Jim Dey: Whatever happened to ... Patty Hearst

Jim Dey: Whatever happened to ... Patty Hearst

She's a 63-year-old widow now, her husband and onetime bodyguard having died in 2013.

The mother of two, Patty Hearst-Shaw plays a prominent role in social and charitable affairs, devoting her time to, among other things, a foundation that helps children suffering from AIDS.

But it's hard to let go of what happened in 1974, when she was a 19-year-old kidnapping victim who morphed into a violent revolutionary and called herself "Tania" and her parents "pigs."

Together with her captors, Hearst robbed banks and planted bombs as part of an effort to lead a violent leftist revolution to overthrow the "fascist" United States government.

After her arrest following a months-long police dragnet, Hearst re-embraced her previous role as a wealthy daughter of privilege, claiming she was a victim of kidnapping, rape and brain-washing that excused her conduct.

Now the nation is about to get another look at the incredible story of Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, a curious combination of upper-middle-class whites led by a black ex-convict.

Starting Feb. 11, CNN is presenting a six-part "docuseries" called "The Radical Story of Patty Hearst" that will debut with back-to-back one-hour episodes.

The series is scheduled to run for three consecutive Sunday evenings, two episodes at a time.

Inspired by Jeffrey Toobin's best selling book "American Heiress," the series includes new material discovered in thousands of pages of legal documents and interviews some of the key players, including SLA kidnapper William Harris and Hearst's former boyfriend, Steven Weed.

"They paint a much more vivid picture of what actually happened," said series executive producer Pat Kondelis.

Patty Hearst, the granddaughter of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, did not participate either in the series or with Toobin's book.

"I wish she would have talked to us," Kondelis said. "We still try to get her voice (from previous interviews) in as much as possible."

Among those whose criminal activities are covered in the massive production is University of Illinois teacher and staff member James Kilgore, an SLA member who moved to Champaign-Urbana to join his faculty-member wife after he was released from a California prison.

Both Toobin and Kondelis said Kilgore also declined to be interviewed. That did not deter them from outlining Kilgore's role in a bank robbery, in which a customer was shot and killed, and the planting of bombs aimed at killing police officers and civilians.

Kondelis said SLA members who participated in the documentary are not as forthcoming about the bombings as they are about their other criminal activities because there is no statute of limitations on charges of the attempted murder of a police officer.

"They all are minimizing their roles. They all participated in building and placing the bombs," said Kondelis, who noted that FBI agents linked materials recovered from an SLA bomb factory to those used to try to kill police officers.

"Their bombs were massive," he said.

Toobin, who has written other best-sellers, including one on the O.J. Simpson murder case, said he was drawn to the story because "it represents just how dangerous the U.S. had become in the 1970s." He also said it's a gripping tale because the "role of Patty Hearst remains a fascinating mystery."

Toobin said Hearst's conversion to terrorist and back again raises questions whose answers suggest an ability to adapt to circumstances as a means of survival.

"She was the victim of a tragic and violent kidnapping. But then she went on to commit some terrible crimes," he said.

Hearst is the only American ever to receive a commutation of a prison sentence from one president (Jimmy Carter) and a pardon from another (Bill Clinton).

"That tells you a lot about the value of wealth and privilege," Toobin said.

The story broke in February 1974, when armed gunmen invaded a Berkeley, Calif., apartment occupied by Hearst and Weed. Before carrying Hearst off, they severely beat Weed.

What appeared to be a high-profile kidnapping of the heir to the Hearst publishing empire took a dramatic turn several weeks later when Heart announced that she had joined her captors, members of the highly dangerous, revolutionary SLA. The SLA had previously distinguished itself by murdering Marcus Foster, superintendent of the Oakland schools, and severely wounding one of Foster's colleagues.

Thus began a saga that included a bank robbery in which Patty Hearst, armed with a gun and caught on camera, participated and a shootout with the Los Angeles Police in which six SLA members died.

Hearst would subsequently shoot up a sporting goods store to help Harris and his wife escape a security guard who suspected them of shoplifting.

