Kidnapped Heir Patty Hearst Helps Rob a Bank

Two months after her kidnapping by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, Patty Hearst was photographed inside a bank holding a gun and helping her captors carry out the robbery. By all appearances, she seemed to have voluntarily joined the revolutionaries and was thereby considered to be “thumbing her nose” at the privileged echelons of society in which she was raised. The case also brought to light the Stockholm syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which a hostage develops an affinity with his or her captors.

Summary of Event

Patricia Hearst, heir to the fortune of the famous California newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped on February 4, 1974, from the Berkeley, California, apartment she shared with her fiancé, Steven Weed, who was beaten during the abduction. The kidnappers were members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), an urban terrorist group formed in 1973 with the goal of freeing a broad range of persons of the American “underclass” (including African Americans, prison convicts, women, military draftees, and others they believed victimized by corporate America). [kw]Kidnapped Heir Patty Hearst Helps Rob a Bank (Apr. 15, 1974)
[kw]Hearst Helps Rob a Bank, Kidnapped Heir Patty (Apr. 15, 1974)
Hearst, Patricia
Symbionese Liberation Army
Kidnapping;of Patricia Hearst[Hearst]
Bank robbery
San Francisco;SLA bank robbery
Hearst, Patricia
Symbionese Liberation Army
Kidnapping;of Patricia Hearst[Hearst]
Bank robbery
San Francisco;SLA bank robbery
[g]United States;Apr. 15, 1974: Kidnapped Heir Patty Hearst Helps Rob a Bank[01470]
[c]Violence;Apr. 15, 1974: Kidnapped Heir Patty Hearst Helps Rob a Bank[01470]
[c]Law and the courts;Apr. 15, 1974: Kidnapped Heir Patty Hearst Helps Rob a Bank[01470]
[c]Psychology and psychiatry;Apr. 15, 1974: Kidnapped Heir Patty Hearst Helps Rob a Bank[01470]
[c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 15, 1974: Kidnapped Heir Patty Hearst Helps Rob a Bank[01470]
[c]Politics;Apr. 15, 1974: Kidnapped Heir Patty Hearst Helps Rob a Bank[01470]
DeFreeze, Donald
Hall, Camilla
Soltysik, Patricia
Perry, Nancy Ling

Initially, after her abduction, Hearst was kept in a dark closet. After several weeks, however, it seems that she began to identify with her captors’ ideology, even to the point of releasing tapes that espoused some of their radical ideas.

A security camera catches Patty Hearst robbing a bank in San Francisco, California.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The bank robbery itself was preceded by weeks of elaborate planning. According to Hearst, the “action,” as it was called by the group, had three distinct purposes: to obtain much-needed funds that would support future SLA revolutionary activities; to demonstrate to the rest of the world that Tania (Hearst’s adopted nickname) had truly renounced her privileged upbringing and wholeheartedly joined the SLA, actively supporting and taking part in even its most violent activities; and to show the world that the SLA revolutionaries were strong, resolute, and unafraid. Hearst would later say that she believed she would die either in a shoot-out with police or at the hands of the SLA group leader himself, Donald DeFreeze, a convict who had escaped from prison in March, 1973.

In a tape-recorded message released to the media on April 3, 1974, Hearst said,

I have been given the choice of one: being released in a safe area, or two: joining the forces of the Symbionese Liberation Army and fighting for my freedom and the freedom of all oppressed people. I have chosen to stay and fight.

Hearst’s parents believed their daughter had been brainwashed by her captors.

At 9:45 a.m. on April 15, 1974, two cars arrived at the Hibernia Bank on Noriega Street in the Sunset district of San Francisco, California. (Ironically, this bank had been founded by the grandfather of one of Hearst’s closest childhood friends.) Four veteran SLA members, including DeFreeze, Camilla Hall, Patricia Soltysik, and Nancy Ling Perry, headed for the bank entrance, preceded by Hearst. Before entering, Hearst was knocked in the face by the front door released by a customer ahead of her. Now in the bank, the robbers took out rifles they had concealed beneath their coats and ordered everyone in the bank to drop to the floor. One of the bank guards later reported that Hearst did not appear nervous at this time. Rather, the guard said, she seemed to know what she was doing and appeared ready to use the gun if necessary. There are reports that she threatened to blow the head off anyone who moved, but Hearst herself remembers only pointing her gun at those on the floor in front of her.

The bank manager saw the entire operation from his office on an upper level. He set off a silent alarm that activated the bank cameras. The manager noted that all aspects of the robbery were carried out with great precision and that the SLA members seemed to have a solid working knowledge of the bank’s floor plan. He also said that Hearst directly threatened the customers with her rifle. The entire robbery lasted only four minutes. The robbers fled in the two cars with $10,960, but not before two of them (excluding Hearst) shot their weapons and injured two passersby. Back at their apartment, the euphoric SLA members spread all the stolen bills on the floor in front of them. The robbery would generate an enormous amount of media coverage.

