|“||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.||”|
— DeFreeze's Manifesto
The Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) was a fringe, far-left terror group active in California between 1973 and 1975.
Donald DeFreeze, the eventual founder and first leader of the SLA, was repeatedly arrested on minor charges in California during the 1960s. On November 17, 1969, he stole a $1000 cashier's check from a Los Angeles bank and was captured after being injured in a shootout with the LAPD. He was sentenced to five-to-fifteen years and interned in Vacaville Prison, where he got in contact with the Black Cultural Association (BCA); the radical far-left, Chicano-based group Venceremos; and different white Berkeley students and leftist activists who believed that American prisons were concentration camps designed to keep African-Americans down. Influenced by the latter, DeFreeze moved away from the BCA and formed his own group, "Unisight", with the visitors Willie Wolfe and Russ Little, and the incarcerated Black Panther Thero Wheeler as his first followers.
In December 1972, DeFreeze was transferred to Soledad Prison. A few months later, on March 5, 1973, DeFreeze was assigned work outside the fenced perimeter and he used the opportunity to escape. He made his way to Oakland, California, where he was hidden by white members of the Vacaville BCA and was introduced to Patricia Soltysik. DeFreeze and Soltysik became lovers; he moved into her house, and she introduced him to several people including Camilla Hall, Angela Atwood, and Joe Remiro, who was a member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and a friend of Wolfe and Little. With Soltysik, DeFreeze devised the creation of the SLA as a Maoist guerrilla modeled after the Uruguayan Tupamaros and Régis Debray's theory of urban warfare. The Indian seven-headed cobra (Nāga) was chosen as the group's symbol under the claim that each head stood for one of the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa: Unity, Self-determination, Collective work and responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith. For her part, Soltysik saw the SLA as also standing against the seven evils of "racism, sexism, ageism, fascism, individualism, competitiveness and possessiveness", plus "all other institutions that have made or sustained capitalism." The group consisted initially of twelve members, mostly Berkeley dropouts.
First Crime Wave
The assassination of Marcus Foster
On November 6, 1973, the SLA carried their first attack when they assassinated school superintendent Marcus Foster and injured his deputy, Robert Blackburn, in Oakland, California. The SLA had condemned Foster as a "fascist" because of a plan to introduce identification cards in Oakland schools, which was intended to keep drug dealers out of school grounds. The SLA was not aware that Foster had actually opposed the plan and resisted its implementation, and that he had only agreed to a watered down version of the one proposed by his colleagues. Foster was also popular among other left-wing activists and African-Americans, being African-American himself. On January 10, 1974, Remiro and Little were arrested for the attack and sentenced to life in prison. According to Little, who would later win an appeal and be acquitted on retrial in 1981 (unlike Remiro), the intended assassins of Foster and Blackburn were Soltysik and another female member, Nancy Ling Perry. According to Little, Soltysik shot Foster, but Perry "kind of botched" the attack on Blackburn, forcing DeFreeze to shoot him from afar.
The abduction of Patty Hearst
The SLA responded to the arrests with a plan to abduct a public figure. On February 4, 1974, they abducted 19-year-old Patty Hearst, the granddaughter of press magnate William Randolph Hearst, from her students residence in Berkeley. The SLA learned of Hearst's whereabouts from a November 1973 article in the "Society" section of the San Francisco Chronicle, which had included the apartment's address in their coverage of Hearst's betrothal to Steven Weed. They contacted the Hearst family and demanded the release of Little and Remiro as her ransom. When this proved impossible, they asked the family to donate food to the poor as the alternative. Hearst's father Randolph took a $2 million loan and began distributing food in the Bay Area while negotiations were still underway. However, when the SLA asked him to donate $4 million worth of food all over California, the Hearsts calculated that the logistics alone would increase the cost to $400 million. They announced that this was beyond their ability and canceled the handouts. In response, the SLA released a tape in which Patty accused her family and the FBI of not caring about her.
Starting on the thirteenth day after her capture, Patty Hearst's voice appeared in the audiotapes used by the group for the ransom negotiations. She repeated SLA ideology, increasingly voicing her support, and eventually denounced her former life, family, and fiancé. This process was poorly understood at the time, but today it is considered a classic example of Stockholm Syndrome. Hearst was then offered a choice between being released or joining the SLA; convinced that she would be killed if she said otherwise, she chose the latter.
