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40 Years Ago Today: Patty Hearst Kidnapped in Berkeley

| February 4, 2014
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Urban guerrilla Patty Hearst in 1975 booking photo.

‘Urban guerrilla’ Patty Hearst in 1975 booking photo.

Forty years ago this morning, Patty Hearst went from being the nearly anonymous teenage granddaughter of a legendary media magnate to a name and face that became instantly recognizable around the world.

Here’s how the FBI describes the moment when Hearst shed that anonymity forever:

Around 9 o’clock in the evening on February 4, 1974, there was a knock on the door of apartment #4 at 2603 Benvenue Street in Berkeley, California. In burst a group of men and women with their guns drawn. They grabbed a surprised 19-year-old college student named Patty Hearst, beat up her fiancé, threw her in the trunk of their car and drove off.

Thus began one of the strangest cases in FBI history.

Hearst’s kidnappers, it turned out, were part of a small group of self-styled revolutionaries called the Symbionese Liberation Army. The group distinguished itself with what, from a safe distance, sounds like comically overblown rhetoric, with slogans like “death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people.”

But the group was no joke. In November 1973, members had ambushed and murdered Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster, the district’s first African-American chief. Foster’s “crime”? The SLA branded him “fascist” because it mistakenly believed he had backed a plan to require ID cards for all Oakland high school students.

The Hearst kidnapping transfixed the nation as it took one strange, scarcely believable turn after another. Shortly after Hearst’s disappearance, the SLA demanded that her wealthy family distribute food to the poor. Done. In a series of taped communiques issued after the abduction, Hearst criticized her family’s response and eventually declared she had joined the revolution and that “I would never choose to live the rest of my life surrounded by pigs like the Hearsts.”

Asked her occupation when she was being booked, Hearst answered ‘urban guerrilla.’

In mid-April, Hearst surfaced, joining SLA members in robbing a bank in San Francisco. Hearst and her SLA comrades left San Francisco for Southern California, and on May 16, she shot up a Los Angeles sporting goods store after what was described as a bungled shoplifting attempt by two companions, Bill and Emily Harris. The next day, police tracked one SLA contingent — Hearst and the Harrises not among them — to a house in South Central Los Angeles. The resulting two-hour shootout was televised live. Police teargas canisters set the house on fire, and all six SLA members at the residence died.

Hearst and the Harrises escaped, but all were captured 16 months later in San Francisco. Asked her occupation when she was being booked, Hearst answered “urban guerrilla.” She was tried and convicted of bank robbery; she served 21 months before her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter. She later married and had two daughters by Bernard Shaw, a former San Francisco police officer who served as one of her bodyguards during her legal proceedings. He died in December at age 68.

In a 2002 interview with Larry King after other SLA members had been arrested for murder during a 1975 bank robbery in Sacramento, Hearst described the process by which she became willing to take part in the SLA’s crimes:

HEARST: Larry, most of the time I was with them, my mind was going through doing exactly what I was supposed to do.

KING: What you were told?

HEARST: Yes. I mean — even if I weren’t told, I had been educated very well in what to do. I had been, you know, held in the closet for two months and, you know, abused in all manner of ways. I was very good at doing what I was told. And as far as thinking…

KING: Was that Stockholm Syndrome part of the thinking or not?

HEARST: I’m sure it was. Of course it was. I mean, they call it Stockholm Syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder. And, you know, I had no free will. I had virtually no free will until I was separated from them for about two weeks. And then it suddenly, you know, slowly began to dawn that they just weren’t there anymore. I could actually think my own thoughts. It was considered wrong for me to think about my family. And when Cinque (SLA leader Donald DeFreeze) was around, he didn’t want me thinking about rescue because he thought that brain waves could be read or that, you know, they’d get a psychic in to find me. And I was even afraid of that.

Below: Video of the April 15, 1974, Hibernia Bank robbery in San Francisco. And below that, partial video of the 2002 Patty Hearst interview with Larry King.

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Category: Law

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About the Author ()

Dan Brekke has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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