Photo: Federal Bureau of investigation
Forty-five years ago today, law enforcement officials arrested Patty Hearst, putting an end to the nearly two-year-old saga of the Symbionese Liberation Army. Hearst, the newspaper heiress whose notoriety helped make the SLA a household name, had managed to elude authorities since her kidnapping on Feb. 4, 1974.
Hearst’s arrest and circus-like trial quickly became the blinding sun, the rest of the SLA lost in the glare. As a result, even people who remember the SLA may forget that six SLA members were victims of perhaps the biggest show of police tactical force in U.S. history. On May 17, 1974, 410 Los Angeles police officers (including members of the relatively new SWAT team), in addition to dozens of FBI agents and California State Patrol officers, took on the SLA, killing the six in a fusillade of bullets and a blaze that quickly engulfed the house they occupied.
Hearst’s actions the day before resulted in a deadly domino effect. On the afternoon of May 16, Hearst was waiting in a van outside of Mel’s Sporting Goods in Inglewood, California, where fellow SLA members Bill Harris and Emily Harris shopped for supplies. They paid for a variety of small items, but inexplicably Bill Harris decided to steal a small ammunition pouch. The clerk noticed, and he and a manager followed the Harrises out of the store. They attempted to make a citizen’s arrest and managed to get a handcuff around one of Harris’ wrists. At the same time, Hearst sprayed gunfire from a submachine gu toward the melee. The Harrises and Hearst fled, later abandoning the van. When police found the vehicle, they noticed a parking ticket for a block of south-central Los Angeles, which led them to the SLA hideout.
Throughout the night of the 16th and early morning of the 17th, the LAPD amassed hundreds of officers and made a plan. By 5:30 p.m. on the 17th, according to the official police account, several warnings were issued to the occupants of 1466 E. 54th St. But then a shot rang out, and for the next hour gunfire pummeled the house and tear gas canisters were thrown inside. The house caught on fire. Firefighters who wanted to put out the blaze were told by police to stay away. There was no question: this was the LAPD’s show.
At least one member of the SLA—Nancy Ling Perry—was shot in the back outside of the house. Another member, Camilla Hall (a native of St. Peter, Minnesota) was shot coming out a door. Police say she was aiming a small handgun at them; other reports say she was trying to surrender. The four other members of the SLA—Donald DeFreeze, Patricia Soltysik, Willie Wolfe, and Angela Atwood—died in the house of smoke inhalation and burns.
Why the overwhelming police presence? For one thing, the SLA had outwitted authorities for more than six months—an embarrassment to both local law enforcement and the FBI. All eyes nationwide were on this case, and no one seemed able to stop the nine people of the SLA. The murder of Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster on Nov. 6, 1973, was the SLA’s first public act. Law enforcement had numerous chances to put an end to the SLA. On Jan. 10, 1974, police pulled over Russell Little and Joe Remiro in Concord and eventually arrested them for their link to the Foster murder, but their SLA comrades managed to flee underground. On March 1, 1974, Camilla Hall walked into Central Bank in Berkeley and withdrew her entire savings account, even though the bank manager had been told to watch out for her. And on April 15, 1974, the nine members of SLA, including Patty Hearst, robbed the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco and slipped away in broad daylight.
The LAPD jumped at the chance to be “heroes,” to be the ones to put an end to the SLA. But it didn’t happen that way. Hearst and the Harrises continued to elude authorities for sixteen more months. They were aided by new recruits (including Kathleen Soliah, later Sara Jane Olson, the St. Paulite who served time in the early 2000s for her role in the group) until Sept. 18, 1975, when Hearst and the Harrises were captured.
But what really happened on May 17, 1974? The historical record contains two competing accounts. One is the official report prepared by the LAPD, released on July 19, 1974. Note that this is a LAPD report, not a report by an outside evaluator. Clearly there is bias in the attempt to justify the LAPD’s actions. On the other side, there’s an independent investigation launched at the behest of some of the victims’ families, primarily Dr. L.S. Wolfe, Willie Wolfe’s father.
There’s another reason that accounts for the 400-against-6 ratio, a reason that may sound familiar today. Once police zeroed in on the SLA in south-central Los Angeles, they knew that 4,000 rounds of ammunition and a firebombing of a house in America would send an important message: You can aim for a revolution, but at your own risk. We have the power to shut you down.