Symbionese Liberation Army
The Symbionese Liberation Army was an American-based group that
considered itself a revolutionary vanguard army and was a proponent of
radical leftist ideology. Members of the group were accused of committing
murders, bank robberies, and acts of violence between 1973 and 1975.
During this time, their underground fugitive period, they became the top
ongoing media story, making their names and nicknames household words in
the USA, even though they never had more than 8 members at one time (and
perhaps no more than 18 - including Patty Hearst - in total). They are
remembered most for kidnapping
newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.
The SLA were seen by some as a radical leftist group that had turned
violent and by others as simply as a murderous gang of criminals and
thugs. Neither description is accurate, though there is some truth in
both. The truth to the thug argument is that they did commit horrendous
acts of violence and some of their members had previously been in jail for
very serious crimes. The truth in the political argument is that the rest
of the members were white, middle-class, college-educated, male and female
twenty-somethings with relatively bright futures - if only they had they
chosen to be part of the establishment. In short, they did not need to be
bank robbing murderers to get along in life.
If you did not live through this period of our history (which saw the
U.S. engage in a war it lost despite murdering whole villages of people in
Vietnam while the rest of the country argued - sometimes violently - about
whether or not any more of our soldiers should be sent there to die), you
might have a difficult time understand how a group of young middle-class
people could become terrorists. There was a feeling that the country was
run by amoral criminals (well, actually it
was) who cared as little for its own people as those it attempted to
bomb out of existence.
That is not to excuse what they SLA did. Millions of Americans
rightly felt the war was a tragic mistake, that more needed to be done in
the areas of women's rights, civil rights, etc., but they did not take up
arms and kill innocent people. Some SLA members may have joined the cause
out of leftist political beliefs, but their actual actions were those of
terrorists and were completely unjustifiable in any context. (They were no
more justifiable than the actions of right wing Christian terrorists like
Timothy McVeigh, James C. Kopp and Eric Rudolph.)
The SLA was largely unknown until they claimed responsibility for assassinating
an African-American Superintendent of Schools for Oakland. Though they
called him a "fascist" for agreeing to an identity card system
for the troubled schools, murdering him won them no support on the Left
(if anything some on the right, particularly KKK members, must have been
tickled to see another prominent African-American dead).
Known and notable members
- Russell Little (SLA nickname Osceola or Osi), arrested
for the shooting of Marcus Foster.
Little was in custody during the time that Patty
Hearst was with the SLA
- Joseph Remiro (Bo), arrested with Russell Little. Little and
Remiro were the prisoners whom the SLA intended to swap for Hearst
- Donald DeFreeze (General Field
Marshal Cinque Mtume), an escaped prisoner and the SLA's only
African-American member after Thero Wheeler left.
- Thero Wheeler, who escaped the Vacaville Correctional Facility in
August of 1973. He escaped the SLA early on as well.
- Robyn Sue Steiner, who stole the cyanide used in the Foster killing
and was the girlfriend of Little. She left after the Foster killing.
- William Wolfe (Cujo)
- Angela Atwood
- Patricia Soltysik, aka Mizmoon
- Camilla Hall (Gabi),
- Nancy Ling Perry (Fahizah)
- Emily Harris (Yolanda)
- William Harris (Teko),
Emily Harris's husband, and eventual leader of the SLA following
Later members (after the Hearst kidnapping)
- Patty Hearst (Tania)
Yoshimura, former member of the Revolutionary Army (a bombing
group) with Willie Brandt and Paul Rubenstein.
