An especially lurid chapter in the unfolding story of American crime and pop culture started this way:
In February 1974, when Hearst-media-empire heiress Patricia Campbell Hearst was a 19-year-old junior at UC Berkeley, the so-called Symbionese Liberation Army came calling. Its “leader” and two armed “soldiers” of the radical group invaded her apartment. They beat up her fiancé and a Good Samaritan neighbor, fired rounds from a submachine gun at other neighbors, bound and blindfolded Hearst and tossed her into the trunk of their carjacked 1964 Chevrolet Impala convertible. The elapsed time was four minutes.
Those “urban guerrillas” were Donald DeFreeze, Bill Harris and Angela Atwood, and they soon would become household names in the worst possible ways.
So began one of the most sensational and compelling crime narratives of the 20th century. Though the saga was fanatically followed in the media by millions of people, and resonates worldwide to this day, it was always a California story at heart, with Sacramento in a key role.
Now esteemed journalist Jeffrey Toobin revisits the Hearst case in “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst” (Doubleday, $29, 368 pages). It’s The Sacramento Bee Book Club’s choice for August.
Toobin had access to original material sourced from “more than 100 interviews and thousands of previously secret documents” that included FBI interviews of witnesses and Hearst herself, as well as trial transcripts, notes written by defense attorneys and private investigators, and more. He offers new insight into Patty Hearst’s state of mind, from the beginning of her ordeal to its conclusion. Of course, the key question is, was she a brainwashed victim, or was she a member in good standing of the SLA?
Toobin addresses that. In part, he writes, “Patty Hearst was a woman who, through no fault of her own, fell in with bad people, but then did bad things.” He calls her “a straightforward person” who reacted to her kidnapping “in rational ways.”
“Patricia joined with (the SLA) in a pact of mutual self-defense,” he writes. If there was any doubt left in Hearst’s mind about the us-vs.-them propaganda her “comrades” had been feeding her for months, it was erased by the shootout in Los Angeles on May 17, 1974, that left six SLA members dead, Toobin writes.
The nationally televised gunbattle between the SLA and LAPD SWAT teams was no small skirmish. The SWAT team “fired more than 5,300 rounds,” while the SLA members fired back thousands of rounds as well. The gut-punch for Hearst was that the police believed she was inside the house, which caught fire and burned down from the 83 tear gas containers they launched.
As Hearst and SLA members Bill Harris and his wife, Emily, watched the conflagration unfold on live TV in a motel room miles away, Hearst had these thoughts, according to Toobin: “I was a soldier, an urban guerrilla, in the people’s army. It was a role I accepted in exchange for my very life. There was no turning back. The police or the FBI would shoot me on sight, just as they had killed my comrades.”
Toobin is the author of the best-selling “The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court,” “The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court,” “A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President” and “The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” which became an FX network miniseries earlier this year. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and the senior legal analyst for CNN.
The bizarre Patty Hearst-SLA epic unfolded over 19 months, a dark run involving extortion, ransom demands, bank robbery, murder and conspiracy to terrorize. On Sept. 15, 1975, Hearst and two accomplices were arrested without incident by police in a San Francisco apartment (she had a stolen .38 in her purse).
The drama continued with a circuslike trial. The media-empire-heiress-turned-fugitive was represented by F. Lee Bailey, one of most unorthodox defense attorneys of the day. Part of his agenda was a pending book deal based on the trial, Toobin writes.
Despite Bailey’s flamboyant style, the jury didn’t buy the notion that Hearst went along with the gang’s crimes because of “duress and immediate threat,” and she was convicted of armed bank robbery on March 20, 1976. After serving 22 months of a seven-year stretch, her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter and she was released in February 1979.
Two months later, she married one of her former bodyguards, Bernard Shaw, who died of cancer in 2013. Her memoir, “Every Secret Thing,” was published in 1981. Hearst was fully pardoned in 2001 by President Bill Clinton.
Toobin quotes her from a 2015 chat with reporters in Madison Square Garden, where her Shih Tzu, Rocket, had taken a first-place ribbon at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. “People move on,” she said. “I guess people somehow imagine you don’t evolve in your life. I have grown daughters and granddaughters and other things that normal people have.”
Bee Book Club
Jeffrey Toobin will appear for The Sacramento Bee Book Club at 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 18, in The Hive at The Sacramento Bee, 2100 Q St., Sacramento.
Tickets to the event are $20 for seven-day-a-week subscribers, $30 for general admission. Buy tickets online at www.sacbee.com/beebookclub. Please bring your tickets to the event for entrance. Doors open at 5:15 p.m. Parking is free.
All proceeds benefit The Bee’s News In Education (NIE) program, bringing news and information to more than 20,000 students in the region.
Toobin will give a presentation, answer questions and sign books. Barnes & Noble will be on site, selling “American Heiress” for 30 percent off the list price (Doubleday, $29, 384 pages).
“American Heiress” also will be offered for a 30 percent discount through Aug. 18 at these bookstores: in the Sacramento area at the four Barnes & Nobles, Avid Reader at the Tower, Underground Books, Time Tested Books and Sac State’s Hornet Bookstore; in Davis at Avid Reader and UC Davis Bookstore; in El Dorado Hills at Face in a Book; and in Grass Valley at The Bookseller.
Visit the author at www.jeffreytoobin.com. Information: 916-321-1128