September 28, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst

7 min read
The kidnapping of Patty Heart by the Symbionese Liberation Army was dubbed a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome - but was it? Tony McMahon reports.

There were plenty of weird events in the 1970s but the kidnapping of Patty Hearst has to be one of the strangest. On February 4, 1974, a terrorist group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) kidnapped Hearst from her apartment in Berkeley, California. The terrorists thought they’d hit the jackpot. Because Patty was the granddaughter of the American media magnate William Randolph Hearst whose larger than life character inspired the classic Orson Welles movie, Citizen Kane.

But as kidnap sagas go – this one took an unexpected turn.

The twist in this story that stunned the world in 1974 was a message sent by the still kidnapped Patty Hearst two months later in April 1974 announcing she had joined the SLA and adopted the name “Tanya”. But worse was to come. A few days later she was filmed with other SLA members conducting an armed robbery at a branch of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco.

What on earth was going on?

The ransom demand: food for the poor

The terrorists clearly hoped they could demand a vast ransom as well as garnering huge publicity from such an audacious kidnapping. Although Patty had been within easy reach of her captors as her apartment was just a few doors down from the SLA HQ. The price for the release of the 19-year-old student was that the Hearst publishing empire should distribute $70 worth of free food to every poor Californian.

Eager to get Patty back, the Hearsts put down an initial two million dollars and began a food handout program titled People in Need. This was funded by Patty’s father taking out a half million dollar loan and the Hearst Foundation donating $1.5m.

The Hearsts told the SLA that contrary to what they might imagine, the publishing empire and charitable foundation that bore their name was not their personal piggy bank. The SLA was unconvinced and dubbed Patty’s father a “corporate enemy of the state”. The food distribution in the San Francisco Bay area benefitted thousands of people though there were reported disturbances at a couple of outlets giving out bags of groceries.

Needless to say, the wannabe people’s heroes of the SLA didn’t reach out to organisations representing poorer folk assuming instead that they knew their best interests. But labour organisations were scathing. The United Farm Workers Union, headed by Cesar Chavez and campaigning for many underpaid workers, condemned the SLA tactics in no uncertain terms.

What was the Symbionese Liberation Army?

The term “Symbionese” immediately leaps out at you. Who were the Symbionese that were being liberated? The word referred to symbiosis, according to the group’s rambling manifesto. Symbiosis being “a body of dissimilar bodies and organisms living in deep and loving harmony”. In other words, the SLA was going to unite all downtrodden minorities through a process of symbiosis.

You have to remember this was California in the 1960s!

The tortuous concept may have been borrowed from a 1969 novel, The Spook Who Sat By The Door by Sam Greenlee, about an armed commando unit called The Cobras. The story involves reference to “symbiology”. And the SLA’s logo was a seven-headed cobra. So it’s a likely connection.

As regards being an “army”, law enforcement estimated the SLA’s total membership at a grand total of 25. The organisation was what Leon Trotsky once termed a “strutting sect” – a typical phenomenon on the far Left. One analyst at the time wrote the SLA were victims of a “romantic guerrilla fantasy” that was “not at the front of some rising social tide, all that separates them from the acts of common criminals is their own rhetoric”.

In reality, the SLA was one of several Maoist and Anarchist influenced terror groups that rejected orthodox Marxist and socialist trade union based politics in favour of chucking bombs, shootings, and robbery. While talking about liberation and the workers, they shunned mass movement activity in favour of ultra-violent individual deeds.

A senseless murder before the kidnapping of Patty Hearst

The SLA’s most brutal act was the killing of Marcus Foster in November 1973. He had been appointed the first ever African-American Superintendent of schools in Oakland. Foster had allegedly supported an ID card scheme for students which the SLA condemned as “fascist”.

That was sufficient grounds for them to pump Foster with eight hollow-point bullets packed with cyanide. A trademark weapon of the SLA. It’s hard to imagine the mentality of such an act. Even the rival Weather Underground terrorist group issued a statement condemning the slaying of an African-American “who was not a recognized enemy of his people” (sic).

