16 Crazy Facts About The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst

16 Crazy Facts About The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst

Trista - February 23, 2019

Every so often, a crime occurs that shocks the nation. In the 1970s, that crime, or rather, a string of crimes, revolved around Patty Hearst, a California princess who was born into luxury but was kidnapped by a terrorist organization when she was only 19 years old. She went on a national crime spree that included at least three armed bank robberies and one parking lot shootout. She went from being the pity of the nation to the top of the most wanted list.

At a time when conditions such as Stockholm syndrome and brainwashing weren’t recognized, Patty was considered a common criminal and wholly liable for her acts. Her trial would have been considered a farce by today’s standards, and she was convicted for all of the crimes that she had participated in while under the duress of having been kidnapped. She was finally exonerated and became an activist for people living with AIDS. Today, her name is almost synonymous with forensic psychology and Stockholm syndrome, a condition in which kidnapping victims sympathize with their captors.


16 Crazy Facts About The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst
William Randolph Hearst, American newspaper mogul and father of Patty Hearst. James E. Purdy – United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a49373/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

16. Patty Hearst was the daughter of William Randolph Hearst

Patty Hearst was born into one of the most influential families in the United States of America. Her great-grandmother was Phoebe Hearst, a renowned philanthropist. Her grandfather was William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate who built Hearst Communications, which would become the largest newspaper and movie-reel business in the world. He owned upwards of 30 major newspapers, including The New York Times and The San Francisco Examiner. Patty’s father, Randolph Hearst, became chairman of the company, which came to be known as the Hearst Board. He managed many of the newspapers that his father had acquired until he retired in 1996.

The Hearst family enjoyed prestige both financially and politically. Patty was born into a life of privilege and grew up in a prestigious area of San Francisco. She attended private schools and attended Menlo College before transferring to The University of California, Berkeley. As her father was one of many heirs to the Hearst fortune, her parents didn’t see any need to take any particular security precautions with any of their children. Though a wealthy heiress, Patty enjoyed a relatively normal life as a typical college student in California. All of that changed when she was kidnapped, and her story would make national headlines for years to come.

16 Crazy Facts About The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst
Patty as a student before her kidnapping. CBS News.

15. Patty Hearst was kidnapped on February 4, 1974

Patty lived with her fiancé, Steven Weed, a Berkeley professor. When she was in her sophomore year of studying art history, only 19 years old, someone knocked on her door asking to use the phone. They bound and gagged Patty and beat her fiancé. Someone fired shots from an automatic rifle, and witnesses said that they heard Patty screaming for her abductors to leave her alone. Weed was knocked unconscious during the ordeal, and Patty disappeared. The initial terror of her kidnapping, combined with later torture and brainwashing techniques that could have come straight from a CIA Cold War handbook, likely contributed to the string of events that were soon to happen.

Patty’s kidnapping immediately made national headlines, not surprising seeing as her family owned the country’s major newspapers. What was so startling was that her grandfather had made his name in “yellow journalism,” a precursor to today’s tabloids that prided itself on sensationalism and “people interest” stories rather than current events. The traumatic event of Patty’s kidnapping could have easily looked like a sensationalized story, but it was all too real. The granddaughter of the man who inspired Citizen Kane had been stuffed into the trunk of a car and taken to an unknown location.

16 Crazy Facts About The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst
The SLA symbol on a flag. Static.

14. The Symbionese Liberation Army was behind her kidnapping

The Symbionese Liberation Army originally formed when a Berkeley professor wanted to provide educational opportunities for African Americans who were in prison. However, in the darker days of the Civil Rights Movement, the group’s ideology became increasingly radical and came to see black inmates as political prisoners of a white regime. Ironically, by the time Patty was kidnapped, the only member of the SLA who was African American was its leader, Donald Defreeze. He had spent time in prison and was a recent escapee, putting him at the top of the most wanted list in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Defreeze saw the SLA as a military group of “urban guerrillas” and viewed its military strength in rather hyperbolic terms. He called himself the “field marshal” of an organization that stood against “racism, sexism, ageism, fascism, individualism, competitiveness, possessiveness and all other institutions that have made or sustained capitalism.” Even though the group had only a dozen members, Defreeze planned to kill the guards of predominantly African-American prisons and even killed a black educator for being “fascist.” The attack on the prison was called off, as Defreeze anticipated that it could have negative repercussions for the African-American inmates who were doing time there.

