Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Patty Hearst...armed and dangerously hot

Over three decades ago--in February 1974--newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped from her San Francisco apartment, sparking the largest manhunt in United States history.

The comely 19-year-old college student had been abducted by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a band of radicals that included William Harris and wife Emily. As ransom, the group demanded the Hearst family distribute millions of dollars of food to the needy.

Patty, meanwhile, was being brainwashed--or so she later claimed.

Two months after her abduction she declared allegiance to the radicals and actually participated in SLA bank-jobs and shootouts. It wasn't long before those infamous FBI "Wanted" posters featuring Hearst and the Harrises hung on the walls of post offices nationwide.

That fall I graduated college and found a job back home in the Florida panhandle town of Panama City. My work required a daily trip to the downtown post office, and each day I passed that FBI poster, fascinated by its ominously stark black-and-white photos and a warning to consider these folks "armed and dangerous."

Months dragged by; Hearst and the Harrises went underground. Meanwhile, the media grabbed the story and wouldn't let go. For over a year the Hearst Case--like the O.J. trial and the search for Bin Laden--would occupy center stage in America's consciousness.

Around the country, Patty was being sighted more often than Elvis--and he wasn't even dead yet.

Throughout the spring of '75, as the story gained momentum, the poster's allure became stronger. On one of my trips to the post office I pointed out the poster to a friend. "Now that," I said, "would be a cool keepsake." After all, I said, the FBI must have printed hundreds of these.

My friend cut me off. "Don't even think about it," he said, then added: "...and if you do, I don't want to know about it."

In any case, Hearst and the Harrises were finally arrested in September of '75. Patty served two years of a ten-year sentence before being released at the behest of President Jimmy Carter. She was officially pardoned in 2000, in one of Bill Clinton's final acts as president.

And that way-cool FBI "Wanted" poster? It's been in my possession over a quarter-century now. I saw one offered on Ebay recently; they were asking $155 for it, but I wouldn't part with mine for any price.

I wish I could remember how I obtained mine, but...well, you know how it is. Memory turns hazy after so many years. If the FBI is curious, let's just say I'm fairly certain...I... um...asked a post office employee for the poster--and we'll leave it at that!


This article originally appeared in
Yesterday in Florida magazine, Issue #11