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Patty Hearst Kidnapping

Crime Files
Patty Hearst Kidnapping

Patricia Campbell Hearst was born in San Mateo, California on 20th February 1954, the third of five daughters born to Randolph Apperson Hearst, the president of the San Francisco Examiner newspaper. Her grandfather was the flamboyant newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst, and she grew up in the wealthy suburb of Hillsborough, in San Francisco, attending exclusive girls’ schools and being groomed for her role as a wealthy socialite heiress. Her kidnapping, by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), on 4th February 1974, shortly before her 20th birthday, changed the course of her life forever. The Symbionese Liberation Army derived their name from the word symbiosis, a biological term which describes the ability of dissimilar organisms to live together in harmony, and was led primarily by an African-American petty criminal called Donald DeFreeze. DeFreeze escaped from prison in March 1973, and he formed the SLA in July 1973. The ‘army’ never consisted of more than 10 or so members at any one time: the other ‘soldiers’ were largely white, middle-class females. The SLA manifesto claimed a vague intention to empower all people, and focussed its attack on all elements of capitalist society, aiming to close prisons, release prisoners, end monogamy and generally progress the cause of African-Americans. Training in a safe-house in Concord, California, the SLA’s first revolutionary act was the assassination of an African-American school superintendent, named Marcus Foster, in November 1973, whom they believed was supporting an ID system for his school’s pupils. Cyanide-tipped ammunition was used during the assassination, which later became a hallmark of most SLA attacks. The murder brought national recognition to the SLA, and the subsequent police investigation forced the group underground. A search of their former safe house in Concord, in January 1974, produced evidence that the SLA were planning to progress their cause by kidnapping the daughter of a wealthy capitalist. Patty Hearst was identified as a possible target, but the police took no action to progress their investigation of the kidnap plot at the time. THE KIDNAP On the evening of 4th February 1974, Patty Hearst, then aged 19, was with her fiancé, Steven Weed, in her apartment in Berkeley, California, at around 9 pm. When she answered a knock at the door, two armed men and a woman forced their way in, knocking her fiancé to the floor, assaulting him repeatedly with an empty wine bottle, before tying him up. When a neighbour, who had heard the altercation, attempted to intervene, he was also assaulted and tied up. Hearst was dragged from the building, kicking and screaming, and was put in the boot of a car, before being driven away. A number of shots were fired, both during the attack and in the subsequent getaway, but no one was injured at the time. The bullets were later found to be cyanide-tipped, leading the police to recognise that the attack was the work of the SLA. Hearst’s father, who had been in Washington at the time of the abduction, returned to California, but it was two days before the SLA confirmed that they had kidnapped Hearst, although they presented no demands at the time. It was not until 12th February, eight days after the kidnapping, that DeFreeze made his first demand: Hearst’s father should distribute food to poor people in the San Francisco area, and across the country. Initially claiming that the SLA demand was impossible to meet, Hearst capitulated, following the release of a tape recording by his daughter, and he set up a food distribution agency called People In Need, which distributed millions of dollars worth of food over the next month, initially causing near-riots in the streets. In addition, the SLA later requested that a number of their political communiqués be published in Hearst newspapers. A total of four tape recordings were released during this period, containing statements from Patty Hearst, in which she claimed that her parents were not making sufficient efforts to secure her release. According to Patty Hearst, she was held in a locked closet for the first two months of her ordeal, blindfolded for most of the time, and subjected to ongoing physical and sexual abuse by DeFreeze and others. She was told that she might die at any time, forced to record the taped messages to her family under threat of further abuse, and fed SLA propaganda continuously, about how the SLA was oppressed by capitalists such as her father. As a result she believed that she fell victim to ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, a psychological state in which the victims of a kidnapping develop a dependence on their captors, identifying with their cause despite being a victim of it. In extreme forms, this has been known to result in complicity with the abductors, even assisting them to escape, and the condition was named for an attack on a bank in a Stockholm suburb, in August 1973, where the victims continued to defend their captors, even after they had been released. Critics of her account have always claimed that the subsequent complicity of Hearst in SLA attacks showed that she was a willing participant in their actions, rather than a victim but, whatever the motivation, Hearst released a fifth tape recording, on 3rd April, two months after her adduction, denouncing her family and claiming to be a fully-fledged member of the SLA, insisting that she wished to be known henceforth by her guerrilla name, ‘Tania’. The first concrete evidence of her defection to the SLA cause came on 15th April, when she was photographed during the commission of an armed robbery of the Hibernia Bank in Hollywood. Hearst was pictured holding an assault rifle, and the gang escaped with $10’000. On 24th April Hearst released another tape, admitting her part in the robbery, and discounting media claims of brainwashing as ridiculous. Up until then, the FBI had wanted Hearst as a ‘material witness’ in their investigations. A warrant was now issued for her arrest. A month later, on 16th May, Hearst was implicated in another robbery. This time, while sitting alone in an SLA van outside a sporting goods shop in Inglewood, Los Angeles, she fired on the shop assistant to prevent fellow SLA members Emily and Bill Harris from being arrested for shoplifting. They were forced to flee in a series of stolen vehicles, leaving the van behind, and as a result were separated from their fellow SLA members overnight. It was a quirk of fate that saved their lives. The next day, 17th May 1974, the LAPD finally tracked the SLA gang to an apartment on East 54th Street in Compton, Los Angeles, through a number of unpaid parking tickets found in the abandoned van. A gun battle ensued, in front of the assembled national media, in which six members of the gang were killed, including leader DeFreeze. It was initially thought that Hearst was also in the house, but she actually watched the attack from a motel room in Anaheim, California, along with the Harrises, whom she had rescued the previous day. The attack decimated the SLA, and Hearst released a tape on 7th June, eulogising her fallen comrades, and vowing that she would continue their fight. Along with the Harrises, she made arrangements to recruit new members from within the radical student movements based in Berkeley, California. Over the next few months they announced that they had allied themselves to the New World Liberation Front. With the authorities still looking for them in California, they travelled to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where they took refuge in a rural farmhouse for a number of months.