Soliah, a friend of Atwood's. She met Brandt as a visitor to the
Soledad prison he was sent to. Soliah became involved when approached
by the SLA after the shootout
- Jim Kilgore, Kathleen Soliah's
- Steven Soliah, Kathleen Soliah's brother
- Michael Bortin, who later married
Kathleen Soliah's sister
Associates and sympathizers
- Josephine Soliah, Kathleen Soliah's sister and later the husband of
- Bonnie Jean Wilder, Seanna, Sally (a friend of Remiro's), Bridget -
all mentioned in Hearst's book Every
Secret Thing as potential members
- Micki McGee and her husband (though they didn't officially marry
until he was dying of cancer) Jack Scott, a writer and critic of
organized sports, rented a farmhouse in which SLA members hid for a
period. He wanted to write a book about them (which was never
published). Scott, a Berkeley graduate, tried to apply the radical
Left views to professional sports and wrote of how athletes were
"exploited." Basketball star Bill Walton was a friend
of Scott, and Jack's name became tied to the SLA after Walton revealed
he had been contacted by agents investigating the case.
- Bill Walton publicly supported Scott and his wife in their refusal
to give information to the grand jury. I wonder what he would say if
some current basketball player took that position regarding someone
who was harboring known terrorists?
- Jay Weiner, a 20 year old intern with Newsday and a sportswriter,
who delivered a cryptic message to "Tania, Teko, Yolanda, Jack
and Micki" via assembled reporters after being compelled to speak
to a grand jury. He worked with Scott but refused to testify against
- Philip Shinnick, a former Olympic long-jumper, who, along with
Weiner, initially refused to testify to a grand jury in Pennsylvania
regarding Scott's harboring of the SLA. Unlike Scott, both Weiner and
Shinnick served time in jail
Formation and initial activities
Prison visits and political film
Russ Little remembers that the SLA began to form as a result of a
prison visitation program (Venceremos) and a series of San Francisco film
screenings within the radical left. The idea of South American style urban
guerilla activity appealed to a number of people around Willie
Wolfe who was an anthropology student involved in studying the prison
Co-founder Robyn Sue Steiner, who described herself as a "nice
Jewish girl from Miami" in an exclusive San Francisco Chronicle story
in 1979, claimed that Little was a gentle, idealistic person until he
began visiting the California prisons.
Amongst anti-prison activists within the New Left it was a common
belief that America's prisons were concentration camps designed to repress
African Americans. This led some sections of the radical left to believe
that all African Americans were political prisoners, and that Black power
ideology would naturally appeal to all prisoners. Cujo (Willie Wolfe)
developed this ideology into a plan for action, linking student
ideologists with prisoner militants. (Stone 2004).
DeFreeze escapes prison
The SLA formed after the escape from prison by Donald
DeFreeze, who adopted the byname "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. Cinque escaped from the Soledad State Prison on March 5, 1973.
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 the radical
political organization known as 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
SLA members Willie Wolfe and Russ Little,
then moved in with Patricia Soltysik,
also known as "Mizmoon". DeFreeze and Soltysik became lovers and
began to outline the plans for forming the "Symbionese Nation".
The word "Symbionese" is thought to be derived from
symbiosis, a term used in biology to denote mutually beneficial
interaction between different species; apparently the founders of the SLA
had different human races in mind when coining the term. The Black
Panthers had split violently in 1971 and the more militant faction called
itself the Black Liberation Army. As this was a multicultural terrorist
group, it is not hard to understand why the name Symbionese Liberation
Army was chosen.
Russ Little attests that the group's primary activity during this
period was acquiring, storing and training in firearms at various public
shooting ranges (Stone 2004). Co-founder Robyn Sue Steiner fled to England
after DeFreeze threatened to kill her and Thero Wheeler skips town after
his life is threatened for not going along with the planned assassination
of Marcus Foster.
The SLA made their first move on November 6, 1973 when they
murdered Oakland, California superintendent of schools Dr.
Marcus Foster. They characterized Dr. Foster's plan to introduce
identification cards into Oakland schools as "fascist."
Ironically, Dr. Foster had opposed the use of identification cards in his
schools, and his plan was a watered down version of similar plans that had
been proposed by others. Dr. Foster, who was black, was popular on the
left and in the black community, and his murder was considered a
counterproductive, pointless action by just about everybody; thus, they
garnered no support, just media attention. On January 10, 1974, Joe Remiro
and Russ Little were arrested and charged with the murder of Dr. Foster.
Little was ultimately acquitted on retrial, but Remiro was convicted and
remains in prison on a life sentence.
