Symbionese Liberation Army

Historical Essay

by Paul Krassner


Patty Hearst, daughter of the dynasty that publishes the San Francisco Examiner, was kidnapped by the SLA in 1974 and later participated in a bank robbery in the Sunset District. While she was held captive, the SLA demanded a free-food program be established, with $1 million of food to be purchased by the Hearst family and given away in poor neighborhoods around the Bay Area.

photo: SLA

In FEBRUARY 1974, Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, led by Donald "Cinque" DeFreeze. One of its demands was a free-food program. Patty's father, Randolph Hearst, publisher of the San Francisco Examiner arranged for such a project. Gov. Ronald Reagan commented on the long line of people waiting for free food, saying he hoped they'd all get botulism. Patty was kept in a closet, became a member of the SLA, changed her name to Tania, adopted radical rhetoric, robbed a bank, and went on the lam, becoming a vehicle for repressive action on the right and wishful thinking on the left.

She was captured in San Francisco after 18 months. She was so surprised that she peed in her pants, but that was only reported in the Chronicle, not the Examiner... She was permitted to change in the bathroom. The FBI inventory of her possessions did not include "pants, wet, one pair," but there was on the FBI list a two-foot marijuana plant (as compared with almost a pound of pot not reported that the FBI found at the apartment from which she had been kidnapped). There was also a bottle of Gallo wine in the SLA safe house, not exactly a loyal gesture to the United Farm Workers it purported to support. And there was an unidentified "rock" found in Patty's purse.

Originally she was to be defended by Vincent Hallinan and his son, Terence, who visited her in jail. As Tania she had called Vincent a "clown" in a taped communique--now as Patty she said of Terence, "He's good. Like, I really trust him politically and personally, and I can tell him just about anything I want and he's cool." It was, however, a relationship that would not be permitted to mature.

When Patty described her physical reaction to having her blindfold removed in captivity, Terence recognized a similarity to reactions to LSD. Patty agreed that there had been something reminiscent of her acid trips with her boyfriend, Steven Weed, in the old Hearst mansion. Her defense was going to be involuntary intoxication, a side effect of which is amnesia. So Patty would neither have to snitch on others nor have to invoke the Fifth Amendment for her own protection. In response to any questions about that missing chunk of her life, she would assert, "I have no recollection."

The Hallinans instructed her not to talk to anybody-- especially psychiatrists-- about that period. But her uncle, William Randolph Hearst Jr., editor in chief of the Hearst newspaper chain, flew in from the East Coast to warn his family that the entire corporate image of the Hearst empire was at stake and they'd better hire an establishment attorney, fast.

Enter F. Lee Bailey. He had defended a serial killer, the Boston Strangler, and a war criminal, Capt. Harold Medina of My Lai massacre infamy, but he would not defend Patty if she was a revolutionary. You gotta have standards.

Bailey encouraged her to tell the psychiatrists everything and not say, "I have no recollection." She could trust these doctors, he assured her, and nothing she said could be used against her in any way. Now her defense would be based on the Stockholm Hostage Syndrome (when prisoners of war come to identify with their captors). Patty had been kidnapped again.

At her trial in 1976, the philosophical paradox that has long plagued students of human consciousness--is there is or is there ain't free will?--was finally going to be decided by a jury. In court, Patty's parents had to listen to taped communique "Mom, Dad, I would like to comment on your effort to supposedly secure my safety. The [food] giveaway was a sham.... You were playing games--stalling for time--which the FBI was using in the attempts to assassinate me and the SLA elements which guarded me ......"

At the end of the tape, DeFreeze came on with a triple death threat, paying special attention to Colston Westbrook, whom he accused of being government agent now working for military intelligence while [giving a resistance] to the FBI." From 1962-1969, Westbrook first was a CIA advisor to the South Korean CIA and then supplied logistical support in Vietnam for the CIA's Phoenix program. His job was the indoctrination of assassination and terrorist cadres.

He returned to the United States in 1970 and was assigned by prison authorities to run the Black Cultural Association at Vacaville Prison, where he became the control officer for DeFreeze, who had worked as an informant from 1967 to 1969 for the Public Disorder Intelligence Unit of the Los Angeles Police Department. If DeFreeze was a double agent, then the SLA was a Frankenstein monster, turning against its creator by becoming in reality what had been orchestrated only as a media image.

But when DeFreeze finked on his keepers, he signed the death warrant of the SLA. In 1974 he and five other were burned alive in a fire during a shoot-out with police at a Los Angeles safe house. DeFreeze's charred remains were sent to his family in Cleveland and they couldn't help noticing that he had been decapitated. It was as if the CIA had said, "Bring me the head of Donald DeFreeze!"

Hearst testified that she had been raped in a closet by the lover she had once described as "the gentlest, most beautiful man I've ever known." Now, prosecutor James Browning was cross-examining her.

"Did you in fact, have a strong feeling for [SLA member] Willie Wolfe?"

"In a way, yes."

"As a matter of fact, were you in love with him?"

"No. "

A little later Browning asked if it had been "forcible rape."

"Excuse me?"

"Did you struggle or submit?"

"I didn't resist. I was afraid."

Browning walked into her trap: "I thought you said you had strong feelings for him?"

"I did," Patty replied triumphantly. "I couldn't stand him."

Wolfe had been slain in the L.A. shoot-out. His family hired Lake Headley-- an ex-police intelligence officer who was chief investigator at Wounded Knee-- to find out what had really happened. He and fellow researchers Donald Freed and Rusty Rhodes concluded that the SLA was part of the CIA's CHAOS program. In that context, they concluded that the CIA was planning to kill Black Panther leader Huey Newton and succeeded in killing black school superintendent Marcus Foster, after he agreed to meet Panther demands for educational reforms.

Surviving SLA members Bill and Emily Harris let it be known that, if called to testify, they would take the Fifth Amendment, but Emily testified, in effect, via the media. After Patty told the jury that Willie Wolfe had raped her, Emily was quoted in New Times magazine: "Once, Willie gave her a stone relic in the shape of a monkey face [and] Patty wore it all the time around her neck. After the shoot-out, she stopped wearing it and carried it in her purse instead, but she always had it with her."

Prosecutor Browning read this in the magazine and had an aha! experience, remembering the "rock" in Patty's purse documented on the inventory list when she was captured. He presented it as his final piece of evidence in the trial, slowly swinging the necklace back and forth in front of the jurors, as if to hypnotize them into believing that Patty had not been forced to rob a bank, even though he had admitted that it was "clear from the photographs she may have been acting under duress."

Patty's claim: "I was doing exactly what I had to do. I just wanted to get out of the bank. I was just supposed to be in there to get my picture taken, mainly." So the jury found Patty guilty of being a virtual bank robber. She faced seven years in prison, but after she had served 23 months, her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter.

The enigmatic graffiti COLE SLAW LIVES appeared after the trial, baffling tourists. It was a makeover of SLA LIVES, though one ex-Berkeleyite assumed that a political activist named Cole Slaw was dead because there was graffiti saying that he was alive.

--Paul Krassner, San Francisco Bay Guardian, July 7, 1999

Paul Krassner covered the Patty Hearst trial for the Berkeley Barb and Playboy. His Impolite Interviews (Seven Stories Press) and Pot Stories for the Soul (High Times Books) were both published in 1999.

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