Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Home Tour of the SLA Patty Hearst Kidnapping and Crime Spree

Patricia Hearst/Tania - identity crisis
I pitched my crime-spree home-tour idea to HGTV and they never got back to me, so I'll just post it here. Having finished reading Jeffrey Toobin's American Heiress - The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst, I was struck by how many Bay Area neighborhoods the self-proclaimed Symbionese Liberation Army took residence in during their year-and-a-half odyssey after kidnapping publishing mogul Randolph Hearst's granddaughter, Patricia (only her dad called her "Patty," but the name stuck from the seemingly endless media stories about her ordeal).

I was not quite ten years old on February 4, 1974, when 19-year-old Hearst was carried, kicking and screaming from the Berkeley apartment she shared with her fiancĂ© Steven Weed (who she dated when he was her high school teacher — gross — that was the 70s, people). I thought the entire situation was shocking, like most of the country, and even more so when approximately a month later, Hearst in one of her taped communiques, denounced the "Pig Hearsts" and the "Pigs" in general, joining her comrades in fighting the "fascist insects that prey upon the life of the people," The SLA was committed to one thing: plotting (and more often than not bungling) ultra-violence while spouting meaningless jargon.

"Waaaah?!" I countered, along with the rest of the world, watching her rob banks in surveillance photos in a saucy beret while brandishing an assault rifle. Hearst and her gang became the most wanted criminals in the U.S. For all their ineptitude and confusion (and Toobin documents plenty of it), they managed, with the help of sympathetic cohorts, to avoid detection from the entire FBI, as well as local law-enforcement agencies for more than a year. This was a saga of the far-far-far-left, as well as a sort of overview of life on the lam in the downtrodden economic-times of the 70s, when inflation rose in absurd disproportion to salaries, and landlords were happy to fill their substandard housing with no questions asked.

Thanks to Toobin's impeccable research, I can now make sense of the SLA path to oblivion and jail-time as they traversed the country, renting safe-houses, apartments, farm-homes, roadside motel rooms, even living for a time in Manhatten. Let's take a virtual tour of the SLA's road to nowhere. Toobin supplied most of their actual addresses, which I called up on Google Maps, but I'll leave the house numbers off here, out of respect of the homes' current occupants. If you want to find them, read the book—it's a page-turner and offers a true slice of 70s living, horror, dark humor and all.

The kidnapping itself occurred in Berkeley, Calif. on Benvenue Avenue. Hearst and her older boyfriend/former teacher Weed were hanging out for a quiet night of TV and dull conversation when a tiny band of operatives calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army, led by their leader Donald DeFreeze ("Cinque"), burst into the apartment, pummeling Weed and a curious neighbor before hauling off Hearst into the trunk of their car. The apartment hasn't changed much in all these years.

The SLA had partially met at this communal house on Chabot Road in Oakland, after Cinque had escaped jail and was hiding out there with a bunch of lefty roommates. Cinque, who was black, gathered his troops, consisting of nine people, including two girlfriends, all of whom were white and involved in prison reform and pontificating. Wanting to make a splash in leftist underground circles and start a nationwide revolution, he and his girlfriends, Patricia ("Mizmoon") Soltysik and Nancy Ling, brutally assassinated Marcus Foster, the first black superintendent in Oakland, for the unfounded belief that Foster had catered to some idea of the "The Man's" concept of black and white relations. The murder was unanimously decried across all political and activist spectrums, and the SLA scrambled to form another plot based on South American guerrilla groups to get their muddled points across. Hence, kidnapping.

Two of the SLA (Joe Remiro and Russ Little) were soon picked up by local police while the collective was living in this suburban ranch house on Sutherland Court in the East-Bay suburb of Concord, California (where I grew up, amidst the cow-dotted Mt. Diablo foothills). The group was hiding out here after the Foster murder when Remiro and Little were stopped by an officer while driving a suspicious-looking van around the neighborhood.

