Feb. 4, 2022

The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst

The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst

February 4, 1974. Patty Hearst is kidnapped by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army.

This episode of History Daily has been archived, but you can still listen to it as a subscriber to Noiser+, Wondery+, or as a Prime Member with the Amazon Music app.


Cold Open

It’s April 15th, 1974.

On a quiet, suburban street in San Francisco, customers and bank tellers at the Hibernia Bank are happily going about their business, when suddenly, at 9:50 a.m. – the front door flies open, and five armed robbers storm inside.

With what seems like choreographed precision, three of the robbers force a bank teller to open the safe, while the other two handle the customers and employees. One of the robbers is a young woman of just 19. She holds her rifle awkwardly, clearly not used to carrying a weapon. And she looks fidgety and nervous as she orders the customers to get against the wall, while police sirens wail in the distance.

Moments later, the young woman’s three accomplices return from pillaging the safe with a duffel bag filled with $10,000 in cash. With their loot in tow, the robbers make for the door.

But then… two more customers enter the bank, blocking the exit. One of the robbers points his rifle and fires. 

The robbers swiftly exit the bank, all except for the young woman. She is frozen, a look of horror on her face. The two customers who walked in the door lie crumpled and bleeding on the floor. The young woman’s hands start to tremble. But she doesn’t linger for long.

With police sirens blaring in her ears, the young woman follows her accomplices out of the bank and into a getaway vehicle, which roars away from the curb and disappears seconds before police cars arrive at the scene.

The bank robbery is one of several crimes to have occurred in the San Francisco Bay Area in recent weeks. And when the FBI reviews security camera footage, they’re not surprised to identify the culprits as members of the left-wing Symbionese Liberation Army, or the SLA. But there’s something unusual about one of the robbers – the young woman. When the FBI agents pause the footage and take a closer look, they can’t believe what they’re seeing.

The young woman is a teenage granddaughter of a millionaire publishing tycoon. But not only that, back in February, she was kidnapped by members of the SLA. But now, it appears she's working with them.

Patty Hearst's kidnapping by the SLA and her subsequent defection to the organization that captured her will become the biggest news story in America; one that will spark debate for many decades to come. But the story begins when the young newspaper heiress is kidnapped on February 4th, 1974.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is February 4th: The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst.

Act One: Spoiled Little Rich Girl

In Berkeley, California, a nineteen-year-old college student named Patty Hearst is watching television with her boyfriend, Steve. They’re in their apartment, and Patty is dressed for bed, wearing a robe and slippers. It's an ordinary night in, but at around 9 PM, the doorbell rings.

Steve opens the door to find a young blonde woman, who appears to be in distress. Her car’s broken down, and she wants to borrow a phone. Patty watches on with disinterest, mildly annoyed by the intrusion. She gets up from the couch, telling Steve she’s going to bed.  

But suddenly, two men with guns barge into the apartment. Before Patty can even scream, the blonde woman grabs her arm, gags her, and places a blindfold over her eyes. Steve tries to reason with the intruders. He assumes they’re burglars, and offers them his wallet, the TV, whatever they want.

But these people want Patty.

One of the men strikes Steve hard, but all Patty can hear are muffled groans, which grow weaker, and eventually stop, as Steve loses consciousness. Her captors grab Patty’s wrists and force her out of the apartment. She struggles and kicks but to no avail. She feels the cold night air on her bare skin, and then she hears a trunk opening.

That’s when the reality of what’s happening hits her. This is not a random attack. These people know who Patty Hearst is – and they’ve come to kidnap her. 


Patty is no ordinary college student. She belongs to one of the wealthiest families in America. Her grandfather, William Randolph Hearst, was a publishing tycoon who founded one of the largest newspaper chains and media companies in the world. He died in 1951, dividing his wealth and power among his five sons, including Patty’s father – Randy.  

But despite her privilege, Patty’s childhood was an unhappy one. Her parents were strict and distant, and as a result, Patty became rebellious. Wherever she went, she butted heads with authority figures. She was expelled from several boarding schools, and regularly clashed with her mother, Catherine. 

As she got older, Patty continued to rebel against her upbringing. She enrolled at Berkeley – a college her parents disapproved of – and moved in with her boyfriend, Steve, of whom her parents disapproved even more. Patty was trying to escape a bubble of wealth and privilege and live an ordinary life.

But Patty is not ordinary – and her kidnappers know it. They throw her inside the trunk and slam it shut. Moments later, Patty feels the vehicle moving. She curls up in the darkness and weeps.

Several hours later, the trunk is opened and Patty is dragged inside a building – the kidnapper's safehouse in Los Angeles but Patty doesn’t know where she is. Her captors lock her inside a dark closet with nothing but a bare mattress. She's left there alone trembling in fear and grim anticipation when from behind the locked closet door, she hears a man’s voice. 

