Tom's mailbag May 9, 2014

Tom's mailbag May 9, 2014

Some good questions and comments about James Kilgore, a suggested site for the new, overdue Champaign High School, the big upcoming race for mayor of Champaign, and that proposal to have a new UI/Carle medical research institution in Urbana.


What the adult children of Kilgore’s victim think about the local controversy

Comments on the James Kilgore/University of Illinois controversy continue, even in the mailbag:


“What to expect from brainwashed kids and Morons in charge.”


And a more thoughtful comment/question ...


“We know that there are 300-plus folks who are ready to forgive and forget Kilgore’s past activities. Do we know whether or not the family of the second-degree murder victim is also forgiving and forgetting the loss of their family member?”


I contacted both Jon Opsahl, a former medical doctor now living in Riverside, Calif., and Dr. Sonja Opsahl Brownle, a pediatrician practicing in Elko, Nevada. They are children of Myrna Opsahl and Dr. Trygve Opsahl (who is still living). 

Myrna Opsahl was delivering money from church collections to a suburban Sacramento, Calif., bank in 1975 when she was shot to death in a botched bank robbery by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army. Among those eventually convicted in the robbery was Kilgore, now a part-time faculty member at the University of Illinois. In the aftermath of the bank robbery, Kilgore managed to slip away, living in hiding around the United States and later in Africa, using a forged birth certificate. He finally was captured in November 2002. After 27 years at large, Kilgore served a 54-month term in federal prison and a 58-month (4 years, 9 months and 27 days, to be precise) sentence in a California state prison. The various crimes he was convicted of include second-degree murder, possession of a pipe bomb and using a deceased baby’s birth certificate to obtain a passport.


Jon Opsahl, in an exchange of emails with me, said he is willing to give Kilgore a second chance. His sister, Sonja, was more conflicted about forgiving Kilgore and about allowing him to teach at the UI.


Here’s what Jon Opsahl wrote in his last email:


“All I am saying is that Kilgore has ‘paid’ his legal obligation for his crime and deserves a second chance to work where ever he is QUALIFIED to work based on his CURRENT abilities and behaviors. It just sounds like he has some serious CURRENT issues (apart from his criminal past) that may make him UNQUALIFIED to work at a university, but that’s not for me to decide. Kilgore shouldn’t be discriminated against because of his criminal past (now that he has served his time), but he also should not get favorable treatment for his criminal past either.”


Here’s what Opsahl, 15 years old at the time of his mother’s death, wrote in his first email:


“Thank you for contacting and informing me about this issue. It is gratifying to hear that public sentiment seems to rest primarily with the victim. Although I don’t know the details of the situation, my initial thoughts regarding the apparent debate are ...

“After waging a long and expensive campaign seeking justice for the fatal shooting of my mother, Myrna Opsahl, the members of the Symbionese Liberation Army that participated in the armed, take-over style robbery of Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California on April 21, 1975, were finally brought to ‘justice’ 28 years later in 2003. They reluctantly pled guilty to an ‘acceptable’ sentencing arrangement of 6-8 years for second-degree murder based on 1975 California guidelines of which they only served half the time. 

“I was told that James Kilgore, who had fled jurisdiction when the SLA’s hide-out in Oakland was discovered in 1976 and had lived many years as a fugitive raising a family in South Africa, actually spent more time in federal prison on a conviction for passport violations than he spent in state prison for his role in the murder of my mother. I never verified this. (Editor’s note: The state sentence was longer).

“Justice delayed is justice denied, especially in my mother’s murder case. I fully understand the desire and rationale to sometimes make certain individuals pay for their heinous crimes a lot more than they were required to pay by law — even to the point of ‘making them pay’ for the rest of their lives.

“However, the fact that we have limited sentences for convicted murderers is a testament to the universal belief that a person has the capacity to change from their former self by 1) accepting responsibility for their past behavior, 2) learning from their mistake, and 3) paying their debt to society as determined in a court of law — even as disagreeable as that determination may be.

