Jeffrey Toobin’s latest re-examines ’70s saga

Newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst was identified by the FBI as taking part in the robbery of a San Francisco bank in this April 1974 photo.
Newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst was identified by the FBI as taking part in the robbery of a San Francisco bank in this April 1974 photo. The Associated Press, file

Jeffrey Toobin’s recently released “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst,” tells the story of the 19-year-old University of California, Berkeley, college student and granddaughter of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst who was kidnapped by a left-wing terrorist group called the Symbionese Liberation Army on Feb. 4, 1974.

After being isolated and threatened, Hearst became supportive of the SLA’s cause, making propaganda announcements for them and taking part in illegal activities, including the infamous robbery of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco. Hearst went on the run and was found 19 months later, by which time she was a fugitive wanted for serious crimes.

While much of the saga took place in the San Franciso Bay Area, there are connections to Pennsylvania, with Hearst and other SLA members hiding out in a farmhouse outside of Scranton in the summer of 1974.

Toobin, who also wrote the bestseller “The Run of His Life: The People V. O.J. Simpson,” which served as inspiration for the recent FX series, talks below about his new work and the debate still surrounding the events that took place.

Q: What was your main purpose in writing this book now and bringing this saga back into the public eye ?

A: I would say it was twofold. One was to give a picture of the 1970s, which were much wilder and crazier than most people remember: a thousand bombings a year, two hijackings a month. It was just a really crazy time in American history that I think most people don’t realize. It’s aimed at people who remember the story and people who basically have no idea about it.

The other point is that it’s a mystery story. It’s a mystery story about whether Patty Hearst was a volunteer or a victim.

Q: How would you describe Hearst before she was kidnapped by the SLA?

A: I think that she was at a uniquely vulnerable position. She was engaged to be married, but very unhappily so. She was like many teenage women and she was in a bad place with her mother. The SLA didn’t know this, but they picked someone who was a really vulnerable target during a dramatic change in her life.

Q: You basically say that you believe Hearst willingly joined the SLA. But isn’t it fair to say that had she not been kidnapped, none of these events would have occurred — making the argument that she was not the same person she was before Feb. 4, 1974?

A: It’s quite clear that she would not have become a bank robber, but in my conclusion she did become a bank robber and she did join up with the SLA. One of the real revelations to me of writing this story was just how many crimes she committed and how many opportunities she had to leave. She didn’t want to.

Q: In numerous interviews that she has given over the years, Hearst has stated that she was brainwashed. Do you have your doubts that she is telling the truth?

A: That she couldn’t think her own thoughts for herself at this point — at some level I just don’t buy that. That’s why I try to get away from these labels, and instead talk about what she actually did. I think you are just compelled to the conclusion that she was acting voluntarily.

Q: What can you tell me about Jack Scott, the sportswriter and political activist who helped the high-profile fugitives — Hearst, along with fellow SLA members Bill and Emily Harris and Wendy Yoshimura — make their way east to New York City and then to an old farmhouse outside Scranton in the summer of 1974? What was his purpose in hiding the SLA?

A: I really enjoyed writing about Jack Scott because he’s a very complicated person. He was someone who had some very honorable motives, and who wanted to end the violence that the SLA was a part of. But he also wanted to make a deal and make some money. I find saints and sinners pretty boring, but I find him interesting because he’s neither one nor the other.

The specific reason for hiding them out there was that Jack had already rented the house. He was from around Scranton, and he was trying to write this book about sports. But he wasn’t getting much done, so he rented a house in the middle of nowhere. His plan was to write a book about the SLA.

Q: While the SLA members were on the road trip from San Francisco to Pennsylvania, how were they able to accomplish this without being recognized at some point, and on the return trip to California?

A: Pennsylvania was really the mysterious aspect of the whole case. They were on the run for months — it’s crazy. It’s so bizarre that Jack Scott had the moxie to try to shelter the most wanted people in America for months.

Q: Hearst was captured on Sept. 18, 1975, went to trial, was convicted of bank robbery and was sentenced to seven years in prison. In 1979, she received a commutation from President Jimmy Carter and was released from prison after serving 22 months. In 2001, she was pardoned by President Bill Clinton. Do you think the clemency she received was fair, or do you think she received special treatment?

A: Patty Hearst should have been treated like any other bank robber, but she wasn’t. She was given enormous special privileges because of her wealth and prominence — and that’s what offends me about this story. I don’t have any great desire to see Patty Hearst locked up. But to be the only person in modern American history to receive a commutation from one president and a pardon from another, it’s really a testimony to her wealth and privilege.