‘American Heiress’ brings new insights to the Patty Hearst saga

A mugshot of Patty Hearst after she was arrested in San Francisco on Sept. 15, 1975
A mugshot of Patty Hearst after she was arrested in San Francisco on Sept. 15, 1975 FBI

Veteran journalist Jeffrey Toobin has blanketed the national media in recent weeks, doing justice to the promotional tour for his definitive telling of one of the most compelling crime narratives of the 20th century.

“American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst” offers a fresh take on the twisted drama, a case “no one had investigated for more than 30 years,” Toobin said (Doubleday, $29, 368 pages).

The bulk of his research is based on “more than 100 interviews and thousands of previously secret documents” that included letters written by Hearst, FBI interviews (many with Hearst), witness testimony, memoranda written by defense attorneys and private investigators, and much more. “They told the behind-the-scenes story of why Patricia Hearst was kidnapped and what (she and the SLA) did while they were on the run,” Toobin said.

“American Heiress” begins with the kidnapping of media-empire heiress Patricia Campbell Hearst in February 1974 and ends with the presidential pardon granted to her by Bill Clinton in 2001 (following Jimmy Carter’s commutation of her prison sentence in 1979). In between is a richly detailed, fascinating tale that reads like a thriller. It’s The Sacramento Bee Book Club’s choice for August.

“I can’t wait to come to Sacramento, because your city is so central to the story,” Toobin said on the phone. “One of my hopes is to make people remember the horrifying death of Myrna Opsahl.”

Toobin was referencing the Crocker National Bank branch robbery in Carmichael on April 28, 1975, whose aftermath caused Hearst and her “comrades” to flee back to the Bay Area.

For context, in the fall of 1974 the few remaining members of the Symbionese Liberation Army left their hideout in rural New York and came to Sacramento because “the Bay Area was too hot for them,” Toobin writes. They rendezvoused with members of the Bay Area-based Revolutionary Army and lived in a series of shabby “safe houses” from November 1974 to May 1975 (1721 W St., 914 T St., and 2728 Capitol Ave., now the space over the Monkey Bar).

Once here, the SLA expanded its résumé with two more bank robberies (after the New Hibernia branch heist in San Francisco, April 15, 1974) and a second murder (after Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster, Nov. 6, 1973). They held up the Guild Savings & Loan on Arden Way (Feb. 25, 1975), followed by the notorious Crocker disaster. The total take from the Sacramento robberies was less than $20,000.

It was during the Crocker debacle that Emily Harris shotgunned and killed Opsahl, a bank customer and mother of four. Hearst sat outside in a getaway van while the “bank invasion team” did its dirty work.

When SLA “general” Bill Harris (Emily’s husband) finished his 7 1/2 -year prison sentence, he obsessively amassed 150 boxes of materials relevant to the SLA chronicle. When his deal to sell them to “the library of a major university” fell through, Toobin writes, “I purchased them. The collection served as the most important resource in my research.” Toobin declined to name the price.

The irony of such an arrangement between Harris and Toobin isn’t lost on the author.

“It is odd, but there is plenty of weirdness to go around,” he said. “The documents included lots of detailed government material, so it’s not that I was relying on Bill Harris. I don’t take anything he says at face value. He’s in his late 60s, with a bad knee, but he is still someone who is a believer in revolutionary change in America.”

Did Toobin question Harris about those violent years?

“Yes, it came down to, ‘Oh, it was a different time and we had hopes and blah-blah-blah.’ I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I can’t say his answers were particularly satisfactory.”

Toobin is quick to remind his audience that the 1970s were “a confluence of so many crazy things” – among them Watergate, anti-war demonstrations, the energy crisis and terrorist bombings.

“America was a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and the epicenter of the craziness was Northern California,” he said. “The Hearst kidnapping came to be almost a perfect distillation of the craziness, a (defining) part of the 1970s. Not only does this terrible crime take place, but Patricia becomes every parent’s nightmare because she goes over to the dark side.”

The SLA took Hearst at “a very restless and unsettled moment in her life,” Toobin said. “She was living with (fiancé) Steven Weed, but didn’t want to get married and didn’t want to admit to her parents that she was unhappy. Most of all, she was very young (19).”

The book makes it clear that the SLA was never a smooth-running operation with masterminds plotting the revolution, but a bickering gang of self-righteous losers who toward the end constantly urged Hearst to go home to take the heat off them.

“They had an unfocused rage against America and a true sense of guerrilla theater,” Toobin said. “They knew how to throw the cards up in the air, but they had no idea what to do with them when they fell to the ground.”

Toobin has definite thoughts about the key question in the case: Was Hearst forced into going along with her captors, or did she really become an “urban guerrilla,” as she identified herself soon after her arrest in San Francisco on Sept. 15, 1975?

“A lot of people talk about this case in terms of brainwashing and Stockholm syndrome, and I think that’s really psychobabble,” Toobin said. “I prefer to think of it as Patricia reacting rationally to her surroundings. Then, after she was arrested, she reacted rationally to those surroundings and said, ‘To hell with this, I want to be back with my family.’ 

To further address the point, Toobin cited the incident at Mel’s Sporting Goods in L.A. in May 1974. While Hearst waited in a Volkswagen van full of weapons, Bill and Emily Harris went inside. Bill Harris shoplifted a bandolier and was confronted outside the store by the security guard, two other employees and a passerby. A melee followed, which Hearst saw when she pulled aside a curtain covering a van window.

“You’re talking about a woman alone in a van who could have driven off, or walked away and gone to a hospital or police station and turned herself in,” Toobin said. “Instead, she opens up with a submachine gun to free her kidnappers. That was pretty strong evidence she had changed sides.”

Toobin has filled in many of the puzzling blanks in the confusing crime epic, but there is still one matter that tugs at him.

“What’s hardest for me to understand is what these terrorists thought they might possibly accomplish as a political matter,” he said. “One thing you can say for the SLA is they weren’t out to get rich; they were out to change American society. But how they thought their series of mad undertakings could change people’s opinion in their favor is inconceivable.”

Though Hearst declined Toobin’s overtures for interviews, he feels she “answered a lot of questions both in her autobiography (‘Every Secret Thing’) and in her courtroom testimony.”

“To me, the (biggest) question is how a woman who engaged in such an extraordinary crime spree could become the only person in American history to get a commutation from one president and a pardon from another,” he said. “That example of privilege for the rich and famous is one of the haunting aspects of this story.”

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

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 Doors open at 5:15 p.m. Parking is free. Barnes & Noble will be on site, selling “American Heiress” for 30 percent off the list price (Doubleday, $29, 384 pages).

All proceeds benefit The Bee’s News In Education program, bringing news and information to more than 20,000 students in the region.

“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 Information: 916-321-1128.