He introduces himself as Cinque. He says he is the General Field Marshal of the Symbionese Liberation Army or the SLA. As Patty will soon discover, the SLA is an extreme left-wing militia, with a manifesto that proclaims anti-capitalist and anti-racist beliefs. They promote these beliefs through acts of violence and intimidation.

Although it styles itself as a paramilitary organization, the SLA is a terrorist group – but a disorganized one. Still, the group is exceedingly dangerous, especially the group’s leader. He introduced himself to Patty as Cinque, but his real name is Donald DeFreeze.

As Patty listens to Cinque speak, his voice sinister and cold, she starts to shake and cry with fear; she’s utterly convinced that this man will kill her. 

But Cinque doesn’t intend to kill Patty – at least, not immediately. The SLA kidnapped her to negotiate the release of two of their members in prison. But now that the wealthy heiress is locked in their closet, they begin to consider other possibilities.


Five days after their daughter’s kidnapping, Patty’s parents receive a parcel containing two audio tapes. By now, the FBI have established an investigation headquarters inside the Hearst family home. Patty’s parents, Catherine and Randy, sit at the kitchen table, their faces filled with anxiety, as government agents queue up the first tape and press play:

"Patty: Mom, Dad, I'm okay. I had a few scrapes and stuff but they washed them up and they're getting okay. I've caught a cold but they're giving me pills for it. I'm not being starved or beaten or unnecessarily frightened..."

Catherine and Randy are overwhelmed with relief – their daughter is alive. Then they listen to the second tape. It contains a demand. The SLA wants Randy to buy $70 worth of food for every needy person in California, by some math, that would cost Randly $400 million. But if he doesn’t come up with the money, Patty will be killed.

Randy sits back in his chair, dumbstruck. The FBI agents watch his face, trying to read his emotions. Some of the agents have already noticed the disrepair the house is in – the overgrown yard, the cracked and peeling paint, the stagnant swimming pool.

Randy, it turns out, is not a good businessman like his father. He squandered his inheritance. Now the FBI agents are beginning to suspect what Randy and Catherine already know. Patty’s parents are broke.

So with no money to pay a $400 million ransom, Randy and Catherine fear they'll never see their daughter's face again. But they do, on an FBI Wanted poster. Patty will not be killed at the hands of the SLA. Instead, in just a few weeks' time, she will join them.

Act Two: Rebel Soldier

It’s February 22nd, 1974, eighteen days after Patty’s kidnapping.

Patty is curled up inside her closet. Over the last few weeks, she has gone from defiance to dread, to resignation. Her captors provide her with meager food and water. They force her to wear her blindfold so she never sees their faces. Some took pity on her and brought her a television to allay the mind-numbing boredom. 

Cinque, the leader of the SLA, was furious when he learned Patty’s father couldn’t raise $400 million. When Randy raised instead raised $2 million and organized a massive food drive, Cinque considered this insufficient. He demanded Randy spend at least $6 million. He has no idea that Randy is broke. And nor, for that matter, does Patty. 

By now, Patty Hearst’s kidnapping has become the biggest news story in the country. Reporters camp outside the Hearst family home. And today, Randy is about to make a televised statement regarding the SLA’s latest demand.

Among those in the television audience is Patty, watching her small, black-and-white television alone in a closet. Her father appears on screen, and Patty is optimistic he will agree to the SLA’s demand and cough up the 6 million. But to her dismay, Randy looks defeated. He says that the amount requested is too much, and from now on, the matter will be handled by the FBI.

Patty feels abandoned and on her own. So she decides that the best way to survive this ordeal is by going along with what her captors say. She begins to express interest in the SLA’s manifesto. She requests books by Karl Marx and starts engaging her captors in discussions about communism.  

Cinque believes he is converting Patty to the SLA cause. In his mind, this pampered millionaire’s daughter is turning into a genuine left-wing revolutionary. And soon, he lets her out of the closet and invites her to join the group. Without any other choice, Patty accepts, asserting that she wants to “fight for the people!” 

On March 31st, after fifty-seven days of darkness, Cinque removes Patty’s blindfold. Relief washes over her. For now, at least, she feels safe. The SLA members stand around, smiling and clapping. And despite her uncertainty, Patty smiles back.

Now that Patty is not a captive held for ransom but one of their own, Cinque needs a new plan to get the cash his organization needs to grow. He's concocted one. Cinque declares that they are going to “expropriate capitalist funds on behalf of the poor and the oppressed.” They’re going to rob a bank.


It’s two weeks later, on April 15th, 1974.

