Zodiac, Zebra, SLA, Hearst

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from Reporter’s Note Book by Duffy Jennings.


Patty Hearst at the Hibernia Bank, 1974

Beginning in October 1973, a group of extremist Black Muslims carried out a six-month series of random attacks of mostly white men and women on the streets of San Francisco. They killed at least fifteen people, wounded several others and, some authorities believed, may have slain more than seventy people in all. By year’s end, nine were already dead and four others had survived, including future San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos, who was shot twice in the chest and stomach outside a community meeting in Potrero Hill December 13.

In an unrelated attack the night of November 6, Oakland Schools Superintendent Marcus Foster was shot to death and his assistant superintendent, Robert Blackburn, was wounded in the parking lot behind the administration building as they left a school board meeting. Three men confronted Foster and shot him eight times with hollow-point, cyanide-tipped bullets. Two days after the shootings, in a letter to the Chronicle, a group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army claimed responsibility, blaming Foster for what they misconstrued was his support of a program requiring ID cards for all high school students. My colleague Tim Findley, writing about the letter, reported the group had issued a “shoot on sight order” that would remain in effect for other school officials “until such time as all political police are removed from our schools and all photo and other forms of identification are stopped.”

In a letter received by the Oakland Tribune November 15, the SLA, now calling itself the Western Regional Youth Unit of the Symbionese Liberation Army, had rescinded its “death warrants” because Oakland school officials were obeying its demands. I was assigned to write the Chronicle article about the latest letter. “The fascist Board of Education has made an attempt to heed and respect the rights and wishes of the people by stating that they will not continue to take part in crimes committed against the children and the life of the people,” I quoted the letter as saying. It was certainly not the last we would hear from the SLA.

Meanwhile, the random street murders in San Francisco continued. On December 22, I wrote that Police Chief Donald Scott announced investigators had linked five of the shootings to the “same person or group,” and that a special task force had been formed to work on the case. Chief Scott assigned the “Z” police radio frequency exclusively to the task force. Since Zebra is the common phonetic word for the letter Z in police, military, and other government agencies, the attacks became known as the Zebra murders. Rather than arrests, the new year brought an escalation to the violence. On January 29, 1974 five more victims were shot in separate random attacks; only one survived.

Somewhere in the Bay Area that same night, Zodiac was writing a new letter to the Chronicle, his first in nearly three years.

Just one week after the newest Zodiac letter, the Symbionese Liberation Army struck again in spectacular fashion.

On February 4, the leftist urban guerrilla group violently kidnapped Patricia Campbell Hearst, the granddaughter of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, from her Berkeley apartment. She soon joined forces with her captors, took part in a San Francisco bank robbery with them, which set off a 19-month, nationwide police search for her and the SLA.

The shocking crime sent the Chronicle into an all-hands-on-deck coverage mode as the case moved from Berkeley to San Francisco to Los Angeles. One of the early ransom demands made by Patty Hearst’s kidnappers – with her own vocal support by audio tape over the telephone – was the distribution of millions of dollars in free food to the poor. The city desk asked me to cover the food giveaway, dubbed the “People in Need” program by the SLA, in late February. I wrote two page one stories, one about preparations to feed as many as 20,000 families, and a second one two days later after violence flared at the distribution center in Oakland. Sixteen people, including two reporters, were injured at the Oakland site, but I wasn’t among them.

I also became part of a rotating team of Chronicle reporters that were stationed daily outside the Hillsborough home of Randy Hearst in the event of any developments or impromptu FBI updates. The vigil continued at all hours, with reporters and cameras positioned outside the Hearsts’ front door and spread out across their front lawn, waiting for any break in the case that would send Patty’s parents to the front porch with an update or a response.

What was especially notable about this period was that any given day on the front page of the Chronicle you might find stories about Patty Hearst, Zodiac, the Zebra murders, and the Watergate scandal in Washington, D.C.

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On any given day in this period, you might find front-page Chronicle stories about Patty Hearst, Zodiac, the Zebra murders, and the Watergate scandal.

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