"American Heiress" revisits dramatic saga of Patty Hearst

New book on Patty Hearst saga
New book on Patty Hearst saga 06:58

In 1974, Patty Hearst's abduction gripped the nation. The Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a small group of left-wing revolutionaries, kidnapped the newspaper heiress in California.

But what seemed like a simple abduction turned into something much more complicated.


Hearst's story is the basis of The New Yorker staff writer Jeffrey Toobin's new book, "American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst."

On this day: Patty Hearst abducted by armed r... 01:26

On February 4, 1974, three people burst into 19-year-old Hearst's home. She was beaten, bound and thrown into the trunk of a car. The scene left neighbors terrified. Her captors demanded Hearst's wealthy family distribute food to the needy in exchange for her release.

"Arrangements have been made for $2 million to be delivered to a tax exempt charitable organization," her father, Randolph Hearst, said in a press conference.

The family complied, and Hearst's release seemed likely -- until weeks later, things took a turn.

"I have chosen to stay and fight," Hearst said in recordings sent to a local radio station. She pledged allegiance to her kidnappers and joined their cause. She took the guerrilla name Tania and was caught on camera robbing a San Francisco bank at gunpoint.

The granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst was now on an FBI wanted poster.


Then over 100 days after her kidnapping, authorities finally caught up with the SLA. The gunfight, which played out live on TV before millions of viewers, left six members of the group dead.

But Hearst remained on the run until September 1975 when authorities finally caught up with her in San Francisco.

A sensational trial followed. Hearst's lawyers argued she was brainwashed and jurors listened to hundreds of hours of testimony as they grappled with one central question: Was she Patty Hearst or Tania?

"Basically, how I see it is that Patricia reacted rationally to her circumstances," Toobin said Wednesday on "CBS This Morning." "She was a very vulnerable, restless 19-year-old when she was kidnapped. Very unformed like a lot of 19-year-olds. The SLA was actually good to her for the most part, and she saw the world through their eyes and saw, as [the] police demonstrated, that six of her comrades were killed. She didn't want that fate, so she went on the run. But when she was arrested, she thought, 'I don't want that life anymore. I want to go back to my old life.' And she made the rational decision to say, 'Hey, I want to be a Hearst again.'"

She went on, Toobin said, to "lead the life for which she was destined." Hearst became a socialite much like her own mother, despite her criticism of her family while she was held captive.

The name of the kidnappers, Symbionese Liberation Army, is "triply misleading," Toobin said.

"Symbionese is a made up word. They didn't liberate anything or anyone. And they called themselves an army - there were at most a dozen people involved," Toobin said. "So it was an incredibly disorganized, dysfunctional group of people that improvised their ways along. Interestingly, most of them, several of them came out of the Indiana University drama program, and they excelled at guerrilla theater. They liked to put on shows, but they really had no judgment of what to do once they had it."

The other remarkable aspect of Hearst's story, Toobin said, was that she was sentenced to seven years for the infamous Hibernia bank robbery, but after 22 months, President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence. A little over 20 years later, Hearst was pardoned by President Bill Clinton on his last day in office.

"So she is the only person in American history to receive a commutation from one president and a pardon from another -- and that to me, when you look at the scope of her crimes, that she got that sort of gifts from two president, tells you a lot about wealth and privilege," Toobin said.