dominated the headlines. The SLA demanded a ransom, and the Hearst family set up a food distribution program in poor neighborhoods to appease the terrorists.

When that program failed disastrously, Patty allegedly joined the terrorists, taking part in a robbery. She later said that she “went along” with the SLA for reasons of survival. At the time, most observers felt that her conversion was genuine.

DeFreeze and most of the other SLA members were burned alive during a shoot-out with police at a Los Angeles safe house, on May 17.

William and Emily Harris contrived to be separated from the others at the time of the shoot-out. (They were looking after Patty.) Their actions on that day were, in my view, quite suspicious. Even more suspicious was the pronouncement by the head of the FBI office in San Francisco that the Harrises were relatively insignificant players in the SLA story.

After the fire, and even though he was still on the run, William Harris let it be known that he was infuriated by published insinuations that he really worked for “the Man.” In a public communique issued right after the incineration, he seemed more incensed by Mae Brussell’s conspiratorial accusations — “That dizzy bitch can kiss my ass!” — than by the deaths of his alleged comrades. By contrast, his words about the fallen “Sin-cue” seemed rather perfunctory and free of emotion.

For a brief period, Patty, William and Emily tried to reconstitute the SLA, contacting figures throughout the anti-war underground. During a bank robbery, Emily shot a 42 year-old woman named Myrna Opsahl. Eventually, the trio were captured.

William and Emily Harris served only a brief stint for the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. Nowadays, state law mandates that anyone convicted of kidnapping for ransom receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole. The law may have been more lenient in 1974 — but it was not that lenient.

The Harrises were not charged in the Crocker bank robbery.

They were never tried for their part in the murder of school superintendent Marcus Foster. (The actual killing was committed by two other SLA members — disguised as black men.)

They were never charged with extorting the Hearst family.

And they were not tried for the killing of Myrna Opsahl, who was shot during the Crocker Bank robbery in 1975, even though Patty Hearst was willing to testify that Emily pulled the trigger and that William planned the heist. If the police wanted to bust Emily Harris on a murder rap, they could have pressured SLA wannabes Steve Soliah and Wendy Yoshimura to testify.

Summers Obama
Kathleen Soliah aka Sarah Jane Olson.

Kathleen Soliah was a late addition to the story. A naive young progressive from Palmdale, she was recruited by the Harrises after the great incineration. I’ve always believed that her level of participation in the SLA was pretty low — indeed, it remains an open question as to whether she was ever truly in the SLA.

Still, she was guilty of “aiding and abetting” the Harrises, as she eventually admitted in court. She was also charged with participating in a scheme to blow up cop cars with pipe bombs. Her fingerprints were found on a receipt used to purchase fuses for explosive devices. She claims that she did not create the bombs or put them into place — and no evidence disputes her statement.

Kathleen Soliah went into hiding, changed her name to Sarah Jane Olson, and lived a fairly normal life.

The cops finally caught up with her in 1999. They pretty much threw the book at her — hell, they tossed a library at her. The media frenzy served to whip up renewed hatred of the left during the 2000 election.

I found the harsh treatment of Olson odd. Back in the 1970s, Bill and Emily received more lenient treatment — both in the press and in court — for the crime of kidnapping Patty Hearst for ransom.

To the best of my knowledge, no prosecutor ever tried to tie William or Emily to the pipe bombs. The authorities focused on Olson with laser-like intensity.

After they were convicted on the kidnapping rap in the 1970s, Emily and William served a brief stretch in the joint, during which time Emily took computer programming classes. When they were paroled, their release garnered almost no news coverage. I’ve seen the contemporary news clippings. Considering the spectacular nature of their crimes, the “two inches on page 17″ treatment was quite bizarre.

The pair dropped out of sight, although the authorities always kept track of their whereabouts.

The Harrises split up. Emily, who bought a house in Altadena with a ladyfriend, became a computer expert and worked at MGM. Oddly, she never made an attempt to flee the country, despite the lingering potential murder charges in the Opsahl case.

