Perhaps it's a mere curiosity that Sara Jane Olson, the "soccer mom" fugitive nabbed here on charges that she's actually 1970s-era terrorist Kathleen Soliah of the Symbionese Liberation Army, is a passionate--even obsessive--gourmet cook.
Her dearest friends all mention it. Her elaborate entertainments are never just personal indulgences, however, but are invariably keyed to liberal causes and community activism. At her house, labor leaders and immigrants, leftist pols and right-thinking progressives abound.
They eat very well.
"Exquisite spreads, each strawberry individually carved," recalls liberal state legislator Andy Dawkins of repasts at Olson's $300,000 ivy-covered Tudor-style home in trendy Highland Park. There, Olson, 52, and her husband, Harvard-educated physician Gerald "Fred" Peterson, have hosted chummy, "wonderful" get-togethers where Twin Cities leftists mingle with the couple's pals from the medical, theatrical and church communities.
And--yes--with other soccer moms. Olson's youngest daughter plays for the Black Hawks.
Old friend and self-described "peace and justice" activist Spencer Blaw, for instance, recently brought a local Somali refugee leader to a backyard blowout celebrating the high school graduation of Fred and Sara's 18-year-old daughter, Emily. "At the end of the day, he'd met so many other community activists," Blaw marvels. "He called and said, 'What an incredible family!' He felt so welcome."
All of which wouldn't be particularly noteworthy, except for this:
For the better part of a quarter century, Sara Jane Olson--who as Kathleen Soliah allegedly roamed California's revolutionary underground armed with guns and bombs, tried to murder two L.A. cops in 1975 and harbored newspaper heiress and SLA recruit Patricia Hearst--has been hiding here from police and the FBI.
Who'd have thought she'd go to ground just an hour's drive from her Fargo, N.D., birthplace, in an area that is home to some of her relatives? Or manage to evade capture all these years while flaunting her angular good looks and characteristic personal intensity in full public view?
In an amazing transition, Olson has built her new life into an oasis of affluent tranquillity and ethical-bourgeois do-gooding--the very sort of thing young Kathleen Soliah and the SLA denigrated during the often-violent upheavals of the early '70s.
Olson was arrested driving her white 1998 Plymouth minivan down a suburban lane, on her way to teach citizenship and English as a second language at a community center where she'd volunteered for years.
"FBI, Kathleen. It's over," an arresting agent told her.
Apparently no one--not even the devoted Fred--had guessed the truth, or will admit it.
Folks here can scarcely believe what's happened. How could this superlative person have done those violent things? How could one soul encompass such extremes of good and evil?
"It just doesn't compute, says Brendan Coleman, who's known Sara and Fred for decades and was best man at the small civil ceremony in which they were wed in early 1980.
The woman Coleman and others have come to know is a lively, caring, utterly nonviolent person who favors gun control, reads newspapers to the blind, volunteers for respectable leftist candidates, acts in community theater, drops everything to lend emotional support to friends, worries about her three maturing daughters, runs marathons.
And cooks with unusual fervor:
Taco fund-raisers for 12-year-old daughter Leila's Adams Spanish Immersion School; a drop-in dinner for 450 homeless people; endless casseroles and French pastries for fellow amateur actors at post-rehearsal gatherings.
"She was most proud of the fact that she made her own lox!" recalls labor union official Jim Mangan of the sumptuous "feast" Sara had prepared for that graduation party just four days before her June 16 arrest.
"Her desserts are phenomenal, her cheesecakes are a foot high," enthuses Mike Whalen, clerking the other day at the ARISE! Bookstore and Resource Center, a scruffy collective Olson helped start a few years ago in a neo-hippie section of Minneapolis. You don't, Whalen chuckles, usually see gourmet cooking on the radical left.
Then there's her famous annual New Year's Eve blast.
"Sara goes into a massive cooking phase for a week, cooks like a banshee," says investment banker Steve Yanisch, who was Fred Peterson's Minneapolis roommate in 1977 when the then-medical intern began dating the lean, striking redhead who said her name was Sara Olson and she was from the West Coast.
Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that a strange culinary motif runs through the early revolutionary days of young Kathleen Soliah, too--a time when food cooperatives were in vogue, ethnic meals were served up with political lectures on the Third World, and the SLA, after kidnapping Patty Hearst in February 1974, demanded her parents distribute $6 million in food to the poor.
In her memoir, "Every Secret Thing," Hearst recalls how Soliah and another SLA member used to go "shoplifting. They were masters. They came back with steaks and chops and fancy desserts and, according to them, such a diet was all part of the counterculture. It was perfectly appropriate for them to rip off the establishment supermarkets."
Hearst was finally found in a San Francisco apartment in September 1975 by police who were looking for Soliah.
At that point, she disappeared.
A year or two later, a university administrator in Minneapolis, Lenore Burgard, was approached by a woman friend on behalf of Sara Jane Olson, who needed access to the university library.
"I had a faculty card and could borrow books," recalls Burgard, 66. "She was looking for cookbooks. She had a job cooking for a fraternity, but she didn't know how to do quantity cooking."
Apparently, she learned.
A WONDERFUL LIFE
"There was a story in the paper today with information about me, and I didn't know a lot of it myself," Fred Peterson told the congregation Sunday at Minnehaha United Methodist Church.
Peterson is known for his dry wit.
A lean, bearded man who with his daughters showed up wearing Tyrolean hiking shorts and a T-shirt with YOU LET UP, YOU LOSE printed on the back, he's played trumpet at the 10:30 a.m. "contemporary worship" service ever since his family started attending Minnehaha five years ago. When he'd first met Sara, Fred had been playing in a reggae band called Pressure Drop, according to friends.
An Iowa native a year or so younger than his wife, Peterson studied medicine after Harvard at Johns Hopkins and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, according to a close friend.
"Please understand," Peterson continued Sunday, "I really was not a hippie. I was a medical student, and medical intern. I met Sara Jane in 1978. Our relationship was strong and deep, and it continued that way and today we have a family."
This was virtually Peterson's first public statement, other than an expression of thanks to the congregation the previous Sunday just days after his wife was arrested. He and Olson have granted no media interviews, on the advice of her attorneys.
"I predict," Peterson said, "that within three to six months we'll be together again as a family!"
This brought smiles and expressions of relief from the congregation. He went on to say he's been visiting Olson regularly at the Ramsey County Adult Detention Facility--an unusual structure built down the side of a cliff over the Mississippi, with windows in the cells offering panoramic views of the river--and is worried about her physical condition.
"She's not sleeping well, she can't exercise," Peterson reported. Olson, a devoted jogger, had been planning to run with her husband in a marathon in Duluth the weekend after her arrest. Peterson said he's considering donating a treadmill to the jail.
Since California is seeking to extradite Olson on charges that could result in life imprisonment, a judge here denied bail at her June 17 arraignment, deciding to keep her in the lockup pending further legal maneuvering.
Friends flocked to the arraignment, where Olson, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and alternately smiling and looking sad, waved kisses to her family. Her husband seemed disconsolate; their daughters were crying.
Another hearing is set for July 15. Meanwhile, Olson's lawyers are fighting every point. Susan B. Jordan, an Oakland attorney with a private plane and a penchant for representing underdog radicals, has already appeared on "Dateline NBC." She refuses even to concede that Sara and Kathleen are one.
But at the time of her arrest, it appears Olson may have been trying to cut a deal to give herself up. According to the San Francisco Examiner, a reporter "acted as a go-between between authorities and Soliah in unsuccessful negotiations for her surrender."
Any deal apparently fell through when the TV show "America's Most Wanted," with FBI and LAPD help, aired pictures of Soliah and SLA fugitive James Kilgore on May 15. The segment was keyed to the 25th anniversary of a shootout with police in May of 1974 in which six SLA members, including "General Field Marshal" Donald "Cinque" DeFreeze, were killed.
Kilgore, Soliah's lover before and during her revolutionary days, is the last SLA figure to remain at large.
After Peterson spoke Sunday in his church, Pastor John Darlington told the congregation that he, too, had visited Olson in the lockup and had asked if she wanted anything.
