The Symbionese Liberation Army, or SLA, is little known today, but it was worldwide news forty years ago. That’s when Patty Hearst, 19, was kidnapped at gunpoint from her Berkeley apartment in February 1974, thrown into the trunk of a car, and driven away.
A few days later a recording aired on KPFA radio in Berkeley claiming that the SLA, a radical military group, was holding Hearst as a prisoner of war. The group demanded that Patty’s father, Randolph – editor of the San Francisco Examiner – give free food to needy people as part of the conditions of his daughter’s release. The Hearst family dutifully organized a series of food distributions on their daughter’s behalf.
One group that refused to take part was the United Bay Area Council on Indian Affairs, according to Adam Fortunate Eagle, author of Scalping Columbus and Other Damn Indian Stories, who was active in Bay Area Native American issues at the time.
Fortunate Eagle (known as Adam Nordwall when he lived in San Leandro) notified the elder Hearst that their group was planning to announce their refusal to participate in the give-away on the grounds that “We will not be co-conspirators to extortion. Many Indian people are hungry today, but we will not accept any free food until Patty Hearst is released.”
The next morning, he relates in his book, “several frantic editors” met him at the Examiner saying that the SLA had contacted the paper: “This morning we got a message that you are to be shot on sight!”
Fortunate Eagle avoided that fate, but took out a substantial life insurance policy on himself, to benefit his family in the event the threat was carried out.
Patty Hearst remained a captive of the SLA and participated with the group in the armed robbery of a San Francisco bank. A plea of brainwashing did not prevent her conviction on March 20, 1976 – 38 years ago today. Hearst spent less than two years in prison after President Carter commuted her seven-year sentence.
Fortunate Eagle says the two families remained in contact until the deaths of both Mr. and Mrs. Hearst.