Monday, May 08, 2006

Wheeler the Dealer

In his novel Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury wrote, “Those who control the past, control the future.” If you think about that for a second, the meaning becomes clear. If you can describe the past in such a way that necessitates certain actions in the present, you can get public support for whatever you do, even if your actions are illegal, immoral, fattening or just plain useless.

We don’t have to examine fiction to find examples of rewritten history, however. Sometimes it exists right under our noses.

There’s been a long-term effort to replace knowledge of the Symbionese Liberation Army with facts that support a more suitable official version. But in the process, the new party line left behind a paper trail that we can trace. For now, let’s stick to one example of how someone changed this history. In a subsequent post, I’ll tell you why they changed it.

The Patty Hearst kidnapping occurred in front of a number of witnesses, among them Hearst’s fiancé, Stephen Weed, neighbors, and an unfortunate Volkswagon owner whose car was commandeered for the mission. The police got excellent eyewitness descriptions of two of the kidnappers, and were able to craft composite sketches of them. Several weeks later, the police were able to attach names to these sketches, both of which so strongly resembled the men involved that Marilyn Baker, a journalist who covered the story for the local PBS station, quipped that they almost looked as though they posed for them.

The first was of a light-skinned African American, and it looked precisely like Donald DeFreeze, the SLA’s titular leader. The guy in the second sketch was identified as Thero Wheeler, a pitch-black man with a rather distinctive appearance made all the more singular by his plastic-rimmed Coke-bottle glasses.

With one exception, everybody stipulated in 1974 that Wheeler, a convict who, like DeFreeze, escaped from California’s Soledad prison after given a low-security work detail, was the second kidnapper. The only person who didn’t identify Wheeler as the second kidnapper was the victim herself, Patty Hearst.

In Every Secret Thing, her 1982 autobiography, Hearst claimed that the second kidnapper was a white man, who stood a couple of inches shorter than DeFreeze. The only SLA member who fit that description was William Harris. But Harris was in the Volkswagon when the kidnapping occurred, so he escaped the notice of witnesses, who only saw DeFreeze and Wheeler clearly, and could only get a blurry glimpse of SLA member Nancy Ling Perry, the sole woman to take an active role in the kidnapping. Yet Hearst did not mention Wheeler’s once in her autobiography.

Several years ago, Internet sites devoted to the SLA began to disappear. One, which claimed to be Hearst’s official website (www.pattyhearst.com), now says that it was never connected in any way to Patricia Hearst, and it’s content has been taken down. Furthermore, the site’s administrator has deployed text robots that prevent archive retrieval of that and mirror sites.

The site, like Heart, never mentioned Wheeler at all, despite his numerous ties to other SLA members, and his constant presence at the skuzzy little edifice known as the Peking House, one of the group’s major hideouts. Other sites have also taken down references to Wheeler’s connection with the SLA as well. A 2004 documentary film on the Hearst kidnapping titled Guerilla makes no mention of Wheeler in its trailer (I have yet to see the movie).

In short, Wheeler’s connections to the SLA have nearly vanished from the Internet.

One might assume that because he was escaped convict connected to the Symbionese Liberation Army, Wheeler simply stayed underground. Yet, he surfaced again in 2005, in a San Francisco Sentinel story about Project Connect, a charity that supplied men living in homeless shelters with prescription eyewear. Wheeler was featured quite prominently as one of the indigent recipients, and the article included a photograph of him. The reporter casually mentioned that he served in Special Forces during the Vietnam War.

(Figure 1. Thero Wheeler 2005, Project connect (left); Thero Wheeler c. 1973, Prison ID Photo)

I don’t know how long the statute of limitations is for prison escape in California. Yet the FBI hunted down James Kilgour, fugitive soccer mom Kathleen Soliah and others connected with the SLA for over two-and-a-half decades.

And think of this: if you needed to kidnap someone, would you entrust that task to amateurs like Defreeze, Perry or Harris? Do you cross your fingers and pray that they’ll able to maintain their cool, and not simply gun down everyone they saw in panic? Wouldn’t a special forces vet--one who’s been in combat situations, one whose training included prisoner acquisition and the use of firearms—have more of the requisite skills for the job?


Blogger Suki said...

Good sleuthing!
Probably they do have underlings involved though. No one from the top wants to go down.

8:26 PM  

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