On April 13, 1974, Hearst announced that she had willingly joined the SLA in an audiotape. She was given the nom de guerre Tania, after the one used by Che Guevara's companion, Tamara Bunke. Two days later, Hearst and the SLA robbed the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco. They non-fatally shot two male customers and stole $10,000. The CCTV footage of Hearst holding a carbine at the robbery caused sensation, and U.S. Attorney General William B. Saxbe publicly condemned her as "a common criminal" and said that she would face charges for armed robbery, even though the other SLA members were also pointing guns at her.
Move to Los Angeles and Standoff with the LAPD
DeFreeze wished to recruit more members, but the group realized that Foster's assassination had made them too unpopular in the Bay Area. At his suggestion, the SLA moved to DeFreeze's former neighborhood in Los Angeles. This was accomplished sloppily and they further alienated potential allies. Little denounced them from jail and said that the SLA had lost their goals by getting in a pointless conflict with Police. On May 16, 1974, the married members William and Emily Harris entered Mel's Sporting Goods Store in Inglewood with the intention of buying supplies. While Emily was distracted, William shoplifted a bandolier on a whim and was confronted by a security guard. He pulled a revolver, but the guard disarmed him and put a handcuff on his left wrist. Emily defended her husband by pushing the guard from behind. Hearst, left in a van across the street, saw a commotion and fired several rounds at the store's overhead sign. Everyone inside took cover except the Harrises, who fled with Hearst. However, they left the revolver behind, which was registered to Emily Harris. The trio abandoned the van after some distance and continued in a stolen car. Inside the van's glove box, Police found a recent parking ticket with the address of the SLA's safehouse. When they arrived, they found that all occupiers had left in a hurry after seeing the store incident on TV.
They were DeFreeze, Atwood, Wolfe, Hall, Perry, and Soltysik. They drove two vans to 1466 East 54th Street and bribed its residents, Christine Johnson, and Minnie Lewisin, into letting them stay. The house was also occupied by their neighbor, seventeen-year-old Brenda Daniels, who was passed out drunk on a couch from. As they fancied themselves an army, the SLA made little attempt at staying low, and its mostly white and female membership stuck out like a sore thumb in the neighborhood's overwhelmingly black residents. The neighbors soon became alerted by the SLA's stockpiling of weapons and called Police. That afternoon, the house was surrounded by 400 LAPD officers (including SWAT) and an undetermined number of FBI agents, California Highway Patrollers and Fire Department personnel. Police called the occupiers to surrender 18 times, but they didn't answer. When the LAPD fired tear gas cans into the house, the SLA opened fire, unleashing a shootout that was broadcast live on TV. The Police was mostly armed with semi-automatic guns, while the SLA had modified theirs to fully automatic and also had homemade grenades.
At 6:01 PM, Police requested permission to use hand grenades against the besieged, but they were denied and continued firing gas cans. Around 6:45 PM, when the officers were close to running out of ammunition, the house caught fire after either an SLA grenade or a Police can exploded. Nevertheless, the SLA continued shooting. Johnson and Lewisin fled through the backdoor and Daniels through the front. All were taken into custody until it was determined they weren't SLA members. Perry and Hall also tried to exit the house. According to Police (but denied by private investigators hired by their families), Hall aimed a gun at the officers while Perry provided covering fire. Hall was shot once in the head and Perry twice in the back, killing them. Perry's body was left outside, while Hall's was pulled inside by Atwood. Shortly after, DeFreeze, Atwood, Wolfe, and Soltysik retreated into a crawl space under the house. DeFreeze committed suicide by shooting himself in the temple and the rest died from smoke inhalation. Not long after, the house's roof collapsed. With approximately 9,000 rounds fired (4,000 by the SLA and 5,000 by Law Enforcement), the shootout remains one of the largest in Los Angeles history.
Post-Standoff Crimes, Arrests, and Aftermath
Most controversy at the time derived from whether Hearst was also in the house. Eventually, two motorists reported that Hearst and the Harrises had carjacked them after abandoning the van, ironically adding two charges of kidnapping to Hearst's warrant. The three were actually in a motel of Anaheim, California at the time of the shooting, and watched it unfold live on TV. The trio bought a car to continue their escape, but it broke soon after, leaving them with only $50 and living in flophouses, posing as derelicts. After two weeks hiding (during which the Harrises stopped Hearst from shooting up a house party she mistook for a police raid), Emily went to a rally in memory of the SLA dead at Berkeley and she met an old acquaintance, Kathleen Soliah. Soliah introduced the survivors to Jack Scott, who provided them with money and a hideout in rural Pennsylvania in return for material to write a book on the SLA. According to Scott (but not Hearst), he offered to drive her "anywhere" and she turned it down because she wished to stay with her "friends." The three stayed in Pennsylvania for the summer but moved to Sacramento when disputes arised with Scott. There they occupied a little, single-room apartment paid by their supporters until both Hearst and Emily became fed up with William's increasing authoritarian. The two moved then with Scott's girlfriend, Wendy Yoshimura, in San Francisco; and they began to criticize the male leadership of the group and the militaristic bent it developed after the arrests of Little and Remiro.