"Can you find someone to read newspapers to the blind while I'm away?" she'd replied.
She was also worried, Darlington said, about who would fill in for her teaching English to immigrants, and helping at a Twin Cities center that rehabilitates Third World torture victims.
As the service wrapped up, Sophia, the couple's 16-year-old, played the piano and sang "Let It Be," the old Beatles favorite, in her strong, clear soprano:
And when the night
There's still a light
that shines on me.
Then everyone clapped and sang "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." Fred Peterson, an arm around each daughter, swayed to the music. Soaring to the high rafters, it seemed to come from a different place, a different time.
The SLA--its name derived from "symbiosis" in an effort to suggest the union of black and white, rich and poor--had begun as a ragtag band of radicals in 1971 but soon developed into a feared paramilitary organization. Its flag bore the likeness of a seven-headed snake, and its reported motto was "Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people."
The 1974 Hearst kidnapping mesmerized the nation. After her violent abduction, she became an SLA member herself and her picture appeared on front pages across the country, photographed by a bank camera as she brandished a gun during a heist. She was convicted in a sensational trial, in which she protested that she'd been brainwashed, and served two years of a seven-year term before President Carter commuted her sentence.
Hearst now lives in Connecticut with her husband, Bernard Shaw, and their children. She's said she has no interest in dredging up the past by commenting on the Soliah case.
It is scarcely possible, now, to imagine the turmoil of that era in the violent backwash of the '60s. The Vietnam War, with its official lies and secret bombings, was still playing out; the nation's cities had flamed with racial unrest; and citizens had seen official government violence unjustly unleashed on their compatriots: snarling police dogs attacking black people in the South, baton-wielding cops clubbing protesters in Chicago.
While many white middle-class members of the counterculture adhered to principles of peaceful "civil disobedience," there were fringe groups, like the SLA, whose methods were violent.
Kathleen Soliah allegedly joined the organization a few months after Hearst's abduction and shortly after the fatal police shootout. One of those killed was Angela Atwood, Soliah's best friend, whom she'd met while waitressing and performing in small theater productions.
Two weeks later, Soliah delivered a eulogy for the slain revolutionaries in Berkeley's Ho Chi Minh Park, declaring that they had been "viciously attacked and murdered by 500 pigs." She publicly urged the SLA to fight on, adding, "I am with you. We are with you."
Soliah's speech, captured on film, shows an intense young woman with long flowing hair, speaking confidently. After portions were aired on "Dateline NBC" last week, Jane Prince, a city worker here and old friend of Sara Olson's, shook her head and said, "She looks just like herself there." Soliah was in her late twenties at the time.
Today, Olson faces charges that she--as Soliah--and Kilgore planted pipe bombs under two LAPD cars in August of 1975 in retaliation for the shootout. The bombs failed to go off, but one officer reportedly was so traumatized that for years he wouldn't start a car without first checking for explosives.
Kathleen's sister, Josephine, and brother, Steven, were also involved with the SLA. Steven is reported to be a house painter in California now, and Josephine is married to Michael Bortin, another former SLA associate; they live in Portland.
"The thing she's charged with is a total joke," Michael Bortin says of Kathleen's arrest. "They're just creating a big circus here."
According to a Washington Post report in 1975, police considered the Soliah sisters "armed and dangerous" as a nationwide hunt for them proceeded. Steven, who reportedly had been Patty Hearst's lover, was captured with the heiress.
The Soliahs came from a middle-class, conservative home in Palmdale, on the edge of the Mojave Desert northwest of Los Angeles. Their father, Martin Soliah, expressed dismay and disgust at the time about his children's connection to the Hearst case.
All three children, he told The Post, were "conservative, like me--Republicans, too, I believe." Kathleen had been an enthusiastic Nixon supporter in 1968, the Los Angeles Times recently quoted the parents as saying.
Martin, a high school football coach, had moved his family to California from Barnesville, Minn., when Kathleen was 8. In 1965 she graduated from Palmdale High, where she was active in campus clubs, including Future Teachers of America, according to the Antelope Valley Press.
She got a degree in theater from the University of California, Santa Barbara, taught English for a time, and moved to Berkeley with Kilgore, according to news reports.
