Hillary Atkin

New Series Examines One of the Most Compelling News Stories of the 1970s

Feb 9, 2018

“Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people.”

If those wack-o words sound the least bit familiar, then you were probably around in 1974 and following every detail during the wall-to-wall media coverage of the kidnapping saga of Patricia Campbell Hearst, which ended with her capture in September 1975.

That slogan was the calling card of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the self-styled Bay Area-based terrorist group that kidnapped the wealthy newspaper heiress from the Berkeley apartment where she lived with her fiancé.

As ransom, the SLA demanded that the Hearst family spend millions of dollars to feed poor people in Northern California during food giveaways. Events quickly spun out of control, generating even more media coverage of the story.

Just two months after the kidnapping, the headlines took an unpredictable turn when 19-year-old Patty, re-christened as Tania (after the name of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara’s girlfriend), actively participated in a violent robbery at a Hibernia Bank branch in San Francisco, which netted the SLA $10,000.

The security camera footage of her wearing a beret and a black curly-hair wig, and toting an M-1 carbine, became iconic — and she became one of the FBI’s most-wanted fugitives.

“Rich college girl turned armed terrorist in a matter of weeks,” is how one network anchorman put it.

In regular audio communiqués sent out by the SLA, Hearst taunted authorities, repeating the “fascist insect” slogan and a Cuban revolutionary slogan, in Spanish, and scolded her parents, Randolph and Catherine, particularly her mother. Media camped out at the couple’s Hillsborough, Calif., home and the statements they made regularly about the case led the evening news.

This unbelievable story, with its components of terrorism, wealth, celebrity and rabid media coverage, is chronicled in a riveting new six-part documentary series from CNN Originals, “The Radical Story of Patty Hearst.”

It’s the latest of a number of documentaries and books written about the notorious Hearst kidnapping case.

Hearst, who served 21 months in prison for bank robbery and was later pardoned by President Bill Clinton, has disavowed the documentary — and an upcoming feature film apparently in the works.

In a statement released last month, she had this to say: “It’s no secret that I was abducted, raped, and tortured at 19. What followed was a series of events that were the direct result of a child having been destroyed both inside and out. Over the years I have been approached many times to discuss my ordeal, and I have answered many questions. I have spoken the truth about my experience and even wrote a 499-page book where I lay it all out, as painful as it was to relive. Each time I do, it puts me back in the nightmare which, as you might imagine, is deeply painful. This is why for the last several years, I have declined to answer any more questions. It’s very hard on me, and not something I want my daughters to be reminded of.”

Even without Hearst’s participation, or blessing, after viewing the first three episodes of “The Radical Story” available before deadline, what makes it incredibly compelling are the current-day interviews with people who played key roles in the real-life drama, including Steven Weed, her fiancé; Bill Harris, an SLA member; Bill Deiz, a Los Angeles reporter who covered the SLA shootout on live television; and CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, who wrote the 2016 book “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst.”

Hearst has vehemently objected to the book, saying in the statement that it “romanticizes my rape and torture and calls my abduction a ‘rollicking adventure.’ This project is attempting to rewrite history and directly flies in the face of the present #MeToo movement where so much progress is being made in regard to listening, and providing a voice, to those who have suffered abuse.”

Toobin is also one of the executive producers of the CNN docuseries, produced by Bat Bridge Entertainment with executive producers Pat Kondelis, Jody Wingrove, Marla Quintana, Amy Entelis and Lizzie Fox, and is interviewed in it.

We caught up with him by phone to discuss some of the elements of one of the most infamous kidnappings in American history.

TVWeek: Retracing this case more than four decades later, what are some of the things that you learned that were not common knowledge at the time?

Toobin: What’s really striking about the series is you have interviews with so many of the protagonists, most notably Bill Harris, who carried Patty out of the apartment on Feb. 4, 1974. There is such an incredible amount of archival footage — of the food giveaway, the shootout in L.A., the Hearst family response to the kidnapping — that it gives it an immediacy and freshness that is very captivating.

TVWeek: How do the elements of terrorism, law enforcement tactics, wealth, celebrity, privilege and intense media coverage still resonate today?

Toobin: I’ve been involved in the story for 4 or 5 years. People have no idea how crazy the U.S. was in the 1970s. There were more than 1,000 political bombings a year. Imagine how we would react now — there would be martial law. It’s a measure of how our society has changed and in many respects, improved and become safer. The transformation of the media and what coverage meant then and now is tremendously different. She was on the cover of Newsweek eight times. Today people might ask what Newsweek is, or what a cover is.

TVWeek: It was fascinating to learn from Bill Harris that there wasn’t really an endgame for the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. What struck you most about his vivid recollections?

Toobin: The thing about Bill is he is a combination of coherent, intelligent political thought and absolute insanity. What I find so remarkable about him is how you listen to him and some of what he says makes lots of sense, and some of it is the worst kind of revolutionary nonsense. You have to shake your head. He did serve a number of years in jail.

TVWeek: The documentary appears to show that Patty Hearst became a very willing and able participant in the SLA, yet she still remains an enigma.

Toobin: Bill says she was an enthusiastic participant, but that is a highly contested position. And several of us involved in the documentary tried separately to speak with her and she wouldn’t do that.

My whole book is about that subject. It’s complicated. She was kidnapped, abused and mistreated but she ultimately became a voluntary participant in a great deal of criminal activity. That’s what I wrote in the book. The documentary doesn’t take as explicit a position.

TVWeek: What are your thoughts on how the FBI handled the search for Hearst?

Toobin: It was a wall-to-wall disaster. It was at that point still J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and they had no context. It was thousands of white guys in crew cuts and black oxford shoes, with no way of infiltrating the SLA, even by counterculture standards. That’s why they were reduced to calling psychics. It took them a year and a half to find these people.

TVWeek: Based upon the interviews with former LAPD officers, give us your take on their tactics. Could the SLA shootout in South Central Los Angeles have been handled any differently?

Toobin: The LAPD in the ’70s was turned into a paramilitary force. They believed the way to address threats is through massive application of weapons. That’s how they responded to this. It was a difficult situation, to put it mildly. Remember, the SWAT team had just been invented. They could have waited them out — where are they gonna go?

TVWeek: What is the lasting legacy of the Patty Hearst kidnapping case?

Toobin: It’s a vivid illustration of how close the U.S. came to a collective nervous breakdown, an emblem of a country in the 1970s with Watergate, the energy crisis and a bad economy — lots going on. The other legacy is how difficult it is to look into the human heart of another person. The mystery is did she join the SLA or was she a coerced, non-voluntary participant. There’s no dispute about the bank robbery or the shootout at Mel’s Sporting Goods. The mystery is about heart and intention and that’s always a fascinating mystery, especially where the stakes are so big.

I was thrilled to work with my colleagues and I’m very proud of the work we did. I think it will be equally interesting to those who have some recollection and the generations since that have no first-hand memories.

(“The Radical Story of Patty Hearst” premieres Sunday, Feb. 11, on CNN and continues over the next two weeks with back-to-back episodes airing Sundays at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. ET/PT.)

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