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May 22, 2007

When Mom Has a Secret

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Here’s the reality: 24 years after fleeing California, Olson's past slapped right up against her soccer-mom present. At 8:21 a.m. on June 16, 1999, Olson was driving her minivan to the community center to tutor a client when she saw the flashing lights of a police car in her rearview mirror. She pulled over. "FBI, Kathleen," an agent announced when she rolled down her window, addressing her by her birth name. "It's over." It was an understated moment; passing cars probably thought she was getting a speeding ticket.

At 2:30 p.m., Emily, then 18, was finishing her shift at a local fast-food Mexican restaurant. Sophia walked in.

"I was like, 'What is she doing here?'" Emily recalls. "She said, 'Emily, we have to leave now. Mom's been arrested. There are cameras outside our house.' I thought, This is crazy. This is bad. I'd just graduated from high school. I thought, This is going to be awful for my little sister. We were scared. That day was surreal." She tries to convey the horror of that afternoon. "We were afraid she was going to be in prison for the rest of her life — or tortured."

Then came the media onslaught, including a Website that traced the history of Olson and the SLA in relentless detail. There was creepy online chatter — "Everybody was fair game," says Fred. "The girls had countless Web-based threats."

"Perverts," says Emily. "Nasty perverts."

What kinds of things did they say?

"Rape and murder threats," says Fred. "In bad grammar."

One year after being sentenced to 14 years for her efforts to bomb police cars, Olson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for Opsahl's death. If she'd hoped for a sympathetic ruling after spending more than two decades rebuilding her image, September 11, 2001, put an end to that fantasy. Before the 9/11 attacks, someone like Olson would have been seen as a student activist. But the criteria for holding people accountable for radical political activity — particularly the kind that involved violent acts — changed. Suddenly, she was lumped into a group that included al Qaeda members and suicide bombers. In such a climate, a lenient sentence was unlikely.

With her family sitting in the courtroom, Olson was sentenced to an additional six years in prison.


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