“Although I do not recall ever hearing a sincere apology from any of the former SLA members, I do still believe in the power of renewal, even as humanly deficient as it always proves to be.

“For this reason, I trust James Kilgore has earned the opportunity for a second chance, and I respectfully request the good people of Illinois to treat Mr. Kilgore according to his current behaviors. Hopefully, he, more than most, will be able to demonstrate tolerance, forgiveness, fairness, and compassion since he has had the privilege to experience such first hand.

“Let’s see how this potential prodigal son expresses his gratitude. Let him love and provide for his family, and let him serve his community. How else can we honor our own institutions meant for rehabilitation if we block convicts from any secondary opportunity for contributing to society.”


Dr. Sonja Opsahl Brownle graciously returned my call. Here is a condensed version of an approximately 10-minute conversation I had with her about Kilgore:


“He’s never asked for forgiveness. The one thing with all of these SLA people who have been caught and tried is that they never once, as far as I know, expressed remorse or sorrow or anything that says they’re sorry for what they did. I’ve let it go. I don’t like to hear a lot about it. As far as forgiveness on my part, I don’t hold a grudge. I don’t hold animosity toward them. But I don’t feel like they have shown any true remorse.

“They ran away. They hid. They got a new identity. They’ve justified their crimes as political. It’s kind of concerning that someone would still go around and think that what they did was just a political thing, and that they didn’t understand the devastation they did to others. It was not a state of war. It was stupidity to even call it terrorism in my mind. The SLA was so misguided.

“They did awful things, all for what they thought was some idealistic goal. But I don’t know what they accomplished.

“It seems to me that they haven’t really done much to try to express regret for their actions.”


“They were caught, they were tried, they served some time. I think that’s all important to know. And I would think that people would view what they did as really dumb, beyond dumb. And so in that sense when they were caught and tried I wasn’t really interested in trying to pursue justice for them. My kids were young. I didn’t want to devote that much time into this kind of anger and animosity and relive all of that. 

“So as far as that goes, forgiveness, sure. As far as letting it go, it’s behind me. But how do you judge if someone should be teaching at a university? And what are their political beliefs? You need that kind of freedom here in America, right? But someone who is capable of rape and murder and all those other things that they did way back when, who are we to judge if they’re really over that and not capable of encouraging others to pursue the same avenues?”


“I never heard from any of them. I think Emily (Harris, who fired the shot that killed Myrna Opsahl) was the one person who expressed some remorse and even made an effort to talk with my dad and express her remorse. But we were like, ‘Yeah dad, after she was caught.’ Nobody’s ever tried to express remorse before they were caught. That’s the kind of thing I look at. If these guys were really sorry for what they did, why didn’t they try to do something? They just ran away and hid.”


Dr. Opsahl-Brownle said she has “lived a good life, despite everything. 

“I know that when Sarah Jane Olson (another former SLA member) when she was captured, they were like, ‘How dare you take a mom away from her children, you know, like ‘your mother was taken away from you, and you guys turned out OK so what’s the big deal?’ Everything I hear about these people, they’re so twisted. Yeah, that’s what I heard they said. I don’t know how much is true. It wasn’t said to me directly. Another thing I heard was that they started a cookbook to raise money, kinda poking fun at what had happened and saying that we were the bad guys to try to prosecute them. It was all very manipulative stuff.


“The choices you make when you’re younger, they do have consequences later. We didn’t harm her. It was amazing to me that they tried to turn this around and make it sound like they were now the victims.”


The new site proposal for Champaign Central High School

“On April 24th the N-G reported that the park district had proposed to the school board a land swap. Along with the article were links to drawings and a proposal all done by the same architecture firm. I was just curious who paid for the proposal from the architecture firm? Was it the school board, park district, other?

“Just seems odd that the school board would have drawings made up for a property they never considered or that the park district would be paying for drawings of school construction projects.”


Good question with an interesting answer. 

I talked to Neil Strack of Architectural Expressions LLP, a longtime local architect who did the drawings and the narrative examination about the site — essentially Spalding Park, Franklin Middle School and Judah Christian School — in north central Champaign. It wasn’t that long, about mid-April, that Strack came up with the plans, he said.

