Patricia Campbell Hearst was born on February 20, 1954 in Los Angeles, California. Her grandfather was the press baron William Randolph Hearst, and her father was the board chairman of the Hearst Corporation, Randolph Hearst. After graduating from high school, Miss Hearst attended Menlo College and then UC Berkeley.
In a story that gripped the nation’s attention for months, Hearst was kidnapped on February 4, 1974 in her Berkeley apartment by several armed members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a pro-Marxist terror group that denounced the Hearst Corporation as the “corporate enemy of the people.” Describing Miss Hearst as a “prisoner of war,” the SLA initially issued a statement saying that the young woman’s release from captivity would be contingent upon the release of two SLA members—Russell Little and Joseph Remiro—who were serving prison time for the 1973 murder of Oakland (California) Schools Superintendent Marcus Foster. But law-enforcement authorities refused to accept that deal. Next, the SLA demanded that Miss Hearst’s father, in exchange for his daughter’s freedom, give away $6 million worth of food to California’s poor. Replying that $6 million was beyond his ability to pay, Mr. Hearst countered with the creation of a more modest, $2 million food-distribution program called People In Need, which ultimately proved to be poorly organized and ineffective. He also pledged that in January 1975 he would pay an additional $2 million. But the SLA criticized the quality of the food that was distributed through People In Need, and ultimately refused to release Miss Hearst.
On April 3, 1974—fifty-eight days after Hearst’s kidnapping—the SLA released an audiotape “communiqué” on which the young woman said: “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 also announced that she had adopted the name “Tania”—the nom de guerre of Haydée Tamara Bunke Bider, an Argentine-born East German communist revolutionary who was also Che Guevara‘s lover.
Twelve days later, Miss Hearst and four fellow SLA members—Patricia Soltysik, Donald DeFreeze, Camilla Hall, and Nancy Ling Perry—carried out a gunpoint robbery of some $10,690 from a Hibernia Bank in San Francisco. Two men who entered the bank while the robbery was in progress were shot and wounded. Characterizing the theft as an “expropriation,” Hearst said in a subsequent tape recording that “the difference between a criminal act and a revolutionary act is shown in what the money is used for.” In yet another communiqué, Hearst referred to her biological family as the “pig Hearsts,” and to Steven Weed, her fiancé, as “an ageist, sexist pig.”
On May 16, 1974, Hearst sprayed a Los Angeles sporting-goods shop with gunfire to facilitate the escape of SLA members William and Emily Harris, who had just robbed the store. The Harrises and Hearst hid in a Disneyland hotel following the incident. The next day, six SLA members—Angela Atwood, Donald DeFreeze, Camilla Hall, Nancy Ling Perry, Patricia Soltysik, and William Wolfe—were killed in a two-hour shootout with police at the terror group’s hideout in South Central Los Angeles. Immediately thereafter, Hearst and the Harrises fled, with the help of radical sports writer and activist Jack Scott, to rural Pennsylvania.
On June 7, 1974, Hearst and the Harrises sent the media a recorded eulogy honoring their recently slain comrades. Hearst, for her part, proclaimed her undying love for the late William Wolfe and vowed that the SLA would never be deterred from its revolutionary mission. Hearst and the Harrises returned to the West Coast that fall.
On April 21, 1975, Hearst and Wendy Yoshimura drove the getaway cars for four SLA members—Emily Harris, Kathleen Soliah, Michael Bortin, and James Kilgore—who held up the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California, and also for their lookouts, William Harris and Steven Soliah (Kathleen’s brother). During the robbery, Emily Harris shot and killed a 42-year-old innocent bystander named Myrna Opsahl, who was a church secretary and the mother of four children.
On September 18, 1975, FBI agents raided a San Francisco apartment looking for Soliah in relation to a case where she and Kilgore had planted nail-packed pipe bombs beneath two Los Angeles patrol cars. They did not find Soliah, but they did find and arrest her brother as well as Patricia Hearst and three other SLA members.
In a March 1976 trial in which she was represented by defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, Miss Hearst was charged with armed bank robbery and the use of a firearm in the commission of a felony—specifically, the April 15, 1974 Hibernia Bank robbery in San Francisco. In her testimony, Hearst accused the SLA of brainwashing her, raping her, and forcing her to make the numerous tape recordings that had been distributed to the media. On March 20, 1976, Hearst was found guilty of the robbery charge and was sentenced to 35 years in prison, a term that was later reduced to 7 years. She also later pleaded “no contest” to charges involving her gunfire at the Los Angeles sporting-goods store in ’74, for which she was sentenced only to probation. While being booked into jail, Hearst listed her occupation as “Urban Guerrilla” and asked her attorney to “Tell everybody that I’m smiling, that I feel free and strong and I send my greetings and love to all the sisters and brothers out there.”
In February 1979, President Jimmy Carter commuted Hearst’s prison sentence after she had spent only 22 months behind bars. In April 1979 Hearst married Bernard Shaw, whom she had met in November 1976 when he was a bodyguard protecting Hearst while she was free on bail. The marriage lasted until Shaw’s death in 2013, and the couple had two children.
In 1982 Hearst wrote her autobiography and later became an actress. She was granted a full pardon for her crimes on January 20, 2001 by President Bill Clinton, on his last day in office. When Kathleen Soliah (ak.a. Mary Jane Olson), William and Emily Harris, and Michael Bortin were tried (and convicted) in 2002 for the 1975 murder of Myrna Opsahl, Hearst took the stand and testified against them.
Further Reading: “Patty Hearst” (Biography.com, FBI.gov, Britannica.com, & DocumentingReality.com); “What Is the Symbionese Liberation Army?” (Slate.com, 1-24-2002); “The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army” (PBS.org); “Patty Hearst Trial” (by Douglas O. Linder, 2007); “Death to the Fascist Insect: Looking Back 40 Years, Does the SLA Make Any More Sense?” (by Michael Taylor, Fall 2014); “Patricia Hearst Says She ‘Just Plain Couldn’t’ Flee Her Captors” (NY Times, 12-11-1981); “Clinton Grants Full Pardon to Patty Hearst” (Guardian.com, 1-20-2001).