16 Crazy Facts About The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst
SLA propaganda from the 1970s. Static.

13. Patty and the SLA made radio broadcasts

The details of the first couple of months of Patty’s captivity were horrifying. She later attested that she had been kept inside a dark closet in sweltering conditions, where she was starved, beaten, and raped. Defreeze frequently used sexual techniques to dominate the women in the SLA, who constituted most of its membership. Within two months, Patty and the SLA began making tapes that were used in radio broadcasts all across the country. She said that she was okay but was a bit bruised up. However, the people who had taken her had a medical unit and were tending to all of her wounds.

The initial radio broadcasts, in which Patty acted like she was perfectly fine, indicated that the torture techniques that Defreeze and other SLA members used on her were resulting in Stockholm syndrome. Stockholm syndrome occurs when the victim of a crime, usually a kidnapping, develops sympathy and positive feelings for his or her captor. The person becomes willing to comply with any requests that the captor makes and does not seek his or her own freedom. The terrifying experiences of being kidnapped and tortured are replaced by camaraderie and compassion. What would happen over the next few years would prove to be a classic case of Stockholm syndrome.

16 Crazy Facts About The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst
A wanted poster from 1974 for Donald Defreeze, the leader of the SLA. FBI/Pinterest.

12. The SLA made demands for her safe release

Though the government considered the SLA to be a terrorist organization, its members believed that they were fighting for the cause of justice among the poor and oppressed. They intended to use Patty’s kidnapping to bring publicity to their cause, mainly because she came from a family that sat among the elites that the SLA blamed for all of the problems in America. The initial goal was to trade Patty for two SLA members who were in prison for the murder of Marcus Foster, the black educator that they deemed to be a fascist. The police denied this request.

The SLA also demanded that her wealthy father donate $70 worth of food to every single person in California who was needy, a scheme that would cost him upwards of $400 million. He claimed that that amount was impossible, and the SLA backed down on demand. He donated $2 million worth of food, but riots broke out during the distribution. However, the SLA refused to release Patty. Meanwhile, the members were feeding her political propaganda while subjecting her to the cruelest of torture. Doing so would ensure that their cause, as urban guerrillas, would become palatable to the heiress who, until then, had spent her entire life in the lap of luxury.

16 Crazy Facts About The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst
Patty posed with a gun in front of the SLA flag. Living Life in an Open Suitcase.

11. On a later tape, Patty claimed that she had joined the SLA

The brainwashing techniques worked. On a later tape that was broadcasted across the country, Patty said, in a perfectly calm voice, that she had joined the Symbionese Liberation Army. She called her parents pigs and insisted that she would never again have anything to do with them. She adopted the nom de plume “Tania,” which she would go by for over a year. The SLA had given her the name, after Haydee Tamara Bunke Bider, who had fought in Bolivia alongside the freedom fighter Che Guevara. The psychological effects of kidnapping and torture had not been researched extensively, so there was little precedent to help people understand what was happening.

Hearst later gave testimony that she had been under coercion and acted in the means of self-preservation. She said, “DeFreeze told me that the war council had decided or was thinking about killing me or me staying with them and that I better start thinking about that as a possibility…I accommodated my thoughts to coincide with theirs.” She had to give in to the propaganda that they were feeding her, or else she stood a genuine possibility of death. All along, Patty’s parents never gave up on the hope that they would find her and that she would remember who she was.

16 Crazy Facts About The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst
Patty Hearst at the Hibernia bank, San Francisco, 15 April 1974. FBI/PBS/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.

