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May 22, 2007

When Mom Has a Secret

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How does it feel when Mom is on America's Most Wanted? I couldn't stop thinking about it. Olson's daughters, now 26, 25, and 20, had never granted an interview to the press, so I got in touch with one of their family friends, a lawyer, and asked him to deliver a letter to Olson's husband, Gerald "Fred" Peterson. Two weeks later, Peterson e-mailed me a guarded response: "Generally, I'm neutral to negative on media matters because inevitably attention and comments are drawn to our three daughters." Still, he invited me to "breakfast” — late on an October afternoon, since he works the night shift as an emergency-room physician. In a way, the Olson story began back in the 1970s when the SLA was known for a string of violent acts, including the murder of Oakland school superintendent Marcus A. Foster, bank robberies, kidnapping, and bomb-making. Members of the organization claimed they were fighting for the vague cause of "social justice" and demanded an unusual ransom from Hearst's father, Randolph Hearst: $6 million in food for the hungry. ("Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!" was the SLA motto.) But for all their noise and notoriety, there were fewer than 14 members. ("Who are the Symbionese, exactly?" journalist Tom Shone of the London Sunday Times later wrote, "and why do they need liberating?")

It would have been comical — if it hadn't been so bloody. On May 17, 1974, six SLA members were killed at their Los Angeles hideout on East 54th Street in a shoot-out with the police. Hundreds of officers had surrounded the small bungalow, demanding that group members, including Olson's close friend Angela Atwood, turn themselves in.

"Unfortunately, they didn't surrender," former California police officer Tom King, 58, tells me. He is the son of police commander Mervin King, who led the raid, and he watched the event on TV that day. "They didn't want to be taken alive. They wanted to be revolutionaries. [Olson] and her friends were more than progressive people. They were radicals."

I am prepared for some version of radical when I walk into the Highland Grill, a diner in downtown St. Paul, where I am meeting Fred Peterson for the first time. Instead, I get Middle America academic: Sitting patiently in a booth, Fred is wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a long-sleeved black shirt. His gray-speckled beard matches his shaggy gray-brown hair, which is casually brushed off his forehead. I am surprised that daughter Emily has come with him. Slender, with long eyelashes, heavy mascara, and thick hair reaching past her shoulders, Emily maintains a defensive posture. On the subject of the SLA's radicalism, she says, "Back then, everyone was."

At 26, Emily is almost the same age as her mother was during the raid in '74. "She lived in Berkeley," Emily says, trying to explain her mother's affiliation with the SLA. "It was kind of normal." A moment later, she's telling me how she was raised in a perfectly ordinary, close-knit, left-leaning family. Her dad played in a Toots & the Maytals-inspired band, Pressure Drop; her mom was a fan. Reggae is a passion the daughters share with their parents.

Emily says she thinks of her family secret as a problem, but not a serious one. I'm not convinced. When I press her for details, she fidgets with her purse — anything to avoid eye contact.

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