Born - 20 February 1954Kidnapped - 4 February 1974Arrested - 18 September 1975Trial - 15 January 1976Convicted - 20 March 1976Released - 1 February 1979Pardoned - 20 January 2001

The Arrest

Having heard nothing from their daughter since June, the Hearst family withdrew their offer of a $50,000 reward for the safe return of Patty Hearst.On 21st April 1975, four members of the SLA held up a bank in Carmichael, California, and an innocent bystander, 42-year old Myrna Opsahl, was killed during the robbery. Hearst was not one of the four involved in the raid.Finally, on 18th September 1975, following her return to the West Coast, Hearst was arrested in San Francisco, along with fellow SLA members Bill and Emily Harris, and Wendy Yoshimura. When she was taken to the police station to be booked, she told the desk sergeant that her occupation was 'urban guerrilla'.

The Trial

Hearst was charged with armed robbery, and remanded in custody to await trial. Hearst’s parents engaged celebrated defence attorney, F Lee Bailey, to argue her case, which commenced in Los Angeles on 15th January 1976. Bailey had represented a number of high profile defendants, including Albert de Salvo (The Boston Strangler) but Hearst claimed later that Bailey proved a bad choice, and he often appeared poorly prepared during the trial and was suspected of being intoxicated on a number of occasions.The trial lasted more than two months. Despite Bailey hiring some of the best psychological experts to argue the case for the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, as described by Hearst, the jury appeared unconvinced as a number of his experts appeared to contradict one another.Bailey’s half-hearted, and intoxicated, summation of the defence case as the trial de to a close only added to the doubt sewn by the poor defence effort. The jury returned a guilty verdict, on 20th March 1976, and Hearst received the maximum sentence; 25 years for the robbery, and an additional 10 years for the use of a firearm in the commission of the robbery.She was incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institute in Pleasanton, California.A judicial review of the trial resulted in the reduction of Hearst’s jail sentence to seven years.On 29th September 1976, Bill and Emily Harris pleaded guilty to the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. They served eight years in prison.On 1st February 1979, less than two years into her jail sentence, President Jimmy Carter commuted Hearst’s jail sentence, and she was released under strict parole conditions.After her release from prison, Hearst married her former bodyguard, Bernard Shaw, and they have two children, Gillian and Lydia, together. She became an actress for a time, with cameo roles in a number of John Waters’ films.She wrote a memoir in 1982, entitled ‘Every Single Thing’, in which she describes her ordeal in detail. This was made into a film called ‘Patty Hearst’ in 1988. The book was then re-released under the title ‘Patty Hearst: Her Own Story’.Using her family’s political connections, Hearst continued to try to have her name cleared through presidential intercession. Finally, thanks to former president Jimmy Carter’s direct involvement, President Bill Clinton granted her a full pardon on 20th January 2001, on the final day of his presidency.It is likely that the American public will forever remain divided on whether Patty Hearst was a victim, or willing participant, in the crimes of which she was convicted.

Key Figures

Patricia Campbell Hearst - victimMarcus Foster - assassinated in 1973Myrna Opsahl - victim (killed during robbery in 1975)Donald DeFreeze - The Symbionese Liberation ArmyEmily Harris - The Symbionese Liberation ArmyBill Harris - The Symbionese Liberation ArmyF Lee Bailey - Hearst LawyerPresident Jimmy Carter - commuted Hearst’s jail sentence in 1978President Bill Clinton - granted a full pardon on 20th January 2001Bernard Shaw - Hearst's boyguard and husband