Real Name: James William Kilgore
Aliases: Jim Kilgore
Wanted For: Murder, Terrorism
Missing Since: April 28, 1975
Details: In 1969, James Kilgore began dating Kathleen Soliah. She joined a band of extremists known as the Symbionese Liberation Army or SLA. In 1974, Soliah introduced Kilgore to group members Emily and Bill Harris. He soon became involved in the organization. He helped create fake IDs for several of the members and began orchestrating bank robberies. They claimed that they committed the robberies so they could finance their plan to overthrow the government. In late February of 1975, SLA members held up the Guild Savings and Loan in Sacramento. On April 21, 1975, Kilgore, Soliah, the Harrises, and Michael Bortin decided to rob the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California. At the same time, forty-two-year-old Myrna Opsahl and two of her friends arrived at the bank, planning to deposit money from their church group.
As the women waited in line, four members of the SLA surrounded them, wielding several weapons. They demanded that everyone get down on the ground. However, Myrna was frozen in fear. When she did not get down fast enough, Emily shot her once with a shotgun. Despite her being mortally wounded, the SLA members refused to let her get help. The members appeared to be following a rehearsed script. When the members fled the bank, they got into a getaway car driven by Patty Hearst. Hearst, a newspaper heiress, had been kidnapped by the SLA fourteen months earlier.
The robbery netted around $15,000. Bill Harris was allegedly the mastermind behind the heist. By the Summer of 1975, they changed their M.O. and began placing pipe bombs around San Francisco. They also worked as house painters. In August of 1975, Soliah, Kilgore, and Bill Harris traveled to Los Angeles to plant more bombs. They filled the bombs with concrete nails and gunpowder. While in Los Angeles, they planted a pipe bomb underneath an LAPD patrol car. However, the triggering mechanism failed and the officer escaped injury. Another bomb was found underneath another patrol car.
Kilgore, Soliah, and Harris returned to San Francisco to join the other SLA members. FBI agents received a break when a man recognized several SLA members as house painters that he had recently hired. Within hours, Kilgore and the others were under surveillance. On September 18, 1975, agents followed one of the members to a safe house on Presida Avenue. Bill and Emily Harris were arrested at the house. After a second safe house was identified, several SLA members, including Patty Hearst, were arrested.
Agents learned that Soliah and Kilgore were painting a nearby house. However, they left before they could be arrested. When agents searched Kilgore's apartment, they found boxes filled with bomb-making materials. FBI technicians linked the materials to the bombs left in Los Angeles. His fingerprint was also found on one of the bombs. Several SLA members were charged with the attempted bombings. However, Kilgore and Soliah could not be located. Also, the members were not charged with Myrna's murder. Eyewitnesses could not positively identify them as the assailants.
In June of 1999, however, Minnesota police arrested Soliah, who was living under the assumed name Sarah Jane Olsen. She was returned to Los Angeles to face charges related to the bombs left under the police cars. Her testimony, along with advances in forensic science, led Sacramento DA Jan Scully to re-examine Myrna's murder case. New forensic testing connected the shotgun pellets that killed Myrna to a shotgun found in an SLA safe house. Former SLA members Patty Hearst, Wendy Yoshimura, and Steven Soliah were granted immunity from prosecution. They also identified the perpetrators. On January 16, 2002, police found enough evidence to charge Soliah, Kilgore, the Harrises, and Borton with murder. The others have been arrested, but James Kilgore eluded authorities.
Extra Notes: This case first aired on the July 12, 2002 episode of Unsolved Mysteries.
Results: Captured. On November 8, 2002, after twenty-eight years on the run, James Kilgore was arrested while working at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Since married with two children, he was extradited back to the United States to serve trial. He pleaded guilty to second degree murder and received a six-year-sentence in prison. He is currently out on parole.