The most significant event, however, was the May 1974 shootout that occurred after Los Angeles Police discovered six SLA members, including its escaped convict leader Donald DeFreeze, staying at a house there and demanded surrender.

"Hey pig, smoke this," replied one of the heavily armed group before opening fire.

Over the next 70 minutes, SLA members fired between 3,000 to 4,000 rounds at police, who discharged 5,300 of their own. Although the house caught fire, the group inside refused to come out and all were killed. The entire melee was broadcast lived on Los Angeles television.

"I've never seen anyone not try to escape fire. I think that tells you they were that committed or that crazy," said Bill Deiz, who covered the story for KNXT News.

Bill Harris said the SLA died in that fire, a semantic assertion that's dubious.

He; his wife, Emily; and Hearst watched the shoot-out on television like everyone else.

They immediately vowed to soldier on, eventually forming an alliance with Kilgore, Kilgore's then-girlfriend, Kathleen Soliah, and other Soliah associates.

Through the aid of Kilgore and Soliah, the trio traveled to Scranton, Pa., where they hid out in a farmhouse for months before returning to California to continue the fight.

To financially support their revolutionary activities, the re-organized SLA started robbing banks.

On April 21, 1975, the group, which included Hearst as a getaway car driver, targeted the Crocker National Bank in Sacramento.

Four heavily armed robbers — Kilgore, Mike Bortin, Emily Harris and Kathleen Soliah — entered the bank when it opened at 10 a.m., immediately terrorizing a bank customer and employees.

"People were screaming, yelling, cussing at us, pistol-whipping people, jumping on counters, pointing shotguns at the back of our heads," bank employee Rachel Harp said.

During the melee, Emily Harris shot bank customer Myrna Opsahl point-blank with a shotgun. The group also kicked and beat a pregnant bank employee, forcing a miscarriage.

Authorities who were interviewed for the CNN series said the SLA escalated their violent activities from there, launching a bombing campaign that demonstrated a blood lust that far exceeded the violence perpetrated by other radical groups.

"What really separates the SLA from other groups is violence against people," former LA prosecutor Michael Latin said.

The SLA targeted police officers, he said, but the tactics they used and the size of the bombs they employed guaranteed that, if SLA's plans were successful, there would be a large number of civilian casualties.

"The byproducts of these bombs is that other people (besides police) were going to get killed, too," Latin said.

Authors of previous books on the SLA have described Kilgore as, among other things, a highly skilled bombmaker.

Hearst and the Harrises were finally arrested by the FBI in September 1975.

As the only surviving SLA member who participated in the robbery of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, Hearst was convicted of bank robbery by a jury that rejected her brainwashing defense.

Immediately after Hearst's arrest, the rest of the SLA disappeared.

"From that moment, we could not find James Kilgore, Michael Boltin, Kathleen Soliah and Josephine Soliah," FBI agent Jason Moulton said.

All were eventually arrested, but not for years. Eventually, most of those involved in the bank robbery and murder were charged.

They pleaded guilty to reduced charges and received prison sentences that were minor compared with the death penalty they could have faced for felony murder.

Toobin said authorities were not greatly interested in prosecuting the old murder case, partly because Patty Hearst was a "difficult and problematic witness" and partly because "of a real failure of law enforcement and the criminal-justice system" in handling the case.

These days, the remnants of the SLA continue to pursue active lives.

Bill Harris, whose interview showed no signs of contrition, later worked as a successful private investigator. Toobin said Harris' former wife, Emily, "completely withdrew from politics."

Looking back on what happened, the SLA comes across as a group of murderous sociopaths who were pursuing a quixotic dream of violent revolution.

"It is easy to dismiss what they did as crazy," Kondelis said.

But he said the facts show clearly that they were deadly serious and willing to engage in violence on a grand scale to make their political points.

"It's an extremely complex story," Kondelis said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com.

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jparks wrote on February 05, 2018 at 10:02 pm

Certain actions should disqualify you from performing certain future actions.

Yeah, being an Accessory To Murder in which the punishment in the state in which it was committed (California) made it eligible for the DEATH PENALTY falls into this category.

Not here.  Taxpayer dollars fund James Kilgore's paycheck.