Symbionese Liberation Army

The Symbionese Liberation Army (S.L.A.) was an American self-styled urban guerrilla warfare group active between 1973 and 1975 that considered itself a revolutionary vanguard army. The group committed bank robberies, two murders and other acts of violence over the period of its activity.

The S.L.A. became internationally notorious for kidnapping media heiress Patty Hearst, abducting the 19-year-old as she and her 26-year-old boyfriend, Steven Weed, sat relaxing in their Berkeley, California home. International interest grew into worldwide fascination when Hearst, in audiotaped messages delivered to (and broadcast by) regional news media, denounced her parents and announced she had joined the S.L.A. She was subsequently observed participating in their illegal activities. Hearst later alleged that she had been held in close confinement, sexually assaulted and brainwashed.

S.L.A. beliefs and symbology

In his manifesto "Symbionese Liberation Army Declaration of Revolutionary War & the Symbionese Program," DeFreeze wrote, "The name 'symbionese' is taken from the word 'symbiosis' and we define its meaning as a body of dissimilar bodies and organisms living in deep and loving harmony and partnership in the best interest of all within the body."

Although the S.L.A. considered themselves leaders of the Black revolution, DeFreeze was its only Black member. His seven-headed S.L.A. cobra symbol was also based on the seven principles of Kwanzaa, with each head representing a principle. They are: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).

The appearance of the symbol of the seven-headed cobra on S.L.A. propaganda indicates that it was copied from the ancient Sri Lankan / Indian seven-headed nāga; carved stones depicting a seven-headed cobra are commonly found near the sluices of the ancient irrigation tanks in Sri Lanka and these are believed to have been placed there as guardians of the water.

Russell Little attests that the group's primary activity during this period was acquiring and storing firearms and learning to use the weapons at public shooting ranges (Stone 2004).

Formation and initial activities

Prison visits and political film

The S.L.A. formed as a result of the prison visitation programs of the radical left-wing group Venceremos Organization and a group known as the Black Cultural Association in Soledad prison. The idea of a South American-styled urban guerrilla movement, similar to the Tupamaros movement in Uruguay, combined with Régis Debray's theory of urban warfare and ideas drawn from Maoism, appealed to a number of people, including Patricia Michelle Soltysik (aka "Mizmoon").

Some activists within the New Left compared America's prison system to concentration camps designed to oppress African Americans. They believed that a majority of African American convicts were political prisoners, and that Black power ideology would naturally appeal to them. Group member Willie Wolfe developed this ideology into a plan for action, linking student activists with prison militants (Stone 2004).

DeFreeze escapes prison

The S.L.A. formed after the escape from prison by Donald DeFreeze, a.k.a. "Field Marshal Cinque." He had been serving 5-15 years for robbing a prostitute. DeFreeze took the name Cinque from the leader of the slave rebellion who took over the slave ship Amistad in 1839. DeFreeze escaped from the Soledad State Prison on 5 March 1973 by simply walking away while on work duty in a boiler room located outside of the perimeter fence.

DeFreeze had been active in the Black Cultural Association while at the California Medical Facility, a state prison facility in Vacaville, California, where he had made contacts with members of Venceremos. He sought refuge among these contacts, and ended up at a commune known as Peking House in the San Francisco Bay Area. For some time he shared living quarters with future S.L.A. members Willie Wolfe and Russ Little, then moved in with Patricia Michelle Soltysik. DeFreeze and Soltysik became lovers and began to outline the plans for forming the "Symbionese Nation."


On 06 November 1973, in Oakland, California, two members of the SLA killed school superintendent Dr Marcus Foster and badly wounded his deputy, Robert Blackburn, as the men left an Oakland school board meeting. The hollow-point bullets used to kill Dr Foster had been packed with cyanide.

The SLA had condemned Foster's plan to introduce identification cards into Oakland schools as "fascist." Ironically, Foster had originally opposed the use of identification cards in his schools, and his plan was a watered-down version of other similar proposals. Foster, an African American, was popular on the Left and in the black community.

On 10 January 1974, Joseph Remiro and Russell Little were arrested and charged with Foster's murder, and initially both men were convicted of murder. With a moratorium#Noun on capital punishment in place throughout California, both men received sentences of life imprisonment. Seven years later, on 05 June 1981, Little's conviction was overturned by the California Court of Appeal, and he was later acquitted in a retrial in Monterey County.

