The United Federated Forces of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) was an American self-styled left-wing revolutionary group active between 1973 and 1975 that considered itself a vanguard army. The group committed bank robberies, two murders, and other acts of violence.
The SLA became internationally notorious for kidnapping heiress Patty Hearst, abducting the 19-year-old from Berkeley, California. Interest increased when Hearst, in audiotaped messages delivered to (and broadcast by) regional news media, announced that she had joined the SLA. Hearst later said that members of the group threatened to kill her, held her in close confinement, and sexually assaulted and brainwashed her.
Beliefs and symbols
In his manifesto "Symbionese Liberation Army Declaration of Revolutionary War & the Symbionese Program", Donald DeFreeze wrote, "The name 'symbionese' is taken from the word symbiosis and we define its meaning as a body of dissimilar bodies and organisms living in deep and loving harmony and partnership in the best interest of all within the body."
Although the SLA considered themselves leaders of the black revolution, DeFreeze was its only black member. His seven-headed SLA cobra symbol was based on the seven principles of Kwanzaa, with each head representing a principle. The Swahili words for these seven principles 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 SLA propaganda indicates that it was copied from the ancient Sri Lankan and Indian seven-headed nÄga; carved stones depicting a seven-headed cobra are commonly found near the sluices of the ancient irrigation tanks in Sri Lanka and are believed to have been placed there as guardians of the water. The particular graphic of the seven-headed cobra used by the SLA may have been copied from an illustration in The Lost Continent of Mu by James Churchward.
Formation and initial activities
Prison visits and political film
The SLA formed as a result of the prison visitation programs of the radical left-wing group Venceremos Organization and a group known as the Black Cultural Association in Soledad prison. The idea of a South Americanâ"styled urban guerrilla movement, similar to the Tupamaros movement in Uruguay, combined with RÃ©gis Debray's theory of urban warfare and ideas drawn from Maoism, appealed to a number of people, including Patricia Michelle Soltysik (a.k.a. "Mizmoon").
Some activists within the New Left and the social justice movements compared the U.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.
DeFreeze escapes prison
The SLA formed after the escape from prison by Donald DeFreeze, a.k.a. "General Field Marshal Cinque". He had been serving 5-15 years for robbing a prostitute. DeFreeze took the name Cinque from the leader of the slave rebellion who took over the slave ship Amistad in 1839. DeFreeze escaped from Soledad State Prison on March 5, 1973, by walking away while on work duty in a boiler room located outside the perimeter fence.
DeFreeze has been accused by some sources of being an informant from 1967 to 1969 for the Public Disorder Intelligence Unit of the Los Angeles Police Department.
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 SLA members Willie Wolfe and Russell Little, then moved in with Patricia Michelle Soltysik. DeFreeze and Soltysik became lovers and began to outline the plans for founding the "Symbionese Nation".
Murder of Marcus Foster
On November 6, 1973, in Oakland, California, two members of the SLA killed school superintendent Marcus Foster and badly wounded his deputy, Robert Blackburn, as the two men left an Oakland school board meeting. The hollow-point bullets used to kill Foster had been packed with cyanide.
The SLA had condemned Foster for his plan to introduce identification cards into Oakland schools, calling him "fascist". In fact, Foster had originally opposed the use of identification cards in his schools, and his plan was a watered-down version of other similar proposals. An African American, Foster was popular on the Left and in the black community.
On January 10, 1974, Joseph Remiro and Russell Little were arrested and charged with Foster's murder, and initially both men were convicted of murder. Both men received sentences of life imprisonment. Seven years later, on June 5, 1981, Little's conviction was overturned by the California Court of Appeal, and he was later acquitted in a retrial in Monterey County.
Little has stated: "Who actually pulled the trigger that killed Foster was Mizmoon. Nancy [Ling Perry] was supposed to shoot Blackburn, she kind of botched that and DeFreeze ended up shooting him with a shotgun."
Kidnapping of Patty Hearst
In response to the arrests of Remiro and Little, the SLA began planning their next action: the kidnapping of an important figure to negotiate the release of their imprisoned members. Documents found by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at one abandoned safe house revealed that an action was planned for the "full moon of January 17". The FBI did not take any precautions, and the SLA did not act until a month later. On February 4, 1974, publishing heiress Patty Hearst, a sophomore at the University of California at Berkeley, was kidnapped from her Berkeley residence at Apartment 4, 2603 Benvenue Avenue. The kidnapping followed by less than three months a November 1973 San Francisco Chronicle story in the "Society" section announcing the Hearst-Steven Weed betrothal (with the apartment's address given). The SLA had chosen to kidnap Hearst to increase the news coverage of the incident.
