On a Thursday afternoon in mid-May 1974, in the small city of Lynwood, California, 18-year-old high school senior Tom Matthews answered a knock on the door.
Outside stood a short-haired brunette in her twenties, who inquired about the Ford Econoline van for sale that was sitting in the driveway of his parents home.
Tom told her he was asking $2,500 and sure, now was a good time to go for a test drive. In a matter of minutes, “Emily” was behind the wheel, with Tom sitting shotgun in the front passenger seat. After driving a few blocks, she asked if her friends could come along.
It was then that Tom Matthews’ life took a turn.
Emily pulled over to the curb where man and woman approached the van on the passenger side. Pulling a machine gun from inside his open jacket, the man, 29-year-old William Harris, announced, “We’re SLA.”
“He asked me to get in the back of my van, saying if I didn’t do anything flaky, I wouldn’t get hurt,” Matthews remembered. Harris climbed in, followed closely behind by a second woman.
Contacted 42 years later by phone from his home in Overland Park, Kansas, Matthews recalls his brush with the radical Symbionese Liberation Army with striking clarity.
“Bill Harris pointed to a woman in the back of the van, wearing a dark, curly wig. ‘Do you know who this is?’ and I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘This is Tania.’ I knew who Tania was. Before we went one city block, I said, ‘Man, my friends aren’t going to believe this!’ That kind of set the tone for the evening.”
“Bill Harris pointed to a woman in the back of the van…. He said, ‘This is Tania.’ I knew who Tania was. Before we went one city block, I said, `Man, my friends aren’t going to believe this!’”
Then, as now, Matthews comes across as a stereotypical laid-back Californian. The starting first baseman for the Lynwood High School baseball team, his main concern during his kidnapping was being back in time for his team’s first playoff game the following day. “I just need to be back for the game,” he remembers telling his captors.
When asked about his state of mind at the time, Matthews recounts, “I was actually fairly calm. I don’t ever remember panicking.”
Three months earlier, in February 1974 and 400 miles to the north, 19-year-old Patricia Hearst was kidnapped from her apartment, beaten and thrown into the trunk of a car by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a radical leftist group formed in the California prison system. Hearst, the granddaughter of American newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst, was a sophomore at the University of California at Berkeley, studying art history and living with her fiancée, Steven Weed. Ostensibly taken as leverage to free two comrades from prison, Hearst was held for a month when the SLA announced she had voluntarily joined the group, adopting the nom de guerre “Tania.” In March 1974, a machine gun-toting Tania was caught on camera, taking part in the armed robbery of a San Francisco bank. The saga of Patty Hearst became one of the cultural touchstones of the 1970s in America. The question, then as now, remains, did Patty Heart join the SLA on her own free will or was she coerced or “brainwashed”?
A prescient group in terms of branding and self-promotion, the SLA was actually a ragtag collection of eight misfits (nine, if you include Hearst), headed by a 30-year-old ex-con named Donald DeFreeze, who went by the moniker “Cinque” and also gave himself the grandiose title of General Field Marshall in the United Federated Forces of the Symbionese Liberation Army. DeFreeze wanted all races, genders, and ages to fight together in a left wing united front. The SLA issued elaborate, jargon-filled written and audio communiqués, always ending with the line, “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!”
The SLA issued elaborate, jargon-filled written and audio communiqués, always ending with the line, “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!”
After a successful bank heist, which netted the group $11,000, San Francisco became too hot for the SLA, so they relocated to Los Angeles. Once in L.A., Emily and Bill Harris were caught shoplifting supplies at Mel’s Sporting Goods. A struggle ensued, and a clerk was able to get a handcuff on Bill. Hearst, keeping watch in their van across the street, sprayed the front of store with a hail of bullets from a submachine gun, shattering the store’s plate glass window. In the chaos, Bill and Emily managed to make it back to their van, escaping with Patty.
Two hours later when Matthews first encountered Bill Harris, he was still in a handcuff, in desperate need of having it removed.
“The first order of business was to get a hacksaw to remove the handcuff from Bill Harris,” Matthews recalls. “We went to a Montgomery Ward and Emily went in and bought some candy and a hacksaw. Bill was trying to cut through the handcuff at a 90-degree angle with his palm up. I told him he was going to cut his hand. So I actually took the saw and clamped down on the cuff so it wouldn’t move. His hand was turning purple and blue. But sure enough, I cut all the way through the pin and the handcuff separated. He was elated. He hugged me, and Patty actually gave me a kiss on the cheek. I asked him for the handcuff as a souvenir. He gave me a single piece of it. I used to carry it around in my wallet. I lost it over the years; I don’t know where it’s at.”
“I asked [Bill Harris] for the handcuff as a souvenir. He gave me a single piece of it. I used to carry it around in my wallet.”