Soliah's political views changed after a student protest, the Los Angeles Times quoted her mother, Elsie, as saying. "She came back and told us the police turned the situation into chaos. There were bullets flying overhead, Kathy could hear them swooshing by. I think it was a moment that changed how she looked at things for good."
Both Martin and Elsie Soliah have said they don't think their daughter was a full-fledged member of the SLA, but the Hearst book--though Bortin and Olson's attorneys consider it a self-serving account--indicates Kathleen was deeply involved.
"Kathy's eyes sparkled as she described the destruction caused by the pipe bomb. The police car had been completely demolished," Hearst writes of a bombing that took place before the attempts for which Soliah was indicted. Earlier, according to the book, "Jim Kilgore and Kathy Soliah . . . began to press for some action--bombings." Another time, as the group prepared to rob a bank, Hearst writes that "Kathy wore a green turtleneck sweater, trousers, and riding boots and in a straw bag she carried a carbine and Steve's pistol."
Yet Hearst's portrait of Soliah also suggests someone with a warm, empathetic, caring side--just like Sara Jane Olson:
"When we arrived, Kathy Soliah greeted us with open arms and a broad smile on her face," Hearst writes of a move to an SLA safe house. "Alongside was her brother Steven, who was quiet and withdrawn. . . . Josephine, the 'baby' of the Soliah family, greeted me with warmth. . . .
"They were all very kind to me and solicitous of my health and well being. . . . We talked of our schools, the books we had read, our upbringings, and the state of the world.. . . They were nice, normal revolutionaries, and far more reasonable than anyone I had ever met in the SLA."
Brutality, however, lay just beneath the surface. According to Hearst, Kathleen Soliah was in the group that held up the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, Calif., in April 1975--a robbery in which one of the customers, Myrna Lee Opsahl, was shotgunned to death. While Soliah was inside the bank, Hearst wrote, SLA member Emily Harris pulled the trigger. Hearst was outside in a getaway car.
"Once we were home," Hearst wrote, "Kathy explained that at the very start of the holdup Emily had shot a woman customer. . . . Kathy and I were both upset. [Then] Emily arrived to report her version.
" 'How's the woman who was shot?' Kathy asked immediately. 'Oh, she's dead,' replied Emily arily, 'but it really doesn't matter. She was a bourgeois pig anyway. Her husband is a doctor.' "
Andy Dawkins, the state representative who has also been the Petersons' personal attorney for two decades, leans back in his office and points to a 1976 wall poster from his own student-radical days.
"For full democracy and equality," it says with charming innocence. "For jobs and a decent standard of living." Dawkins had met Olson in the late '70s through friends in the Cooperative Commonwealth Co-Rec Softball League.
"Fred and Sara already knew each other," he recalls. "They had a house at 38th in South Minneapolis. We all used to go over there and roll up the carpet and furniture and dance all night."
In 1980 or '81, the couple moved to Zimbabwe, he says, where Fred doctored and Sara taught. After Africa, they lived in Baltimore for a couple of years and then settled in St. Paul. (Brendan Coleman says they returned because "their friends and their lives were here, and it was better for the kids. That was a big issue--they felt they were safer here.")
When Dawkins first ran for office in 1987, he says, "Sara and Fred were there with their kids in tow, passing out literature." In his later unsuccessful mayoral race, Dawkins put Olson's theatrical skills to use. He'd stand on a soapbox in a public spot, and "Sara acted like a passerby to get the dialogue going."
One time recently, Dawkins was surprised when, "out of the blue, Sara appears in the well of the House," performing a one-woman act as a suffragette on the anniversary of legislation granting women the vote.
Indeed, while she performed in "King Lear," "Great Expectations," her church Christmas pageant and other mainstream productions, many of Olson's roles reflected her political interests.
She put on a skit about Irish nationalist Maud Gonne for a group of children, friends recall, and--according to the Highland Park Villager newspaper--performed at an elementary school as an early Minnesota social activist in "A Woman of Purpose."
