Vern Lawson

Editor’s note: Vern Lawson is on vacation. Please enjoy these “best of” Vernacular columns. This column originally ran Aug. 8, 2019.

When newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped on Feb. 4, 1974, the crime became one of the most highly publicized, worldwide stories of the 20th century.

Hearst, born Feb. 20, 1954, was the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, who created the largest newspaper, magazine, newsreel and movie business on the planet.

She was living in a Berkeley apartment with her fiancé Steve Weed, while attending the University of California, studying art history, when a band of criminals kidnapped her.

She was beaten and lost consciousness during the abduction. Shots were fired from a machine gun during the incident.

When Kathy Soliah, who graduated from Palmdale High School, joined the kidnappers, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the development provided an expansive local tale that continued running for 24 years of hidden dramatic mystery.

Soliah became involved in the sensational real-life theater of the absurd when she unwittingly led the FBI agents to Hearst, on Sept. 18, 1975.

Soliah, then 52, had come to the attention of the FBI after she gave a fiery speech condemning the May 17, 1974 shootout with Los Angeles police in which six SLA members died, including one of her best friends.

Her father Martin Soliah was the coach of the Palmdale High School football team and taught several classes.

Antelope Valley Press ace reporter Bill Gillis and I, then managing editor, were able to interview Soliah and his wife Elsie at their home in Desert View Highlands.

Both were totally mystified about their daughter’s dangerous pathway and did not know where she was at the time.

The parental stress was solemnly visible during the interview.

We learned that their son Steven, was also involved with the SLA, which was called an urban guerrilla group. Their other daughter Josephine, also interacted with her sister and the SLA.   

Hearst was found 19 months after being abducted. By that time, she was a fugitive wanted for serious crimes committed with members of the SLA.

She was held in custody and there was speculation before trial, that her family’s resources would enable her to avoid time in jail.

At her trial, the prosecution suggested that Hearst joined the SLA of her own volition. However, she testified that she had been kidnapped, raped and threatened with death while in captivity.

In 1976, she was convicted for the crime of bank robbery and sentenced to 35 years in prison, later reduced to seven years. Her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter and she was later pardoned by President Bill Clinton.

The Hollywood-style ending to the Kathy Soliah story was set in Minnesota.

She was arrested by St. Paul police with the assistance of LA Police Department detectives. She was held without bail in the Ramsey County Adult Detention Center, pending her extradition to Los Angeles.

She spent 24 years on a run, which had taken her from San Francisco to Zimbabwe and finally to St. Paul.

She had adopted a new name: Sara Jane Olson, and was married to Dr. Gerald Peterson. They had three children.

Sara Jane was involved in local Democratic politics and acted in a community theater, where she had roles in such productions as “Macbeth” and “King Lear.”

Her mother said that Kathy’s husband served as physician in Zimbabwe for a number of years, returning to the US in the mid-1980s.

After her arrest in 1999, she pleaded guilty in 2001, to two counts of possessing explosives with intent to murder and in 2003, to second-degree murder, both stemming from her SLA activities in the 1970s.

She received a sentence of 14 years in prison.

She was mistakenly released for five days in March 2008, due to an error made in calculating her parole, before being rearrested. She was finally released on parole on March 17, 2009.

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