SF headlines of the mid-1970s were dominated by the saga of Patty Hearst, an heiress who was kidnapped, only to join her captors and rob banks with them. After her release from prison, she has led a life of dog shows and John Waters movies.

You may think we live in crazy times, but this week is a wild one for "this week in history" stories for San Francisco in the 70s. Monday was the 48-year anniversary of the last time it snowed in SF, a freak weather occurrence on February 5, 1976. And as the Washington Post and many other publications remember, Sunday was the 50th anniversary of the Patty Hearst kidnapping, a story that dominated San Francisco and national headlines for years. These days, the Patty Hearst saga is best remembered for Hearst’s machine gun-toting image below, though the reality if the story is far more complicated, and in many ways still unresolved.


“It’s hard to put into words how chaotic the winter of 1973, ’74 already was, and then came the Patty kidnapping,” says former Chronicle reporter Duffy Jennings, who covered the saga at the time. “It was all hands on deck at the paper. On any given day you’d have on the front page stories about Patty Hearst, the Zodiac and the Zebra killings, not to mention Watergate.”

Unlike the infamous John Paul Getty III kidnapping of 1973 (covered in the 2017 film All the Money in the World and the 2018 Hulu series Trust), Patty Hearst was definitely not in on her kidnapping. On the night of February 4, 1974, the 19-year-old was dragged screaming out of her Berkeley apartment and shoved into the trunk of a stolen Chevrolet. The perpetrators were a far-left domestic terrorist group called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a group of just ten people who hoped to use Hearst to win the release of two SLA members who were in custody for the murder of Oakland schools superintendent Marcus Foster.

And Patty Hearst was an attractive target, as her tycoon father and then-SF Examiner publisher Randolph Hearst had hundreds of millions to burn in ransom money.


The SLA demanded $400 million to feed the needy. Randolph Hearst countered by offering just $2 million, distributed in a fund that was disastrously administered and fed very few people. Meanwhile, Patty Hearst was kept blindfolded and tied up in a closet, and she said he was sexually assaulted during that time.

By April 1976, the SLA released an audio tape of Hearst saying she had joined the SLA, changed her name to Tania (inspired by a Che Guevara ex-girlfriend), and was “fighting for my freedom and the freedom of all oppressed people.”

According to testimony from Hearst and several SLA members, she was not only sexually assault, but brainwashed, physically abused, and had her life repeatedly threatened, which forced this purported “change of heart.”

Though it became something of a punchline, she did start robbing banks with the SLA because of this brainwashing. On April 15, 1976, Hearst and the SLA members robbed a Hibernia Bank branch on Noriega Street, and security footage showed her wielding a semi-automatic rifle. That changed the public’s perception of her from victim to outlaw. As the Chronicle describes, “Over the next year, she helped the gang knock over another bank outside Sacramento, shot up a sporting goods store in Inglewood and went on the run after six SLA members, including [David] DeFreeze, died in a fiery shootout with the police in Los Angeles.


Hearst was eventually arrested in September 1975. (Hey Crocker-Amazon residents, she was arrested at 625 Morse Street!) She was found guilty for her involvement in the Hibernia Bank robbery and sentenced to seven years. A sympathetic President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence, and she was released on February 1, 1979. President Bill Clinton would then fully pardon Hearst on his last day in office in 2001, making her the only person to have a commutation and a pardon from presidents.


Now known as Patricia Hearst Shaw, she will turn 70 on February 20. As an Associated Press article points out, she would go on to appear in the John Waters films Cry-Baby, Serial Mom, Pecker, Cecil B. DeMented, and A Dirty Shame. She has also been an award-winner on the dog show circuit, mostly for her French bulldogs, including at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.


Related: The 9 Most Infamous Cults In The Bay Area [SFNews]

Image: Patricia Hearst, asked if she had worn a bulletproof vest on her release from prison, opens her jacket to show her T-shirt with the words, "Pardon Me," across the front. Her fiance, Bernard Shaw, appears with Miss Hearst outside the Hearst home in Hillsborough. (Getty Images)