Kidnapping of Patty Hearst

In response to the arrests of Remiro and Little, the SLA began planning their next action: the kidnapping of an important figure to negotiate the release of their imprisoned members (Stone, 2004). Documents found by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at one abandoned safe house revealed that an action was planned for the "full moon of January 7." The FBI did not take any precautions, and the SLA did not act until a month later. (Stone, 2004). On 4 February, publishing heiress Patricia Hearst, a University of California, Berkeley junior, was kidnapped from her Berkeley residence at Apartment 4, 2603 Benvenue Avenue. The SLA had chosen to kidnap Hearst to increase the news coverage of the incident.

Initially, the SLA issued an ultimatum to the Hearst family: that they would release Patricia in exchange for the freedom of Remiro and Little. When such an arrangement proved impossible, the SLA demanded a ransom, in the form of a food distribution program. The value of food to be distributed fluctuated: on 23 February the demand was for USD 4 million; it peaked at USD 400 million. Although free food was actually distributed, the operation came to a halt when violence erupted at one of the four distribution points. (Stone, 2004).

Conditions of the initial captivity of Patty Hearst

While the FBI was conducting an ineffective search, the SLA took refuge in a number of safe houses. While in the SLA's custody, Hearst claims she was subjected to a series of ordeals that her mother would later describe as "brainwashing." The change in Hearst's politics has been attributed to the Stockholm syndrome, a psychological response in which a hostage exhibits apparent loyalty to the abductor. Hearst was later examined by specialist psychologist Margaret Singer, who came to the same conclusion.

At Hearst's subsequent trial, her lawyer claimed that she had been confined in a closet barely large enough for her to lie down in; that her contact with the outside world was regulated by her captors; and that she was regularly threatened with execution. In addition, Hearst's lawyer contended that she had been raped by DeFreeze and Wolfe, but, since both men died before Hearst's capture and trial, charges were never brought against them. The S.L.A. claimed to be holding Hearst according to the conditions of the Geneva convention.

Political inculcation

The S.L.A. subjected Hearst to indoctrination in S.L.A. ideology. In Hearst's taped recordings, used to announce demands and conditions, Hearst can first be heard extemporaneously expressing S.L.A. ideology on day thirteen of her capture (Stone 2004).

With each successive taped communiqué Hearst voiced increasing support for the aims of the S.L.A. She eventually denounced her former life, her parents, and fiancé. At that point she claimed that when the S.L.A. had given her the option of being released or joining the S.L.A., she chose the latter.

After Hearst adopted the S.L.A.'s ideology, she announced that she was using the nom de guerre "Tania."

Activities during the period of Hearst's membership

Hibernia bank robbery

The next action taken by the S.L.A. was to rob a branch of The Hibernia Bank at 1450 Noriega Street in San Francisco; during this incident, two civilians were shot. (Stone 2004) At 10:00 a.m. on April 15, 1974 S.L.A. members burst into the bank.

Hearst participated in the robbery, holding a rifle, and the security camera footage of Hearst became an iconic image. (Hearst was tried and convicted for her involvement in the Hibernia Bank robbery. Her sentence was later commuted by Jimmy Carter and her crime eventually pardoned by Bill Clinton.) She has denied willing involvement in the robbery in her book, Every Secret Thing. The outlaw group was able to get away with over $10,000.

Move to Los Angeles and police shootout

The S.L.A., seeking to increase its membership, found no would-be revolutionaries (or anyone else) in the Bay Area who wanted to have anything to do with them. Consequently, Cinque, a former Los Angeles resident, suggested moving their organization to his former neighborhood, where he had friends whom they might recruit. However, they relocated in a sloppy manner and had much difficulty in becoming established on their new turf. The S.L.A. relied upon en:commandeering housing and supplies in Los Angeles, and thus alienated the people who were ensuring their secrecy and protection. At this stage the imprisoned S.L.A. member, Russell Little, claimed that he believed the S.L.A. had entirely lost sight of its goals and entered into a confrontation with the police rather than a political dialogue with the public (Stone 2004).

