Author Jeffrey Toobin revisits the case of Patty Hearst, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and MN connections

Jeffrey Toobin

Jeffrey Toobin Robert Ascroft

The kidnapping of publishing heiress Patty Hearst put the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a California-based terrorist group, on the entire country’s radar in February of 1974. Whether through brainwashing or free will, Hearst came to sympathize with her captors and their motto: “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!” Under the nom de guerre “Tania,” Hearst participated in a rash of violent acts, including bank robberies and a shootout at a sporting goods store.

After six SLA members were killed by police, Hearst and two other members rebuilt the group and continued to evade authorities until September of 1975, when she was captured. Though she was tried and convicted, her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter, and she was later pardoned by President Bill Clinton. It wasn’t until 2002 that all remaining members of the SLA were brought to justice.

Bestselling author Jeffrey Toobin delves into the SLA’s bizarre and bloody legacy in his new book, American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst. Relying on interviews and approximately 150 boxes of investigative material and previously sealed documents, Toobin thoroughly explores this fiasco inside and out, including the stories of SLA members Camilla Hall and Sara Jane Olson (a.k.a. Kathy Soliah), both of whom have lived in Minnesota. He speaks with Kerri Miller at a free event at Westminster Presbyterian Church on Wednesday night.

City Pages: For those reading about the SLA for the first time, to what would you compare it today? Is there a comparable group out there?

JT: The world was a much more dangerous place than it is today... The craziness of the times was a big reason I wanted to write the book.

CP: Describe the Minnesotan connections to the SLA.

JT: Camilla Hall went to Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter. Her father was a minister there. She led this incredibly tragic life. She was one of four children, three of whom died in childhood, two of a kidney disease and one of a heart disease. She was obviously struggling with being gay and, like a lot of people, she went out to Berkeley and got caught up with these lunatics — even though she herself, it seemed, was basically a non-violent person — and tragically got caught up in something that led to her death at the age of 29.

CP: There’s also the Kathy Soliah/Sara Jane Olson connection to Minnesota.

JT: She still lives here. I have to say, I found her one of the more offensive figures in the book. Here’s a woman who was clearly a terrorist in the 1970s, and she gets all haughty and offended that the government dares to prosecute her for her terroristic acts years later. [Soliah/Olson was apprehended in St. Paul in 1999 and served prison time.] I was just astonished by her behavior.

CP: So you don’t feel the way she conducted her life after leaving California was penance?

JT: That was something that the judge should have considered in sentencing, the fact that she has led a normal life. But the idea that leading a crime-free life gives you immunity from participating in a bank robbery where a woman was killed is appalling to me. I just find Sara Jane Olson/Kathy Soliah a deeply appalling person.

CP: One of the interesting things about the SLA members is that their stated intentions seemed contrary to their actions.

JT: I think that’s an understatement. They were basically irrational, top to bottom. That they thought they could achieve political change in this country through this kind of violence is indicative of how nuts they were.

CP: You also believe there was no Stockholm Syndrome involved in Hearst’s case. Say more about that.

JT: I’m much more interested in describing what Patricia actually did rather than putting pop-culture labels on them. I think that she was kidnapped, that it was horrible, but she was also someone who voluntarily committed an astonishing numbers of crimes.

CP: If you had been the judge in this case, what sort of punishment would you have doled out to Hearst?

JT: What an interesting question. I think most criminal sentences are too long, but I also think that she should have been treated like everyone else, like all the other bank robbers. What’s entirely clear is that she wasn’t. That’s what bothers me about the case: Not that I wanted to see her serve a particularly long sentence -- that is not of interest to me -- but I do think the fact that she is the only person to receive a commutation from one president and a pardon from another, that, to me, is really astonishing and disturbing.

CP: And how do you feel about the other SLA members and the sentences that they received?

JT: I don’t have a particular problem with the sentences they received.

CP: Do you think the SLA “succeeded” in any of its objectives?

JT: Not in the slightest. I think they dishonored the great American tradition of political protest with their violence and insanity. They were a wall-to-wall failure.

The Thread Live with Jeffrey Toobin, hosted by Kerri Miller
Westminster Presbyterian Church
7 p.m. Wednesday, September 28
All Ages (Material may be inappropriate for younger audiences)