Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


The Claiming of Patty Hearst

It was 9:40 A.M. on the fifteenth day of April in 1974, tax day. Customers were going to the Hibernia Bank in the Sunset district of San Francisco to make their usual transactions. Suddenly four white women and a black man walked in and yelled, "It's a hold-up! Down on the floor! On your faces, you motherfuckers!"

In under four minutes, they robbed the bank of over $10,000, wounded two bystanders, and fled in a getaway car.

Patty Hearst holding a gun (AP)
Patty Hearst holding a gun (AP)

When reviewing the videotape afterward, the police were in for a surprise. Among the hold-up gang they saw the face of a nineteen-year-old woman who'd been missing for over two months: Patricia Campbell Hearst. Not only that, she was brandishing a carbine and acting excited, as if she were one of them. It was to be one of the most incongruous events of that period, the truth of which is still under debate.

William Randolph Hearst (AP)
William Randolph Hearst (AP)

Patty is the granddaughter of the legendary newspaper publisher, William Randolph Hearst. Two black men and a white woman had kidnapped her at gunpoint from her Berkeley apartment on February 4th and taken her captive. They identified themselves as members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). The eventthe political kidnapping of an heiress from a prominent family-was kept under wraps for twelve hours, and then it began to generate sensational media coverage around the world. Despite national unrest among college students, this young woman had never been a political activist or taken up a violent cause. What was the association?

The apparent leader, Donald DeFreeze, called himself Field Marshall Cinque Mtume. Like Charles Manson only five years before, he wanted to start a revolution of the underprivileged, and he intended to do that by declaring war on those with status and money. From his followers he commanded total obedience and worship.

By her account, Patty was kept blindfolded for two months in a closet at the group's headquarters, unable even to use the bathroom in privacy. DeFreeze realized that her visibility as a social figure that had gained the nation's sympathy would showcase his cause, so he worked to turn her into an angry revolutionary.

From her report, DeFreeze relied on harsh psychological techniques:

  • She was isolated and made to feel that no one was going to rescue her.
  • She was physically and sexually abused by various members of the gang.
  • She was told that she might die.
  • She was fed lies about how the gang was oppressed by the establishment.
  • She was forced to record messages that blasted those she loved.

By early April, she had a new identity and was deemed ready to accompany the gang on their next daring foray.

Patty's doting father, Randolph Hearst, had initially responded to the SLA's demands (made by tape and given to the media) by distributing millions of dollars worth of food to the poor, which badly backfired. Groups like the Black Muslims exploited the opportunity to fill their own coffers, and others grabbed the free food to sell at exorbitant prices.

The SLA also wanted their propaganda published, a demand with which Hearst complied. They said they'd made "an arrest" and that Patty was in "protective custody." Then they insisted that more food be distributed, at which point Hearst laid down a conditionnamely, Patty's safe return. Abruptly, all negotiations ceased.

As weeks passed with no Patty and no further demands, Hearst and his wife feared the worst. Throughout this waiting period, several tapes of Patty's voice were released, and the content of these "communiqués" began to shift in favor of the SLA's agenda. The Hearsts believed that she was being forced to say these things, but then they received a photo of her with a carbine rifle in her arms, standing next to the seven-headed cobra, which was the SLA's symbol. A tape revealed that her name was now "Tania" (after the girlfriend of Che Guevera, a primary mover in the spread of socialism in Cuba and Argentina). She made it clear that she had joined the cause. While Patty had once defied her parents' wishes by living with a man who'd been her teacher, she had never before expressed such sentiments. It all seemed incongruous.

Not long after that photo and tape, she participated in the "fundraiser" at the Hibernia bank. When the attorney general viewed the video footage, he formed the opinion that Patty had been a willing participant. He got a warrant for her arrest as a "material witness," but her continued involvement with the gang soon changed her status in the eyes of the law to something much more serious.


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