Despite these conflicts, the now reinforced SLA robbed the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California, on April 28, 1975. In the attack, Emily Harris's faulty shotgun discharged and killed 42-year-old nurse Myrna Opsahl, who had come to deposit a church collection. Harris showed no remorse and said that Opsahl "was a bourgeouis pig anyway" because her husband was a doctor. Soliah also kicked a pregnant teller in the belly and she suffered a miscarriage. However, the new group rejected William Harris's insistence on fighting Police with guns and they opted to attack them with pipe bombs, inspired by another subversive leftist group, Weather Underground. Soliah placed two artifacts under LAPD cruisers on August 21, but they failed to detonate. Finally, on September 18, the FBI followed a tip from Scott's brother and arrested Hearst and Yoshimura. Hearst gave her occupation as "Urban Guerrilla" and claimed to be "smiling" and feeling "free and strong." A medical exam found that she only weighed 87 pounds at the time, suffered from nightmares and large memory gaps of her life before captivity and that her IQ had dropped from her previous 130 to 112. These findings became the basis of Hearst's defense (chaired by F. Lee Bailey, who had also defended Albert DeSalvo and would later defend O.J. Simpson), who argued that she had been abused until she was brainwashed into a "low-affect zombie."
Over the next few days, Soliah's brother Steven and the Harrises were also arrested. The latter were sentenced to eight years in prison for Hearst's abduction, while Hearst herself got seven for armed robbery. California representative Leo Ryan collected signatures for Hearst's release before his death in Jonestown in 1978; in 1979, President Jimmy Carter reduced Hearst's sentence to 22 months, and in 2001, she was pardoned altogether by the exiting President, Bill Clinton, in his last day in office. Yoshimura did not face charges for her involvement with the SLA because the FBI had entered her apartment without a warrant, but she was convicted on an explosives charge from before she joined the group. Soliah was indicted for the attempted bombings but she hid in the Midwest under a false identity until 1999, when a neighbor recognized her after watching a program on her in America's Most Wanted, and she was arrested. She pled guilty to possession of explosives in 2001 and was sentenced to 10 years-to-life in prison (later increased to 14 years). Soliah claimed she was innocent, but that pleading guilty was the only way to avoid a harsher sentence due to the strong antiterrorist mood in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 Attacks.
Soliah's conviction revived interest in prosecuting the SLA for Opsahl's death, which was still unpunished. In 2002, charges for armed robbery and felony murder were filled against Soliah, the Harrises, and Michael Bortin, who were living openly in the U.S., and James Kilgore, who was found living under an alias in South Africa and extradited. Steven Soliah, Hearst, and Yoshimura received immunity in return for their testimony. All the accused pled guilty to second-degree murder; Emily Harris was sentenced to eight years in prison, William Harris to seven, and Soliah and Bortin to six years each (concurrent with her previous sentence in Soliah's case). Kilgore was not penalized for his role in the Carmichael robbery, but he was sentenced to ten years for another explosives charge to which he also pled guilty. All benefitted from earlier releases and were freed in 2009 at the latest. As of 2018, the only member of the SLA that is still in prison is also the first one to be jailed: Joseph Remiro.
Despite claiming the liberation of disenfranchised African-Americans as an aim, most SLA members were white, female, educated and came from wealthy families. Many mirrored stereotypically African-American speech patterns and mannerisms and stated they wished they were born black and poor. However, DeFreeze alienated other black members and forced them to leave, like Wheeler, or prevented them from joining in the first place. After DeFreeze's death, William Harris took on a similar role, blocking the entry of "troublemakers" (who were always male) or forcing their exit.
The SLA used hollow-point bullets packed with cyanide at Foster's assassination and presumably also Blackburn's intended assassination. At the bank robbings and Los Angeles shootout, the SLA used a variety of firearms including rifles, pistols, shotguns and M1 semiautomatic carbines modified to fully automatic. They also made their own grenades with 35mm film canisters which they used at the shootout and pipe bombs that they planted in their attempt to destroy police cruisers.
