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Today in history… the bizarre case of Patty Hearst

12:00am | & Lifestyle

ONE of the most bizarre episodes in American legal history began 45 years ago today, with the violent kidnapping of teenage American heiress Patty Hearst.

Over the next 19 months she would be involved in gun crimes with her kidnappers, a little-known extremist group, and later sentenced to 35 years in jail for her crimes, despite claiming she had been raped, threatened with death and brainwashed by her radical captors.

Patty Campbell Hearst was the granddaughter of American business tycoon William Randolph Hearst, whose newspaper and magazine publishing empire made him one of the richest men in the world. On February 5th, 1974, she was with her fiancé in her apartment in Berkeley, California, when she answered knock at the door and two men and a woman burst in. Both her fiancé and a neighbour who tried to intervene were beaten and tied up, while Patty was bundled into the boot of a car and driven away, with shots fired in the street.

It was assumed money was the motive for the kidnapping, but no ransom demand was received. In fact, the kidnapping was the work of members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a small and little-known left-wing militant group led by escaped convict Donald DeFreeze. They kidnapped Hearst for two reasons ­– first because she lived close to their San Francisco HQ, and second because they wanted to use her to negotiate the release of two SLA members imprisoned for murder.

When it became clear that wouldn’t happen, they instead demanded that Hearst’s family distribute $70 worth of food to every needy Californian – an operation which would cost an estimated $400 million. Meanwhile, efforts by the police and FBI to find the kidnapped 19-year-old came to nothing.

In later testimony Patty Hearst described how she was kept locked in a closet, blindfolded and with her hands tied, and repeatedly threatened with death. When let out for meals, she began to join in the group’s political discussions and was given its tracts to read. After weeks confined in the closet and suffering the effects of sensory deprivation she was given a choice – join the group and fight for its ideals, or be killed. In order to survive, Hearst admitted: “I accommodated my thoughts to coincide with theirs”.

With the trail gone cold and many people fearing she was dead, Americans were astonished when, two months after the abduction, the SLA released an audiotape of Patty announcing she had joined the group under the assumed name of Tania. Eleven days later there was even greater shock when she was captured on CCTV wielding a rifle during a bank robbery in San Francisco by members of the SLA, in which two men were shot and wounded.

Soon afterwards, police announced they were no longer searching for Patty Hearst as a kidnap victim, but as a willing member of a criminal gang. Speculation was rife in the press over whether she had really joined the SLA or was being forced to take part in its activities. A month later she was involved in another incident in which she emptied the entire magazine of an automatic rifle into a California storefront after its manager attempted to detain another SLA member.

She and two others fled to the SLA hideout, but found it surrounded by armed police. In the ensuing shootout, six SLA members (at least half the entire group) were killed, including leader DeFreeze. Over the next 16 months the surviving SLA members, including Patty Hearst, went on the run, living hand-to-mouth and often hidden by political sympathisers. But the police and FBI agents were on their trail and on September 18th, 1975, Patty Hearst was arrested in a San Francisco apartment.

She weighed just over six stones and her mental state was described by a clinical psychologist as that of “a low IQ, low-affect zombie”. Her measured IQ had dropped significantly, there were huge gaps in her memory prior to her abduction, she was smoking heavily and suffering nightmares. Despite all that, in January 1976, two years after being kidnapped, she was put on trial for active involvement in SLA crimes.

There was no precedent for a defence of having been ‘brainwashed’ and, under the effects of medication prescribed by prison doctors, Hearst did not present well in court, appearing lethargic and unconcerned. On March 20th she was convicted of bank robbery using a firearm and sentenced to the maximum prison term of 35 years. At a later hearing, a different judge reduced the term to seven years, but appeals for the case to be re-heard fell on deaf ears.

Sections of the American public were uncomfortable with the verdict, seeing Patty Hearst as a victim throughout her ordeal, but treated by the legal system as a common criminal. Following the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide (in which more than 900 followers of cult leader Jim Jones killed themselves on his orders) prominent US actor John Wayne asked how people could accept that Jones brainwashed 900 people into killing themselves, but could not accept that the SLA had brainwashed a brutally kidnapped teenage girl?

In 1979 President Jimmy Carter commuted Hearst’s sentence to the 22 months she had already served, enabling her release from jail, and in 2001 President Bill Clinton, on his last day in office, granted her a full pardon. Two months after her release, Patty Hearst married one of the policemen who had guarded her while she was on bail and they later had two children together. In the years since, she has been active in fundraising for several charities and is a successful dog breeder.

All the remaining SLA members were eventually tracked down, some after 20 years living quietly under assumed identities, and given jail sentences for their various crimes.

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