Publishing heiress Patty Hearst was studying art history at UC Berkeley when she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army on February 4, 1974. She resurfaced a short time later as Tania — a full-time urban guerrilla and sometime bank robber who had cast off her old bourgeois life and joined the SLA. Hearst quickly became the Bay Area’s most famous “leftist,” and posters of her wielding a sawed-off carbine in front of the SLA’s seven-headed cobra popped up on kiosks and apartment walls throughout Berkeley.
But once she was arrested and tried for her participation in the 1974 holdup of a San Francisco bank, Hearst began portraying herself quite differently. Ever since, she has depicted herself as a serious student who was not interested in — and even ignorant of — the radical politics of the times. When lawyer F. Lee Bailey defended Hearst for her role in the crime, he portrayed her as a typical nineteen-year-old college student concerned primarily with her studies and her upcoming marriage.
But the basics of revolutionary thought weren’t exactly new to Hearst, although this was never pointed out at her trial or in the pages of her 1982 autobiography. Hearst studied revolutionary thought as a first-year student at Menlo College, the Atherton junior college she attended before transferring to Cal. The publishing heiress is even alleged to have wisecracked to her professor that participating in revolutionary activities would be a sure way to rankle her own famously conservative parents.
Now, Hearst is likely to be at the center of yet another SLA trial — this time as a star witness for the prosecution. And the lawyers who are representing her former SLA colleagues are all but certain to use the contradictions in her accounts of those days as a key part of their defense strategy.
On January 16 this year, former SLA members Emily “Yolanda” Harris, Sara Jane Olson, Michael Bortin, and Bill “General Teko” Harris of Oakland were arrested for the slaying of forty-two-year-old Myrna Opsahl during the robbery of the Carmichael branch of the Crocker National Bank on April 21, 1975. A fifth suspect, James Kilgore, remains a fugitive.
In Every Secret Thing, her 1982 autobiography, Hearst accused Emily Harris of firing the shotgun blast that killed Opsahl. She also wrote that Bill Harris, Olson, Bortin, and Kilgore were participants in the robbery. Hearst, who admits driving a getaway car, was granted immunity in the case years ago, freeing her to testify in the forthcoming trial but once again shining the spotlight back on her. The forthcoming case could hinge on Hearst’s credibility as a witness.
“Given that the only person naming anybody individually is Patty Hearst, her testimony seems to be a central issue in everybody’s trial,” said Stuart Hanlon, Emily Harris’s attorney. “She’s really, in many ways, the entire case.”
The SLA, which never counted more than a dozen soldiers in its ranks, emerged in Berkeley in 1973. Escaped convict Donald DeFreeze — known as General Field Marshal Cinque — led a gang of young, white, well-educated, middle-class zealots who declared war on the US government, pledging to stamp out “competition, individualism, fascism, racism, sexism, and imperialism,” according to one of the SLA’s innumerable propaganda documents. With “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!” as its battle cry, the SLA was well-armed and violent. Its first public act was the assassination of Oakland school Superintendent Marcus Foster on November 6, 1973.
Hearst’s conversion was a huge publicity coup for the SLA, which had a knack for attracting media attention. Despite its lack of support from mainstream leftists, the SLA had apparently wooed to its side a symbol of the hated ruling-class elite — the granddaughter of the Hearst publishing empire.
But Hearst, who condemned virtually all aspects of her former life while on the run with the SLA, reversed herself after being captured. In fact, she later argued that she couldn’t have been a more inappropriate choice to be a celebrity revolutionary. In Every Secret Thing, she portrayed her life at Cal with fiancé Steven Weed as decidedly apolitical. “Berkeley was known far and wide as the fountainhead of the student rebellion and campus uprising of the ’60s, a haven for radicals and revolutionaries, a hotbed of communism, Marxism, socialism, and whatever -ism might be current at the moment,” she wrote. “But by the time Steve and I moved to Berkeley in the fall of 1972, almost all that had withered away. … Serious students simply did not have time for the protests of the ’60s.”
After being abducted from her Ben-venue Avenue apartment, Hearst received a crash course in revolutionary theory from her captors, who she said briefly dubbed her “bourgeois bitch” and Marie Antoinette, because she “lived in her own cocoon of ignorance.”
“He mentioned country after country and [named] each of the revolutionary groups involved, and when it became apparent that I did not know what he was talking about, he berated me for being so ignorant of the ‘people’s movements’ in all parts of the world,” Hearst wrote of one of her early sessions with General Field Marshal Cinque.
Hearst’s image as a political neophyte also was stressed in her 1976 trial for participating in the Hibernia Bank robbery. The flamboyant F. Lee Bailey told the jury that Cinque had given Hearst a simple choice: “Do what I say or I’ll blow your head off.”
But Hearst actually took a somewhat more active role in her revolutionary education. After graduating a year early from Crystal Springs High School, she enrolled at Menlo College in the fall of 1971 and attended history professor Joseph Bertrand’s course “History of Revolution.”