Initially, the SLA issued an ultimatum to the Hearst family: that they would release Patty 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 February 23 the demand was for $4 million; it peaked at $400 million. Although free food was distributed, the operation initially came to a halt when violence erupted at one of the four distribution points. This happened because the crowds were much greater than expected, and people were injured as panicked workers threw boxes of food off moving trucks into the crowd. After the SLA demanded that a community coalition called the Western Addition Project Area Committee be put in charge of the food distribution, 100,000 bags of groceries were handed out at 16 locations across four counties between February 26 and the end of March.
Conditions of the initial captivity of Patty Hearst
The FBI was conducting an unsuccessful search, and the SLA took refuge in a number of safe houses. While in the SLA's custody, Hearst later claimed 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 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.
Terence Hallinan, the first attorney who represented her, was planning to argue involuntary intoxication, a side effect of which is amnesia.
Hearst's attorney F. Lee Bailey used the Stockholm Syndrome argument as part of the defense at trial. During 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. Hearst's lawyer contended that she had been raped by DeFreeze and Wolfe. Both died before Hearst's capture and trial. The SLA claimed to be holding Hearst according to the conditions of the Geneva Conventions.
The SLA subjected Hearst to indoctrination 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.
With each successive taped communiquÃ©, Hearst voiced increasing support for the aims of the SLA. She eventually denounced her former life, her parents, and fiancÃ©. At that point, she claimed that when the SLA had ostensibly given her the option of being released or joining the SLA, she had believed she would be killed if she turned them down. She began using the nom de guerre "Tania", after Che Guevara's associate "Tania the Guerilla".
Activities during the period of Hearst's membership
Hibernia Bank robbery
The next action taken by the SLA was to rob a branch of the Hibernia Bank at 1450 Noriega Street in San Francisco; during this incident, two civilians were shot. At 10:00Â a.m. on April 15, 1974, SLA members burst into the bank.
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 group was able to get away with over $10,000.
Move to Los Angeles and police shootout
The SLA believed that its future depended on its ability to acquire new members, and realized that, because of the killing of Marcus Foster, few if any people in the Bay Area underground wished to join them. Cinque suggested moving the organization to his former neighborhood in Los Angeles, 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 SLA relied on commandeering housing and supplies in Los Angeles, and thus alienated the people who were ensuring their secrecy and protection. At this stage, the imprisoned SLA member Russell Little claimed that he believed the SLA had entirely lost sight of its goals and entered into a confrontation with the police rather than a political dialogue with the public.
On May 16, 1974, "Teko" and "Yolanda" (William and Emily Harris) entered Mel's Sporting Goods Store in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood, California to shop for supplies. While Yolanda made the purchases, Teko on a whim decided to shoplift socks. When a security guard confronted him, Teko brandished a revolver. The guard knocked the gun out of his hand and placed a handcuff on William'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 but the Harrises took cover, and the Harrises fled the store and drove off with Hearst.
As a result of the botched shoplifting incident, the police acquired the address of the safehouse from a parking ticket in the glove box of the van (the vehicle 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 occupied by Christine Johnson and Minnie Lewisin. One of the people in the house at the time was a then-17-year-old neighbor named Brenda Daniels, who was sleeping on the couch. Daniels recalls the events that day:
I went down to Minnie's every Thursday evening to play some cards and drink a little. I fell asleep early and when I woke up around two A.M. I saw four white women and three dudesâ"two blacks and one white. I saw guns spread out all over the floor, an' I asked them why they had guns, more than I'd ever seen in my life. They didn't answer, and, instead, the black dude asked me my name and then introduced me to everyone.
[When asked if Patty Hearst was there]Man, how can I tell? All white women look the same to me.
The next day, an anonymous phone call to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) stated that several heavily armed people were staying at the caller's daughter's house. That afternoon, more than 400 LAPD officers, under the command of Captain Mervin King, along with the FBI, California Highway Patrol, and Los Angeles Fire Department surrounded the neighborhood. The leader of a 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 young child walked out, along with an older man. The man stated that no one else was in the house, but the child intervened stating that several people were in the house with guns and ammo belts. After several more attempts to get anyone else to leave the house, a member of the SWAT team fired tear gas projectiles into the house. This was answered by heavy bursts of automatic gunfire, and a battle began.
Two hours later, the house caught fire. 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 the siege); all were taken into custody, but were found not to be SLA 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 that they walked out intending to surrender and that they were unarmed but police later stated that 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. Perry followed Hall out of the house and was shot twice in the back. Her body remained outside the house.