The SLA has just stolen $10,000 from a San Francisco bank. To the shock of the FBI – and the general public – Patty Hearst was spotted among the robbers. Then, a few days after the robbery, the SLA releases a recorded statement from Patty:

"Patty: On April 15, my comrades and I expropriated $10,660.02 from the Sunset branch of the Hibernia Bank. Casualties could've been avoided had the persons involved cooperated with people's forces and kept out of the way until after our departure. I was positioned so that I could hold customers and bank personnel who were on the floor. My gun was loaded, and at no time did any of my comrades intentionally point their guns at me. Careful examination of the photographs which were published clearly shows what's true.

“Patty: Our action of April 15th forced the corporate state to help finance the revolution. As per my ex-fiance, I don't care if I ever see him again. During the last few months, Steven has shown himself to be a sexist, ageist pig - not that this was a sudden change from the way he always was.

For those people who still believe that I'm brainwashed or dead, I see no reason to further defend my position.

Consciousness is terrifying to the ruling class and they will do anything to discredit people who have realized that the only alternative to freedom is death. And that the only way we can free ourselves of this fascist dictatorship is by fighting - not with words but with guns. I'm a soldier in the people's army.

Patria o Muerte, Venceremos."

After the recording is released to the press, public opinion turns against Patty. Many people assume she’s a spoiled rich girl who joined a terrorist organization to spite her parents. Even the attorney general of the United States denounces Patty as a common criminal.

But in reality, Patty is simply trying to survive. The recording was scripted by the SLA, and Patty was following orders. But now she’s a wanted criminal. She feels her old life slipping away from her. So she decides to throw herself into her new one and follows along with the SLA’s intense training regimen, learning new skills like how to handle a weapon and hand-to-hand combat.

She puts these skills to use one month after the bank robbery when Patty drives to a Los Angeles sporting goods store with two other SLA members, a married couple, named Bill and Emily Harris. Patty waits in the van while Bill and Emily go inside. But moments later, Patty watches as Bill is wrestled to the floor by the store manager after being caught shoplifting.

Patty springs into action. Her SLA training kicks into gear. She grabs an automatic rifle from the backseat and empties an entire magazine above the storefront. The terrified manager releases Bill, who sprints with Emily back to the van.

The trio speed away from the crime scene and they abandon the van, hijack a car, and eventually hole up in a motel. Once safely inside their room, they immediately turn on the news. Their robbery is making headlines, but it's worse than that. Onscreen is the SLA safe house.

It’s surrounded by police officers. 

When Bill, Emily, and Patty abandoned the van, they forgot to remove parking tickets which contained the safehouse’s address. Authorities immediately descended on the house and shooting started.

During the assault, a stray bullet hits something flammable. The flames spread, and soon the house is consumed, and all six SLA members inside – including their leader, Cinque – are dead.

Hearing the news, Patty’s emotions are mixed. Part of her is relieved her captors are dead. But she’s also deeply afraid. She’s still a wanted fugitive, and without the safe house, she has nowhere else to go. Patty, Bill, and Emily will be on the run for several months, before eventually returning to San Francisco, where her allegiances will be put to the test.

Act Three: Victim or Terrorist?

It’s September 18th, 1975, nineteen months after Patty Hearst was kidnapped.

Patty sits in her San Francisco apartment, which she shares with another SLA member when suddenly there’s a loud crash. FBI agents break down the door and flood the room, their pistols raised. Patty doesn’t resist as handcuffs are placed around her wrists.

After the siege of the Los Angeles safe house last year, everything began to unravel for the SLA. When Bill and Emily attempted to rob a Sacramento bank in August, the heist went wrong, and Emily ended up shooting and killing a civilian. Patty drove the getaway vehicle.

Now, the FBI places Patty Hearst under arrest for armed robbery and other charges.

During her trial, Patty’s defense lawyers argue that she was brainwashed by the SLA, and coerced into committing criminal acts. But the prosecuting attorney refutes this claim, suggesting that Patty chose to participate in the SLA’s violence. In the end, the jury sides with the prosecution. Patty Hearst is found guilty and sentenced to 35 years in prison.

But when the original judge dies before final sentencing, a new judge reduces Patty's time to 7 years. For many, that is still too harsh. Congressmen and celebrities will petition for Patty's release, and in 1979, President Jimmy Carter will reduce Patty’s sentence to just 22 months.

Years later, another US president Bill Clinton will issue Patty a full pardon. But the debate over whether Patty Hearst was a victim of brainwashing or a dangerous criminal rages even today. Still nobody – except Patty Hearst herself – can ever truly know what happened in the months following her kidnapping, which took place today: February 4th, 1974.


Next onHistory Daily.February 7th, 1964. The Beatles land in New York City on their way to perform on the Ed Sullivan show in front of an audience of millions.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham. 

Audio editing by Mollie Baack. 

Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.