The day Patty Hearst stopped by Mel's Sporting Goods

For Bill Huett, an encounter with the SLA made his store a legend, but it didn't translate into extra business.

Daily Breeze/December 26, 2004
By Ian Hanigan

A few last-minute customers picked over what was left on the barren shelves, but by February 1979, the days were numbered for Mel's Sporting Goods in Inglewood.

Owner Bill Huett had been trying to sell the place for more than three years. He had grown weary of the never-ending calls from media types and visits from curious gawkers, who had grown to outnumber paying customers.

They came at him with questions about Patty Hearst, the SLA and the infamous and violent confrontation that happened there nearly five years earlier.

"The people who come here, they don't want to buy anything," Huett, then 57 and in poor health, told the Daily Breeze in 1979. "They want to hear the life story of Patty Hearst, the whole history of the case.

"When people come in here when you're trying to run a store and (they) keep asking you about Patty Hearst, you're gonna get damn sick of it after a few years," he said.

By the spring of 1974, the country was already familiar with the violent exploits of the Symbionese Liberation Army. Its members were self-styled urban guerillas from the Bay Area who adopted their philosophies from communists and South American revolutionaries.

The group had claimed responsibility for murdering the superintendent of the Oakland school district, but it drew even bigger headlines for kidnapping 19-year-old newspaper heiress Patty Hearst in February 1974.

In a stunning twist, Hearst proclaimed her support for the SLA in April of that year, taking the name "Tania" after Che Guevara's lover. A security camera later captured the unforgettable image of her clutching a carbine during a bank heist.

At 3:30 p.m. May 16, 1974, fate would bring Hearst, the SLA and Mel's Sporing Goods together.

As the story goes, SLA members William and Emily Harris walked into the shop at 11425 Crenshaw Blvd. and purchased $31 worth of clothes. But upon their exit, they were confronted by Huett and an employee, who suspected the Harrises of shoplifting.

A struggle ensued, and a .38-caliber handgun fell from William Harris' waistband. Then, from a red Volkswagen van parked across the street, came a fusillade of bullets.

The woman holding the semi-automatic rifle -- and wearing a black, curly wig and sunglasses -- was none other than Hearst, the granddaughter of news magnate William Randolph Hearst.

Shots cracked the concrete and shattered the window, and one of them ricocheted and slashed Huett's wife across the forehead. The couple managed to crawl back inside the store, neither of them seriously hurt.

Amid the commotion, the Harrises jumped in the van with Hearst and fled. And though the 20-year-old employee gave chase from his own car, he backed off when William Harris brandished a rifle.

A day later, the SLA suffered a major blow when six of its members died in a shootout with police at a South Los Angeles home. Among those killed during the televised gunbattle was SLA leader and escaped convict Donald DeFreeze.

The Harrises were ultimately arrested by the FBI in September 1975, as was Hearst, who later claimed she was a victim of brainwashing by her captures.

Handed seven years behind bars, she served less than two before her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter. In 2001, she was reportedly living in Wilton, Conn., with her husband and their two daughters.

As for Mel's Sporting Goods, it closed in February 1979, but not before several years of inquiries and one bizarre instance of deja vu.

On March 17, 1976, a man and a woman approached the store with what looked like guns and bombs, and the woman wore a jacket bearing the SLA logo -- a seven-headed cobra -- and the name "Tania."

When police arrived, the two explained that the weapons were merely props rented to recreate the shooting for photographs. They said they planned to sell the pictures to a magazine or movie studio.

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