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Excerpt from Jeffrey Toobin’s ‘American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst’

"American Heiress" by Jeffrey Toobin. Photo Credit: Doubleday

The doorbell rang at 9:17 on the evening of February 4, 1974.

From their perch on the sofa in the living room, Patricia Hearst and Steven Weed looked at each other and shrugged. No one was expected. But it was Berkeley, so who knew?

Still, visitors were unlikely. Their cozy duplex was one of four apartments at 2603 Benvenue Avenue, a sturdy, well-made structure covered in the chocolate-brown shingles that were a signature of the neighborhood around the University of California, where both Patricia and Steve were students. The apartment offered an unusual degree of privacy. There was no door to the street, only a pair of garage doors, which were open. To enter, one had to walk up an outside stairway along the side and then find the entrance to apartment 4 on an interior walkway. Few did.

With some trepidation, Patricia and Steve walked to the front hall. Weed pulled open the door a crack and saw a woman he did not recognize. Her clothes appeared slightly disheveled.

“I’m sorry but I think I backed into your car,” the woman said. “I’m sorry. Can I come in and use the phone?” Patricia turned away in disgust, thinking that the visitor had damaged her beloved MG roadster. Then, as she headed back toward the living room, she heard a crash.

Three people, all bearing weapons, burst into the apartment. The woman at the door was named Angela Atwood, and she had not had a car accident. She was acting, and she was, as it happened, an actress who had recently played a leading role in a local production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler.” On this night, however, she was using her talents to initiate a kidnapping.

Two men rushed in behind Atwood. Later, Weed would insist that both were black, but only one was — Donald DeFreeze, who had recently applied a political filigree to a lifetime of petty and not-so-petty crime. The other man was Bill Harris, an agitated, compulsive talker, also a theater person at one time as well as a Vietnam veteran, and currently a revolutionary. DeFreeze knocked Weed to the floor, and Patricia fled toward the kitchen, in the back of the apartment.

“Where’s the safe? Where’s the safe?” DeFreeze demanded. He had an almost quaint conception that rich people kept their money at home in safes. Steve and Patricia did no such thing, and Steve protested that there was no safe. “Take my wallet,” Weed said. “It’s all the money I have. Take anything you want!” DeFreeze, unhappy with this answer, belted Steve across the head with a homemade sap — a leather-covered piece of lead. The pain knocked Weed almost unconscious.

Atwood chased Patricia into the kitchen and put a black automatic pistol in her face. “Be quiet and nobody’ll get hurt,” she said. Harris ran after Patricia as well and then dragged her back toward the front door, where he placed her facedown on the floor. Atwood began tying Patricia up. She fought back — Patricia was stronger than her delicate, barely five-foot frame suggested — but Atwood managed to get some nylon cord wrapped around her arms and legs. She also tried to put a gag (actually a racquetball) into Patricia’s mouth and a blindfold over her eyes, but her fierce resistance left both restraints hanging loosely around her head. Still, with Weed semiconscious and Hearst trussed, there was a brief moment of silence, which was broken by the arrival of a new face at the door.

Steve Suenaga, also a Cal student, lived in one of the apartments across the walkway. He was heading out to see his girlfriend, when he noticed some unusual activity inside apartment 4 and poked his nose in the door.

DeFreeze grabbed Suenaga and told him to get on the floor, facedown. Atwood tied him up, too. Suenaga heard Hearst whimpering, “Please leave us alone . . . ”

“Quiet!” Harris said to her. “Or we’ll have to knock you out.”

Atwood said to DeFreeze, who seemed to be in charge, “They’ve seen us, we’ve got to kill them.”

Suenaga raised his head, and DeFreeze struck him on the head three times with his weapon — an M1 carbine converted into a machine gun.

A moment later, Weed was able to rise from his stupor. He made a wild rush at Harris, who blocked his advance with the sawed-off automatic he was carrying and slammed Weed to the ground. Weed then bolted for the back door. He pushed through the screen, busting it off its base, fled into the tiny yard, ran past his marijuana plants, vaulted the fence, and disappeared into the night. Two hostages — Hearst and Suenaga — remained tied up on the floor by the door.

Lying facedown, Patricia began to realize that she was confronting more than a robbery. These people had demanded a safe but didn’t look for one. They didn’t even take Steve’s money. What did they want? Why would mere thieves take the trouble to tie her up?

She soon found out that her fears were justified. Atwood left first for the getaway car, a 1964 Chevrolet Impala convertible that the kidnappers had carjacked earlier in the evening. (In the backseat of the car, tied up and dazed from a pistol-whipping from Atwood, was Peter Benenson, the owner of the vehicle, covered by a blanket. He had been accosted after leaving a nearby market in Berkeley.) Camilla Hall, a poet as well as a terrorist, was at the wheel of Benenson’s car, which she had backed into the driveway of 2603. The trunk was ajar, awaiting human cargo.

The commotion had started to draw attention. In the house next door, a Berkeley student named Sandy Golden and three classmates were studying for a bacteriology exam in his apartment. When they heard a woman scream, they ran onto a small porch that faced 2603. For a moment, they stared eye to eye with DeFreeze, who lifted his weapon and fired two quick bursts at the students. He missed. Atwood jumped in the passenger seat.

Harris, meanwhile, was half dragging, half carrying Patricia down the stairs along the side of the building toward the waiting car. She was kicking, screaming, and wearing nothing but a bathrobe, a pair of panties, and fuzzy blue slippers. Harris raised the trunk with one hand, but it bounced up and slammed shut. He groaned in frustration. He now had to put Patricia down and retrieve the key from Camilla Hall, in the driver’s seat. While Harris went for the key, Hearst . . . disappeared. The kidnap victim had wiggled free from her bonds, for Atwood’s training for the stage had yielded few insights about knot tying. After a few panicked seconds, Harris located Hearst, who had scampered into the garage, near her own MG. Harris again lifted her up and this time managed to deposit her in the trunk and close the lid on top of her.

Then, for Patricia Hearst, chaos yielded quickly to darkness and silence.

And cold. The temperature in Berkeley had dropped into the forties, and she had only her bathrobe for warmth in the trunk. A trunk? What was she doing there? What did they want? Why was this happening?

In a way, she already knew: it was because of her name.

Excerpted from “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst” by Jeffrey Toobin. Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey Toobin. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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