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.
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).
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 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."
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.
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).
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.