Stuck in the Snow with Tania… On Meeting a Terrorist Group in the Sierras

Patty Hearst, holding an automatic weapon, proudly posed for a photo in front of the seven headed cobra symbol of the Symbionese Liberation Army.


I’ve now written about two of three adventures from my 20s when I was hunting and fishing: one about escaping from a lightning storm and the other about searching for a lost friend in a snow storm. Both of them were on the scary side. This tale fits the category of being scary, but it was also strange.

“Death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people.” —Motto of the Symbionese Liberation Army


The final of our three adventures was more in the nature of a scouting trip. We had driven up into the mountains early in the spring to look for likely fishing holes. Trout season was only a few weeks away. The mountains were still coated with snow. We drove up an ever-narrowing road until a snow bank suggested that further progress was best left up to animals with big furry feet. Stopping fifty feet before the end, we parked and got out to stretch our legs.

We had wandered no more than a few feet when a white van came roaring up behind us and tried to slip by the right side of our car without slowing down. Normally it wouldn’t have been more than an irritation but the narrowness of the road combined with the snow left just enough room for one and one half cars, not two.  We watched in slow motion disbelief as the van barely missed our vehicle, slid into the snow, and became seriously stuck.

“Yes!” we said in unison, there is justice in this world. Right about then the side door of the van opened and disgorged a polyglot group of rough-looking characters. “Whoa,” I mumbled more quietly, “we had better keep our opinions to ourselves.” While two or three of the men bent down to look under the van, a not so rough, in fact an attractive young woman, disentangled herself from the group and came strolling over to where we were standing.

“I am in love,” Hunt mumbled. Bob and I joined the admiration society while an elusive thought began tugging at the back of my mind.

“Hi, guys,” she smiled at us, becoming even lovelier. “Do you have any guns in your car?”

My tiny elusive thought suddenly became a very large insistent nag. Pretty girls don’t normally start conversations by asking whether you are carrying weapons. Hunt, on the other hand, was beaming. He liked guns and girls that liked guns.

“I have a twenty-two along,” he announced proudly.

“Oh,” she replied, apparently a little disappointed at the size of Hunt’s gun. “My friends taught me how to shoot automatic weapons in the Bay Area. We are up here to practice.” It was stated with the same type of pride a new mother might talk about her child’s first steps or words. My large, insistent nag turned in to a three-stage fire alert. What was a pretty girl doing in the mountains hanging out with a scruffy looking group blithely talking about shooting automatic weapons?

Meanwhile Hunt had suggested that he and his new friend take the twenty-two out for a little practice since it was obvious that the van wasn’t going anywhere quickly. I don’t remember how I managed it, but I pulled Hunt and Bob aside sans beauty for a very quick and quiet conversation.

“I am not one hundred percent sure,” I began, “but I think the young woman who likes big guns is Patty Hearst, aka Tania, and that her friends over at the van are members of the SLA. If I am right, we are in a very dangerous situation.”

The SLA, or Symbionese Liberation Army, was one of the more bizarre and misled of the radical groups to be born out of the ferment of the late 60s and early 70s. Viewing itself as an urban guerrilla movement, SLA’s first action of note had been to gun down Dr. Marcus Foster, the black Superintendent of Oakland Schools, and seriously wound his deputy, Robert Blackburn. Blackburn had earlier served as Peace Corps Director of Somalia and then gone on to work for the Philadelphia School System. He had been responsible for recruiting my first wife, Jo Ann, and I as teachers when we left the Peace Corps. It would have been hard to find two people more committed to helping disadvantaged inner city kids in America than Foster and Blackburn.

SLA’s next major public statement was to kidnap Patty Hearst, heiress to the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearse, while she was a student at UC Berkeley. At some point, Patty switched from being an unwilling kidnap victim to willing participant in SLA and adopted the name of Tania, who had been a girlfriend of Che Guevara. The common assumptions were that Hearst was brainwashed or a victim of the Stockholm syndrome, a psychological response through which a kidnap victim comes to associate with his or her captors. Certainly, the young woman we talked with was proud of her skill with automatic weapons and had the freedom to come over and chat with us. She hardly seemed like an unwilling prisoner.

In 1974 Patty participated in a San Francisco bank robbery and then moved to Los Angeles with the SLA where several members of the group met their death in a fiery confrontation with LA police. Some 400 LAPD officers had surrounded a house occupied by SLA and emptied over 5,000 rounds into the structure. Patty, who wasn’t there, watched the whole confrontation on television. She, along with William and Emily Harris, then fled to Pennsylvania for several months before making their way to Sacramento and another bank robbery.

There was enough connection with Hearst and the SLA that I suggested we go over to the van, smile a lot, and help the nice folks get unstuck— which we did. They drove up to the end of the road, turned around, carefully edged by our car and headed off down the mountain. We waved and smiled vigorously as they disappeared.

Was it Patty Hearst and the SLA? The timing was right, the young woman looked like Patty, and the group could have fit a description of the SLA. I have often pondered the question.  In May of 1975, the SLA robbed a bank in Sacramento (Carmichael) and a young mother, Myrna Opsahl, was shot and killed. Patty Hearst drove the get-a-way vehicle. It was one more sad and sordid event in the history of the SLA. In most ways this group of want-to-be revolutionaries was a group of losers. Their murder of Marcus Foster was regarded with disgust by most members of the radical community. It was their kidnapping of Patty Hearst and, even more so, the fiery shootout in LA that gave the organization status.

As for Hearst, I have no doubt that the Stockholm syndrome played a role in her behavior. But I am also convinced there was more. The atmosphere of the time encouraged radical thinking and Patty, who was something of a rebel, was living in a cauldron of dissent at Berkeley. I suspect it wasn’t all that hard to slip into a role of radical chic.

