Patricia Campbell Hearst
In February 1974, Patricia Hearst, an unknown, 19-year-old Berkeley student, became a national figure. Her abduction by a revolutionary terrorist group — and her seeming conversion to their cause — grabbed headlines. America would follow the Hearst kidnapping saga for well over a year.
Hearst had grown up in privilege in Northern California. Looking back, she would describe her childhood as "really pretty perfect." Her family owned the Hearst media empire that her grandfather, William Randolph Hearst, had built in the early twentieth century. In 1974 she was living in Berkeley with her 26-year-old boyfriend, Steven Weed, a former teacher at her Catholic high school, and studying art history. Hearst's parents did not approve of Weed and the domestic arrangement, but the two became engaged nonetheless.
On February 4, 1974, their lives changed forever. Members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (S.L.A.) burst into the apartment, beating Weed and abducting Hearst. According to journalist Tim Findley, "the kidnap was meant as a prisoner swap. They meant to grab Patricia Hearst and trade her for Russ Little and Joe Remiro," two S.L.A. members who had been arrested and charged with the murder of Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster. Hearst's captors took her to a radical "safe house" where they confined her in a dark closet.
Hearst's family and fiancé anxiously waited to hear from her captors — along with a small army of journalists, who set up shop at the Hearsts' home in the wealthy San Francisco suburb of Hillsborough. On February 6, the S.L.A. announced it was holding Hearst, but issued no ransom terms. It would not be until February 12th that the Hearsts heard a recording of their daughter's voice, along with an S.L.A. demand that the Hearsts use their wealth and power to distribute food to the poor. "Mom, Dad," Patty said. "I'm with a combat unit that's armed with automatic weapons... I want to get out of here.. and I just hope you'll do what they say."
While the Hearsts negotiated the terms of the food distribution program, something was happening to their daughter in that gun-filled safe house. She would later describe being subjected to hours of revolutionary rhetoric, sleep and food deprivation, rape, and death threats. Barely older than their teenaged captive, members of the group alternately threatened her and educated her about capitalism's "crimes" — and her parents' complicity. Over several weeks, the S.L.A. released recordings that included their incendiary messages and Hearst's flat voice critiquing her parents' food distribution efforts. "I wish to say to Mr. Hearst and Mrs. Hearst," S.L.A. leader Donald DeFreeze intoned, "I am quite willing to carry out the execution of your daughter to save the life of starving men, women, and children of every race."
Then, on April 3, the S.L.A. issued a tape of the previously apolitical Hearst denouncing the "corporate state" and claiming "Tania" as a nom de guerre. Her shocked family believed she had been brainwashed; others saw her as a Stockholm Syndrome victim, identifying with the terrorists in a desperate ploy to stay alive. Hearst's "conversion" divided the nation — was it genuine or not? Twelve days later, she was caught on camera robbing a bank with members of the S.L.A. In a subsequent tape recording, Hearst told the world, "I am a soldier in the People's Army." She would shortly dismiss Weed as her "ex-fiancé" and proclaim her love for S.L.A. member Willie Wolfe, "the gentlest, most beautiful man I've ever known." (Wolfe would perish in a fiery gun battle with the Los Angeles police in mid-May.)
Life On the Lam
The next 17 months of Hearst's life were spent hiding out with the revolutionaries. Hearst's face appeared on an FBI "Wanted" poster next to those of DeFreeze and other S.L.A. members; the FBI called her a "material witness." Her parents insisted Patty could not have been acting of her own free will. Images of Hearst posing with weapons became counterculture icons, although most people on the Left, along with mainstream America, viewed the S.L.A. as freak extremists. During a bank robbery in April 1975, the S.L.A. murdered an innocent bystander, Myrna Opsahl. When Hearst and her companions were finally apprehended in September 1975, she famously declared herself an "urban guerrilla." "Is she an urban guerrilla or a kidnap victim who would like to go home now?" one reporter asked. The nation and the news media anticipated a sensational trial.
Arguments in Her Defense
The Hearsts enlisted star criminal defender F. Lee Bailey to represent their daughter. Mrs. Hearst insisted, "She's primarily a kidnap victim. She never went off and did anything of her own free will." The defense team accentuated Hearst's fear and terror, along with the abuses of her captivity, and suggested that she may have been drugged into a "disordered and frightened" state. But the jury didn't buy it. On March 11, 1976, they found Patricia Hearst guilty of armed bank robbery and sentenced her to seven years in prison. S.L.A. members would later receive eight-year terms for Hearst's abduction.
After serving nearly two years behind bars, Hearst had her sentence commuted by President Jimmy Carter. She got married and published a best-selling memoir, Every Secret Thing, in 1982. She settled with her family in Connecticut and raised two daughters. Beginning in 1990, Hearst re-emerged in public life, albeit as something of a cult figure, appearing in several movies by director John Waters.