Matthews never considered trying to escape. “It never crossed my mind. And actually – and this is weird part – when they were going to go get the hacksaw, I figured they weren’t going to want to go out in public, so I thought they were going to ask me to go do it. And I would have walked right in there, bought the hacksaw and walked right back. I don’t know, I can’t really explain it, but I didn’t really feel threatened.”
The group then took off to their next designated meeting point with the other SLA members: Century Drive-In movie theater. “The plan or signal was to place a white coffee cup on the rooftop of the car,” Matthews recounted.
Matthews remained calm and patient: “It was more of an adventure for me. Being 18 years old, I was pretty naïve and that’s one reason I didn’t fear for my life. I was pretty familiar with the SLA because they were the lead story on the news every night. When I asked them why they robbed the Hibernian Bank in San Francisco, they told me they were fighting a civil war against the United States and they needed the money.”
Mathews had a good amount of time to speak with Patty Hearst throughout his ordeal. “Patty was sitting in the back with me, and I kind of remember her almost patting me, comforting me because she’d gone through a similar experience, though much, much worse than what I’d gone through. She was being sympathetic towards me.”
In Jeffrey Toobin’s 2016 book, “American Heiress: The Wild Sage of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst,” Matthews asks Patty about her “willing participation” in the Hibernia Bank robbery. Patty responded, “I was totally into it. No one made me do anything. We rehearsed. I wanted to be a part.” He recalled she also boasted about her involvement at Mel’s Sporting Goods, “I saved my comrades. I was so proud when I saw them running across the street.”
“We talked about sports. The Harrises were from Indiana, a big basketball state. We talked about baseball. I had a baseball bat in my van; I told them I played baseball. We had the start of a tournament the very next day, our first playoff game.”
On some levels, the conversation in the van was normal, but in others, it was just plain weird, remembers Matthews.
“The couple things I thought were really weird? When we got to the drive-in theater, they were hungry and wanted to eat. I had just eaten dinner so when they asked if I wanted something, I said no. Emily goes to the snack bar and comes back with food, and they were kind of like, ‘Oh, what did you order? I ordered a cheeseburger.’ ‘No, you ordered a hamburger.’ Here you are, on the run from the police and the FBI and you’re bickering over who gets a cheeseburger and who gets a hamburger? So I thought that was a little bit odd.”
“Here you are, on the run from the police and the FBI and you’re bickering over who gets a cheeseburger and who gets a hamburger?”
“And they were really getting into the two movies we saw. The first was The New Centurions with Stacy Keach. There were a couple scenes where some cops get shot, so they were all rooting for the bad guys.”
“The second movie was Thomasine & Bushrod, which was like a black Bonnie and Clyde. They were really getting off on those two movies. So we sat there and watched both movies until we realized [the other SLA members] weren’t coming, so that’s when they had a Plan B, a safe house they could go to.”
After about 12 hours of holding him captive, the SLA members were done with Matthews and needing new transportation.
“By that time, they figured the police were probably looking for my van,” Matthews remembers. The SLA members were getting nervous and warned him, “If we get pulled over, lay as low as you can because if the police know we’re in here, they’re going to blow away this van.”
“Patty and Emily Harris went out and acted as hitchhikers. They were gone for about 10–15 minutes and came back with a car. Bill Harris just tossed me my keys and told me to stay there for about 10 minutes before I left. They did remind me that they knew where I lived and that I didn’t need to tell the police everything, which didn’t really scare me. They let me go and I drove home. It was about 7:00 in the morning.”
Matthews recalls, “I went straight home. My brother had seen the early morning paper, which had the description and license plate number of the vehicle they were last seen in. He saw that car right around the corner from our house. That’s when the police and the FBI knew that I’d probably been snatched up by them. When my dad saw the news about the shootout at Mel’s, he called the police and said, ‘I think the SLA has got my son.’”
While Matthews remained calm, his family was nervous. “My wife Susan, who was my girlfriend at the time, spent the night at my parents’ house. When I came back home and walked in the door, they were in tears. They were so happy to see me. They’d been thinking the worst.”
“I just kind of smiled and said, ‘What’s up? What’s going on?’ I was glad to be home! My brother called the police. They came over, picked me up and took me to the Lynwood Police Station. The FBI was there and had me pick out mug shots. The only person I ID’d was Emily Harris because she was the one who initially came to the door. Again, I was in that mindset of nothing really happened to me. I didn’t feel it was imperative for them to capture these people if I said who was who. I didn’t tell them Patty was in the van.”
“I was in that mindset of nothing really happened to me. I didn’t feel it was imperative for [the FBI] to capture these people…. I didn’t tell them Patty was in the van.”
“I went to my dad’s work and hung out there for an hour or two. Then I had to go to my baseball game. There were all kinds of rumors going around my high school because I’d missed my physics or chemistry final exam and my best friend knew something was wrong. It wasn’t like me to miss school and especially not a big test like that.”
“When I went to my game, there was press all over the place. I wouldn’t talk to anybody. Then the big shoot out – where all the other members of the SLA got killed – started during my game. It all hit the news, all the reporters jetted – left my game to go to the shootout.”