What I especially like about this aspect of their saga, was that the men had gotten lost in a tangle of cul de sacs, trying to escape the police. So you could say that Concord's lack of city planning helped law enforcement nab their prey. Unfortunately for Remiro and Little, they would be found guilty for Foster's murder, while their comrades and actual murderers got away. But a much worse scenario awaited that core group.

In their haste to pack up their news clippings, political books and a growing stash of weaponry, the SLA attempted to burn the Concord safe-house to the ground to cover any remaining evidence of their tenancy. But like so many of their crimes, they botched the job and the house merely smoldered. And there it stands to this day, with drought-tolerant landscaping.

Onward, they drove in the dark of night to Daly City, the southern suburb of San Francisco, where the fog wafts thick the majority of the year. They first rented a house on Winchester Street, which Google Maps refuses to pinpoint with any accuracy, but no matter because they soon moved to another Daly City location, throwing a dirty foam mattress into a bedroom closet in anticipation of their next victim.

Here at the modest digs on Northridge Drive is where they pulled Patty Hearst from the trunk of their car, placing here in the closet for the next month while teaching her about their vision of overthrowing the conservative-pig government. They weren't clear about what to demand while they held her, although they hoped to spring Remiro and Little from the hoosegow. They settled on a food give-away program that Hearst's father paid for and brought to fruition in San Francisco and Oakland. It was poorly managed in the short span of time it was thrown together. Rioting and chaos in the streets ensued as crowds tried to get their allotment of goods as decreed by the SLA. And Hearst by that time had befriended one of her kidnappers, Angela Atwood, and taken up with another one, Willy Wolfe, who became her boyfriend.

They next moved to a dumpy apartment in San Francisco, on Golden Gate Avenue, to try and "blend in" a bit more, now that the kidnapping had been internationally reported, Hearst by this time was calling herself Tania and spouting "Death to the insects" rhetoric herself. Desperate for cash, the operative planned another attention-grabbing action, robbing the Hibernia Bank in the Sunset District on Noriega and 22nd Avenue. Tania would make headlines as a gun-toting urban guerrilla (which was the occupation she chose for her arrest form, but that comes later in the story).

The SLA was amused to learn that the city's FBI headquarters was only a mile away at 450 Golden Gate Avenue. In trying to locate Hearst, the FBI was fully inept, which gives me hope that Quentin Tarantino will someday sign on to direct a movie about this strange odyssey, so impenetrable in motive and indicative of a lost time and place.

An ill-conceived move to hide out in a small hovel on Oakdale Avenue in Hunter's Point, where the majority-white members, including the now-infamous Tania, stuck out in a black neighborhood. The house was barely habitable, and where it once stood is now the site of a new City College building.

Tiring of their downwardly mobile housing trajectory, the operative packed up their bloated arsenal once more, this time for the long drive to Los Angeles, where Cinque had grown up. They rented this place on West 84th Street in South Central, with no running water or working electricity. Once again, the nearly all-white household could rarely leave the house in the all-black neighborhood without drawing attention.

And one day, when Bill and Emily Harris drove the collective van to do errands with Hearst in the back, the SLA blew up, literally, not far from the West 84th Street house. That day the Harrises ended up in an absurd melee in front of a sporting-goods store when Bill tried to shoplift a small item and was accosted by a zealous store employee. Fisticuffs ensued and Hearst, waiting in the van, saw the commotion and decided to shoot up the front of the store from across the street with her semi-automatic rifle.

Miraculously no one was killed and the Harrises made their escape into the van. Zipping through the streets of L.A., they ditched their ride, carjacked a couple of vehicles, and wound up briefly kidnapping a high school kid who had agreed to sell them his vehicle. They all passed the night in a drive-in, watching movies, waiting for their cohorts to meet up with them, but their friends were no-shows.

Because after the sporting-goods shoot-out made the news, the remaining SLA members, numbering six—four women, two men—ditched their ride and hid out at this location on East 54th Street. Several people were living in what Toobin calls a flop-house, including some children. When the SLA came knocking at 4 A.M., offering the gift of stolen bank cash, the inhabitants no doubt marveled at their new house guests as they hauled in a tremendous amount of guns, bullets (filled with cyanide—a Cinque calling card) and bomb-making equipment.

