top of page

The Kidnapping And Indoctrination Of Heiress, Patty Hearst

Patty Hearst’s booking photo following her arrest in San Francisco. September 19, 1975.

In 1974, a group of left-wing radicals calling themselves the “Symbionese Liberation Army” stormed into the Berkeley, California apartment of publishing heiress Patty Hearst and, after smashing a wine bottle across her fiancée’s face, dragged her away into the night. Who these people were and what happened to their “victim” after they ran off with her, has since become the stuff of American legend.

In the space of just a few months, a wealthy white woman from a famous family was abducted, converted to revolutionary Maoism, started making videos denouncing her own father as a pig and then joined her comrades in a series of violent bank robberies.

Later, when a third of her fellow revolutionaries died in a shootout with police on live TV, the manhunt for Patty Hearst occupied daily media coverage and finally ended with “Comrade Tania,” as she now called herself, being captured and charged for her crimes.

The Revolutionaries Of The Symbionese Liberation Army

An F.B.I. wanted poster provides information about several Symbionese Liberation Army members, including Patty Hearst.

In 1973, a small group of young, radical, self-proclaimed anti-fascists in California founded the Symbionese Liberation Army (the group had existed in a nascent form since 1971, according to some).

Most were former Berkeley students like Nancy Ling, who came from an upper-middle-class family in San Francisco and got an English degree in 1967. In 1973, she was working at an orange juice stand on the Berkeley campus.

Camilla Hall was a social worker from Minnesota who had quit her job and moved to Berkeley, where she lived off her family’s trust fund and wrote radical poetry as well as created line drawings that she tried to sell on the street.

Another typical member of the group was Willie Wolfe, the son of an anesthesiologist from Connecticut who had graduated from a Massachusetts prep school in 1969 and went to Berkeley to study anthropology. While visiting prison inmates for a class, Wolfe, who had started calling himself Cujo, met a radical black bank robber named Donald DeFreeze, who would soon become the leader of the fledgling S.L.A.

Calling himself “General Marshall Cinque Mtume,” DeFreeze escaped from Soledad State Prison on March 5, 1973 by just walking away from a work detail and entering his new friends’ network of safe houses, where they sheltered him from police while he wrote various manifestos and designed the S.L.A.’s seven-headed cobra symbol.

Those manifestos and other assorted writings offered little in the way of a clear mission statement. “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people,” read one communique widely offered up as the group’s motto. Otherwise, according to The New York Times, the group’s “splintered rhetoric on cultural, racial and sexual oppression was nearly random.”

Whatever the purported philosophy of the Symbionese Liberation Army, their actions under DeFreeze turned violent starting in 1973, when they killed Marcus Foster, Oakland’s first black school superintendent, for his “fascist” support of making schoolchildren in the district carry ID cards.

In fact, Foster opposed the ID card plan, which the S.L.A. presumably didn’t know when they shot him eight times with hollow-point .45-caliber bullets they had filled up with cyanide beforehand. That killing had other radicals in the area wondering what the S.L.A. was thinking.

By the end of 1973, with the Foster killing still in the papers, the S.L.A. decided to really grab some headlines by kidnapping Patty Hearst, famed heiress to the fortune of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, from her apartment.

Patty Hearst, The Heiress

Patty Hearst, not long before her kidnapping. Circa 1973.

In 1973, Patty Hearst was mainly famous for being famous and occasionally appeared in the society section of the San Francisco Chronicle. While attending a Bay Area Catholic school, she reportedly lied to the nuns about her mother having cancer to get out of exams.

According to a psychologist who later testified at her trial, she experimented with sex and drugs at an early age. In 1973, still just 18 and living on her own in an apartment a few blocks away from the Symbionese Liberation Army’s hangout and studying art history at Berkeley, Patty Hearst paid a visit to Soledad State Prison, where, according to a private investigator hired after the kidnapping, she visited Donald DeFreeze, the soon-to-be General Field Marshall of the S.L.A.

Nobody knows how Hearst came to know DeFreeze or what they talked about when they met (though prison staff unaccountably allowed DeFreeze virtually unlimited conjugal visits with women he wasn’t married to, a violation of the rules that were then in place), but the pair would soon make headlines across the country.

Patty Hearst Is Kidnapped

Patty Hearst and Steven Weed, not long before her kidnapping. Circa 1973.

A few months before her February 4, 1974 kidnapping, Patty Hearst was written up in the local papers when her family announced her engagement to her reedy 51-year-old tutor Steven Weed. They were together in her apartment, Hearst wearing only a nightgown, when a group of three Symbionese Liberation Army members burst through her door and grabbed her.

