The Man and the Mystery Behind the Sla Terror

From the very beginning, the tactics of the shadowy Symbionese Liberation Army had fit a scenario that seemed rooted in nightmare. First came the killing of an Oakland school official. Then, the lightning stroke kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst, and the rambling taped demands for her ransom. Finally came the stunning announcement, in Miss Hearst’s own hard-edged words, of her “conversion” to gun-toting radicalism. Last week’s spectacular bank robbery only served to confound every theory on the case. Inside the lobby four women and one man, all armed, held guards and customers at bay while nearly $11,000 in loot was collected. Under the unblinking eye of the automatic cameras one figure stood out—Patricia Hearst, a rifle slung menacingly from her shoulder.

Even in the East Bay area of California, which has a tolerance for oddities, the SLA has been an unreal creation.

Its founder and “Field Marshal ” Donald David DeFreeze, now 30, is a deeply disturbed, violence-prone escaped convict. To those who have studied it the SLA is a frightening hybrid mutation of an alliance between white liberals and slum-born, prison-hardened blacks. As an army the SLA has precious few troops—perhaps a dozen “regulars,” and some of them none too reliable. But within the East Bay community there are others—the numbers are uncertain—who are willing to provide logistical support.

DeFreeze was born in Cleveland, one of eight children, a ninth-grade dropout, a runaway at 14. By 16 he was in his first reform school. In 1963 he married, and the following year his wife had him arrested for desertion. He found himself in constant trouble with the law in New York, New Jersey and finally in California.

Most of DeFreeze’s arrests involved the possession of guns and bombs. Typically, police once picked him up for running a red light on a bicycle. During the search they found a bomb and a gun in the basket. But the street-wise DeFreeze had a knack for staying out of jail. Once caught with 15 stolen weapons, he directed police to his supplier, who was arrested. DeFreeze got off with a suspended sentence. But in 1969 after a shootout with police, the court gave him five years to life.

DeFreeze entered a California prison system that had become highly politicized. There he picked up rhetoric and ideology and assumed a new black identity. He took on the “reborn” African name Cinque (pronounced sincue) Mitume and gained respect of fellow inmates as a serious militant.

In his proto-Marxist revolutionary analysis DeFreeze found an explanation for his blotched personal life. Like many newly politicized convicts, he perhaps felt that a violent revolutionary potential could be distilled from an outlaw past and the prison experience. It was his only marketable skill.

At the Vacaville prison, DeFreeze became deeply involved in a black inmate group, the Black Cultural Association, which met twice weekly with prison-approved outsiders for lectures and study groups. Most of the outsiders were black, but in 1971 and 1972 a small group of white radicals had become involved. DeFreeze organized his own study group and invited two of the white outsiders, Willie Wolfe and Russ Little, to join. A former Black Panther, an inmate by the name of Thero Wheeler, was also in the clique.

The names of several people now identified with the SLA were also on the BCA visiting list: there was a young Oakland couple from Indiana, Bill and Emily Harris. Another Oakland radical, Nancy Ling Perry, also applied for permission to attend BCA meetings.

In March 1973 DeFreeze escaped from Soledad prison. He made his way to Oakland, where he was hidden by certain of his white friends from the Vacaville BCA. Circulating in the shadowy underground of the youthful East Bay Left, DeFreeze crystalized the SLA. He made contact with Mizmoon Soltysik, 23, a militant Berkeley feminist with whom he apparently lived for several months. Through Soltysik (who had legally changed her name from Patricia to Mizmoon) DeFreeze was connected to 29-year-old Camilla Hall, a Berkeley artist. By late summer the SLA roster also included Joe Remiro, 27, a Vietnam veteran activist who was a friend of Little and Wolfe. As DeFreeze’s circle of politically aware friends widened, he also came to know Angela Atwood, 25, who had been a friend of the Harrises in Indiana.

In August, the early SLA clique apparently engineered the escape of Thero Wheeler, providing transportation and a change of clothes after Wheeler walked away from Vacaville prison. And by fall DeFreeze had vivified his army, a curious group of upper middle-class whites, most college-educated but menially employed. None had been to jail themselves, experiencing their “oppression” secondhand, scratching at the outside of prison walls for a vicarious rush of authentic prison rage.

They would take “reborn” names, often from Swahili. And the vague but copiously footnoted program they endorsed was as fey as it was distanced from the social realties. The SLA “soldiers” swore to follow “black and minority leadership.” Upon the rubble of the corporate state, they would fashion a federation of several socialist, racially-separatist “sovereign nations.” The SLA would outlaw marriage, monogamy and male chauvinism. All forms of “racism, sexism, ageism, capitalism, fascism, individualism, possessiveness, [and] competitiveness” would be suppressed.

By Nov. 6, the SLA decided to go public with an act of unabashed terrorism that would, they felt, define them against the stodgy classical leftists. On that day three SLA “soldiers” ambushed and murdered Marcus Foster, the first black superintendent of Oakland schools. In a flamboyant touch, the eight bullets that killed Foster had been poisoned with cyanide. An SLA communique the next day announced that Foster had been “executed” for supporting the Oakland schools’ photo ID program, which the SLA claimed was a mere prelude to the collection of “bio-dossiers” on students for a federal “Internal Warfare Identification Computer.”

The SLA had expected Foster’s death to galvanize the local “New Left” in their support. But the murder and the “bio-dossier” gibberish had the opposite effect. At least some members of the SLA alliance scattered; even from the original core, Thero Wheeler, probably the most studied Marxist of the group, fled in violent dissent. Little was heard of the SLA for two months after that. Then, by sheer chance, authorities stumbled on a major SLA hideout in the San Francisco suburb of Concord.

At 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 10, a Concord police officer stopped Russell Little and Joseph Remiro who were driving “suspiciously” in a battered Chevy van. Little showed the officer a phony license and mumbled that he was looking for the Devoto home. In fact, Little had been staying there for several weeks with Nancy Ling Perry, who had rented the house under the assumed name. When the officer then asked the passenger to identify himself, Remiro clawed for a holstered pistol. In a flurry of shots, Little was wounded and captured. Remiro escaped on foot. In the van was a stack of SLA leaflets. Four hours later, Remiro surrendered only a block from the SLA hideout. Since Little had mentioned the name Devoto, it was presumed that it was only a matter of time before police would discover the army’s hideout. That evening the house was doused with gasoline and sprinkled with gunpowder. Nancy Perry was last seen driving rapidly away.

But a neighbor spotted the smoke and the fire department quickly put out the blaze. Inside police found a bomb factory, much ammunition (some of it cyanide poisoned), radical literature, notes indicating surveillance of businessmen and plotted assassinations, and personal effects easily traceable to key SLA figures and associates. Atwood left a library card; Perry, her college diploma; Harris, numbered caps from the job he had taken with the post office; a notebook of Remiro’s; books from the Berkeley library where Mizmoon Soltysik worked. There were boxes of files, notes, lists of names. BB-shots peppered the walls, the result, apparently, of target practice.

Overnight the SLA soldiers became fugitives, fleeing their pasts into a desperate future. They had to walk away from homes, jobs, family. Bill and Emily Harris exited typically. They left coffee on the stove, toothbrushes in the bathroom. Three pistol boxes, open and empty, indicated their priorities—as was dramatized by the abduction at gunpoint of Patty Hearst less than a month later and the bloody bank holdup last week.

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