Meanwhile the police found a traffic ticket in the abandoned Harris van, with a nearby address, and soon zeroed in on this location, bringing the newly formed SWAT team to surround the tiny house.

Not the actual house, which burned to the ground, along with two other homes

Here's the story of the ensuing shootout, the largest in U.S. history, which the nation watched unfold in our country's first unplanned live news broadcast.

The amount of automatic fire-power blasting into and out of the little house for two hours turned the neighborhood into a war zone. The ensuing house fire could have started from the multiple rounds of tear gas thrown by the P.D. or a punctured gas can inside the house. Everyone in the house, hiding in the crawl space, firing away, was eventually shot or burned to death, which is nightmarish in the extreme. They would not surrender. It would be an era of inexplicable death-wish behavior, including the Jonestown Massacre and the assassinations of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone by disgruntled former co-worker Dan White.

The Harrises and Hearst, holed up in an Anaheim motel across the street from Disneyland, watched the news, just like the rest of us. Their tiny homemade army was now down to three members. No doubt in shock, they headed north the next day, staying in another hotel in Costa Mesa, then hiding in a former coal bin on Oak Street in their friend's San Francisco apartment. After the friend kicked them out, they settled into a run-down apartment on Walnut Street in Oakland. Toobin doesn't give an address, but I looked up Walnut Street and it's located by my son's former preschool. There's something about this story that hits home with me.

A guy named Jack Scott who wanted to write a book about the SLA, managed to track them down at this point and offered them his apartment in New York City on West 90th Street. They drove cross-country and stayed awhile (meeting up and living with sympathizer and partial babysitter Wendy Yoshimura) before Scott whisked them to a remote farmhouse he rented in South Canaan, Pennsylvania, where he hoped to interview them at length. Another farmhouse in Jefferson, New York, served as a hideout as the relationship between Hearst, Scott and the Harrises withered under the stress of being long-term fugitives and freeloaders.

Hearst would end up in Las Vegas briefly with Scott after he brought her back to California (she also traveled with his parents, who urged her to turn herself in, but no dice). Eventually the last of the SLA reconvened in Sacramento, on W Street, where they met up with some like-minded bombers (literally—the group was wanted for bombing various empty-building targets), which included brother and sister Steve and Kathy Soliah, plus Michael Bortin and James Kilgore.

Everyone worked on their bomb-making skills and planned a new bank robbery to take place at the Crocker National Bank in nearby Carmichael. This went catastrophically wrong when bank customer and mother of four, Myrna Lee Opsahl, was shot and killed by Emily Harris when her gun discharged as she ordered Opsahl to lie down on the floor. A teller later miscarried after Kathy Soliah kicked her on the way out of the bank, taking $15,000. Hearst drove a getaway car. Soliah would later face a day of reckoning for not only this bank job, but also for planting a bomb in a police car in Los Angeles that failed to detonate but would have killed many bystanders, including children, had it gone off.

Some miserable times were had in Sacramento after the botched robbery. The gang made their way back to San Francisco where they moved into two houses, this one on Morse Street in the outer Mission, where everyone but Hearst worked as house painters, building bombs in their spare time.

And this house, on Precita, not too far from where my Grandma lived for 40 years, off of Geneva, in the godforsaken San Francisco neighborhood we called "The border of Daly City." Here, Hearst lived a quiet, isolated existence with her new boyfriend Steve Soliah.

By this time, the world had figured out that the SLA was a bunch of fucking idiots. And dangerous too, so finding and convicting them was paramount. The FBI doubled down and followed some tips that led to the site of Steve Soliah's house-painting job. This led to some old-fashioned surveillance and stake-outs, and finally everyone was captured. Hearst was in the Precita house when the police came bursting in. As she was driven away in the patrol car, she famously raised her fist in defiance.

