Patty Hearst – Once Upon an Army

The Hearsts were not your average American family. Some would say they had more money than God. But on this day in 1974, heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped, tied up, taken away, and held for ransom. Within two months, she reappeared as a gun-toting moll in the Symbionese Liberation Army. That spring and summer, I fell in love with capturing everything Patty Hearst. I cut out newspaper clippings, magazine articles, wanted posters, you name it. It was the summer I became a historian. It was the summer I turned 11.

Up to this point in my life, I had wanted to be Gail Goodrich. The only problem was I was right-handed but I was still highly skilled on the nerf. But that summer captured my imagination. I had always liked history, World War II, Star Trek, and my brother’s Elton John and Cat Stevens records. This summer, Patty was something I could call my own. My desire to know everything about the organization that kidnapped her led me to the local library in south central Polo, Illinois. There I would scour the magazines, newspapers, and whatever else I could find. Once a week, I made the trek to see what else was news. If I wasn’t playing baseball, I was looking up stuff on Patty Hearst.

At first, this seemed like your normal millionaire heiress being held for ransom thing. That did not last long. On April 15, 1974, the security camera of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco captured Patricia Hearst holding an assault rifle as members of the Symbionese Liberation Army carried out a midday robbery. Was Hearst acting in fear of her life? Was she brainwashed? The surrounding circus around the Hearst family was one of immense proportions. The only comparable thing since was the OJ case. Everywhere you looked; in a bookstore, news magazine, newspaper, or TV, chances were Patty Hearst was to be seen someplace.

Patty Hearst was kidnapped by three armed members of a group called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). The members broke into her apartment she shared with her fiancee, Steven Weed. Hearst was the daughter of Randolph Hearst (managing editor of the San Francisco Examiner) and the granddaughter of the William Randolph Hearst (the man who started the Spanish-American War). Shortly thereafter, the SLA claimed responsibility for the kidnapping by saying it was “serving of an arrest warrant on Patricia Campbell Hearst.” The statement’s last line was: “DEATH TO THE FASCIST INSECT THAT PREYS UPON THE LIFE OF THE PEOPLE.

Eight days later, an audiotape arrived at KPFA, a local radio station. “General Field Marshall Cinque” spoke on the tape and demanded Randolph Hearst give away food “as a good faith gesture.” The tape included a message from Patty Hearst.

“Mom, Dad, I’m okay. I’m with a combat unit with automatic weapons. And these people aren’t just a bunch of nuts….I want to get out of here but the only way I’m going to do it is if we do it their way. And I just hope that you’ll do what they say, Dad, and do it quickly…”

A photograph of Hearst, brandishing a machine gun and wearing a beret, in front of the SLA’s seven-headed cobra symbol was also in the package.

As a result of the SLA’s demands, Randolph Hearst created the People in Need (PIN) program. On February 22, the food distribution did not go well in east Oakland. Rioting, injuries, and arrests marked the occasion. In a later audiotape Patty would criticize the effort of her father: “So far it sounds like you and your advisers managed to turn it into a real disaster.” This does not sound like a kidnap victim. At this point, had Patty turned? Had she gone over to the SLA?

Later, a tape was released. On it Hearst says:

“I have been given the choice of being released…or 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.”

Hearst later states on the tape that her new SLA name was “Tania,” after HaydĂ©e Tamara Bunke Bider, Che Guevara’s comrade.

A little bit later, the Hibernia Bank robbery took place on April 15. The SLA got $10,692, shot two bystanders, one mortally. The SLA released another tape after Hibernia. Hearst says:

“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.”

Law Professor Douglas O. Linder states:
A month later on May 16, Hearst is at another crime scene, this time at Mel’s Sporting Goods Store in Englewood, California. Store employees spotted SLA member William Harris, along with his wife Emily, attempting to shoplift an ammunition case, and a scuffle ensued. From a van parked across the street from Mel’s, shots were fired in the direction of the store. The shooter was identified as Patty Hearst.

The FBI originally had no clue as how to track down the SLA in the beginning. The FBI was not in the business of hunting homegrown terrorists at the time. As time went on, their methods improved. What is referred to as “The Gotterdaemmerung” came the day after the Mel’s Sporting Goods Shootout. The event took place on live TV. Police ordered the SLA to “Come on out. Hands up.” No one answered by voice. However, automatic weapons did return the message. It was a stalemate for a while before teargas was used. But like WACO many years later, a fire broke killing six SLA members. Among the missing were Emily and John Harris, and Patty Hearst. Patty Hearst released a tape later criticizing “the fascist pig media” for the media frenzy and for distorting her “beautiful sisters and brothers” killed in the SLA assault.

Over the course of the next year, the SLA went underground. Its ranks decimated, the SLA now said it was part of the NWLF or New World Liberation Front. Hearst was arrested on September 18, 1975 in San Francisco. Catherine Hearst, Patty’s mother, hoped her daughter would not go to jail: “I don’t believe Patty’s legal problems are that serious. After all, she’s primarily a kidnap victim. She never went off and did anything of her own free will.” At her booking at the jail, Patty Hearst listed her occupation as “Urban Guerrilla”. The family hired renown defense attorney F. Lee Bailey to defend Patty but she ended up serving 22 months for her crimes before her sentence was commuted by President Carter. She was pardoned in 2001 by President Bill Clinton.

That was the summer that changed my life.

For further reading:
The Trial of Patty Hearst
Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst Website
For your viewing pleasure…
Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst



  1. 18. Graduating H.S. I remember it clearly, but I’m amazed it struck you so at 11! Good for you! And, do you know why? Because your world was more than a DSi, X-Box 360, Wii or World of Warcraft, etc. etc. etc…. Our youth of today run the risk of being SO narrow.

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