One of the kidnappers grabbed a bottle of wine that Hearst had been sharing with Weed and smashed it across his head, knocking him out. The group then bundled Hearst into the trunk of a waiting car, fired several rounds into the apartment building, and sped off.

Eight days later, the S.L.A. released a statement threatening to execute their “prisoner of war” and demanding the release of Russel Little, one of the group’s founders, who was then sitting in jail for the murder of the school superintendent. It was this letter that ended with the phrase that has widely come to define the group: “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people.”

The exterior of the San Francisco house where Patty Hearst was initially held captive by the Symbionese Liberation Army.

At the time of her abduction, Patty Hearst was an affluent white woman who was seized in the most dramatic way a politically radical group of humanities students could arrange. Naturally, the incident was an instant hit with the media, which devoted acres of print to developments in the case and biographies of every known member of the Symbionese Liberation Army.

According to her own later accounts, Patty Hearst spent much of her time locked in a closet at the S.L.A. safe house, where she was subjected to Maoist consciousness-raising sessions and repeatedly raped by various members of the group.

With Patty Hearst captive, the Symbionese Liberation Army used its newfound notoriety to the fullest. Right after the kidnapping, when Donald DeFreeze put out the statement demanding the release of Russel Little, the S.L.A. also demanded that Hearst’s rich father pay $70 to every needy person in California in the form of free groceries.

Randolph Hearst, Patty Hearst’s father, immediately took out a $2 million loan and gave the money to a group he hastily founded, People in Need. His good intentions came to grief, however, and the program to give away food had to be shut down when needy people looted the giveaway operation in West Oakland and started a riot that sent several people to the hospital.

Comrade Tania

Patty Hearst poses with a machine gun in front of a Symbionese Liberation Army flag in a photo sent by her captors to the media, along with a recording in which she appeared to pledge her allegiance to the group, several weeks after her capture.

At various points, Patty Hearst made audio recordings that were then released to the media. The first two, made on days nine and 13 of her captivity, were of the usual “I’m okay, but do what they want” variety. Then, on day 34, after the riot and suspension of the food giveaway, the tone shifted.

This is a transcript of that third recording:

Mom, Dad. I’ve been hearing reports about the food program. So far it sounds like you and your advisors have managed to turn it into a real disaster. You said that it was out of your hands, what you should have said was that you wash your hands of it. It sounds like most of the food is low quality. No one received any beef or lamb. Anyway, it certainly didn’t sound like the kind of food our family is used to eating.

Honest criticism, perhaps, but then, on day 59, she recorded this:

Mom, Dad. Tell the poor and oppressed people of this nation what the corporate state is about to do. Warn black and poor people that they are about to be murdered down to the last man, woman, and child. Tell the people that the energy crisis is nothing more than a means to get public approval for a massive program to build nuclear power plants all over the nation… I have been given the choice of one: being released in a safe area, or two: joining the forces of the Symbionese Liberation Army and fighting for my freedom and the freedom of all oppressed people. I have chosen to stay and fight. I have been given the name Tania after a comrade who fought alongside Che in Bolivia. It is in the spirit of Tania that I say: ‘Patria o Muerte, Venceremos.’

As if to dispel any doubts about whether she was serious, on April 15, “Comrade Tania” was caught on CCTV waving a gun around and guarding hostages during an S.L.A. bank robbery. When general bungling led to shots being fired, leaving one person dead and another injured, the group fled the bank and disappeared, taking $10,692 with them.

Then the authorities received this message:

Greetings to the people, this is Tania. Our actions of April 15 forced the Corporate State to help finance the revolution. As for being brainwashed, the idea is ridiculous beyond belief. I am a soldier in the People’s Army.

The End Of The Symbionese Liberation Army

The Symbionese Liberation Army house burns in the course of the confrontation with police on May 17, 1974.

The end of the Symbionese Liberation Army began a month after the bank robbery, when Patty Hearst, now known as “Tania,” accompanied a couple other members to Mel’s Sporting Goods Store in Los Angeles. As S.L.A. members William Harris and his wife Emily were about to pay for their supplies and leave, Harris tried shoplifting an ammunition case. When the pair were confronted by store security, they forced their way to the front of the store, where Hearst pulled a gun and shot up the store’s sign.

That got the L.A.P.D.’s attention, and they put out an APB for the van that the S.L.A. members fled in. That van was later spotted in front of a small house on 54th St., which was immediately surrounded by hundreds of police officers.

