You can run, but you can't hide

Quarter of a century after Patty Hearst's kidnappers went to ground, a young LAPD cop is hot on their trail.
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The Independent Culture
Kathleen Soliah can count herself lucky to be alive. She can count herself even luckier to be a free woman, having eluded the clutches of the American criminal justice system for 24 years. She is a former member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the radical guerrilla group that held up banks and planted bombs across California and - most notoriously - kidnapped the newspaper heiress Patty Hearst and turned her into a convert, and she slipped underground with her then boyfriend, James Kilgore, in 1975 and has never been traced since.

While the rest of their comrades were either gunned down by police or arrested and sent to jail, Soliah and Kilgore have remained at large, the only former SLA members to do so. As time has passed, much of America has forgotten who they are, and those who remember have long since presumed that the authorities are no longer interested in them.

After all, it's been a long time since the SLA's radical left-wing ideology, fuelled by the Vietnam war and the disillusionments of the Nixon era, was fashionable. Soliah and Kilgore were late recruits and were only ever indicted on the relatively minor charges of possession of an explosive device and conspiracy to blow up police cars in Los Angeles - small potatoes next to the murders, armed robberies and kidnappings committed by the group as a whole. And after all this time, it is doubtful whether the old indictments could be made to stick in court.

Unexpectedly, their case has come roaring back to life. Over the past month their friends, former comrades-in-arms and Soliah's family have all been questioned by the police and the FBI. Old photos and descriptions have surfaced on the country's premier television crime programme, America's Most Wanted, together with the promise of a $20,000 reward for any information leading to their arrest.

The authorities have sought to contact Soliah through a complicated string of intermediaries, including a journalist from the San Francisco Examiner, the newspaper edited by Patty Hearst's father at the time of her kidnap and still owned by the family. In manoeuvres reminiscent of old times, there has been talk of cutting a deal whereby Soliah may give herself up in exchange for guarantees about her treatment. Meanwhile her former comrades, many of whom have done jail time for the largest of the SLA's crimes, have grown fearful that they too may be in for trouble.

What is going on? Is this an attempt by the authorities to get to the bottom of murky, never-before-answered questions about a terrorist group and the manner of its liquidation? Or is the interest rather more superficial and self-serving?

The prime mover behind the latest flurry of activity is a young detective in the Los Angeles Police Department, Lieutenant David Reyes, who appears to have stirred up renewed interest in Soliah and Kilgore virtually single- handed since joining the Criminal Conspiracy Division six months ago.

It was Reyes who shook down Kathleen Soliah's former associates and visited her ageing parents out in the desert community of Palmdale, 35 miles north of Los Angeles. Too young himself to remember the attempted car-bombings in 1975, he interviewed officers who were around at the time.

"The case never really went away," he maintains. "But for a stroke of luck, we would have had four dead policemen. It's a very serious case, and it needs to be put to rest."

Soliah's old friends, however, believe that Lt Reyes's righteous words belie his own personal ambition for advancement within the LAPD, and that he is stirring old ghosts to draw attention to himself.

They are particularly angry about Reyes's treatment of Kathleen Soliah's parents. According to Michael Bortin, a former SLA member now living in Oregon who is married to Kathleen Soliah's sister, Reyes tried to persuade the parents-in-law to give information by feeding them with images of SWAT teams surrounding their daughter's house - the implication being that they might easily shoot her and her family or burn their house down.

"I was worried the shock might give them a stroke or something," Bortin said. "That's when we decided to do something. To prevent someone from sacrificing the health and happiness of people in their eighties."

What Bortin proposed was a deal whereby Kathleen Soliah would come out of hiding quietly and plead guilty to the charges against her on condition that she would be let off on parole, not sent to jail. A similar deal was worked out recently for Bernadette Dohrn, a former member of the Weathermen (another left-wing guerrilla group) now working as a lawyer in New York.

Bortin would not speak to the police directly, so Larry Hatfield, a veteran reporter from the San Francisco Examiner who covered the SLA story when it first broke, offered himself as an intermediary. But the negotiation broke down almost immediately, as the faces of Soliah and Kilgore turned up on America's Most Wanted, together with information on their physical appearance.

The show went out on the 25th anniversary of a police shoot-out in the Compton section of Los Angeles in which six of the SLA's original leadership perished, an occasion already being marked by numerous pieces in the newspapers and on the television news. "Someone obviously got a little idea of how to help their career along," Bortin said. "Why else would the LAPD wait 25 years to launch a manhunt? There's no way we can do a deal with people like that."

Whatever personal motives there may be, though, a whole lot more could soon be at stake. Although Soliah and Kilgore are under indictment only for a handful of unexploded bombs, they could prove to be crucial in a more serious piece of unfinished business from the career of the SLA - one that has been frustrating the authorities for years because of their inability to bring it to court.

After the first clamorous wave of SLA activity, starting with the Patty Hearst kidnapping in February 1974 and ending three months later with the Compton shoot-out, the group carried out a series of bank robberies to keep itself going. One of them, in the conservative Sacramento suburb of Carmichael, resulted in the murder of a woman customer who was dropping off the proceeds from her church's Sunday collection when she was shot in the face.

The only person willing to help police identify the killer over the years has been Patty Hearst. The woman she named, Emily Harris, served eight years in jail for other SLA-related crimes and now lives in Los Angeles. But Hearst is a highly problematic witness because of her ambiguous role as kidnap victim turned active terrorist. For years she has tried, and largely failed, to convince the world that she was coerced into joining the SLA.

The courts did not believe her when convicting her in 1976 (she served two years before receiving a presidential early release), and the authorities have been suspicious of her reliability ever since.

It took 15 years to convene grand jury hearings on the Carmichael robbery, and on two separate occasions - in 1990 and 1991 - those hearings failed to result in a single indictment. What the surviving SLA members now fear is that Soliah and Kilgore, if captured, could be pressured into testifying about the robbery to avoid going to jail themselves.

"There's a lot of paranoia out there," said a lawyer close to many of them, who did not wish to be named. "There are a lot of SLA crimes that have never been prosecuted and this is the one that could still catch up with them because there is no statute of limitations on murder."

In another country, prosecutors might be reluctant to stir up old demons in this way, as the society recognises that the middle-aged law-abiding citizen of today bears little resemblance to the politically motivated bomb-thrower of a generation ago. But the United States has been through no such process, at least not with the SLA, and has become if anything more pitiless towards serious crimes in the intervening years.

According to Larry Hatfield of the San Francisco Examiner, Kathy Soliah is married to a doctor in the Midwest and has three children, while James Kilgore is believed to have spent much of the past 25 years abroad. How much could really be gained by their apprehension? Lt Reyes is in no doubt: "You can run but you can't hide. We're going to find her [Soliah] and put her in a court of law and face a judge. That's what justice means."