Our eyes met for a brief moment only. She looked a bit ashamed of her situation, and I was awkward and clumsy. I was a young photographer, and she was a younger prisoner.
On September 25, it will have been forty-five years. Patricia Campbell Hearst was a “newspaper heiress” and the daughter of the San Francisco Examiner publisher Randolf Apperson Hearst. She found herself kidnapped by a left-wing group who called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army [SLA]. Our brief meeting was sad yet fascinating.
Note: I’ve checked Wikipedia and Google Earth and still can’t find where “Symbion” is located.
According to the FBI, the SLA pressed and prodded for a guerrilla war against the United States Government to destroy the “capitalist state,” leaving several innocent people dead in their wake. It now feels oddly familiar considering current events. The newspaper, radio, and TV frenzy that came about in the mid-1970s was top-story, daily and nightly news on all of the big three TV networks. Cable was in its infancy, but in the print media, the coverage splashed across the above-the-fold front pages worldwide.
Patty, as everyone called her, eventually joined the outlaw group after constant torture and indoctrination. The FBI placed her on their Most Wanted list. Eventually, nineteen-months after her first capture, the FBI got their man… or should I say, woman. The news frenzy grew. Her latest captors took her to the San Mateo County Jail near San Francisco, for safekeeping.
A few cities to the south, I was an impoverished journalism/photojournalism student at San Jose State University. More than that, I was married to Becky. We had a three-year-old daughter, Shannon, The classic tale; we were young, broke, and tackling college with faith and no jobs. In short, we needed money. We still do, but back then, we really needed money.
A few miles away were many of my classmates, cameras in hand among the throngs of new personnel pressed against the steel-barred vehicle-bay door of the jail. Some were among the few who captured Hearst’s famous clenched-fist photo while handcuffed in the back of a police car. My friends were paid well for their photos by the Associated Press [AP], United Press International, Time Magazine, and other news outlets. I decided to join them on the next scheduled transport of the prisoner.
The day arrived. Patty Hearst was to face the judge. She had to pass through the gaggle of cameras and scratching notepads. But, to the disappointment of the press, and to me, the Sheriff’s Department informed the group that Hearst was not being escorted to the courthouse, her hearing was canceled. The press slinked away, as did I. One-half block from the jail, a writer for the San Francisco Examiner lingered beside his car.
“You know, Randy [Hearst] is a really nice guy,” he said.
I hadn’t met the man before. It looked as if he wanted to get something off of his chest. He looked demoralized, so I stopped to listen. I’m a sucker for a grown man’s sob story. He spoke of the tragedy of the situation and how it was affecting the Hearst family, Randy, his wife, and the employees of the Examiner. They were all shaken. Since I was skipping classes anyway, I continued to listen. We talked until all of the news people were gone, then we talked some more. He finally decided to go back to work and do what Randy was paying him to do. So he said goodbye and drove away. His storytelling changed my career and my life.
Turning to walk to my stashed-and-hidden, beat-up, very ugly, very four-door, 1965 Buick, Wildcat, I noticed an unmarked police vehicle backing into the secure bay of the jail, so I walked to the horizontally-barred door. Standing around the interior of the bay, sheriff’s deputies stood shoulder to shoulder in an “at ease” stance, all were armed. The grating of the door offered a one-inch slot for my lens to capture what was on the other side.
“Looks like you have an exclusive,” one lawman shouted to me, grinning.
Exclusive, I’d never had one of those. I decided I need to look the word up to find out what it meant.
I shouted back, “I thought she wasn’t going to the courthouse.”
Again the cop yelled, still grinning, “She’s not. They are taking her to the doctor for a checkup.”
Armed with a 1968 Nikkormat camera, I snapped three or four photos as jail matron, Janey Jimenez, escorted Hearst to the car. Only one shot was in focus. A direct-flash shot as the car pulled out onto the street, and the episode was over.
Now my duty was to find a phone booth, call information, and contact a photo editor at the San Francisco office of The AP. Marty Walz answered.
“I have an exclusive photo of Patty Hearst,” my voice was shaking. “Are you interested?”
“Exclusive?” he asked. “They didn’t take her to court today.”
“They took her to the doctor after everyone else left,” I explained.
Half-believing my story, he invited me to the San Francisco, AP photo lab to have the film developed. The AP also had its staff covering the event and knew it was canceled. How could this guy off the street have scooped the professionals?
