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Around the South Bay

Officer who investigated Patty Hearst's 1974 shoot-out in Inglewood says the incident shouldn't be 'erased from history.'

January 22, 1989|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | Times Staff Writer

The concrete light pole on Crenshaw Boulevard doesn't look like a historical artifact.

Two indentations in the pole are the only clues to its significance in urban archeology. They were made by bullets from a submachine gun fired by Patricia Hearst on May 16, 1974, after a bungled shoplifting attempt at what was then Mel's Sporting Goods.

The light pole, south of Imperial Highway, preserves in concrete Inglewood's part in the melodrama of Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army. Not much has been made of it, but Inglewood Police Capt. James Seymour and Detective James Boggs--then young patrolmen who responded to the call of a shoot-out at Mel's Sporting Goods--played small but vital supporting roles in the saga.

Hearst and her kidnapers-turned-comrades got away, but Seymour and Boggs found a gun at the scene that they traced to SLA member Emily Harris. The next day, following that lead, police stormed a house in South-Central Los Angeles. Hearst wasn't there, but most of the self-styled revolutionaries who had kidnaped her died in a blaze of flames and gunfire, an apocalypse televised in living color.

Seymour received a commendation. Boggs' picture made the front page. Heady stuff for young officers with less than two years on the job. Of all the cases both officers have handled in their careers, Seymour said last week, "It's probably the big one."

Last week they recalled the case amid talk of a presidential pardon for Patty Hearst Shaw, who served almost two years in prison on a bank-robbery conviction.

Seymour is now captain of detectives and Boggs is president of the police officers union. But in May, 1974, they were rookies, and the SLA and Hearst were fugitives eluding a massive manhunt.

"No one knew where they were at," said Boggs. "They'd rob a bank here, they'd rob a bank there. No one knew they were in Southern California."

On the morning of May 16, Seymour happened to read an article in People magazine about the SLA. Seymour clipped the article with the names and descriptions of the fugitives.

About 4 p.m., Inglewood police received frantic reports of heavy automatic-weapons fire at Mel's Sporting Goods. A van with armed suspects was reported fleeing east on Imperial Highway. Seymour and Boggs were first on the scene. A crowd had gathered at the store.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, we've had a slaughter here,' " Seymour said.

It turned out no one was injured. Boggs spotted a man in the crowd with a gun in his waistband, grabbed him and put him against the wall. It was the manager of the store. The man had wrestled the gun away during a struggle with two shoplifters on the sidewalk, and he used it to return fire when a woman in the van across the street opened up with an automatic weapon, allowing the couple to escape.

As numerous accounts--including Patricia Hearst Shaw's book, "Every Secret Thing"--later established, here is what unfolded:

Hearst accompanied SLA members William and Emily Harris on a shopping excursion from their hide-out in South-Central Los Angeles. As Hearst waited in the van outside Mel's, a store employee spotted Bill Harris trying to steal a pair of socks. A struggle took place. Hearst blasted away from the window of the van, first with a submachine gun and then with a semiautomatic carbine. The three fled.

In her book, Hearst says she fired over people's heads, "aiming at nothing in particular," purely to help the Harrises escape.

Boggs and Seymour take issue with that. They say it was a miracle no one was killed in the gunfire, which shattered glass and sent the store manager with Harris' gun diving for cover behind the light pole. A bullet ricocheted off a pen in the breast pocket of another employee, the officers said.

"She fired 30 rounds," Seymour said. "The bullet strikes showed it was an obvious attempt to kill."

No one had any inkling of who the robbers were. Seymour and Boggs returned to the police station and ran a routine check on the gun. It was registered to an Emily Harris of Oakland. A somewhat common name, but Seymour remembered instantly the article he had cut out that morning.

The FBI was summoned. Seymour says the agent was crusty and dubious; there had been plenty of mistaken SLA "sightings."

"He said to me, 'Whaddya got, kid?' I told him we thought the SLA were in the area. He says, 'Just how do you know?' I told him about the registration. His jaw dropped."

The agent got on the phone and asked for 50 FBI agents to meet him at the corner of Imperial and Crenshaw in an hour.

Boggs said: "I've never seen so many FBI agents in my life."

Meanwhile, the fugitives had ditched the van. They stole three cars in rapid succession after the robbery, according to several accounts.

But a parking ticket in the van gave authorities an address they determined to be an SLA hide-out. Awed but exhausted, Boggs and Seymour watched at 2 a.m. as FBI and local police assembled to plan a raid that morning. The officers wanted to go along, but their captain told them to go home.

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