While Bill, Emily, and Patty took off to a motel, the remaining six SLA members were in a safe house in South Central L.A. Through an unpaid parking ticket, police were able to identify the safe house and initiated a raid. At the time, it was the biggest shootout in LAPD history and the first live televised police action, leaving the six SLA members dead and the house burned to the ground.
After the shootout, there was confusion in the media over who was killed. Hearst’s father was interviewed on TV, worried that Patty was among the dead.
“That’s when my dad said, ‘I think you ought to tell them what you know.’ We called the FBI. They came to the house. I said, ‘Yeah, you know, I didn’t quite tell you everything. Patty was in the van, and I was in the backseat with her and two people were in the front seat.’”
“The FBI agents just kind of looked at me, then fired that four-door sedan up and took me to the Federal Building. They had me take a polygraph test and pick out Patty’s voice from recordings. They had two other women reading some of the communiqués that [the SLA] issued and they had me pick. All I know is the next day, they flew me to Frisco for the Grand Jury trial.”
Matthews explained why he withheld details of his kidnapping. “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t have even pressed charges, so that’s one reason. If they were going to catch them, they were going to catch them. In hindsight, some of these things, I wonder why the FBI didn’t come down harder on me.”
“I wonder why the FBI didn’t come down harder on me.”
For Patty Heart’s bank robbery trial, Matthews recounts, “They flew me and Anthony Shepard, the security guard from Mel’s Sporting Goods store. We roomed together.”
Hearst’s defense attorney, F. Lee Bailey barely questioned Matthews during the preliminary part of the trial as the judge determined his testimony’s admissibility.
“When I went in there, he had a few questions for me, which I thought were pretty simple,” Matthews remembers. Then things turned.”
As Matthews was waiting outside the courtroom, he overheard Bailey yelling at the prosecutor, “When I’m done tearing Tommy Matthews to pieces, who else do you have for me?” “That’s probably the most scared I’d been during this whole deal,” Matthews remembered.
With Matthews on the stand, F. Lee Bailey presented his kidnapping as a terrifying event for him, but Matthews refused to agree, again describing the event as more of an adventure.
On March 20, 1976 after a 6-week trial, Hearst was found guilty of armed robbery and use of a firearm to commit a felony. She served 22 months of a seven-year sentence, and then her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter and later was officially pardoned by President Bill Clinton in 2001.
At the Harrises trial in Southern California, Matthews had his last encounter with Bill. “I’m sitting in the courtroom when they escort the Harrises in and Bill Harris goes, ‘Hey Tom, buddy! How’s it going? Come visit me in jail!’ So, I go to visit him in jail. I sign in, and they ask who I’m there for. I say, ‘William Harris.’ I sat down, and there are two deputies sitting behind the glass. They’re pointing at me and whispering to each other.”
“I thought this doesn’t look too good. So I freaked out and left, but I had signed in. So sure enough, the FBI and prosecutors are wondering why I went to visit Bill Harris. I said, ‘Because he asked me to!'”
Bill and Emily Harris served eight years in prison after pleading guilty to kidnapping Patty Hearst.
Matthews has had 40 years to reflect on Hearst’s part in the SLA saga. “At that point in time, if I were on any type of jury, I would have been pretty lenient. She didn’t set out to do this. One thing I can pretty much guarantee you is that she wasn’t involved in her own kidnapping. I do believe she was truly captured, but she did become one of them.”
Matthews thinks the incident at Mel’s Sporting Goods was a turning point for Patty. “I’ve seen her interviewed since and when anyone asks her about it, she says, ‘I did what I was trained to do a thousand times and didn’t realize until they got in the car what I’d done.’ But when she talked to me about what happened, she bragged about seeing her comrades come running across the street toward her. She was very proud of freeing her comrades. Patty shot up the store and freed them.”
While Matthews sounds sympathetic towards his captors, he insists that’s not the case. “I don’t think I would say I was sympathetic, but I didn’t feel like…and I’ve said this many times, if somebody would have come to me right afterward and asked if I wanted to press charges, I would have said no, because nothing happened to me. I didn’t feel threatened. It could have gone sideways, but it didn’t.”
Since the kidnapping, Matthews has been eager to speak with the Hearsts about his experience. During college after finding out one of Patty’s sister attended a nearby school, she agreed to meet. It didn’t lead him anywhere as she was “nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof.”
Now a 60-year-old father of three, married for 40 years, and a real estate agent in Kansas, Matthews mentions his kidnapping (along with the fact that he and his wife won second place on “The Newlywed Game” the day Elvis died) in his bio on his company’s website. Of the experience, he states coolly, “It hasn’t affected me a whole lot. I think it’s kind of a cool thing to be a small part of history.”
Asked for his final thoughts, Matthews states, “Well, I’m glad she got out of everything ok. I don’t know exactly what we would talk about, but I would sure like to sit down and have a beer with her.”