Kathleen Soliah, Bill and Emily Harris, and Michael Bortin all pleaded guilty to Myrna's murder. Emily, who admitted to accidentally shooting Myrna was sentenced to seven years in prison. Bill was sentenced to eight years, Kathleen to six years, and Michael to six years. Soliah, Bortin, and the Harrises have all been released on parole.
Kevin Ryan, US Attorney in the San Francisco Federal Court, where Kilgore was wanted for almost three decades, said, "The arrest and prosecution of James Kilgore, the last of the fugitive SLA members, represents the Department of Justice's commitment to bringing terrorists, be they domestic or foreign, to justice. We will never forget their acts, and the passage of time will not diminish our resolve or our vigilance."
During his period of incarceration Kilgore wrote a novel, We Are All Zimbabweans Now, which was published in South Africa in June 2009, about a month after his release. Ohio University Press re-published it in 2011. He has subsequently published two other works of fiction that he drafted in prison: Freedom Never Rests: A Tale of Democracy in South Africa and Prudence Couldn't Swim, a crime fiction story set in Oakland, California, and Zimbabwe. His fiction has generally received favorable reviews. Adam Hochschild, award-winning historian, noted that "too few writers have Kilgore's wide-angle vision. This promising first book, vividly rooted in his own experience, leaves me eager to read more by him."
Well-known South African-based reviewer Percy Zvomuya, himself a Zimbabwean, called Kilgore's fiction debut "A fascinating book ... cleverly written, not overly sentimental and manages to capture the vibe of Zimbabwe in the early 1980s. Most Zimbabweans will recognize themselves in the novel; their mannerisms, their quirkiness and, well, their 'Zimbabweanness' pour out from the pages...one of the most important books about Zimbabwe."
2008 American book award winner Frank Wilderson commented: "The book is fast-paced and funny, extolling two literary virtues often missing on the Left. It is a good read—the work of a great storyteller. But it is also an invaluable object lesson—the work of a committed activist."
Since his release from prison in 2009, Kilgore has lived with his family in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where he has worked at the University of Illinois as well as becoming active in local social justice campaigns such as Build Programs Not Jails. He has written a number of articles for online and print platforms such as The Chronicle of Higher Education, Truthout, Counterpunch, Dissent, Radical Teacher, and Critical Criminology. He has also carried out a research project on electronic monitoring in the criminal justice system and was a keynote speaker on this topic at the Confederation of European Probation conference in Germany in 2014. His first non-fiction book, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time, was released by The New Press in August, 2015.
Kilgore's employment status hit the headlines in the spring of 2014, largely because of his criminal background. The withdrawal of his employment offer prompted a protest from faculty members and beyond while victim's advocates said Kilgore was never qualified to teach and forged his doctorate degree. More than 300 faculty members at the university signed a petition to have Kilgore's employment restored and the American Association of University Professors wrote a letter of protest. In November 2014, the university's Board of Trustees again hired Kilgore. He began working after his wife hired him in January 2015 as a research scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Center for African Studies. In 2015 Kilgore appeared as a commentator in the Ava DuVernay film, 13th. In 2017 he was awarded a George Soros Justice Fellowship to implement a project on electronic monitoring in the criminal justice system entitled "Challenging E-Carceration".
- James Kilgore on Unsolved Archive
- James Kilgore at Wikipedia
- SLA at Wikipedia
- Victim's Son Helped Bring About SLA Arrests - January 17, 2002
- SLA Bank Slaying Is Still Seared Into Memories - January 20, 2002
- 4 Ex-Symbionese Liberation Army Members Plead Guilty to Murder - November 8, 2002
- Final Suspect in 1975 SLA Killing Arrested in South Africa - November 9, 2002
- Four in radical group of 70s are sentenced in murder - February 15, 2003
- '70s radical Sara Jane Olson released from prison - March 17, 2009
- Former SLA member James Kilgore Paroled - May 11, 2009
- Children of SLA victim reflect on Kilgore - May 9, 2014
- Myrna Opsahl on Find a Grave