On 16 May 1974, "Teko" and "Yolanda" (William and Emily Harris) entered Mel's Sporting Goods Store in Inglewood, California, to shop for supplies for their safehouse. While Yolanda made the purchases, Teko on a whim tried to shoplift socks (Stone 2004). When a security guard confronted him, Teko brandished a revolver. The guard knocked the gun from his hand and placed a handcuff on William Harris's left wrist. Hearst, on armed lookout from the group's van across the street, began shooting up the store's overhead sign. Everyone in the store took cover and the Harrises drove off with Hearst.

As a result of the Mel's incident, the police acquired the address of the safehouse from a parking ticket in the glove box of the van that had been abandoned. The rest of the S.L.A. fled the safehouse when they saw the events on the news. The S.L.A. took over a house occupied by Christine Johnson and Minnie Lewisin, which was the only house in the black neighborhood that had its lights on at 4 am. One of the people in the house was a then-seventeen-year-old neighbor named Brenda Daniels who was sleeping on the couch. She recalls when she first woke up:

The next day, an anonymous phone call to the L.A.P.D. stated that several heavily armed people were staying at the caller's daughter's house. That afternoon, more than 400 Los Angeles Police Department (L.A.P.D.) officers, under the command of Captain Mervin King, along with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, California Highway Patrol, and Los Angeles Fire Department surrounded the neighborhood. The squad leader of a Special Weapons and Tactics (S.W.A.T.) team used a bullhorn to announce, "Occupants of 1466 East 54th Street, this is the Los Angeles Police Department speaking. Come out with your hands up!" A small child walked out, along with an older man. The man stated that no one else was in the house, but the child reported that several people were in the house with guns and ammo belts. After several other attempts to get anyone else to leave the house, a member of S.W.A.T. fired tear gas projectiles into the house which was answered by heavy bursts of automatic gunfire, and the battle began.

Two hours later, the house caught fire. The police again announced, "Come on out! The house is on fire! You will not be harmed." Two women left from the rear of the house and one came out the front (she had come in drunk the previous night, passed out, and woken up in the middle of a siege); all were taken into custody, but were found not to be S.L.A. members. Automatic weapons fire continued from the house. At this point Nancy Ling Perry and Camilla Hall came out of the house. Investigators working for their parents would claim they walked out intending to surrender and that they were unarmed but police later stated that Camilla Hall was shot in the head by police as she charged towards them and Perry was providing covering fire. After Hall's body fell to the ground, it was pulled back inside the burning house by Angela Atwood. Nancy Ling Perry followed Hall out of the house, but she was shot twice in the back. Her body remained outside of the house.

The rest died inside, from combinations of smoke inhalation, burns and multiple gunshot wounds. According to the coroner's report, it was concluded that Donald DeFreeze committed suicide. After the shooting stopped and the fire was extinguished, nineteen firearms, including rifles, pistols, and shotguns were recovered. Several thousand rounds were reported fired into the home by police and they reported thousands of rounds being fired out of the house by the S.L.A. This remains one of the largest police shootouts in history with a reported total of 9,000 rounds being fired.

The bodies of Nancy Ling Perry ("Fahizah"), Angela Atwood ("General Gelina"), Willie Wolfe (who was reported to be Patricia Hearst's lover and who bore the S.L.A. alias "Cujo"), Donald DeFreeze ("Cinque"), Patricia Soltysik ("Mizmoon," "Zoya"), were found, most of them huddled in a crawl space under the house, which had burned down around them.

New broadcasting technology (smaller portable cameras and more nimble and versatile mobile units that made it easier to cover unfolding news events) had recently been acquired by area TV stations, so Tania, Teko and Yolanda were able to watch the televised siege live from their hotel room in the city of Anaheim.

Return to the Bay Area

As a result of the siege, the remaining S.L.A. members returned to the relative safety of the Bay Area and protection of student radical households. At this time a number of new members gravitated towards the S.L.A. (Stone 2004). The active participants at this time were: Bill and Emily Harris, Patty Hearst, Wendy Yoshimura, Kathleen and Steve Soliah, James Kilgore and Michael Bortin.