According to Hearst, the SLA kept her in a closet for the first week after her abduction, blindfolded and with her hands tied, while DeFreeze repeatedly threatened her with "execution" and fired blank rounds into her temple. During meals, Hearst would be let out and take part in political discussions with the group while still blindfolded. She was later provided with SLA literature and a flashlight to read while inside the closet. The blindfold was only removed after she consented to join the SLA. She was instructed in new duties, including extensive weapon training, and had sexual relations with Wolfe and DeFreeze after Atwood told her of the SLA's stance on "sexual freedom". She denied any sex being consensual.
Before his 1969 conviction, DeFreeze was diagnosed as a schizoid "with strong schizophrenic potential", who had a fascination with firearms and explosives. Because of this fascination, he was deemed dangerous and it was adviced that he be jailed. His self-styling "General-Field Marshall" despite commanding only a dozen people has been cited as evidence of megalomania.
- November 6, 1973, Oakland, California: Marcus Foster and Robert Blackburn (both shot with hollow-point bullets packed with cyanide)
- Marcus Foster, 50 (killed)
- Robert "Bob" Blackburn, 49 (injured)
- January 10, Concord, California: Several unnamed police officers (shot at by Remiro and Little before their arrest; all uninjured)
- February 4, Berkeley, California: Patty Hearst, 19 (abducted, raped, and brainwashed into joining the group)
- April 15, San Francisco, California: The Hibernia Bank robbery
- Two unnamed men (both shot; survived)
- May 16:
- Inglewood, Los Angeles, California: The Mel's Sporting Goods Store Standoff
- An unnamed security guard (threatened with a gun by William Harris and pushed by Emily Harris)
- Road from Inglewood to Anaheim: Two unnamed male motorists (held at gunpoint by Hearst and the Harrises and robbed of their vehicles)
- Inglewood, Los Angeles, California: The Mel's Sporting Goods Store Standoff
- May 17, Los Angeles, California: The 1466 East 54th St Standoff
- Several Law Enforcement officers (shot at by DeFreeze and the others; none injured)
- April 28, Carmichael, California: The Crocker Bank robbery
- Myrna Opsahl, 42 (shot by Emily Harris)
- An unnamed pregnant bank teller (kicked by Kathleen Soliah; suffered a miscarriage)
- August 21, Los Angeles, California: At least four unnamed police officers (attempted to bomb)
- April 28, Carmichael, California: The Crocker Bank robbery
In addition, the SLA planned to abduct John E. Countryman, Chairman of the Del Monte Corporation, in either 1973 or 1974. They were unaware that Countryman had already died in July 1972, at the age of 69.
- The image of DeFreeze in the Hibernia Bank robbery's CCTV, with his eyes almost made invisible by his hat and poor resolution, inspired Stephen King in his creation of Randall Flagg, a powerful dark magician that appears in many of his books. DeFreeze and the SLA are directly mentioned in Chapter 23 of The Stand, when it is said that Flagg was a SLA member who left the Los Angeles hideout shortly before it was surrounded by Police.
On Criminal Minds
- Season One
- "The Tribe" - The SLA was brought as an example of homegrown terrorist organization, and the propaganda image of Hearst posing before the SLA logo was shown when the BAU hypothetized that the members of Cally's Tribe had surrendered their identities to the group. Jackson Cally being a former convict, and his followers being deluded white college students despite his group fancying itself a Native American tribe at war with the U.S., are also analogous to the SLA's views of African-Americans. Ingrid Grieson is also loosely similar to Hearst, although Grieson's abduction turns out to be unrelated to her brainwashing and recruiting into the Tribe.
- Season Three
- Season Seven
- Season Nine
- "The Return" - Reid compared Gulino's Soldiers to Patty Hearst, and Gulino to the SLA, as a way of explaining that the Soldiers had a strong version of Stockholm Syndrome. In both cases, the abductor had suplanted the captive's family and instilled them with the idea that Police officers were their adversaries. Part of the Soldiers' training, such as firing blank rounds on their temple while being blindfolded, was also practiced on Hearst by the SLA.
- L.A.P.D. vs S.L.A. (documentary): Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
- The Lost Year of the SLA (1976) - Article by Rolling Stone
- Spanish for "We will win."
- Wrongly pronounced "Sink-you" by DeFreeze.
- "Prophet" in Swahili