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May 22, 2007

When Mom Has a Secret

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Earl Balfour, a retired tool-and-dye worker, is sitting at a wooden table in Mayday Books on Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis, where Olson volunteered in the 1990s. He's wearing a felt cap and faded jeans and has tobacco-stained fingernails. A rickety bicycle leans against the table. Hanging on an exposed-brick wall, next to an "Impeach the President!" poster, is a portrait of Eugene V. Debs, the five-time socialist presidential candidate in the early 20th century.

"You know what? I never was quite sure what her politics were," Balfour says of Olson. "There she was, this doctor's wife, rolling in money. They had an exercise room as big as this store in their home. So there was a certain tension."

I mention that her family seems rather unpretentious. "Rich is an attitude," he tells me. "For example, if it were snowing, it would never dawn on her to go out and shovel the walk. She might get her designer shoes wet." And then the story broke in the papers....

"I was astounded," he says. "I thought, Holy shit. Sara Jane. She'd show up at the picnic with the guacamole. Who would have believed it?"

Others in the St. Paul community were appalled. "A lot of people call the city 'St. Small,'" says Nick Coleman, a Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist. "There's only two degrees of separation. One of the many charms of a place like this is that you think you know people. And then you don't."

St. Paul, he says, was taken in.

"She betrayed the people who befriended her by having lived this secret life. Her family and her friends have suffered incredibly," he says. "At some point, you have to face these charges. And even though she had a family, the only honorable way out of this dilemma was to turn herself in. I'm kind of mad about it, to be honest."

A staff member at the Center for Victims of Torture says a client — the one whom Olson was on her way to tutor at the time of her arrest — was emotionally scarred by the revelation. "It was difficult," she explains. "Torture destroys a person's trust in anyone or anything. Learning that a person who had volunteered was not who they said they were was traumatic."

Mostly, though, people were just stunned. "She was a talented actress and a good organizer," says an acquaintance of the family, Peter Erlinder. "But really, bottom line, she was an ordinary person."

Today, Emily and Sophia take turns going out to Chowchilla to visit their mother about once a month. Olson is expected to be released in November 2009, and many friends from Minnesota remain loyal — passionately so.

Olson was a "spectacular artist," says a friend and member of their church. Sitting in her cluttered office, she recalls how Olson used to appear in local theater productions. "That woman does have charisma. To this day, it doesn't really make sense to me. She's a very gentle person. I think what Sara is guilty of is having made a bad choice of friends."

Not a woman who needs redeeming, then?

"Redemption?" she shakes her head. "For Sara, I don't see any — she was already rehabilitated, if that needed to be done. She's there to be punished."

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