Crocker bank robbery

On 21 April 1975, the remaining members of the S.L.A. robbed the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California and killed Myrna Opsahl, a bank customer, in the process. Hearst claimed to have been sitting in the getaway car. Much later, Patty Hearst, after being granted immunity from prosecution for this crime, claimed that Emily Harris, Sara Jane Olson, Michael Bortin, and James Kilgore actually committed the robbery, while she and Wendy Yoshimura were getaway drivers and William Harris and Steven Soliah acted as lookouts. Hearst also claimed that Opsahl was killed by Emily Harris, but that she was not a witness.

Capture and conviction

Patricia Hearst, after one of the longest and most publicized manhunts ever, was captured with Wendy Yoshimura in September 1975. Soon after she was captured, Hearst reidentified with the role she grew up in: wealthy heiress. In her affidavit, she claimed that S.L.A. members had used LSD to drug her and forced her to take part in the bank raid. However, Hearst's recorded statements, along with the fact that she had not escaped when she had the opportunity, made many think she had thrown in her lot with the revolutionaries. Despite her claims, she was convicted of the Hibernia Bank robbery and sentenced to seven years in prison, but only served 21 months when her sentence was commuted by US President Jimmy Carter. Eventually she was pardoned by President Bill Clinton.

On 21 August 1975, Kathleen Soliah failed in her attempt to kill officers of the L.A.P.D. when the bombs she placed under a police car did not detonate. Soliah remained a fugitive, first in Rhodesia, and then in Minnesota under the alias Sara Jane Olson; she was married to a doctor and had three daughters. She was arrested on June 16, 1999.

Recent trials

The F.B.I. finally caught up with Sara Jane Olson in 1999 when she was arrested. In 2001, she pled guilty to possession of explosives with the intent to murder and was sentenced to two consecutive ten-years-to-life terms, after being told as part of plea bargain that she would serve only eight years. After serving six years of the prison sentence, she was released on parole and reunited with her family in California on Monday, March 17, 2008. After a discovery that her release was the premature result of a clerical error, an arrest warrant was issued. She was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport and notified that her right to travel out of state had been rescinded. She was returned to prison and will be released again on March 17, 2009.

On 16 January 2002, first-degree murder charges for the killing of Myrna Opsahl were filed against Sara Jane Olson, the Harrises, Bortin, and Kilgore. All were living "aboveground" and were immediately arrested except for James Kilgore, who remained at large for nearly another year.

On 7 November, Soliah, the Harrises, and Bortin pled guilty to those charges. Emily Harris, now known as Emily Montague, admitted to being the one holding the murder weapon, but said that the shotgun went off accidentally. Hearst claims that Montague had dismissed the murder at the time saying, "She was a bourgeois pig anyway. Her husband is a doctor." In court, Montague denied this and said "I do not want [the Opsahl family] to believe that we ever considered her life insignificant."

Sentences were handed out on 14 February 2003 in Sacramento, California for all four defendants in the Opsahl murder case. Montague was sentenced to eight years for the murder (2nd degree). Her former husband, William Harris, got seven years, and Bortin got six years. Soliah had six years added to the 14-year sentence she is already serving. All sentences were the maximum allowed under their plea bargains.

On 8 November 2002 James Kilgore, who had been a fugitive since 1975, was arrested in South Africa and extradited to the United States to face federal explosives and passport fraud charges. Prosecutors alleged a pipe bomb was found in Kilgore's apartment in 1975, and that he obtained a passport under a false name. He pled guilty to the charges in 2003.

Sara Jane Olson was expecting a 5 year 4 month sentence, but "In stiffening Olson's sentence two years ago, the prison board turned to a seldom-used section of state law, allowing it to recalculate sentences for old crimes in light of new, tougher sentencing guidelines." Olson was sentenced to 14 years, later reduced to 13 years, plus six for her role in the Opsahl killing. Hearst had immunity because she was a state's witness, but as there was no trial she never testified.

On 26 April 2004, Kilgore was sentenced to 54 months in prison for the explosives and passport fraud charges. He was the last remaining S.L.A. member to face federal prosecution.

S.L.A. in film

The S.L.A., eager to exploit the media, distributed photographs, news releases and radio-quality taped interviews in which they explained their past activities to the press. The first television media frenzy, orchestrated by the S.L.A., occurred outside of the Hearst family residence at the time of Hearst's kidnapping.


  • Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, directed by Robert Stone, 2004. (Released under the alternate title : Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army.)

Dramas and docu-dramas

  • Abduction, directed by Joseph Zito, 1975. (Based on Black Abductors by Harrison James)
  • Tanya, directed by Nate Rodgers, 1976. (Also known as Sex Queen of the SLA)
  • Patty, (1976), directed by Robert L. Roberts.
  • Patty Hearst, based on Hearst's autobiography Every Secret Thing, directed by Paul Schrader, 1988. ()


  • The Ordeal of Patty Hearst, 1979 (TV).


  • Citizen Tania, 1989 (video only), a satirical docudrama directed by Raymond Pettibon and Dave Markey.
  • The SLA was parodied as the "Ecumenical Liberation Army", complete with a black leader and kidnapped heiress, in the 1976 Sidney Lumet movie Network.

S.L.A. in literature


  • Crazy Magazine, early 1980s, a satirical comic article not only poking fun at the S.L.A., but Richie Rich, known here in parody as "Ritchie Retch". (Crazy Magazine, a now defunct humor magazine in the tradition of MAD Magazine published by Marvel.)
  • During research for a book on the S.L.A. and Hearst kidnapping that never materialized, Stephen King based fictional characters for his novels The Stand and Cujo on aspects or the noms de guerre of S.L.A. members.

Known and notable members

Founding members

  • Russell Little (SLA pseudonym Osceola or Osi), arrested for the shooting of Marcus Foster. Little was in custody during the time that Patty Hearst was with the S.L.A. Little was sentenced to life in prison in April 1975, but in 1981 he was retried and acquitted of the Foster murder.
  • Joseph Remiro (Bo), arrested with Russell Little. Little and Remiro were the prisoners whom the S.L.A. intended to swap for Hearst. Remiro was sentenced to life in prison in April 1975. He is serving this sentence at San Quentin.
  • Donald DeFreeze (General Field Marshal Cinque Mtume), an escaped prisoner and the SLA's only African-American member
  • William (Willie) Wolfe (Cujo)
  • Angela Atwood (General Gelina)
  • Patricia Soltysik, aka Mizmoon Soltysik (Zoya)
  • Camilla Hall (Gabi), Soltysik's lover
  • Nancy Ling Perry (Fahizah)
  • Emily Harris (Yolanda)
  • William Harris (Teko), Emily Harris' husband, and eventual leader of the SLA

Later members (after the Hearst kidnapping)

  • Patty Hearst (Tania)
  • Wendy Yoshimura, former member of the Revolutionary Army (a bombing group) with Willie Brandt
  • Kathleen Soliah, (a.k.a Sara Jane Olson) a friend of Atwood's. Soliah became involved when approached by the SLA after the shootout
  • Jim Kilgore, Kathleen Soliah's boyfriend
  • Steven Soliah, Kathleen Soliah's brother
  • Michael Bortin
  • Margaret Turcich

Associates and sympathisers

  • Josephine Soliah, Kathleen Soliah's sister
  • Bonnie Jean Wilder, Seanna, Sally (a friend of Remiro's), Bridget - all mentioned in Hearst's book Every Secret Thing as potential members
  • Micki and Jack Scott, rented a farmhouse in which SLA members hid for a period to write a book
  • James Micheal Hamilton III (bomber), bomb maker. Died 2001


  • Boulton, David. The Making Of Tania Hearst. Bergenfield, N.J., U.S.A.: New American Library, 1975. 224+[12] p., ill., ports., facsim., index, 22 cm. Also published: London, G.B.: New English Library, 1975.
  • Hearst, Patty, with Alvin Moscow, Patty Hearst: Her Own Story. New York: Avon, 1982. ISBN 0-380-70651-2. (Original title: Every Secret Thing.)
  • McLellan, Vin, and Paul Avery. The Voices of Guns: The Definitive and Dramatic Story of the Twenty-two-month Career of the Symbionese Liberation Army. New York: Putnam, 1977.
  • Weed, Steven, with Scott Swanton. My Search for Patty Hearst. New York: Warner, 1976. (Weed was Hearst's fiance at the time of the kidnapping. That was the end of their relationship.)


See also

External links

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