Skip to comments.Bortin insists on his innocence in SLA killing
Posted on 03/19/2002 8:57:26 AM PST by ThreeYearLurker
Michael Bortin sits on a well-worn gray sofa in his Southeast Portland living room. He hunches over to pull on white gym socks and lace up his Nikes. He ties double knots.
After spending the past two months in a Sacramento County jail, charged in a killing that happened 27 years ago, those actions seem a luxury to the former 1960s radical who said he adopted a monk's attitude to get by in jail
And while he might be worrying about legal strategy, Bortin, who arrived back in Portland on Saturday after posting $500,000 bail with the help of friends and family, says he's not really worried about the charges against him. He said the case is nothing but "Hollywood grandstanding" and a "silly prosecution" rather than anything based on fact or physical evidence.
"I'm not apprehensive about it because it's so ridiculous," the 53-year-old said.
In his first lengthy interview since returning to Portland, Bortin talked about radical politics and what he called aggressive police tactics, a politically corrupt legal system and the misplaced zealotry of Los Angeles County prosecutors as if it's just another summer of love discussion about how the world needs changing.
He won't say where he was April 21, 1975, for fear prosecutors would use it to undermine his defense. But he insists he wasn't anywhere near the Carmichael, Calif., branch of Crocker National Bank when masked members of the revolutionary Symbionese Liberation Army stormed inside, killing Myrna Opsahl and making off with $15,000 cash.
Bortin, a contractor and owner of Zen Hardwood Floors, is one of five accused of killing Opsahl, a 42-year-old mother of four who was in the bank that day to deposit the collection plate money from her church. She was hit by one shotgun blast as the robbers entered the bank.
Bortin thinks that the charges are political and that prosecutors in Los Angeles are pushing their counterparts in Sacramento to tie a ribbon on the case and the long-unfinished business of the SLA, in part because of pressure from Opsahl's family.
Jon Opsahl, a 41-year-old physician, told The New York Times that his relatives had reluctantly accepted the idea that investigators didn't have sufficient evidence to file charges in the case but that he never got over "the injustice of known killers being allowed to get away with murder."
"I can't begrudge him," Bortin said.
And, along with Opsahl, he wonders why the case has lingered for decades. But he said he can prove he wasn't there.
He's made no secret of the fact he ran with the radical crowd. At the time of the bank robbery, Bortin was on parole after serving 18 months in a California prison for plotting to blow up a campus building in 1972. He jokes that the crime was a no-brainer for police, who were staking out the garage where he and his friends had hidden their explosives.
But he denies being part of the robbery crew and says he was never an SLA member, just a sympathizer. He says he told a probation panel in 1976 where he was the day of the Carmichael robbery. A grand jury asked him about it again in 1991, and he was never charged. He has lived openly since 1989 in Southeast Portland.
Arrest expected Even so, he said that he and his wife, Josephine, had expected his arrest since Sara Jane Olson, also known as Kathleen Soliah, pleaded guilty to conspiracy last year for a 1975 plot to bomb two Los Angeles police cars, revenge for the deaths of six SLA members killed in a shootout with police. Olson was sentenced Jan. 18 to 20 years in prison. Olson and Josephine Bortin are sisters.
Olson, Emily Harris and her former husband, Bill Harris, also are charged in Opsahl's death. All have pleaded not guilty. A fifth suspect, James Kilgore, has been a fugitive since the mid-1970s.
Police in Sacramento recently said the charges are based on thousands of pieces of existing evidence and hundreds of witness statements. They also credit new forensic science with linking lead pellets from the bank to shotgun shells found in an SLA hideout in San Francisco.
Bortin says they have nothing on him, no fingerprints or other physical evidence.
"Really, their whole case is Patty Hearst," he said.
In her 1982 book, "Every Secret Thing," the newspaper heiress kidnapped by the SLA said that Emily Harris was the shooter and that Bortin was one of the robbers. Years earlier, Hearst told police and federal agents the same thing. Prosecutors in Sacramento County, where Bortin is charged, are expected to call Hearst as their lead witness in a trial. She served two years for bank robbery before then President Carter commuted her sentence.
Hearst claimed the group brainwashed her during her captivity and made her a getaway driver for the robbers. She said Bortin was one of four SLA members who went inside the bank. The book describes Bortin as standing on a teller counter, waving his gun at people.
"Comical," Bortin said of the account.
He also criticizes a police canvass of his neighbors after his arrest in which he says officers asked whether he'd ever behaved violently or was into drugs.
"When you have to go around 30 years later trying to get some personal dirt on someone, that's not how you're supposed to prosecute someone," he said. "You're supposed to go on fact. They've been trying so hard, poor guys, trying to find the tiniest bit of physical evidence."
Coming home Bortin arrived home Saturday night to colorful balloons on the front porch, and friends and family in the living room. He said that he was relieved to be back in Oregon, mostly for his family's sake, and that jail wasn't that bad, considering. He read a lot, exercised his bad back by running in place on his mattress and grew a beard. He said Monday it was as if he had bumped his head and awakened two months later.
Neighbors and customers have been supportive, sending letters to the judge and small donations to his wife, a nurse, to help make ends meet. He said he's already gotten a couple of calls from people who needed their floors refinished and knew he'd been released.
Before catching a plane to Portland, Bortin, his wife and some family from the Bay Area walked around the Berkeley campus of the University of California, where Bortin earned his degree in comparative literature in 1971. A hotbed of late-60s anti-war protests, the college seemed better kept than it had been when he attended, he said.
The Vietnam anti-war radical politics certainly have faded, eclipsed by disco in the 1970s and Reagan consumerism in the decade after that. So has Bortin's insistence on them as absolute, although he won't let them go entirely.
On Monday he wore a "People's Republic of Berkeley" T-shirt bearing a red hammer and sickle, and he talked about a book he read in jail on the Roman Empire, comparing the bowl-you-over politic of that superpower to the stance of the U.S. government in world affairs today. He also criticized what he portrayed as the "buttoned-down" society that is stingy with second chances for troubled kids and the media that is set on creating and feeding on stereotypes.
And although it's still instinctual to talk about shaking up America, he concedes he is softer around the edges. He quickly owns up to the sport utility vehicle in the driveway, the hot tub in the back yard and raising the kids. He shrugs after taking a phone call confirming an orthodontist appointment for later in the week.
"Nineteen-sixties radicals don't really change that much," Bortin said. "We're not as wild as we used to be, but we don't change our perspective that much." You can reach Mark Larabee at 503-294-7664 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The prosecuters should make sure the jury sees this, so they can know the sort or person they're dealing with. Lock him up, throw away the key.
I'm sick of these sympathetic stories about murderers who have simply gotten away with their crimes for all these years.
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