A look back at the Symbionese Liberation Army’s Sonoma County connection

It almost seems unbelievable, an heiress converted into a revolutionary terrorist? But in 1974, Patty Hearst’s shocking transformation from a Berkeley co-ed to a radical bank robber grabbed front page headlines. The story of Hearst and her kidnappers-turned-comrades is interesting enough, but it also has a Sonoma County connection.

One of Hearst’s captors was Nancy Ling Perry, a Santa Rosa native who graduated from Montgomery High School and taught Sunday school at her local church. Born Nancy Ling to a middle-class family, Perry was a good student who campaigned for Republican Barry Goldwater in her teen years.

After high school she left Santa Rosa and attended Whittier College and UC Berkeley, it was there that she became interested in prison reform and her beliefs turned radical. She had a failed marriage with jazz musician Gilbert Perry, experimented with drugs and became a topless blackjack dealer in San Francisco.

She became romantically involved with escaped prisoner Donald DeFreeze in the early 1970s and formed the Symbionese Liberation Army with him and other Berkeley activists.

Unified under the mission of improving the lives of disenfranchised groups across the nation, their goals were admirable at first but soon turned deadly. They murdered two people, robbed banks and committed other criminal acts.

In February 1974, they kidnapped Patty Hearst, the granddaughter of newspaper tycoon William Randolf Hearst. As part of her ransom, they convinced the Hearst family to donate over a million dollars for food distribution to the needy.

One of the four pickup sites was in Santa Rosa at the Christian Life Center, now the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts. The gesture was highly publicized and inadequately executed. On March 27, 1974, several hundred area residents were still standing in line when the food supplies ran out. At some locations there was even rioting.

While Hearst’s family met her captors’ demands, the 19-year-old “freed” debutante shockingly announced to her parents that she would not be coming back. She joined the SLA, took the name “Tania” and was present at the April 15, 1974, robbery of Hibernia Bank in San Francisco.

On May 17, 1974, six members of the SLA including Ling Perry and DeFreeze were killed in a shootout with police at a residential home in Los Angeles.

The group went on after that. Hearst drove the getaway car for the Crocker National Bank robbery in Carmichael in 1975. The feds caught up to Hearst and four others shortly thereafter. Hearst’s kidnapping is widely regarded as a case of Stockholm Syndrome, and she was fully pardoned by President Bill Clinton in 2001.

Click through our gallery above to explore images of the Symbionese Liberation Army way back when.

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