(This was originally published on May 17, 2021)
On May 17, 1974, more than 400 police officers surrounded a house at 1466 E. 54th St. in south-central Los Angeles. Inside the house were members of the Symbionese Liberation Army. The SLA had eluded authorities for four months. They were highly sought after because of two high-profile incidents: the kidnapping of Patty Hearst in February, and the robbery of Hibernia Bank in April.
Six members of the SLA died that day:
- Donald DeFreeze
- Willie Wolfe
- Nancy Ling Perry
- Angela Atwood
- Patricia Soltysik
- Camilla Hall
Hearst and two others, Bill and Emily Harris, were not in the house. It was Bill Harris’ dumb move of stealing socks from a sporting goods store that tipped authorities to the fact the SLA was in L.A. A parking ticket in a van abandoned by the Harrises and Hearst led police to the house where the rest of the SLA was staying.
A lot of attention today focuses on incidents that involve an overwhelming show of police force. The event on May 17 is one of the best examples in U.S. history of brute police force. I believe the LAPD used such force for a variety of reasons:
- I suspect they knew that Hearst was not in the house. I don’t believe they would have slaughtered the high-profile young woman, daughter of one of the most well-known families in the U.S.
- I believe they wanted to send a message to the three other members of the SLA, as well as to radicals and the New Left in general. The incident has parallels to other law enforcement action of the era, including the murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton. Kill the “head,” and the “body” will die. While the SLA was small in number, the FBI likely was worried that they could gain followers unless they were stopped.
- The police moved quickly to a shootout because darkness was descending and given the fraught relationship between LAPD and the largely Black community in the neighborhood, they worried about an attack upon themselves or a redux of a situation like the 1965 Watts riots. According to Jeffrey Toobin in American Heiress: “In the end, the decision might have been dictated, simply, by the DNA of the Los Angeles police. Another department—perhaps the one in San Francisco—might have opted for caution. But aggression, not patience, fueled the L.A. cops.”
There’s an official police report issued that details the actions of that day. Of course, that report makes it seem that the response required 400 officers, including SWAT team members. I’m not saying that the SLA was not dangerous. But I don’t think they posed such a threat that 400 officers were necessary. While all six people in the house died, not one officer or bystander was injured (even though the police report that 3,772 rounds were expended from the house. Researcher Rusty Rhodes estimated that no more than 100 rounds were fired by the SLA).
The families of the victims, including the Rev. George and Lorena Hall, hired a private investigator to do an independent report. That report, by Lake Headley, Elizabeth Schmidt, and Jeanne Davies, tells a much different story than the police report. Among some of those findings:
- There was a working telephone in the house that could have been used for negotiations.
- The FBI had assured Willie Wolfe’s father that if they had located Willie, they would give Dr. Wolfe a chance to talk to his son to try to get him to surrender. There were no warrants for Wolfe’s arrest at the time of the shootout.
- Perry, Atwood, and Hall were attempting to flee the house. Perry was greeted with a fusillade of bullets, turned around to seek the cover of the house, and was shot in the back.
- The resulting inferno (due to incendiary devices thrown into the house) was supposedly hot enough to melt guns, but left plenty of evidence intact, including letters, money, a driver’s license, and other paper.
- An article written in the Los Angeles Times the day after the incident suggests that police fired first, throwing a tear gas bomb into the house, and then other police officers started firing. Only then were they greeted by gunfire from the inside.
- The fire was allowed to rage for 24 minutes. A fire captain on the scene who desired to put his men into action to fight the blaze was denied by police and threatened with arrest if he crossed police lines.
- The investigators endured harassment by police as they were doing their research in the area of 1466 E. 54th St. A heavy police presence during the investigation caused many witnesses to become reluctant to speak. “It is this sort of intimidation that must be stopped before an independent inquiry can be successful, for it is primarily the people of the community that have been and are being intimidated…”
As is common with such high-profile incidents, there are two stories that emerge. Can we trust a police report written by members of the LAPD? Is an independent investigation more reliable? Or is the truth somewhere in between?
- Investigation Report: An Inquiry Into the Events of May 17, 1974
- The Symbionese Liberation Army in Los Angeles: A Report Prepared by the Los Angeles Police Department July 19, 1974
- Toobin, Jeffrey. American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst.
- Schreiber, Brad. Revolution’s End: The Patty Hearst Kidnapping, Mind Control, and the Secret History of Donald DeFreeze and the SLA.