State Sen. Sandy Pappas remembers Olson's suffragette show, too, and recalls how she'd met her a few years earlier when Olson volunteered in a campaign. "I was curious: Who is this very striking, redheaded woman? I was very drawn to her, I felt I wanted to hang out with her."
They talked, kept planning to have lunch--but somehow, Pappas recalls, it never happened. Perhaps Olson couldn't have withstood such intimate personal curiosity.
Fellow local actress Lynn Musgrave, who's known Olson for years, recalls how the casts of various plays would get together for beer afterward. "I remember one night," she says, "when several of us in the 45-to-50 age range were talking about the '70s and the causes we worked for. We were all laughing, lamenting, discussing--the amazing '70s!"
Olson was in the group, Musgrave remembers, but participating only in a general way. "The woman I know, I cannot imagine that she was violent."
Nobody can, or--if they can--they think it doesn't matter anymore. "It's not like she's a suburban ditz," labor union officer Mangan says. "Even if she was involved in the SLA, it was a long time ago. Her friends are willing to cut her a lot of slack."
"We really care about Sara," Jane Prince says. "We want her to get her life back."
"It's a wonderful life," adds her husband, Dave Murphy, "and at first I thought: 'Even the police will come around and tear up the charges when they find out what she's really like.' "
Dawkins has been doing a lot of thinking lately.
"None of us questioned each other in those days," he reflects, "so I never asked Sara the details of her past." He was "shocked" by the allegations against her, he says, adding that "I think Fred is totally shocked by this."
How can the two conflicting personalities--Sara and Kathleen--be reconciled?
"Whatever happened in a moment of poor judgment--if it happened--is an aberration," Dawkins thinks.
He shakes his head. "I'm hoping and praying. For so many of us, the feeling is, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' For the vast, vast, vast majority of us there was a very bright line about not committing violence against other human beings.
"We were very principled about nonviolence. We even had peace marshals at demonstrations. But those times were so heady! We had changed the rules on college campuses. We'd stopped the war. We felt like we had power to change things."
Maybe, he thinks, she just got swept up with the wrong crowd.
"The Sara Olson we've known for 20 years in Minnesota," Dawkins concludes, "is the real person, the real Sara Olson."
The title of Hearst's book, "Every Secret Thing," was taken from Ecclesiastes 12:14--"For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil."
By happenstance, the Gospel reading planned for Minnehaha United Methodist the Sunday after Sara Olson's arrest, according to the preprinted program, contained a similar thought from the New Testament: "For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known" (Matthew 10:26).
The planned verse, however, was not read in church that morning. Instead, Pastor Darlington deftly shifted to another text, delivering a homily about unconditional love, divine and human.
"What's just, what's not?" he said. "It's too early to tell. We love Sara Jane, we love her family. Sara Jane Olson is an easy person to love. She's a servant. . . . She quietly goes about seeking justice in an unjust world." There was applause. Her husband and the girls were sitting in front. In the earlier, more traditional service that day, the pastor had also noted that Olson "has been charged with some very, very serious offenses."
"We can't," he'd added, "figure things out."
Law enforcement officials and the courts, of course, will try.
Chris Coleman, a City Council member and criminal lawyer who's known the family two decades, doesn't think Olson will be convicted. Too many years have passed, he believes, and those times were so fraught with official wrongdoing that a jury might well be inclined to leniency.
"Maybe," Coleman speculates, "when all these things are put in the proper context, there will be some healing through this."
His older brother Brendan, so close to the family for so long, agrees. Sunday worship after Olson's arrest was, he says, "the most vital and powerful service we've had."
CAPTION: THE RADICAL
Symbionese Liberation Army member Kathleen Soliah in 1974. The SLA gained notoriety that year when it kidnapped publishing heiress Patricia Hearst (inset).
CAPTION: THE SOCCER MOM
Her friends know Sara Jane Olson as a devoted wife to Fred Peterson and caring mother of their daughters. The FBI knows her as Kathleen Soliah and says she put pipe bombs under two police cars in 1975.
CAPTION: Kathleen Soliah in her 1965 high school yearbook, in a 1967 college yearbook and, police say, as Sara Jane Olson, after her arrest last month.