But it didn't take much jail time and time with her family before Hearst turned on her former comrades, including her boyfriend, Soliah. The former revolutionary soldier claimed she had been tortured, raped and brainwashed and believed that if she didn't join the SLA, they would kill her. Which didn't take into account all the times she could have easily escaped. Either in Los Angeles, or in Sacramento, where she was left alone for hours at a time. It also doesn't explain why she felt compelled to shoot up innocent bystanders in Los Angeles, or continue on with the SLA even after their crimes escalated, resulting in more death and destruction.

Whatever her reasoning and state of mind, the kidnapping was no doubt a nightmarish and terrifying ordeal, and Patricia Hearst is a survivor. She was found guilty of bank robbery and served some time before being pardoned by Presidents Carter and Clinton. She married her bodyguard, appeared in some John Waters films, raised two daughters, and is known for her prize-winning pedigreed dogs. That is about as bourgeois as it gets.

The Harrises were convicted of kidnapping and bank robbery. The rest of the group spread out and went underground for more than twenty years before finally being caught and pleading guilty for the robbery that led to the murder of Myrna Opsahl. That is a story unto itself, but doesn't involve much real estate, unless you count the nice St. Paul Minnesota home Kathy Soliah settled down in, going by the name of Sara Jane Olson while living an upstanding suburban life as a wife, mother and community-theater player before she was identified on "America's Most Wanted." Wendy Yoshimura got a plea deal and now paints watercolors in Oakland. She paints vivid still-lives of fruit, which would look fine in any home environment.


Jay said...

Lisa, this is great. I'm nearly done with the Toobin book and have been doing the same sort of research on the various houses, with the advantage of my actually living in San Francisco, so I've got photos from as recent as two days ago. (I took pictures of 625 Morse, the Hibernia Bank location and 288 Precita two years ago when I read the book "Days of Rage".

If you'd like me to send them to you, just let me know at thejayhinman(at)gmail(dotcom). And if you have an actual address for the house on Geneva Avenue in SF, that would be great - I can't find it anywhere, but that's less than 2 miles from my house.

Anonymous said...

Haven't done any CWW binging in quite a while, and as usual, there are some notable coincidences.

My neighbor/friends down the street here in Berkeley started to host monthly Sunday eve readings by local (relatively) unknown authors. I chatted with one of them after his reading recently, and he mentioned another project of his: a Patty Hearst Saga Play, a musical. Rilly!
So I excitedly told him I was in the middle of American Heiress.
I happened to have seen the Toobin book in my local library a month or so before, and thought - hey, he writes well, and I lived through that wacky time, eyes glued to the Chronicle stories, as if it was a serial (which it kinda was), why not read the full story that I've mostly forgotten? Should be a page-turner.

So I did, and wow, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, it was
like slipping into a warm bath. A strange sensation of nostalgia & shock, even decades later: they really did that shit!?

In '74 I was a politically aware sophomore at UCSC, and me and my housemates looked forward to those Chrons like nothing before. It was so stunning & unbelievable at the time. We were slack-jawed for months. Not to mention the other huge '74 story, the downfall of the despised Nixon regime that was also getting interesting. We felt like we were winning! And then these crazy shits - murderers! - the SLA announced their arrival. Wha? Killing Foster? WTF, even the Panthers thought that was pathetic.

What surprised me though, was how short a time period it really was, which I suppose is the 60-something perspective I now have. Ms. Hearst and I are one day apart, in age. And BERKELEY - it was practically my home town (Oakland is)! It really resonated in ways that were a bit uncomfortable. And I'd forgotten how incredibly lucky they were in evading the law for so long. And especially Patty and the other two, avoiding the shoot-out, burn-out. Horrendous, we thought then. But what idiots - what did they expect? Exactly what they got, judging by how armed they were. Insane. We used to jokingly throw that phrase around frequently at the time: death to the fascist insect blah blah blah.

Anyway, a good read. Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for not giving up on your blog.

Anonymous said...

actually her sentence was commuted by president carter and also the word is she was also in san diego hiding and almost caught