Yesterday’s Crimes: LAPD Snitches, CIA Mind Control and the Birth of the SLA

Security camera photo of Donald DeFreeze aka Cinque and Patty Hearst robbing the Hibernia Bank on Noriega Street in San Francisco on April 15, 1974. (Images Courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing)

By the end of the 1960s, future Patty Hearst kidnapper and SLA leader Donald DeFreeze aka Cinque was a career criminal with a long rap sheet. He was busted with homemade bombs in both New Jersey and Los Angeles. He was also arrested for stealing cars, possessing stolen guns, kidnapping, shaking down a prostitute, and bank robbery.

Psychiatrists in Ohio recommended that DeFreeze be locked up because his “fascination with firearms and explosives made him dangerous.” A California probation report said that he had “strong schizophrenic potential.”

Despite such damning assessments, when DeFreeze “was convicted or suspected of serious crimes he was placed on probation or charges were dropped,” according to the Los Angeles Times. His luck ran out when he was wounded while trying to rob a Bank of America branch in Los Angeles on Nov. 17, 1969. He was sent to the California state prison in Vacaville for that.

By December 1972 he was transferred to Soledad, where he just walked out an open door, hopped a fence, and headed for Berkeley.

In “American Heiress” (Doubleday, 2016), bestselling author Jeffrey Toobin writes that prison officials “noted DeFreeze’s escape but made virtually no effort to find him.” Toobin doesn’t explain why nobody came looking for DeFreeze, an African-American man with a history of violence and increasingly radical political views.

Author and former Bay Area resident Brad Schreiber, however, offers 260 pages of explanations in his new book, “Revolution’s End: The Patty Hearst Kidnapping, Mind Control, and the Secret History of Donald DeFreeze and the SLA” (Skyhorse Publishing, 2016). With his focus on DeFreeze’s lost years, Schreiber’s book serves as both a supplement and rebuke to Toobin’s more mainstream “American Heiress.”

“Donald DeFreeze’s psychology fascinated me from the start,” Shreiber explains during a recent interview. “I wanted to do justice to who he was, and why he was put in this unique position.”

According to Schreiber, DeFreeze was “a former LAPD informant running guns to set up Black Panthers” and “a behavior modification victim at Vacaville.”

Schreiber describes the California Medical Facility at Vacaville in the 1970s as “a house of horrors.”

“The CIA had funding to set up drug experiments and other coercion against black prisoners specifically,” Schreiber adds. “There was psychosurgery done there.”

2Schreiber explains that most prisoners at Vacaville were not subjected to these extreme treatments but were evaluated there and moved on to another prison. DeFreeze, however, was there for nearly two years.

While at Vacaville, DeFreeze was befriended by Colston Westbrook, an African American linguist with a penchant for macramé outfits and harsh language, who oversaw the Black Cultural Association (BCA) at the prison. Prior to his work in the California prison system, Westbrook worked in Vietnam during the war for Pacific Architects and Engineers, a private contracting firm that provided cover the CIA’s Phoenix program there. According to a May 17, 1974 New York Times article, the Phoenix program “included assassination teams.”

Westbrook’s BCA at Vacaville was a group that would take black prisoners and introduce them to liberal, white college students who could then talk about the black prison experience according to Schreiber.

“This was unheralded in the prison system,” Schreiber says.

Several of the white leftists that visited DeFreeze in Vacaville went on to form the SLA with him. Five of them burned alive with him during a shootout with the LAPD in South Central Los Angeles on May 17, 1974.

“Westbrook was looking for a black prisoner who would cooperate with elements of the California Dept. of Corrections and be the head of a group that could then either infiltrate or discredit the Black Panthers and the rest of the radical left,” Schreiber continues. DeFreeze was “the ideal person” for this role because “he had already been an informant, he was cooperative, and he was willing to do anything to get out of jail.”

Jeffrey Toobin disputes any connection between DeFreeze and counterintelligence operations.

“Donald DeFreeze was a two-bit, incompetent criminal who, in Los Angeles, tried to work off a beef, like a lot of criminals do—by telling the cops what he knew about other criminals,” Toobin says during the interview for last week’s Yesterday’s Crimes. “The idea that he was some sort of secret agent for the government is just absurd.”

DeFreeze “had no particular contacts in the black power movement,” Toobin adds. “All he knew were these students who were coming to commune with him at Vacaville.”

Toobin and Schreiber don’t dispute that DeFreeze was allowed to have sex in trustee trailers with white radical women who came to Vacaville as part of the BCA program. Among these women were future SLA members Nancy Ling Perry and Patricia Soltysik, who DeFreeze turned to after escaping Soledad.

“They’re the only people who’ve ever been nice to him,” Toobin says.

Schreiber also alleges Patty Hearst also had a relationship with DeFreeze at Vacaville before he stormed her Berkeley apartment and kidnapped her on Feb. 4, 1974, but the evidence for this appears to be mostly from secondary interviews with other prison inmates.

“Those prisoners did not know each other,” Schreiber says, “and those prisoners corroborated Hearst’s visits and Hearst’s close relationship with DeFreeze.”

While the evidence of Hearst visiting Vacaville may be be lacking, DeFreeze’s strange history of getting out of jail outlined in “Revolution’s End” is harder to ignore.

“Those five followers never knew that he was a police agent,” Schreiber says, “and they were destroyed as well.”

 

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