10. Patty robbed a bank with the SLA

Many people across the nation who were following the story of Patty’s kidnapping waited with bated breath to see what would happen next, if this “Tania” persona would take over or if Patty would come back home. What happened next was inconceivable: On April 15, 1974, two months after her kidnapping, surveillance cameras showed her carrying an M1 carbine as she and fellow SLA members robbed the Sunset District branch of Hibernia Bank. She clearly announced herself as Tania, so that there would be no mistaking that she was, in fact, now a full-fledged member of the SLA.

The US attorney general immediately denounced Patty as a common criminal. James Browning, Jr., a prominent California jurist, claimed that based on the surveillance video, her participation was entirely voluntary. Later, though, an FBI agent would argue that the SLA members who were also at the robbery had guns pointed at her head. One witness claimed that as they ran to the getaway van, Patty was a few steps behind. Perhaps she was hoping that someone would get her out of what had become a personal hell. However, a public that had previously been sympathetic to her plight quickly turned against her. People removed signs saying, “God bless you, Patty,” from their front yards.

16 Crazy Facts About The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst
A photo of SLA member Emily Harris. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.

9. Patty Hearst later shot a store clerk with an automatic rifle

After robbing a bank, there was no going back for Patty. A month after the bank robbery, on May 16, 1974, William and Emily Harris – fellow SLA members – robbed a sporting goods store in Inglewood, California. The store clerk and manager followed the couple outside the store, and one of them restrained one of William’s wrists, causing his pistol to fall to the ground. Hearst watched the scuffle from the other side of the street. Her father had taught her how to use a gun at an early age, so she fired at least 30 rounds from an automatic rifle.

The store clerk and manager dove behind a light post, and neither one of them were seriously harmed in the attack. What the offense did do was remove any doubt that Patty had indeed resorted to a life of crime. The Symbionese Liberation Army, now responsible for multiple attacks involving firearms, was a top priority for the police and FBI. When Patty would later be tried, the crimes would be for robbing a bank and using a firearm with the intent to commit a felony. The question wouldn’t be whether or not she had actually done the deeds, but whether she had acted of her own volition.

16 Crazy Facts About The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst
The SLA raid ended in a deadly blaze. Past Daily.

8. A parking ticket led to a raid on SLA headquarters

When Patty was kidnapped, she disappeared without a trace. Despite one of the wealthiest and most influential families in the country using all of the resources at its disposal to find her, nothing was turning up. Even after the SLA began releasing tapes of her to radio stations, investigators could not track where her captors were holding her. Investigations following the bank robbery ended in cold trails. The firefight in the sporting goods parking lot brought them a lucky break, though: the getaway van that Patty and William and Emily Harris used had been issued a parking ticket earlier that day.

The parking ticket led investigators to a suburban hideaway, which was probably the house where Patty was held during her initial months of captivity, when she was beaten, raped, and kept in a dark closet. It was probably where she had undergone her transformation from Patty, the wealthy heiress, to Tania, the urban guerrilla who was unapologetic in her militant crusade. Now that police had their fingers on her whereabouts, though, they weren’t preparing a rescue mission. No, after the heinous crimes that Patty had participated in, they were preparing for an all-out raid that would leave no survivors.

16 Crazy Facts About The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst
Everyone inside the house died. All That’s Interesting.

7. The raid was the biggest in California history

When the police descended on the house in Los Angeles on May 17, 1974 – the day after the sporting goods shootout – they would fire over six thousand rounds of ammunition. A task force of 374 men – including a SWAT team – surrounded the house. The police issued a verbal warning, but the occupants of the house ignored it. The police were determined to get the terrorist gang, alive or dead, even if doing so meant that Patty would die, as well. As the events unfolded, they realized that the SLA members were not going to give up and would rather die than surrender.

The police threw in canisters of tear gas to try to force the members out, but they refused to surrender. The house finally caught on fire, and after firefighters extinguished the blaze, all but three members of the SLA -including the “field marshal,” Defreeze – were found dead. They had either been shot or burned to death, and police put what remained of the group’s arsenal on public display as a means of posthumously humiliating them. The three members who survived the raid were the three who were at the sporting goods store the day before: William and Emily Harris, and Patty Hearst.