The rest died inside, from smoke inhalation, burns and gunshot wounds. The coroner's report concluded that Donald DeFreeze committed suicide. After the shooting stopped and the fire was extinguished, 19 firearmsâ"including rifles, pistols, and shotgunsâ"were recovered. Several thousands of rounds had been fired out of the house by the SLA and police in response had fired several thousands of rounds into the house. This remains one of the largest police shootouts in history with a reported total of over 9,000 rounds being fired. Every round fired by SLA members at the police missed the officers.
The SLA dead were: Nancy Ling Perry ("Fahizah"), Angela Atwood ("General Gelina"), Camilla Hall ("Gabi"), Willie Wolfe ("Kahjoh", misspelled by the media at the time as "Cujo", Donald DeFreeze ("Cinque"), and Patricia Soltysik ("Mizmoon," "Zoya"). Most of the bodies were found 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 Hearst and the Harrises were able to watch the televised siege live from their hotel room in Anaheim.
Return to the Bay Area
As a result of the siege, the remaining SLA members returned to the relative safety of the San Francisco Bay Area and protection of student radical households. At this time, a number of new members gravitated towards the SLA. The active participants at this time were: Bill and Emily Harris, Patty Hearst, Wendy Yoshimura, Kathleen and Steve Soliah, James Kilgore and Michael Bortin.
Crocker Bank robbery
On April 28, 1975, the remaining members of the SLA robbed the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California. Myrna Opsahl, a bank customer, was killed.
Capture and conviction
Patricia Hearst, after a long and highly publicized search, was captured with Wendy Yoshimura on September 18, 1975. In her affidavit she claimed that SLA members had used LSD to drug her and had forced her to take part in the bank raid. She was convicted of the Hibernia Bank robbery and sentenced to seven years in prison . US President Jimmy Carter commuted the sentence to time served after she had been in prison for 21 months. She was pardoned by President Bill Clinton.
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.
Soliah remained a fugitive, first in Rhodesia, and then in Minnesota under the alias Sara Jane Olson; she married a doctor and had three daughters.
The FBI caught up with and arrested Soliah, now identifying as, Sara Jane Olson, in 1999 after a tip was received by the television show America's Most Wanted, which had aired her profile. In 2001, she pleaded guilty to possession of explosives with the intent to murder and was sentenced to two consecutive terms of ten years to life, although she had been told as part of a plea bargain that she would serve only eight years. She claimed that she pled guilty because of the climate after September 11, 2001 even though she had not made, possessed or placed the pipe bombs.
On January 16, 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 "above ground" and were immediately arrested except for James Kilgore, who remained at large for nearly another year.
On November 7, 2002, Soliah, the Harrises, and Bortin pleaded guilty to the murder charges. Emily Harris, now known as Emily Montague, admitted to being the one holding the murder weapon but said that the shotgun had gone off accidentally. Hearst had claimed 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 having said this and added, "I do not want [the Opsahl family] to believe that we ever considered her life insignificant."
Sentences were handed down 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, was sentenced to seven years, and Bortin to six years. Soliah has had six years added to the 14-year sentence she is already serving. All sentences were the maximum allowed under their plea bargains.
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 that a pipe bomb had been found in Kilgore's apartment in 1975 and that he had obtained a passport under a false name. He pleaded guilty to the charges in 2003.
Sara Jane Olson was expecting to receive a five-year, four-month sentence, but "in stiffening Olson's sentence ..., 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 yearsâ" later reduced to 13 yearsâ"plus six years 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.
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.
After serving six years of the prison sentence, Sarah Jane Olson was released on parole and reunited with her family in California on March 17, 2008. But after a discovery that her release was premature because of a clerical error, an arrest warrant was issued. She was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport and notified that her right to travel out of state had been rescinded. She was returned to prison.
On March 17, 2009, Sarah Olsen was released, this time correctly, after serving 7 years of her 14-year sentence. She was to check in with her parole officer in Los Angeles where it would be determined if she would be allowed to serve her parole in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three daughters. Several officials, including the Governor of Minnesota, urged that she serve her parole in California, but she was finally allowed to serve her parole in Minnesota.
On May 10, 2009, James Kilgore was released from prison in California. He was the last captured SLA member to be released.
Founding member Joseph Remiro remains in prison as of 2014.
Around June 2001 an unidentified message was received via wire services that James Michael Hamilton III., a bomb maker for the group, had died of natural causes in or around the Huntsville, Alabama area. This was not made known to the public until years later when blueprints for detailed bomb equipment was found in a home in Madison Alabama, once rented by Hamilton. Names of other SLA members were also on the blueprints. They believe Hamilton was not a direct member of the SLA but was recruited when needed. He was never charged with any crimes related to any SLA activities.