NEXT BLOG: What to do when an elk attacks: Play ape.

NOTE: I am away backpacking and kayaking. I’ll respond to comments when I return.




28 thoughts on “Stuck in the Snow with Tania… On Meeting a Terrorist Group in the Sierras

  1. I had a similar brush with the group.

    In the mid-90’s, my children and I bicycled The Ride Across Minnesota (TRAM) with my sister and her team from Children’s Hospital in Saint Paul. I spent most of the trip riding with “Fred” Peterson and his kids. Fred was an interesting character, an ER physician, a jazz musician and a world traveler, who had worked with Doctors Without Borders in Zimbabwe.

    Years later, I heard that Fred’s wife was arrested. She was Sara Jane Olson, aka, Kathleen Ann Soliah.

    A small irony is that at the time of the ride, I was working for the Minneapolis Police.

    • So, three of the folks who follow this blog ended up with a connection to the group. It certainly speaks to how small our world is, as I noted to the others. Interesting story. I remember reading about Sara. I don’t remember if her husband knew? –Curt

    • I suspect they might have gotten a little antsy had I been running around photographing them, Carrie! Like I might have become the target for their target practice. (grin) –Curt

  2. Funny that so many in a small group of blog enthusiasts have stories of that ilk. I was a young attorney representing the landlord in an open suite of law offices. Because it was an open office plan, we drafted the master lease with the limitation that no criminal attorneys were permitted to lease. Not long after the offices filled up, we saw in the news that one of our number was the attorney for Sara Jane Olson. The rest of the lawyers went crazy–and, as the landlord’s representative, I had the honor of announcing to the attorney that if she didn’t remove herself as Olson’s counsel, she’d be removing herself from the building.

    Before he met me, my ex-husband had previously dated a couple of women from the SLA ranks–though that happened well after all the fuss was over. I lived just up the street a couple hundred feet from where Marcus Foster was slain. If you were young in the seventies and eighties in the Bay Area, you had any number of opportunities to cross paths with, shall we say, interesting characters.

    • Very interesting, AV. As I told Bill, it’s a small world. I suspect your ex may have had some interesting stories. Having been at Berkeley in the 60s, I get the part about coming in contact with interesting characters, one of the things which made it so interesting. Thanks of sharing. –Curt

  3. In the spring of 1978 I participated in a program in Washington DC sponsored by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation. The Hearsts were there–the first time they had attended since their daughter’s kidnapping, we were told.

    • Small world, isn’t it Bill. Hard to imagine what the parents went through given all of the media. it was the type of event that Hearst (and his father) would have exploited to the nth in their papers. –Curt

  4. Until a few days ago I wouldn’t have had a clue what you were writing about but recently read about a biography based on Patty Hearst. Wow, think if it was her? It’s so sad people were killed. She seems to have lived a tame life afterwards…very odd. Have a fun trip! 😀

    • It was one of the more bizarre stories of the time, Annika. The media went crazy, as you can well imagine. I wonder how Hearst looks back on those times given the rest of her life? –Curt

  5. I can’t say I was ever asked for my gun by a pretty woman while stuck up a mountain.
    The closest I can come to that, is a pretty woman asking me if she can pet our Jack Russell ‘Milo.’

  6. Oh boy! Chances are she was who you thought she was, no? I thought about her whenever I visited Hearst Castle. What you write about Stockholm Syndrom is true. She must have searched for ways to protect herself and fell for the propaganda as long as she was able to eat and survive. Quite common among victims and theme explored through fiction, whether books or movies.
    In any case, Hunt should owe you eternal gratitude.
    Just too bad none of you had an iPhone 🙂

    • I’ve always felt that there was a touch of Stockholm and a lot of Patty in the situation, Evelyne, like there was at least some rebellion against her parents. It was easy to feel a bit radicalized at the time.
      Laughing about the iPhone. I might have been just a little shy about whipping it out (or smart) 🙂 –Curt

  7. Curt – this post was fascinating! I felt like I was right there on the side of the road with you, with a niggling feeling in my brain that something wasn’t quite right. I wonder if it really was Tania? Too bad you didn’t accidentally “slip” and call her by that name to see her reaction. Actually — probably best that you didn’t!

    • Probably best is right, Juliann! 🙂 I suspect we could have talked our way around it but the group was crazy enough, who knows. Patty/Tania wouldn’t have done any damage, but… Just one of those brushes with history that happen on occasion. –Curt

  8. Love that sly little reference to Tom Wolfe at the end. I never had a brush with the SLA, but the Panthers were in the process of disintegrating when I was in Berkeley and Oakland, and their last gasp was pretty interesting, too.

    I’ve always been of a divided mind about Patty Hearst. Stockholm Syndrome’s an easy explanation — and makes sense to most of us. On the other hand, that time and place was unique, and the level of commitment was pretty fierce. I have a feeling that if many of today’s self-described social justice warriors got into it with the SLA or Panthers, they’d realize pretty quickly a twitter-tag campaign wouldn’t do them much good.

    • I think Patty was a prime candidate for radicalization. It may have been the Stockholm Syndrome, but she was easy. Not much torture, if any, was required. She may have been locked up in a closet, but it was probably because SLA didn’t know what to do with her. (We can thank F. Lee Bailey for the Stockholm justification.)
      The Panthers were a more serious proposition. I might not agree with all their tactics, but I do understand that people have to have a sense of pride in themselves to function effectively in society. There is always a question of how you build this pride. I don’t know if anyone has found the answer. –Curt

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