As a result of the arrest of Remiro and Little the SLA began planning
their next action: kidnapping an important figure to negotiate a prisoner
swap (Stone, 2004). Documents found by the FBI at one abandoned safehouse
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. On February 4, publishing heiress Patricia
Hearst, then a Berkeley college student, was
kidnapped from her Berkeley apartment. The SLA had chosen to kidnap
Hearst to increase the news coverage of the incident.
The SLA initially demanded a prisoner swap for Remiro and Little. When
this proved impracticable, a ransom, in the form of a food distribution
program, was demanded for her release. The demanded value of food to be
distributed fluctuated wildly: on February 23 the demand was for $4
million, but peaked at $400 million. Some free food was actually
distributed. However, this was stopped when one of the four distribution
points suffered a riot (Stone, 2004). Hearst, however, was not released.
Conditions of the initial imprisonment of Patty Hearst
While the FBI was conducting an ineffective search, the SLA took refuge
in a number of safe-houses. While under the SLA's control, Hearst was
subjected to a series of ordeals that her mother described as
"brainwashing". This claim is viewed by extremists on both sides
of the political spectrum, as extreme and unsubstantiated. The change in
Hearst's politics has been claimed to be Stockholm
syndrome. Hearst was later examined by the specialist psychologist Margaret
Singer, who agreed with this theory. The brutal treatment she received
from her captors might be taken as evidence for that diagnosis.
Prisoner of War
The SLA claimed to be holding Hearst according to the conditions of the
Geneva convention. At the time, the Geneva conventions only covered
combatants and non-combatants in declared wars between states. As such, it
is difficult to comprehend Hearst's imprisonment as a POW, as Hearst was
not a combatant for the United States in any meaningful sense.
Additionally, the threat to execute Hearst for the alleged criminal
activities of her parents was not sanctioned by the Geneva conventions of
the time. Under the modern Geneva convention regarding wars within states
the actions of the SLA would probably be considered legal, however, this
convention is very generous to combatant forces, allowing them to arrest
and try opposing forces according to the arresting power's law.
Hearst was imprisoned in solitary confinement, in a suburban closet
sufficiently large to lie down in. Like any prisoner, Hearst's contact
with the outside world was regulated by her captors. Hearst was adequately
fed and clothed, though regularly threatened with execution.
In order to provide a measure of human contact, the SLA allowed Hearst
human contact, in the form of educational or indoctrination programs in
SLA ideology. In Hearst's taped recordings, used to announce demands and
conditions, Hearst can first be heard extemporaneously expressing SLA
ideology on day 13 of her capture (Stone 2004). After Hearst began
adopting SLA ideological positions, the group improved her conditions.
In later taped communiqués Hearst denounced her former life, her
parents and fiancé.
After Hearst adopted the SLA's ideology, at least in its outward forms,
she was integrated into the group as an active member. Hearst announced
that she was taking the pseudonym "Tania".
Activities during the period of Hearst's membership
A large amount of time in captivity was taken up with military
training; physical training, weapons training, as well as group
socialization. Sexual bonding within the SLA was also significant.
Hibernia bank robbery
The next action taken by the SLA was to rob
the Hibernia Bank, an incident where two civilians were shot. Cinque's
communiqué account of this robbery is dry, and attempts to rationalize
the accidental nature of the two shootings (Stone 2004). (The rambling
communiqué's usually ended with the ominous sounding "Death to the
fascist insect that prays upon the life of the people.")
Hearst participated in the robbery, holding a rifle, and the security
camera footage of Hearst became a news icon of the time.
Move to Los Angeles and police shootout
As a result of the Hibernia Bank robbery, the SLA moved operations to
the Los Angeles area. This move was conducted in an extremely slipshod
manner, and resulted in a catastrophe for the group. The SLA relied upon
commandeering housing and supplies in Los Angeles, and thus isolated the
people ensuring their secrecy and protection. At this stage the imprisoned
SLA member, Ross Little, claimed that he believed the SLA had gone off the
rails and entered into a confrontation with the police rather than a
political dialogue with the public (Stone 2004).