The class exposed Hearst to a broad spectrum of revolutionary thought. Students were assigned everything from the Communist Manifesto to Plato’s Republic. Other required reading included Mao’s Little Red Book, the writings of Ho Chi Minh, and Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, a collection of essays focusing on racism that became an important part of the Black Power movement. “It was based completely on revolutionary readings and discussions of the readings,” Bertrand remembered. “There were also readings related to quite a few movements in emerging African states.”
Although Bertrand described Hearst as an “excellent and conscientious” student, he doesn’t remember her as overly enthusiastic in class. “She displayed somewhat of a slight indifference,” the seventy-six-year-old Bertrand recalled during a recent telephone interview from his Palo Alto home. “I got the feeling she came in with the idea that this was going to be interesting, and it wasn’t very interesting for her. She didn’t participate too much.”
But the class may have inspired Hearst in more concrete ways. A former Menlo College professor who asked to remain anonymous remembers hearing from Bertrand that Hearst once said that getting involved with a revolutionary group would be a great way to “fix” her parents. It was allegedly delivered in a joking manner, an offhand remark that college students would appreciate without taking seriously.
Asked recently about the story, Bertrand did not deny it. “I’d rather not go into that,” was his only reply. “I’d rather not comment.” But Bertrand does remember receiving “hate mail” from people on campus who believed that he had somehow contributed to Hearst’s transformation from innocent victim to urban guerrilla.
“The librarian didn’t care too much for the books I put on reserve,” he recalled, “and the people at the bookstore were upset about the books I ordered.”
Despite the intense scrutiny of the SLA and the Patty Hearst saga, Bertrand, who left Menlo College in 1979 and retired from Cogswell College in 1991, said he has never discussed Hearst’s involvement in his seminar with law enforcement officials or seen anything written about it.
The jury in Patty Hearst’s first trial didn’t buy her lawyer’s portrayal of her as a brainwashed innocent forced to participate in crimes by her revolutionary kidnappers. Hearst was found guilty of the Hibernia Bank robbery and later sentenced to seven years in prison. President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence after she served twenty-one months, and President Bill Clinton pardoned her shortly before leaving office last year.
Now Hearst has reentered the public eye as a result of the June 1999 arrest of alleged SLA member Kathleen Soliah, who was apprehended after being featured on an episode of “America’s Most Wanted.” Soliah had changed her name to Sara Jane Olson and was living quietly as a mother and homemaker in Minnesota. She was convicted in January for her role in planting bombs under Los Angeles police cars and sentenced to twenty years to life in prison.
Olson’s case helped rekindle the investigation of the Crocker National Bank branch robbery and the murder of Myrna Opsahl. Prosecutors in Los Angeles contend that money from the robbery may have financed other terrorist activities, including the bombing attempts that earned Olson a conviction. They publicly called on Sacramento County prosecutors to pursue the case. And they weren’t alone. Jon Opsahl, the son of the slain bank customer, also campaigned for charges to be filed.
Federal prosecutors already had tried one alleged SLA member for the robbery without success. In April of 1976, Steven Soliah, Kathleen’s brother, was acquitted in federal court in Sacramento. Prosecutors chose not to put Hearst on the stand, perhaps because her performance at her own Hibernia Bank trial had been so poor. Hearst took the Fifth Amendment forty-two times, and her testimony was considered devastating to her case.
But while the charges in the Crocker robbery largely correspond with Hearst’s assertions in Every Secret Thing, new scientific analysis appeared to convince Sacramento county prosecutors to finally prosecute the case. “Using forensic testing procedures not available until recently, the FBI laboratory linked the lead pellets that killed Mrs. Opsahl to shotgun shells found in an SLA hideout in San Francisco,” Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully said.
Attorney Stuart Hanlon, who calls Hearst’s book “fiction,” still believes she’s the key to the prosecutor’s case. “There is some circumstantial evidence, but at best it might attempt to tie a group of people to the event, not an individual,” Hanlon said. “Given that the only person naming anybody individually is Patty Hearst, her testimony seems to be a central issue in everybody’s trial.”
Hearst’s reputation certainly has changed since her 1976 trial. Married to one of her former bodyguards, she lives in Connecticut and has two children. She has appeared in several films by cult director John Waters. But it is Hearst’s past that will matter most if she testifies. “Patty Hearst was like everybody growing up in that time,” Hanlon said. “She wanted something changed. She was probably very bored with her life and did a lot of things that young people at that time did. What she studied in school, what she’s done, will all be part of who she is.”
In a January 22 interview with CNN’s Larry King, Hearst accused the SLA of pursuing “their own little jihad” and seemed eager to testify. “You have to be honest,” Hearst said. “That’s why I published the book. I have never wavered from it. I don’t have any skeletons in my closet. I’m not afraid to go in front of a jury.”