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Thursday, 17 January, 2002, 22:22 GMT
America's hippy extremists
The remains of a burned out Los Angeles house where six SLA members died
The SLA caused havoc in California in the early 1970s
By BBC News Online's Sarah Brown

The charges brought against five members of the former Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) mark a new chapter in one of America's most bizarre criminal sagas.

The extremist political group for many epitomised the darker side of hippy California, an era of peace and love nonetheless haunted by the Charles Manson slayings and the bloody war in Vietnam.

The people and the people's armed forces will no longer quietly submit to the occupation of our communities

SLA manifesto
The American public was alternately fascinated and repulsed by its young, idealistic members, whose symbol was a seven-headed dragon and whose philosophy espoused armed struggle against a perceived oppressive governmental regime.

The SLA was formed in 1973 in California by black convict Donald DeFreeze, who escaped from Soledad Prison and sought refuge with prison reform activists in the counter-culture town of Berkeley.

Brutal 'activists'

Renaming himself Cinque Mtume or "Fifth Prophet", DeFreeze formed the organisation along with his then-girlfriend and several white, middle class activists disillusioned by the peaceful methods of fellow activists.
The Symbionese Liberation Army pose for a photo with their leader Cinque Mtume (centre, standing)
The SLA failed to start the revolution they hoped for

Berkeley, a hotbed of subversive political action and considered by many the birthplace of the sixties, was a fertile ground for the nascent movement.

Declaring themselves to be activists dedicated to the violent overthrow of what they perceived as an corrupt federal government, they first entered the public arena with the brutal murder of black schools' superintendent Marcus Foster, whose programme of ID cards in Oakland schools they denounced as "fascist".

However their intentions appeared doomed from the start, as the death of the popular Marcus Foster met with widespread condemnation, hardly the class insurrection the group had hoped for.

Two SLA members went on trial for the murder and one, Joe Remiro, was convicted and sent to prison.

The other, Russ Little, ultimately had his conviction overturned.

Undeterred, the SLA continued their campaign. In a military-style communique issued shortly after the bombing of a Los Angeles police station in 1974 they declared that "the people and the people's armed forces will no longer quietly submit to the occupation of our communities."

Infamous kidnap

Most infamous of all the SLA's crimes, however, was the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst, who was snatched in February 1974.

The group demanded that her parents, Randolph and Catherine Hearst, distribute millions of dollars worth of food aid to poor Californians in a so-called "People in Need" programme.

Heiress Patty Hearst in front of the SLA symbol
Hearst later claimed she was brainwashed into committing crimes for the SLA

However, Hearst remained a hostage despite her parents' agreeing to the food distribution, and observers speculated that she was merely being held to cause maximum anguish to her wealthy parents.

Patty Hearst herself then shocked the world when she appeared on tape denouncing her parents and committing herself to the SLA's cause, renaming herself Tania in the process.

Experts said she displayed classic symptoms of Stockholm syndrome, whereby a hostage begins to identify and empathise with their captors.

Hearst was also present at the SLA's most notorious crime, the robbery of a San Francisco bank in 1974.

She claimed to have been sitting in the getaway car when at some point during the robbery an SLA member blasted mother-of-four Myrna Opsahl with a shotgun as she stood depositing church receipts, killing her instantly.

Fatal showdown

However such violent activities alienated the public - those they claimed to want to liberate - and the SLA was reduced to carrying out a series of increasingly desperate crimes, such as stealing clothes from local stores.

Trygve Opsahl, holds a picture of his wife Myrna Ophsahl
Relatives of the victims are hoping for justice

Most SLA members were eventually caught in a dramatic showdown with Los Angeles police which resulted in the death of six members in a fire as the American public watched on television.

The remaining SLA members went underground as fugitives from the law, although some, including Patty Hearst, resurfaced in San Francisco in 1975 and were charged with bank robbery.

Hearst was convicted, but her sentence was overturned by then-US President Jimmy Carter.

Now the news that five ex-SLA members, including fugitive Sara Jane Olson, have been arrested and charged with the robbery and murder of Myrna Opsahl will being hope to the victim's family that justice will be meted out to those SLA members still living.

And one of America's most complex and bizarre criminal cases will move one step closer to being closed.

See also:

01 Nov 01 | Americas
Hearst gang fugitive pleads guilty
17 Jun 99 | Americas
Hearst 'kidnapper' arrested
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