William Harris went on to have an even more interesting career:

[He] has worked as a private detective in San Francisco and at times as an investigator for the district attorney’s office.

You know what’s really odd about that? In California — and in all other states, I believe — someone convicted of a felony cannot become a private detective. Moreover, anyone who wants to be a detective must

Pass an evaluation by the Federal Department of Justice and a criminal history background check.

Gee. You’d think that such a check would have revealed that Harris had participated in (and probably masterminded) one of history’s most notorious crimes.

[efoods]At the time of Soliah/Olson’s 1999 arrest, many voices in the media tried to make that one woman a scapegoat for all the “sins” of the left. The conservative media has always pointed to the SLA as proof that left-wingers are inherently violent — and Sarah Olson became the face of the SLA.

But a few people also started to make loud noises about the Harrises. Although published news accounts rarely mentioned them, behind the scenes, people began to wonder why William and Emily seemed to possess a “get out of jail free” card. In her autobiography, Patty Hearst had made their guilt clear — yet the state had never made any attempt try them for the murder, or for any of their other crimes (with the unavoidable exception of the kidnapping). Quite naturally, the children of Myrna Opsahl wanted justice — and they did not go along with the news media’s strange obsession with fixing sole blame for the killing on Olson.

As a result, William and Emily were re-arrested in 2002. Their arrest received far less media attention than did the capture of Soliah/Olson. Finally, after decades, Emily was convicted of murdering Myrna Opsahl.

Here’s the upshot.

Oddly — yet very much in keeping with the history of this strange case — the afore-cited article goes to great lengths to make it appear that Olson killed Myrna Opsahl. In fact, Emily Harris pulled the trigger. William Harris planned the bank robbery, although most current news accounts say that he merely functioned as a look-out. Olson’s role was minimal.

After Olson’s arrest, Patty made statements placing her inside the bank during the Crocker robbery. That was not Patty’s story previously; see her autobiography, Every Secret Thing. See also the very complete account of the Opsahl murder here: Kathleen Soliah/Sarah Olson is not even mentioned.

I have no explanation as to why Patty Hearst changed her account.

After serving seven years, Sarah Jane Olson is being released today.

And Emily…?

Emily Montague-Harris was paroled in February 2007 after serving half her eight-year sentence. She says she accidentally fired the shotgun that killed Opsahl.

Montague-Harris’ former husband, William Harris, was paroled in September 2006 after serving half his seven-year sentence for acting as a lookout during the robbery.

There were no organized efforts to force the parole board to take a tougher stance toward the murderous William and Emily Harris. Governor Schwarzenegger did nothing to impact the parole board’s decision.

Did the news media even cover the release of the two? If so, the coverage was so minimal that it did not come to my attention. In fact, the early release of William and Emily was so quiet that Wikipedia has yet to notice it.

In 1974, the FBI dismissed William and Emily as unimportant. In 2009, the media pays far less attention to them than to Sarah Olson. Throughout that 35 year period, news journals have bent over backwards not to cover William and Emily.

Think about it: The guy who committed one of the most startling kidnapping in American history later (with the possible exception of the Lindbergh baby) became an investigator for the San Francisco District Attorney. That’s a pretty startling career move. Why did you first learn about it from me? Why didn’t the conservative radio ranters ever talk about it?

William Harris does not even rate a Wikipedia entry. Although far less guilty, Sarah Jane Olson does have a Wikipedia entry — a long one. And now the release of Olson/Soliah has aroused a state-wide cry of outrage.

Why the disparity of treatment? Why did no-one scream about the injustice of it all when Emily walked free after serving a mere four years for a murder committed during a robbery?

How did William Harris, paroled felon, become a private detective and an investigator for the D.A.? Were William and Emily Harris secretly working for “the Man”? Did their “narc-ing” on the left purchase lenient treatment? Were the conspiracy theorists of the 1970s (and Mae Brussell was hardly the only one) simply “dizzy,” as William Harris claimed? Or did their suspicions of the Harrises have a sound foundation?

C’mon. Grow up. It’s not even a question.


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