With the developed film, Walz was surprised but made a financial offer. A quick mental calculation and I knew the amount, only a few-hundred 1975 dollars, was enough to buy a used Nikon F camera, a Leica M5, a few lenses, and still have a small amount left over for food. I’m not totally sure about the “food” thing. But I still have one of the cameras.
The pictures were my first professional sale. I had graduated to a professional photojournalist. The images appeared in every major newspaper worldwide and were the first of Hearst and Jimenez together. Many more photos of the couple, robber and cop, hit the papers in the coming months.
In the later photos, Jimenez had better clothes and a more admirable hairstyle. She would write a book about her experiences with Patty.
A few weeks later, I skipped class again to hang out at the jail to see if anything was going on. The excursion from school taught me more about life, about news photography, and patience than any of my courses could. When I arrived at the jail, I expected the usual crowd of new vans, reporters, and photographers. Only one person stood by the building. He held a new, shiny, Canon camera; no scratches, no dings, no day-to-day wear.
“Where is everyone?” I asked.
He shrugged then told me he was a student at San Francisco State. He just wanted to get a few pictures for an art class. We talked the morning away. Nothing happened. Bored, around 12:30, my stomach began to beg for food. The next move was my orientation to the school of enlightenment. Call it Zen, or karma, or whatever Eastern Oriental religion noun you want; It was a learning experience.
I’m going to run around the corner to grab a snack,” I said to the student, then ran toward the small store where I grabbed a bag of chips, paid the cashier, then ran back.
“You missed it,” the student informed.
“What?” I asked.
“Mr. and Mrs. Hearst came in.”
Expletives rolled through my mind.
“Did you get any shots,” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” he answered. “Several.”
He described how cooperative Mrs. Hearst was to turn and walk toward him a few times. He then made a portrait of the couple. Worst, he then said that the guards in the lobby demanded to frisk the couple before letting them into the elevator to visit their daughter a few floors above.
“You got the shot,” I said.
“Oh, no,” he explained. “I thought it would be rude.”
My hunger and ill preparedness had cost me front-page spots around the globe.
I am still, to this day, dumbfounded by the student’s inaction and unconcern for recording history. That is second only to my youthful epicurean fragility and my slow-wittedness not to think ahead and carry a snack while waiting for an important photo. I never forgot the lesson.
After that time, my pockets carried peanuts or some other form of temporary nutrition. If for some reason, I forgot the snack, I put on my big-boy pants and toughed it out.
One of my mottos became, Don’t Leave the Friggin’ Scene. Later, when the couple walked to their car, I clicked photos as they passed by. The AP bought the photos. Time Magazine picked one up to run with a story. I bought more camera gear… and of course, food.
Hearst was later tried, convicted, and sentenced to 35 years in prison. After serving four years in the Federal Correctional Institute at Pleasanton, California, in 1979, President James Carter commuted her sentence. I was working as the Chief Photographer for the Tri-Valley Herald, about six miles from the prison. The photo staff covered Hearst as she walked out of the prison gates to freedom. Later, President Bill Clinton gave her a full pardon.
Strangely, our City Editor had initially refused to send reporters and photographers to cover the international event that was taking place in our news district, our back yard. She instructed that the AP would cover Hearst’s release, and we would pick up the story from them. An appeal to her boss, and the orders changed. The city editor? She didn’t like me much after that.
After the first photos of Hearst in 1975, I was officially a professional photographer and news journalist. Today, I still make a large amount of my income from photos and writing. Some call the Patty Hearst event luck. I call it a God Wink. The second, when I missed the shot, I also call it a God Wink. He knew I would learn from failure. I did.
As a postscript: After the first two AP sales came another change in my career, my advisor at SJSU, Texan Joe Swann, pulled me aside one day and, in fatherly tones, reminded me that I was a married man with a child. I couldn’t be running around sleeping in my car like my classmates. It wasn’t right. He was right.
My days as a paparazzo were over. With his influence I soon started a job as the Public Relations Photographer for the University. It was boring work printing 40 to 50 black and white images for a single press release. But it taught me to print photographs. I was very good at the craft after almost two years as the PR guy. It was the best darkroom training I could have received, and I was getting paid for it—another God wink.
A question in my mind is, was Patricia Hearst guilty of the crimes that made her pay four years of a young life? I don’t know. I’ve always thought there was the shadow of a doubt that deserved consideration. But I don’t know. In the end, I guess God Winks can come in all forms.
All photos not credited: © JD Byous, All rights reserved, 2020.