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.
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.