16 Crazy Facts About The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst
Newspaper heiress Patty Hearst featured on the cover of TIME magazine. Pinterest.

6. Patty became a fugitive

Following the raid on the SLA headquarters, Patty, William, and Emily became fugitives. They traveled across the country and four a while lived in a Pennsylvania farmhouse. Her appearances changed so dramatically that her later mugshot scarcely resembled the 19-year-old girl who was kidnapped from Berkeley, California. In fact, when she was in a car accident, the three police officers who assisted her did not recognize her – even though her face was plastered all across the country as a wanted fugitive. While living at the farmhouse in Pennsylvania, the group ran four miles every day with weights on their ankles to ensure that they stayed in shape for future guerrilla activities.

With Patty on the run, the FBI leveled 20 crimes against her, two of which carried life sentences. However, she was less than apologetic. She sent a tape to a radio station in which she gave a eulogy for her comrades-in-arms who had perished at the raid. On the tape, she said that even though life is precious to her, she would never surrender. Meanwhile, while the FBI was looking for her all across the country, she and the Harris’s busied themselves with training new SLA recruits in how to use firearms.

16 Crazy Facts About The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst
Patty Hearst’s arrest photo as a convicted bank robber in 1975. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.

5. Patty Hearst was arrested at an apartment in California

The trio returned to California, where they continued engaging in bank robberies and other crimes. During one bank robbery, Emily Harris accidentally killed a bystander. Various tip-offs led investigators to believe that Patty was now in California, and one tip-off, in particular, led them to an apartment, where both Emily and Patty were seated together at a kitchen table. They immediately arrested both of the women. Under different circumstances, Patty’s horrifying ordeal would have finally been over. However, given the crime spree that she had participated in, she was hauled off like a common criminal.

When arrested, Patty gave a clench-fisted salute, customary of SLA members, and declared that she was an urban guerrilla. Along with her comrades, she was charged with three counts of bank robbery and the use of a firearm in the attempt to commit a felony. She was unapologetic and retained her “Tania” persona. However, when she learned that her parents still loved her and were looking for her, the dam broke, and she remembered who she was. It was as if she had developed multiple personalities to cope with the immense trauma that she had undergone; now that it was finally over, “Patty” could re-emerge.

16 Crazy Facts About The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst
Patty Hearst mad national news again when she was captured by police. Woodstock Whisperer.

4. At her trial, Patty told of her brainwashing at the hands of the SLA

In the 1970s, forensic psychology was nascent at best. Patty was put on trial for the crimes that she had committed; seeing as there was surveillance footage of the bank robberies, there was no denying that she had indeed committed them. However, at her trial, she told of how her captors had brainwashed her. Getting an acquittal on such grounds was unprecedented, as one customarily had to prove insanity during the committal of a crime. Still, there were clear signs that her “Tania” person was the result of her extreme trauma. Forensic psychologist Margaret Singer, who became an expert in social and religious contexts of crime, examined her.

Singer found that immediately following her arrest, Patty tested at an IQ of 83, abysmally below her pre-abduction IQ of 130. She also described her as having a “low-effect zombie.” Within a few weeks, her IQ had spiked up to 112, but it remained below her previous level. She also had severe nightmares and smoked heavily, things that she didn’t do before, and had memory lapses of what her life was like before she adopted the Tania persona. The court appointed Louis Jolyon West, an expert in brainwashing, to determine if she had been brainwashed. He believed that she had.

16 Crazy Facts About The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst
Newsweek cover featuring Patty Hearst on trial. Afflictor.

3. The defense had to prove that Patty was not a willing participant in her crimes

The trial for the Hibernia bank robbery began in January of 1976. The judge was personal acquaintances with the prosecution, and he refused to allow expert witnesses whose testimony might acquit Patty. He also used Patty’s behavior for the year after the bank robbery to serve as a testimony of her state of mind during the robbery. One expert witness that the judge did allow to the stand was a forensic psychologist named Harry Kozol; Kozol concluded that Hearst was “a rebel in search of a cause” and was fully liable for her participation in the bank robbery.