Two members of the SLA were tried and convicted for the murder of Foster and handed down life sentences. The kidnapping of Patty was in part intended to secure their release, which didn’t happen. One of the imprisoned was subsequently released on appeal but SLA killer Joe Remiro, a Vietnam veteran who called himself “Bo”, remains behind bars to this day (at the time of writing).

Donald De Freeze was the leader of the SLA when Patty was kidnapped. The only African American in the SLA leadership with a long record of firearms and explosives related arrests as well as being a black liberation activist. After a spell in prison he fell in with the SLA adopting the name General Field Marshal Cinque. The last word being a reference to an early 19th century slave rebel.

He was with Patty when the Hibernia Bank was robbed but died a month later in a police shootout during which he blew his brains out. There have been longstanding theories that DeFreeze at some point became a police informant. This isn’t completely denied. What is questioned is whether his activities as an informant had ceased by the time of the Patty Hearst kidnapping.

(Article continues below FBI poster for DeFreeze).

DISCOVER: The 1972 Munich Olympics massacre

Kidnapping of Patty Hearst – the victim seems to go rogue

Via tape recordings in the weeks following her kidnapping, Patty Hearst communicated to her family and the world that she had joined the SLA. As a young person interested in politics at the time, I can tell you that this left people stunned. Why would a nice, rich girl join a paranoid, dysfunctional, anarchist group?

I’m being sarcastic – anarchist groups at this time were full of privileged white youth.

Profile pieces described a very studious and unpretentious young woman who while benefitting from the family’s fortune, didn’t go for a glitzy lifestyle. She lived frugally and hitchhiked around California as opposed to being ferried around in a limousine. The tapes sent out by the SLA with Patty’s voice declaring her new affiliation were, according to her friends, the calm and measured woman they knew well.

After the Hibernia Bank robbery, conducted with DeFreeze in April 1974, Hearst was involved in a gunfire exchange the following month with the owner of Mel’s Sporting Goods store in Inglewood, California. By now, the public had turned against Patty Hearst and saw only a willing participant in terrorist activities. On May 17, the police descended on the SLA hideout and a devastating shootout reduced the building to a shell leaving six of the group’s members, including DeFreeze, dead.

The shootout also killed SLA member, William Lawton Wolfe. Known as Kahjoh or Cujo, he was from an upper-middle class family and like Patty had been studying at Berkeley. He was recruited to the SLA by DeFreeze, having met him after getting involved in a prisoner outreach program.

Patty released a statement declaring she was devastated by news of Wolfe’s death and that he had been her lover: “Neither Cujo nor I had ever loved an individual the way we loved each other. Probably this was because our relationship wasn’t based on bourgeois … values.” After her capture, Hearst dialled this all back asserting that Wolfe and other SLA men had raped her and it was not a consenting relationship.

After the kidnapping: the capture of Patty Hearst and conflicting accounts

Nothing about this story is straight forward. To rapidly summarise what happened next, Hearst was spotted and arrested on September 18, 1975 having been with the SLA for eighteen months. Law enforcement, the courts, and media now had to wrestle with the question: who was the real Patty Hearst?

Her defence team presented a tragic figure whose weight had plummeted to 40kg. She had been sexually abused by males in the SLA. In effect, the woman who called herself Tanya (or Tania) was a zombified shadow of her previous self. Patty had been brainwashed. Starved and regimented. A high-profile victim of Stockholm Syndrome meaning she had developed a bond with her tormentors.

The judge was unconvinced and Patty was sent down. What followed were years of campaigning to get Patty released. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter commuted her prison sentence. And in 2001, President Bill Clinton granted Patty a pardon on his last day in office. But there remained unanswered questions which continue to be raised by Patty’s critics to this day.

William Wolfe’s father paid for a private investigation of the circumstances surrounded his wayward son’s death at the police shootout with the SLA. In a sworn affidavit of his findings, private investigator Lake Headley revealed that Patty had visited DeFreeze in prison a year before her kidnap. This certainly raises some interesting questions. It was also Headley who accused the Los Angeles Police Department of recruiting DeFreeze as an informant.

Patty Hearst has been free for over forty years and even enjoyed a movie career. Here is her cameo role as a juror in the hilarious movie, Serial Mom, directed by John Waters. In this clip, Kathleen Turner criticises Patty’s dress sense with terminal consequences.

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