Fox 11 Archives: Urban Warfare On Local TV

(FOX 11) On the afternoon of May 17, 1974 television programming in Los Angeles was interrupted by live coverage of a gun battle in a residential neighborhood near USC. Several hundred police, firefighters and a lot of reporters had encircled a small house in the 1400 block of East 54th Street. It was thought that kidnapped newspaper heiress-turned "revolutionary" Patty Hearst might be inside, along with members of the so-called Symbionese Liberation Army.

The SLA's leader was a Soledad prison escapee named Donald DeFreeze, who renamed himself Field Marshal Cinque. He knitted a manifesto, comprised of a loose weave of black revolutionary and Maoist rhetoric, and managed to assemble a small band of radicals who bought into his vision. In early 1973 they embarked on a series of crimes. In addition to kidnapping Hearst, SLA members murdered Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster, committed a string of robberies and – perhaps most galling of all – taunted the FBI and police with several recorded messages, or "communiques," as they called them, which were broadcast by local radio stations. The messages included the catchy slogan, "Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!"

After Hearst and some of the others staged a clumsy shoplifting episode at a sporting goods store in Hawthorne, police tracked one of the group's vehicles to the 54th Street address. Soon the house was surrounded. Warnings to surrender were followed by a volley of tear gas. From the bungalow came bullets. Two women ran out – guns in hand. They were shot dead. More gunfire followed. At one point the house was in flames – reportedly a result of tear gas canisters igniting. By now the cops were in a full-fledged firefight, with bullets flying in every direction. As people scrambled for cover police helped neighbors escape from nearby homes, many of them climbing out of windows. A former colleague of mine, the late Gary Franklin, was crouched behind the open door of his mobile unit, doing a live radio report, when a bullet shattered the car's window above him, showering his dome with broken glass.

The battle lasted several hours. Out of concern for their own safety, police and firefighters let the house fire burn itself out. Inside, they found the bodies of DeFreeze and several others. A total of six SLA members died that afternoon, but not Patty Hearst. She was never there. While the shootout was going on, Hearst and two other SLA members were watching it live on TV from a motel room in Anaheim. More than a year later the trio was arrested in San Francisco. Other SLA members remained fugitives for years, but eventually all were caught, tried and sent to prison. As for the site of the shootout, a duplex now occupies the lot.

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