DeFreeze was born in Cleveland, Ohio but became a career criminal, first as 14 year old gang member in Buffalo, New York before moving to California. In 1972, he was serving a sentence in Soledad Prison (in Soledad, California) for armed robbery. Those who knew him in his early days considered him an unimpressive thug. He had once robbed a prostitute of ten dollars and had turned a friend in to the police.
While in Soledad, DeFreeze met with some radical extremists who were working as volunteers in the prison and was converted to their political ideas. After being transferred to Vacaville Prison, he escaped on March 5, 1973. DeFreeze adopted the name "Field Marshal Cinque." Cinque took this name from the reported leader of the slave rebellion which took over the Spanish slave ship Amistad in 1839.
DeFreeze, along with Patricia Soltysik, founded the Symbionese Liberation Army and recruited a handful of other members for the group. The group perpetrated a number of crimes, the most infamous being the murder of Oakland Schools Superintendent Marcus Foster and the abduction of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.
On May 17, 1974, the Los Angeles Police Department surrounded a house where DeFreeze and five other SLA members were staying. During the shootout between police and SLA members that ensued, the house caught fire. DeFreeze and others crawled through a hole in the floor into a crawlspace beneath the house. Apparently burning alive, DeFreeze committed suicide by shooting himself in the right temple. His corpse was so badly burned that his family did not initially believe the remains belonged to DeFreeze.
DeFreeze is buried in Highland Park Cemetery in Shaker Heights, Ohio.
I sat there for another fifteen minutes or so, listening to the Eagles on my little cassette player, and then I wrote: Donald DeFreeze is a dark man. I did not mean that DeFreeze was black; it had suddenly occurred to me that, in the photos taken during the bank robbery in which Patty Hearst participated, you could barely see DeFreeze's face.
He was wearing a big badass hat, and what he looked like was mostly guesswork. I wrote, 'A dark man with no face,' and then glanced up and saw that grisly little motto again: Once in every generation the plague will fall among them. And that was that. I spent the next two years writing an apparently endless book called The Stand .