The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst

by:   |   Jan 16 2015


Patty Hearst, granddaughter of the legendary newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (the inspiration for Citizen Kane!), was a mere 19 when she was kidnapped from her Berkeley, CA, home in 1974. She was spirited away by a small-time gang of crackpots called the Symbionese Liberation Army, who hoped to extort her family for ransom. News of her kidnapping—and her later joining forces with her captors—spread like wildfire, and the story became one of the biggest, most mysterious scandals of the 20th century. Imagine Paris Hilton joining a ragtag chapter of Al Qaeda, and you’ve got a sense of how odd it was. The kidnapping generated some seriously intense headlines—here’s some news coverage from the time:


The SLA was a left-wing revolutionary group that considered themselves a vanguard army and the leaders of the black revolution, even though only one of its members were black. Their mission was a little hazy, but generally focused on taking down large corporations and those responsible for the “fascist state” they were living in. Before even getting to Patty’s door, members of the SLA had criminal records—they’d murdered an Oakland school superintendent, and served jail time. As its symbol, the group adopted an image of a seven-headed cobra, taken from the seven principles of Kwanzaa, each head representing a principle to live by: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. They definitely were determined, that’s for sure.


The SLA targeted Patty because of what her family’s business, the Hearst Corporation, represented: corporate greed and “fascist” propaganda. During her captivity, she was allegedly locked in a closet, sexually assaulted, and constantly brainwashed. But when it came time to demand ransom, it became clear that the SLA weren’t criminal masterminds. They first demanded that Patty’s family provide everyone on welfare in the state of California with $70 worth of groceries. But there were 5.9 million people on welfare in the state at that time, and when the Hearsts couldn’t come up with $413 million, they donated $6 million to Berkeley-area food banks instead. Unimpressed, the SLA didn’t release Patty.

Shortly thereafter, the story took a deeply weird turn. Patty released a recording to the press where she said she’d changed her name to Tania, and had become a member of the SLA of her own free will. Neither the American public nor the authorities knew what to make of this; what had originally been a standard kidnapping case was now also a terrorist investigation.



A few months later, Patty was caught on videotape assisting an armed robbery by the SLA. She and her cohorts managed to escape the authorities and remained fugitives for about a year, until they were nabbed by authorities in a San Francisco apartment in 1975. When being being booked by authorities, Patty was asked her occupation. She responded, “urban guerrilla.”




Patty stood on trial for the bank robbery, and her lawyer advised her to use the defense of “involuntary intoxication,” meaning that the SLA had given her drugs that effected her judgement. This didn’t convince the jury, and Patty was convicted of armed robbery and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. She ended up only serving just shy of two years before Jimmy Carter stepped in and had her released under strict parole guidelines.  




Patty went on to marry her former bodyguard, have two children, and live a fairly normal life. (Or, as normal as you could expect from a media heiress with a record of joining a violent revolutionary group.) She also famously appeared in a bunch of John Waters movies. He was fascinated with Patty’s case, and her appearance in 1990’s Cry-Baby sparked years of friendship between the two. The heiress also currently raises prize-winning French bulldogs.


Patty Hearst and Fiance Bernard Shaw


There’s been decades of speculation surrounding Patty’s kidnapping. Was she brainwashed? Was she a willing participant? A little something in between? She wrote an autobiography while she was in hiding, saying that she was a willing participant in all of her actions with the SLA, but later retracted her statements. If you want to gorge on all this insanity, I recommend a documentary called Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst—it’s got some killer details on the case and the state of the media back when Patty was taken. Check out the trailer:

Whatever the truth may be about Patty’s willingness to be involved with the SLA, it’s a compelling story on many levels. Although the details of her kidnapping are still unclear, you can’t help but notice how poetic it all was: the daughter of the one of the biggest symbols of power and media control in the United States was (forced to) join a revolution, and turned on her family in front of the entire nation. The story made American public confront some pretty deep class issues, and the media coverage of the ransom demands brought to life the realities of poverty in the African-American and Hispanic communities. And though the SLA was undoubtedly fucked-up, there was a seed of truth in their mission. I’d like to believe that on some level, Patty saw the importance of her role in bringing those issues to light. Either way, it’s pretty powerful stuff.

Have you watched the doc or read her autobiography? Let us know what you think!

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Creative Director of G.A.L.

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