When Patty went to the witness stand, she appeared lethargic, allegedly because she had been given drugs. She testified that she had been raped and also testified against Emily Harris. In retaliation, Emily produced a trinket that one of the SLA members who had assaulted her had given Patty, claiming that they had been in a romantic relationship. In the court’s closing statement, the judge did not even make mention of the fact that Patty had been kidnapped. He declared that she had been willfully complicit in the crimes and was not acting under coercion at all. Her defense attorney said, in his closing statement, “But simple application of the rules, I think, will yield one decent result, and, that is, there is not anything close to proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Patty Hearst wanted to be a bank robber. What you know, and you know in your hearts to be true is beyond dispute. There was talk about her dying, and she wanted to survive.”

16 Crazy Facts About The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst
Patty Hearst in handcuffs with the U.S. Marshals. NY Daily News.

2. Patty Hearst was convicted of armed robbery and use of firearms to commit a felony

Patty, the dethroned princess of the Hearst empire, was sentenced to 35 years of prison. At the beginning of her prison term, her lung collapsed in what was only the beginning of a long string of medical problems that ultimately prevented her from testifying against the Harris’s at their trial. She was held in solitary confinement, as she was deemed a security threat. When she became eligible for bail, her father immediately put up the money and hired a dozen bodyguards to protect her. Her parents tried to take her case to the Supreme Court, but their requests were denied.

Patty’s sentence became a cause that high-profile judges and politicians took up. The attorney general of California, Evelle Younger, said that even though she didn’t have a brainwashing defense, Patty’s case should be reviewed because it all began with her kidnapping. Senator Leo Ryan, who would die a few weeks later in the massacre at Jonestown, Guyana, collected signatures for Patty to be released. After the Jonestown massacre, actor John Wayne publicly remarked on the idea that a fanatical preacher could brainwash 900 people into committing suicide, but the SLA couldn’t brainwash a teenage girl that they had kidnapped. Patty’s bail was revoked in May of 1978, and no security precautions were taken at the prison until, on the day of the Harris’s’ hearing, a dead rat was found on her bunk.

16 Crazy Facts About The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst
Patty Hearst became an AIDS activist. Zimbio.

1. President Carter granted her clemency

Patty’s parents had divorced under the duress of their daughter’s kidnapping, sensationalized crime spree, and ensuing imprisonment. Still, even after the Supreme Court declined to hear her case, they did not give up in trying to get justice for her. They appealed to President Jimmy Carter, who agreed to grant her clemency. Twenty-two months into her prison sentence, she was released from prison, though her life would never again be the same. Not only had she made national headlines, but she was a convicted felon who would never have equal rights as ordinary citizens.

On January 20, 2001, on President Bill Clinton’s last day in office, he granted a full pardon to Patty Hearst. She had been married to one of the bodyguards that her father had hired, Bernard Lee Shaw, since her release from prison, and had raised two children, Lydia and Gillian Hearst-Shaw. She published a memoir in 1981 called Every Secret Thing; ironically, events such as her repeated rapes were used against her as a suggestion that she had engaged in a mutual relationship. She denounced the assertion as being outrageous and damaging to rape victims everywhere.

Patty dedicated much of the rest of her life to charity and volunteer work and even began a foundation to help people who were suffering from AIDS. She also appeared on multiple documentaries, including one in which she took viewers inside her grandfather’s home, Hearst Castle. In 1992, Anthony Davis’ play Tania, which is based on her real-life story, premiered at the American Music Theatre Festival. Patty also appeared in films that were loosely about her harrowing experiences, as well as several journalism shows, such as Dateline, in which she detailed what she went through at the hands of the SLA.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

“God Bless You, Patty: The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst.” Factinate.

“The Kidnap of Patty Hearst” Documentary. Great Crimes & Trials.

“Patty Hearst,” by the editors of biography.com. Biography.com.

“Patty Hearst.” Wikipedia.

“Kidnapped Heiress: The Patty Hearst Story.” NBC News.