To Patricia Hearst, eulogizing him in a tape recorded message, he was Cujo, the slain revolutionary, “the gentlest, most beautiful man I ever knew.” To his father in Emmaus, Pa., he was William Lawton Wolfe, a bright, gregarious outdoors-loving young man who never spoke of politics, much less revolution. Somewhere in between lay the truth about Willie Wolfe, a 23-year-old, upper-middle-class college dropout who was killed with five other Symbionese Liberation Army members in the police shootout in Los Angeles last month. Of all the SLA victims, Wolfe had received perhaps the least notice, until Patty Hearst’s tape described her feelings toward him. “Neither Cujo nor I had ever loved an individual the way we loved each other,” she said. “Probably this was because our relationship wasn’t based on bourgeois…values.”
Like the other white radicals who became linked with the SLA, Willie Wolfe’s early life offers few clues to explain its sudden end. His father’s most vivid memory of Willie is the boy’s boundless passion for the wide open spaces. “He loved to do anything outdoors—swim, hike, fish, climb mountains, sail, ski and run,” Dr. L.S. Wolfe, a prominent anesthesiologist, remembers. “And he was always very affectionate and open in the family.” Dr. Wolfe, who was divorced from Willie’s mother eight years ago and has since remarried, says his son was “a brilliant student” who was gifted in math but rarely applied himself. More important than school were Willie’s boyhood summers: he went digging with anthropologists in Wyoming, he worked on a commercial fishing boat off the Atlantic coast. One summer in Puerto Rico he mastered catamaran racing. After his parents divorced, when he was 15, Wolfe boarded at Mount Hermon, a Massachusetts prep school, where he went out for long-distance running, swimming and crew. What he did not develop there, says Dr. Wolfe, was a political vision. “There was no interest whatsoever.”
After graduating from Mount Hermon, Willie chose to delay college, instead taking off for a yearlong trek to the Arctic Circle. “He asked me for $200 when he left,” his father recalls with pride, “and that kid came back with $60 change.” It was only after Willie entered the University of California in 1971 that his political education began. According to his father, “he rapidly became interested in the problems of the less fortunate”—especially of the black inmates at Vacaville prison where he apparently first made contact with Donald (Cinque) DeFreeze and other charter members of the SLA. An instructor at the prison remembers Wolfe as “an average college kid, a little bit immature, who had a lot of things to learn about the world.” Wolfe quit the university in 1972.
Last October, Dr. Wolfe visited his son in an Oakland house he shared with Joseph Remiro, one of two white SLA members now being held for the murder of Oakland’s school superintendent. “I stayed there a week,” the doctor remembers, “but I never saw a gun, not a piece of subversive literature, or any seven-headed cobras (the SLA symbol). We talked about his work with prisoners, but it was legal, correct and very humane. I heard no mention of any terrorist ideas.” Wolfe was more interested in talking about a Swedish woman he wanted to marry. He had met her on his hike through the Arctic and she had since moved to the Bay Area. Wolfe told his father they would have a civil wedding in Sweden first, and later a religious ceremony with the family on hand. Dr. Wolfe does not remember her name now, but the three of them met last October. “She was a pleasant and lovely woman, sympathetic to Willie’s activities.”
Willie came home for Christmas, and visited both his mother Virginia, who lives in Litchfield, Conn., and his father. “I couldn’t even send him a plane ticket,” Dr. Wolfe recalls. “He said he preferred to hitchhike.” Willie spent five days babysitting for his two half-sisters, 3 and 2, and to his father seemed “happy and content, with absolutely no sign of any problems.”
Willie, his father and Dr. Wolfe’s second wife Sharon had planned to have dinner on January 10th. But early that morning in Concord, Calif. Remiro and his SLA comrade, Russell Little, were arrested, and later that day the SLA’s temporary headquarters was discovered by police. That evening, Dr. Wolfe recalls, Willie received three telephone calls and announced that he had to return to the West Coast immediately. “A friend of mine is ill,” he explained. It was the last time Dr. Wolfe saw his son. There was only one other communication before Willie died. “It was a valentine,” Dr. Wolfe recalls. “He sent it to his mother.”