On May 16, 1974, William and
Emily Harris entered Mel's Sporting Goods Store in Inglewood,
California, to shoplift supplies for their safehouse. When his attempt was
foiled by a security guard, Bill Harris droped a revolver. The guard
knocked the gun from his hand, and had succeeded in placing a handcuff on
William's left wrist. At this time Tania
(Patty Hearst) began shooting into the store from across the street with a
submachine gun from just outside the SLA's van. Everyone in the store
took cover, and the Harrises escaped with 'Tania.'
As a direct result of this, the police found the address of an SLA
safehouse from a parking ticket in the glove box of the van that had been
abandoned. The rest of the SLA fled the safehouse when they saw the events
on the news. The SLA took over a house in a Black neighborhood that
happened to have its lights on at 4 am.
The next day, an anonymous phone call to the LAPD stated that several
people were staying at "her daughter's house" and that they had
many weapons. That afternoon, more than 400 Los Angeles Police Department
(LAPD) officers, under the command of Captain Mervin King, along with the
Federal Bureau of Investigations, California Highway Patrol, and Los
Angeles Fire Department surrounded the neighborhood. The squad leader of a
Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) 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, and 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 SWAT fired tear gas projectiles into the
house, was answered by heavy bursts of automatic gunfire, and the battle
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 and a child 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 to
not be SLA members. Automatic weapons fire continued from the house. Patty
Soltysik ("Mizmoon", "Zoya"), and Camilla
Hall ("Gabi") charged from the burning building, still
firing at the police, and were shot. The rest died in the house from
gunshot wounds or the fire. After the shooting stopped and the fire was
extinguished, nineteen firearms, including rifles, pistols, and shotguns
Among the items recovered
after the fire was this Polaroid of the group.
Courtesy of the LAPD. SLA
The charred bodies of Nancy Ling Perry
("Fahiza"), Angela Atwood
("General Gelina"), Willie Wolfe
(who was reputedly Patricia Hearst's lover and who bore the SLA alias
"Cujo"), and Donald DeFreeze
("Cinque") were recovered.
The siege was televised live and watched by Tania (Patty Hearst), Teko
(William Harris), and Yolanda (Emily Harris) in their hotel room.
Return to the Bay Area
As a result of the siege, the remaining SLA members returned to the
relative safety of the Bay Area and the relative protection of student
radical households. At this time a number of new members gravitated
towards the SLA (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. The SLA began a relatively minor
bombing campaign in the Bay Area.
At a minimum, the Harrises, Hearst and Yoshimura headed to Pennsylvania
during the early fall of 1974 with the assistance of organized sports
critic Jake Scott.
Crocker bank robbery
On April 21, 1975, the remaining members of the SLA robbed
the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California and killed Myrna
Opsahl, a bank customer, in the process.
Much later, Patty Hearst, after being
granted immunity from prosecution for this crime, stated that Emily
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 stated that
Opsahl was killed by Emily Harris.
Capture and conviction
Patty Hearst, after one of the longest and most publicized manhunts
captured with Wendy
Yoshimura in 1975. She was convicted
of the Hibernia bank robbery and served 21 months in prison. Her
sentence was commuted by President Carter and eventually she was
pardoned by President Clinton. As soon as she was freed from the SLA,
Hearst reidentified with the role she grew up in: wealthy heiress.
On August 21, 1975, Kathleen Soliah
failed in her attempt to kill officers of the LAPD when the bombs she
placed under a police car did not detonate. After Hearst was arrested,
Soliah fled to Zimbabwe before settling down in Minnesota under the alias
Sarah Jane Olson; she was married to a doctor and had several children.
The former terrorist was now a soccer mom.
The FBI finally caught up with Kathleen
Soliah in 1999 when she was arrested. In 2001, she pleaded 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. She did not go to trial
because she felt she could not get leniency from a jury so recently after
the September 11, 2001, attacks. Prosecutors were relieved to avoid a
trial due to their fear that Hearst's testimony was an unreliable witness.
