Famous American Bank Heists: Patty Hearst and the SLA

This month’s installment of our Famous American Bank Heists series is an especially scandalous one, to say the least. It involves a beautiful heiress, radical politics, brainwashing, murder and, of course, a bank robbery. It spawned a Hollywood movie and several documentaries, and news coverage of the events captivated the nation for two whole years. If you’re ready to take a walk on the wild side with us, read on.

Patty Hearst was the Paris Hilton of her day. The granddaughter of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (the classic flick “Citizen Kane” was based on him), she lived a cushy life full of private schools and parties. But she had a bit of a rebellious streak too. When she was just 16, Patty started dating her 23-year-old math tutor. A few years later, they ran off to Berkeley, California together. Shortly after, they got engaged and were living a life as normal as you could expect a runaway teenage heiress and her much older math teacher boyfriend to live. Until the night of February 4, 1974, that is.

In the ’60s and ’70s, Berkeley was a hotbed for radical left-wing political activity. One such political group, The Symbionese Liberation Army, makes the far-left Occupy movement look like the Tea Party. But they weren’t your usual peace-loving hippies, either – they had an NRA-level love of guns. On February 4, 1974, the group kidnapped Patty Hearst from her apartment and demanded that her wealthy family set up a multi-million dollar program to feed California’s impoverished citizens. But they didn’t stop there.

Patty’s family complied with the demand, but the SLA still wasn’t satisfied. They continued to hold the heiress captive for a few more months. When they reintroduced her to society, something was different. This seemingly willing convert now went by the nom de guerre “Tania,” after a fallen comrade of Che Guevara. The media went nuts.

A few weeks later, on April 15, 1974, “Tania” and some of her SLA comrades barged into the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco wielding automatic weapons. They demanded money, got away with over $10,000 and managed to evade the authorities long enough to rob two other banks. What was their motive? According to one hostage, they were funding a civil war against the government.

Eventually, after a string of shootouts, kidnappings and even a murder, Hearst and her SLA comrades were arrested. The case went to trial in January of 1976, and Patty’s lawyers maintained that she was brainwashed. Several renowned doctors testified that she had a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome, but the jury didn’t buy it. She was sentenced to 33 years in prison. Her sentence was commuted, however, and she ended up serving just under two years of hard time. In 2001, Patty was officially pardoned by President Clinton. She’s alive and well today, and she still maintains her innocence. (Fun fact: She played Wanda’s mother in the classic 1990 John Waters movie “Cry Baby.”)

So what do you think of the SLA bank robbery saga? Was Patty Hearst an innocent woman brainwashed by her captors, or was “Tania” the real deal? Let us know in the comment section below.