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May 22, 2007

When Mom Has a Secret

An Exclusive Report on a Family Torn Apart

protest rally

Supporters rally for Sara Jane Olson's release from prison

Photo Credit: D. McNew/Getty

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The singer tonight at Rossi's Blue Star in Minneapolis is a moody vocalist dressed in tight black pants and a peasant blouse, her blonde hair teased into an early-'70s shag. She's performing in a place billed as a jazz club, though it smells more like french fries and hamburgers than pinot noir and Chanel No. 5. The room is nearly empty save for the guy shouting "'Free Bird,' baby!" from his seat near the door, and the group from the Farming Equipment Manufacturers convention standing at the bar with their backs to the stage. She may not have the rapt attention of the crowd, but holding the mike tightly to her lips, she belts out Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" with all her heart.

"Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery," she sings, shutting her eyes and swaying on her black high heels. Her dangly earrings sparkle in the stage light. "All I ever had ... redemption songs."

Few people here at Rossi's could ever guess why Sophia Peterson, 25, is so passionate about the song and the prospect of redemption. As it happens, she is the daughter of Sara Jane Olson, a 60-year-old former member of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), the terrorist group forever known for the 1974 kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. Sophia's mother joined the SLA under her birth name, Kathleen Soliah, several months after the Hearst kidnapping and was involved in a bank robbery in Carmichael, CA, the following year, in which a 42-year-old woman, Myrna Opsahl, was killed. Shortly after that, Olson was involved in the attempted bombing of two police cars. With the law in pursuit, she changed her name, became a fugitive, moved to Minnesota, got married, and gave birth to three daughters: Emily, Sophia, and Leila.

For decades, she remained silent about her life with the SLA. But on June 16, 1999, when Sophia was 17, the FBI finally tracked down Olson — now an accomplished chef, a volunteer who worked with torture victims, and that iconically American thing, a soccer mom — on a quiet street near her home in suburban St. Paul. For two years, her case remained in limbo. Then, on October 31, 2001, during the height of the 9/11 terror frenzy, Olson pleaded guilty to attempting to blow up police cars and was eventually sentenced to 14 years at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla.

Now Olson sits behind bars, and her family is left to deal with the fallout from the mother of all secrets.

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