Soliah’s present life doesn’t erase her past

Kathleen Soliah emerged from a Los Angeles courthouse Tuesday wearing a large smile on her face and stepped up to a galley of cameras and microphones.
She was surrounded by friends and family, many of whom anted up thousands of dollars for the opportunity to help Soliah — whom they know as Sarah Jane Olson — gain her release on bail.
Soliah played her part well before the media, speaking of her relief, her desire to return to her family and her gratitude to friends and neighbors. For those few moments she was indeed Mrs. Olson, devoted wife, mother and valued resident of St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood.
She is an actress, after all.
In fact, Soliah is such a good actress she was able to fool everyone into believing she was simply a devoted wife, mother and valued neighbor for the last 23 years.
She was such a good actress she convinced her friends and neighbors that she couldn’t possibly be the same person who ran with the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1960s; who placed pipe bombs under police cars in retaliation for a shoot-out that resulted in the deaths of six of her comrades; who might have been involved in the death of a woman during a bank robbery.
She couldn’t be that person, could she? She drives a minivan for Heaven’s sake and, well, she seemed so nice. Oh, and the bombs never went off.
But Sarah Jane Olson is Kathleen Soliah, and no number of community service hours or trips back and forth from soccer practice or pleasant smiles can make that fact go away.
Since Soliah was revealed as a fugitive of justice, an overwhelming sense of injustice has crept into this story. There’s a feeling on the part of many that Soliah somehow doesn’t deserve this fate because she’s spent the last 23 years of her life as a model citizen.
Never mind Soliah spent those years deceiving each and every person she knows. She changed her name. She made up stories to tell people when they asked what she did way back when. She hand picked a role that would suit her and played it to near perfection.
Soliah probably even began to believe these stories herself. She might have even gone a day or two without thinking about how pitiful a life she was leading — she might have convinced herself that everything was really as it seemed. Happy. Fulfilling. Real.
But it wasn’t. Regardless of the interim period of her life when she went from militant activist to community asset, three facts remain:
She is a liar.
She is a criminal.
She deserves to go to jail.
There are countless stories of convicts who went to prison, did their time and came out better people. Something about the experience of prolonged confinement forced them to re-evaluate themselves and the acts they committed. This process is called rehabilitation.
Some of Soliah’s supporters might argue she has been rehabilitated, and point to the last 23 years as evidence of such. But one very important factor is missing from Soliah’s equation: punishment.
If every criminal could simply hop into a car and drive to a quiet residential neighborhood thousands of miles away, without fear of punishment if they were tracked down, what would be the point of the justice system?
Soliah undoubtedly feared punishment, and rightfully so; the comforts of home are certainly preferable to prison. She didn’t want to be found, and after several years passed she probably thought the authorities stopped looking.
But Soliah was only a bad wiring job away from being a cop killer, and cops don’t stop looking for cop killers.
The Soliah story will play out over the next weeks and months. We’ll hear more about her clean lifestyle, how she put her misdeeds behind her and how she deserves to be at home where she belongs.
But the lies have to end somewhere, hopefully with three square meals and a prison cell.
Aaron Kirscht is the Daily’s editor in chief. He welcomes comments to [email protected]