Over the next several hours, more than 9,000 rounds of ammunition crossed each other in the air as the S.L.A. and L.A.P.D. traded gunfire, while residents fled the now-blocked-off neighbourhood and half the country tuned in to the local news, which broadcast the event live.

As the siege went on, one member of the S.L.A. was fatally wounded by a shot through the wall and two more were killed as they tried to flee out the back. When police fired scores of gunpowder-actuated tear gas canisters through the window, starting a massive fire that quickly engulfed the whole place, General Marshall Cinque Mtume of the People’s Symbionese Liberation Army led his two surviving followers into a crawlspace under the house. Their corpses were later found with their gas masks melted to their faces.

Through it all, the only question anybody cared about, and the one that the media kept bringing up, was whether or not Patty Hearst was in the house. As it happens, she wasn’t.

She had separated from the rest of her group and gone to a different safe house and watched the siege on TV like everybody else. After it was over, and all six S.L.A. members’ deaths were confirmed, Comrade Tania released her last public statement as an urban revolutionary:

Greetings to the people. This is Tania. I want to talk about the way I knew our six murdered comrades because the fascist pig media have of course been painting a typically distorted picture of these beautiful sisters and brothers. Cinque was in a race with time believing that every minute must be another step forward in the fight to save the children. Gelina was beautiful. She taught me how to fight the enemy within through her constant struggle with bourgeois conditioning. Gabi crouched low with her ass to the ground. She practiced until her shotgun was an extension of her right and left arms. Zoya, female guerrilla. Perfect love and perfect hate reflected in stone cold eyes. Fahizah taught me to shoot first and make sure the pig is dead before splitting. She was wise and bad. Cujo was the gentlest, most beautiful man I’ve ever known. He taught me the truth as he learned it from the beautiful brothers in California’s concentration camps [That would be the California Department of Corrections, where convicted felons go after getting a jury trial – ed.]. Neither Cujo or I had ever loved an individual the way we loved each other. Our relationships foundation was our commitment to the struggle and our love for the People. I died in that fire on 54th Street, but out of the ashes I was reborn. I know what I have to do.

What Patty Hearst had to do, apparently, was rob another bank, in Sacramento, where more careless gunplay (by a different S.L.A. member, not Hearst) got a 42-year-old woman making a deposit for her church shot in the chest with a 12-gauge shotgun.

Authorities followed a trail that eventually led them to Hearst’s apartment in the Mission District in San Francisco, where she was arrested in September 1975, 17 months after the kidnapping.

Patty Hearst On Trial

Patty Hearst leaves San Mateo County Jail in Redwood City, bound for her appearance in Federal Court in San Francisco Sept. 19, 1975.

When she was booked, Patty Hearst gave her occupation as “urban guerrilla.” While her parents spent whatever was necessary to hire investigators, psychologists, and F. Lee Bailey as her defence counsel, a defiant Hearst refused to cooperate with the investigation or to speak with her “pig fascist” family.

However, with serious charges and likely prison time ahead of her, she underwent a rapid deconversion and renounced as rapists and brainwashers the people she had described with words and phrases like “wise” and “the gentlest, most beautiful man I’ve ever known” (in reference to William Wolfe, who she later claimed had raped her).

In analyses that were hotly contested, assorted psychologists and experts found that Hearst was experiencing various kinds of mental trauma and that she may have been “brainwashed” to some degree (this is also known as “Stockholm syndrome”). To what extent Patty Hearst was a perpetrator or a victim has remained in debate ever since.

The judge in the case was less than sympathetic to claims of brainwashing, given that Hearst hadn’t been in custody for more than six weeks before she was releasing audio recordings specifically denying that she’d been brainwashed. The jury couldn’t really buy it either and Hearst was found guilty, though one member was visibly crying while the guilty verdict was read.

Hearst was sentenced to seven years in prison but that was later commuted by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. On his last day in office in 2001, President Bill Clinton issued a full pardon for Hearst, who was now married to a former San Francisco police officer and living in the family compound in Wilton, California.

While Patty Hearst was enjoying her presidential pardon, the last remaining members of the Symbionese Liberation Army were being sent to prison. Four former members had been apprehended for their roles in the Sacramento bank robbery and placed on trial in 2002. The following year, all got sentences of seven years, except for Emily Harris — the one holding the shotgun — who got 13 years added to the 20-to-life sentence she was already facing for trying to plant bombs under police cars in the 1970s.

Patty Hearst, who had participated in all of these crimes, was granted immunity as a state witness before the trials began, but never called and so didn’t have to give a statement or appear in court to address the infamous crimes she’d been a part of all those years before.

bottom of page