He said he did the work free of charge after being asked by Champaign Park District President Joe Petry about its potential. 

Other park board members supported the plan, said park district director Joe DeLuce, and have met with school district representatives about it.

Strack is a firm advocate of the idea.

“It’s not that I did it for money. I did it because I believed in it,” said Strack. “I see no reason why it shouldn’t work.”

His plan, which solves a lot of problems — political, environmental and financial — calls for building a 280,000-square-foot structure with one-, two- and three-story elements on a site that would be 36.6 acres (the current Champaign Central is 5 acres and 50-year-old Centennial is 22 acres), could be potentially larger and would be an authentic urban renewal project that would neutralize all the opposition (and cost concerns) about a proposed “greenfield” site in far north Champaign.

From Strack’s narrative: “A local urban planner stated that the Spalding Park neighborhood with the new development of Champaign High School is a great redevelopment opportunity for the community, providing connectivity between downtown and Marketplace Mall, and a central core infill. Central High School located at this infill site is a catalyst for the revitalization of nearby businesses and neighborhoods and minimizes urban sprawl.”


On all the interest in becoming mayor of Champaign

Last Sunday I wrote how the four candidates for mayor of Champaign next year — incumbent Don Gerard and challengers Deb Frank Feinen, Karen Foster and Joe Petry — could end up spending $100,000 or more on a part-time position that pays $35,000 a year.


“A lot of money to spend for a handful of votes. I’m sure you’ve looked at who actually votes in Champaign muni elections.  A handful of people who live southwest of the intersection of Prospect and Springfield vote in those elections year after year. A candidate for a citywide election can actually meet every person who will vote in the election and have a nice chat with them.”


Not true. In the 2011 Champaign mayoral election, 8,416 votes were cast, far more than “a handful.”

As for the distribution, about 30 percent of them came from nine precincts in the center of the city more than anywhere else — City of Champaign Precincts 19 through 27. Those voters cast their ballots anywhere from the Salvation Army on North Prospect Avenue and the Hays Center on West Church Street to Good Shepherd Lutheran Church on South Prospect and the Hessel Park Christian Reformed Church on West Kirby Avenue. Although the north side and student precincts didn’t turn out in that election, the best turnouts were in those center city precincts.

But, yes, you are right that the amount the candidates are talking about spending to be a glorified at-large member of the city council is absolutely stunning.


“That is for part-time pay? In what fantasyland? My state job paid $37,000/year and required a master’s.

School board members get paid exactly ZIP and have a greater budget to run. And you wonder why people are running for the state border. Then crossing it.”


So, you don’t think mayors in Indiana aren’t paid a lot of money?


About that new medical research and education facility

Comments about recent stories about a proposal by consultants hired by the University of Illinois and Carle to build a college of medicine here, independently accredited and overseen by a private, possibly not-for-profit 501(c)(3) established jointly by the UI and Carle ...


“I work with Presence currently, and while I may be concerned for what a partnership with Carle (would mean to) our hospital, I do believe for the greater good for the community and the opportunity for more job growth in our area is exciting. I support this completely.”


“I worked at the Med School in the business office in Urbana from 1978 to 1989 and much of the preliminary work for something like this had already been done before Chicago pulled it up by the roots around 1990. I believe that the proposal would be a huge, huge economic boon to this region.  The resulting program would be the equal of any of the top ranked programs in the world.”



That’s all for this week. Thanks for all the questions. Happy Mother’s Day, moms. I hope you have a well-deserved, beautiful day. 

My dear wife wants to play golf on Mother’s Day. How great is she?

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EdRyan wrote on May 09, 2014 at 3:05 pm

Perhaps the wild spending to be Champaign's mayor will drive another high turnout election, but consider that 2011 may be an outlier with turnout driven by unusual circumstances.  In any event, local election turnout is terrible considering that local government is the one part of government that we can actually have a real impact on.  It certainly has an impact on us every day.