Using her nickname Tania, Hearst later released several tapes that indicated her sympathy with SLA goals and her commitment to the movement. She disappeared from public view and the law but was arrested on September 18, 1975, in San Francisco; she was tried and then convicted on March 16, 1976, for her role in the bank robbery. Her primary lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, unsuccessfully argued that his client had been brainwashed by the SLA. He also cited the effects of the Stockholm syndrome, a phenomenon in which a hostage not only develops a positive relationship with his or her captors but also becomes protective of them and actively identifies with their cause. The Stockholm syndrome is significant in this case because the Hearst abduction and her participation in the bank robbery would become synonymous with the syndrome.

The Stockholm syndrome was named after a hostage-taking incident in which a victim, held in a Stockholm bank, told rescuing police that he would not let them harm his captor. In the aftermath of another hostage incident, a flight attendant who had been held at gunpoint continued to visit and bring gifts to the incarcerated hijacker. One explanation for this phenomenon involves the hostage’s rational calculation that if he or she develops a personal relationship with his or her captors, the latter may find it harder to follow through on threats to kill the hostage. Key to preserving a hostage’s life is meeting the demands that the captors are making to authorities. On a more subtle, subconscious level, however, the Stockholm syndrome is also, in part, a reflection of the helplessness of a victim in the face of a hostage taker who may also be a killer, even if demands are met. The hostage is infantilized and, in response, unconsciously adopts the attitudes of the captor.

Many believe that Hearst’s attorney did not bring out the infantilization aspects of this syndrome sufficiently at the trial. Hearst was sentenced to a seven-year prison term but actually served less than two years following a commutation by U.S. president Jimmy Carter in 1979. She received a full pardon from U.S. president Clinton, Bill
[p]Clinton, Bill;pardons of Bill Clinton in 2001. She later married one of her bodyguards and moved to Connecticut.


The Hibernia Bank robbery was in many ways the quintessential act of social defiance on the part of the Symbionese Liberation Army. It was undertaken to establish each participant’s identity as a confirmed and committed revolutionary “soldier,” a stance from which, apparently, there was no return. That Hearst was featured so prominently in this robbery, photographed several times holding a rifle and using expletives in her orders to bank patrons, underlines the class differences the SLA wanted to highlight. The image of Hearst, heir to a fortune and a child of the privileged, robbing a bank is permanently etched in the American psyche. Hearst, in those four minutes, became at once a symbol of self-loathing and, from the SLA’s viewpoint, an exemplar of how even America’s most privileged elite can be inwardly disgusted with the class disparities in the United States.

Hearst’s motivations and her state of mind during the bank robbery were the subject of detailed analyses during her trial. Debate continues over whether she was forced into joining her captors or whether she was a willing participant in the crime. Jurors in her trial concluded, however, that even after experiencing extreme situations (having been kidnapped) and even if affected by the Stockholm syndrome, people should be held accountable for their actions. If they violate the law, they must accept responsibility and pay the price. Ultimately, this episode in American criminal history serves as an affirmation of the basic moral principles and expectations as well as the integrity of the American legal system. Hearst, Patricia
Symbionese Liberation Army
Kidnapping;of Patricia Hearst[Hearst]
Bank robbery
San Francisco;SLA bank robbery

Further Reading

  • Alexander, Shana. Anyone’s Daughter: The Times and Trials of Patty Hearst. New York: Viking Press, 1979. A prominent American journalist’s detailed account of every phase of Hearst’s trial.
  • Hearst, Patricia Campbell, with Alvin Moscow. Every Secret Thing. New York: Doubleday, 1982. Hearst’s retelling of her kidnapping, life with the SLA, arrest, and trial.
  • Isenberg, Nancy. “Not ’Anyone’s Daughter’: Patty Hearst and the Postmodern Legal Subject.” American Quarterly 52, no. 4 (2000): 639-681. Exploration of the Hearst kidnapping and trial through a lens stressing the strategic political manipulation of her gender.
  • Third, Amanda. “Nuclear Terrorists: Patty Hearst and the Terrorist Family.” Hecate 28, no. 2 (2002): 82-99. Analyzes the Hearst kidnapping in the light of the ideological and sexual undertones of terrorism and its relationship to the role of the nuclear family in modern society.
  • Weed, Steven, with Scott Swanton. My Search for Patty Hearst. New York: Crown, 1976. A comprehensive account of events leading up to the Hearst trial, from the viewpoint of her former fiancé.
  • Wilson, Theo. Headline Justice: Inside the Courtroom—The Country’s Most Controversial Trials. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1996. Informal but informative view of the Hearst trial proceedings, written by a veteran trial reporter.

Utah Millionaire Is Murdered by His Grandson

Menendez Brothers Are Arrested for Murdering Their Parents