On January 16, 2002, first-degree murder charges for the killing of Myrna
Opsahl were filed against Kathleen
Soliah, the Emily & William
Harris, Bortin, and Kilgore.
All were living "aboveground" and were immediately arrested
except for James Kilgore, who remained at large for nearly another year.
On November 7, Soliah, the Harrises, and Bortin plead 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. According to a public statement by Hearst, Montague had
dismissed the murder at the time saying, "She was a bourgeois pig
anyway. Her husband is a doctor." In court, Montague denied that
remark, and said "I do not want [the Opsahl family] to believe that
we ever considered her life insignificant."
On November 8, 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
pleaded guilty to the charges in 2003.
Sentences were handed out on February 14, 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.
According to CourtTV Soliah (aka 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.". Soliah 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 had to testify.
On April 26, 2004, Kilgore was sentenced to 54 months in prison for the
explosives and passport fraud charges. He was the last remaining SLA
member to face federal prosecution.
Film history of the SLA
The SLA was a media savvy organization. They distributed photographs,
press releases, and radio-quality taped interviews explaining their
activities. Additionally, the first television media frenzy occurred
outside of the Hearst family residence during the kidnapping. The media
history importance of the SLA has led to a number of films focusing on
The saga of the SLA was the subject of an unsuccessful yet highly
controversial 1976 film, entitled Patty. The film attempted to
portray the organization as a sex cult rather than a band of
revolutionaries, and received profoundly negative reviews from virtually
all cinematic columnists who saw it. The movie, which was rated
X by the Motion Picture Association of America, was shown in only a
few markets, most of them large urban areas.
- Shana Alexander, Anyone's
Daughter: The Times and Trials of Patricia Hearst,
- Carolyn Anspacher & the San Francisco Chronicle, The
Trial of Patty Hearst, Great Fidelity Press, 1976.
- Marilyn Baker, Exclusive!:
the inside story of Patricia Hearst and the SLA, Macmillan
- Mary F. Beal, Safe
House: A Casebook Study of Revolutionary Feminism in the 1970's,
Northwest Matrix, 1976.
- Jerry Belcher & Don West, Patty/Tania,
Pyramid Books, 1975
- David Boulton, The
Making Of Tania Hearst, Bergenfield, N.J., U.S.A.: New American
- John Bryan, This
Soldier Still At War, (on Joe Remiro) Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
- Patty Hearst with Alvin Moscow, Patty
Hearst: Her Own Story, New York: Avon, 1982. This was the title
after the movie came out. Original title: Every Secret Thing.
- Sharon D. Hendry, Soliah:
The Sara Jane Olson Story, Cable Publishing, 2002.
- Janey Jimenez (U.S. Marshal who escorted Hearst between prison and the
court during the trial) with Ted Berkman, My
Prisoner, Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1977.
- Jean Brown Kinney, An
American journey: The short life of Willy Wolfe, Simon and Schuster,
- Vin McLellan, Paul Avery, The
voices of guns: The definitive and dramatic story of the twenty-two-month
career of the Symbionese Liberation Army, one of the most bizarre chapters
in the history of the American Left, Putnam, 1977.
- John Pascal, The
Strange Case of Patty Hearst, New American Library, 1974.
- Findley & Craven Payne, Life
and Death of the SLA, Ballantine, 1976.
- Robert Brainard Pearsall, Symbionese
Liberation Army: Documents and Communications, Rodopi, 1974
- Fred Soltysik, In
Search of a Sister 1976.
- Steven Weed, with Scott Swanton. My
Search for Patty Hearst, New York: Warner, 1976. Weed was Hearst's
boyfriend at the time of the kidnapping. That was the end of their
- Video: Patty
Hearst, based on Every Secret Thing, directed by Paul
- Video: The Ordeal of Patty Hearst (1979) (TV)
- Video: Patty Hearst: The E! True Hollywood Story (2000) (TV)
- Video: Neverland:
The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army aka Guerrilla:
The Taking of Patty Hearst, Directed by Robert Stone, 2004,