Known and notable members
- Russell Little (SLA pseudonym Osceola or Osi), arrested for the shooting of Marcus Foster. Little was in custody during the time when Patty Hearst was with the SLA. Little was sentenced to life in prison in April 1975, but in 1981 he was retried and acquitted of the Foster murder. He now lives in Hawaii.
- Joseph Remiro (Bo), arrested with Russell Little. Little and Remiro were the prisoners whom the S.L.A. intended to swap for Hearst. Remiro was sentenced to life in prison in April 1975. He is serving this sentence at the California State Prison, Lancaster, CA.
- Donald DeFreeze (General Field Marshal Cinque Mtume), an escaped prisoner and the SLA's only African-American member
- William (Willie) Wolfe (Cujo)
- Angela Atwood (General Gelina)
- Patricia Soltysik, aka Mizmoon Soltysik (Zoya)
- Camilla Hall (Gabi), Soltysik's lover
- Nancy Ling Perry (Fahizah)
- Emily Harris (Yolanda)
- William Harris (General Teko), Emily Harris' husband, and eventual leader of the SLA
Later members (after the Hearst kidnapping)
- Patty Hearst (Tania)
- Wendy Yoshimura, former member of the Revolutionary Army, a violent activist group, with her friend Willie Brandt
- Kathleen Soliah, (a.k.a. Sara Jane Olson) a friend of Atwood's. Soliah became involved when approached by the SLA after the shootout
- Jim Kilgore, Kathleen Soliah's boyfriend
- Steven Soliah, Kathleen Soliah's brother
- Michael Bortin
Associates and sympathizers
- Josephine Soliah, Kathleen Soliah's sister
- Bonnie Jean Wilder, Seanna, Sally (a friend of Remiro's), Bridget - all mentioned in Hearst's book Every Secret Thing as potential members
- Micki and Jack Scott, rented a farmhouse in which SLA members hid for a period to write a book
- James Michael Hamilton III, bomb maker. Died 2001.
In the media
The SLA distributed photographs, news releases and radio-quality taped interviews in which they explained their past activities to the press. Since that time the SLA's activities have been covered in other ways in the media. These include films and television shows, such as:
- Abduction (1975), directed by Joseph Zito. (Based on Black Abductors by Harrison James)
- Tanya (1976), directed by Nate Rodgers. (Also known as Sex Queen of the SLA)
- Patty (1976), directed by Robert L. Roberts.
- The Ordeal of Patty Hearst (1979) (TV).
- Patty Hearst (1988), directed by Paul Schrader, based on Hearst's autobiography Every Secret Thing.
- Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (2004), directed by Robert Stone. (Released under the alternate titleÂ : Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army.)
Patti Smith's legendary 1974 cover of the popular 1960s song, "Hey Joe", begins with a salacious and provocative monologue about Patty Hearst and the SLA, which puts a feminist spin on the lyrics that were originally about a man who murders his adulterous wife and then flees to Mexico.
Thus, Smith's version effectively casts Patty Hearst in the role of Joe "with a gun in her hand"â"a violent criminal rebelling against the law and all civil authority. Before the fadeout, Smith sings in the voice of Hearst angrily repudiating both her privileged upbringing as well as the mainstream society which has condemned her as a spoiled, vacuous "pretty little rich girl" who became a terrorist. This particular recording was made when Patty Hearst was still a fugitive and members of the SLA were still at large.
Hearst is also referenced in the final line of Warren Zevon's 1978 song Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner.
- Black Cultural Association
- Black Panther Party
- Black Liberation Army
- Venceremos Organization
- Weather Underground
- Boulton, David. The Making of Tania Hearst. Bergenfield, N.J.: New American Library, 1975. 224+ p., ill., ports., facsim., index, 22Â cm. Also published: London, G.B.: New English Library, 1975.
- Hearst, Patty, with Alvin Moscow, Patty Hearst: Her Own Story. New York: Avon, 1982. ISBN 0-380-70651-2. (Original title: Every Secret Thing.)
- McLellan, Vin, and Paul Avery. The Voices of Guns: The Definitive and Dramatic Story of the Twenty-two-month Career of the Symbionese Liberation Army. New York: Putnam, 1977.
- Weed, Steven, with Scott Swanton. My Search for Patty Hearst. New York: Warner, 1976. (Weed was Hearst's fiancÃ© at the time of the kidnapping. That was the end of their relationship.)
- Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army at the Internet Movie Database Directed by Robert Stone, 2004
- Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst official web site for the PBS movie about SLA
- The Sybionese Liberation Army; House Committee on Internal Security report
- The Parts Left out of the Patty Hearst Trial by Paul Krassner part 2