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Overland Park Man Recalls Surprise Joyride with Patty Hearst 50th Anniversary of Abduction by the Symbionese Liberation Army

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Above image credit: Tom and Susan Matthews stand next to memorabilia from 1974, when Tom was abducted by Patty Hurst and other members of the Symbionese Liberation Army. (Ruth Baum Bigus | Flatland)
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8 minute read

On a balmy May evening, the conference room of the Keller Williams building on College Boulevard in Overland Park was crammed with about 100 people — family and friends of Realtor Tom Matthews. 

Everyone gathered for one reason — to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Matthews’ joyride with none other than newspaper heir and would-be revolutionary Patty Hearst.  

The room was decked out in orange and yellow flowers and decorations reminiscent of the 1970s, along with newspaper clippings, photos, and other memorabilia. 

The “star” of the evening, Matthews introduced a “Dateline” television episode that shared the story of the Hearst kidnapping by the domestic terror group the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). The episode includes Matthews’ retelling of a 12-plus hour encounter with Hearst and her comrades as they tried to elude law enforcement around Los Angeles.  

However, no one tells the tale quite like Matthews. 

A Knock at the Door 

It was a sunny Thursday afternoon on May 16, 1974, in Lynwood, California, a suburb of LA. Matthews, then an 18-year-old high school senior, was weeks away from graduation. 

A baseball player, Matthews was looking forward to the playoffs and spending more time with his girlfriend Susan, who lived a few doors down the street. Matthews was hoping to sell his midnight blue Ford Econoline van sitting in his family’s driveway with a “For Sale” sign in the window. 

It was 4 p.m. when there was a knock at the door. Matthews answered and was greeted by a young woman (Emily Harris) asking to test drive his van. Stepping outside, Matthews handed her the keys and she jumped into the driver seat while Matthews got in on the front passenger side. 

As they drove down the street Emily Harris asked if some “friends” could come along. 

“I said ‘sure,’ and William Harris and Patty Hearst, then called ‘Tania’ jumped in,” recalled Matthews. (Hearst adopted the name Tania in tribute to Che Guevara’s comrade Haydée Tamara Bunke Bider.) 

“I saw he (Harris) had a big bulge in his jacket, but I didn’t think about it and he opened my door,” Matthews said. 

Within minutes, Matthews knew this was not a typical teen ride-along. 

“He (Harris) opened his jacket, and he had a machine gun and told me they were with the SLA and told me they needed to borrow my car. He told me to climb in the back of the van and he said as long as I didn’t do anything flaky, they wouldn’t hurt me. That’s when I told them, ‘My friends aren’t going to believe this’.” 

Matthews’ reaction at the time? 

“As long as they didn’t shoot me, I didn’t care,” Matthews said. 

William Harris then introduced Tania/Patty Hearst. 

“I had followed the story for a while, so I knew who she was,” he said. 

Newspaper heir Patty Hearst holding a gun during a San Francisco bank robbery.
Newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst was identified by the FBI as taking part in the robbery of a San Francisco bank in this April 1974 photo. Hearst was captured, on Thursday, Sept. 18, 1975, in San Francisco’s Mission district after a search of more than a year. (AP Photo)

Attempted Heist  

Earlier that afternoon before taking Matthews and his van, the SLA trio was involved in a robbery of Mel’s Sporting Goods Store in nearby Englewood. The Harrises entered the store intent on shoplifting an ammunition case and other items when officers arrived and started handcuffing William Harris. 

Suddenly, shots were fired into the front by Hearst as the Harrises escaped in a nearby car and sped away. That’s when the trio ended up in Matthews’ neighborhood, taking him and his van.  

Once in Matthews’ van, William Harris asked where he could get a hacksaw to take off the handcuffs that dangled from one of his wrists. 

“We drove to Montgomery Wards and Emily went in to purchase a hacksaw and some candy bars” as the others waited in the van, said Matthews. 

With Emily Harris behind the wheel, William Harris spotted Matthews’ baseball bat in the back of the van and began talking about sports and politics. William was having trouble cutting off the handcuffs and Matthews jumped in to help. 

“I actually cut the handcuffs off of him,” Matthews said. He saved the handcuffs, but they would disappear years later, much to his chagrin. 

Since area law enforcement had encountered the SLA threesome, the crew hit the road trying to hide until their next connection with fellow members.

Matthews had been feeling under the weather — he was sick earlier in the week and missed school hoping to get well by the playoff games scheduled for that weekend. In a show of compassion, Emily Harris rolled down the window to provide him with fresh air and later rolled it up when Matthews was cold. 

By this time, Matthews’ parents had heard the news about the attempted robbery of Mel’s by suspected SLA members and thought Tom might have fallen into their hands as they crossed the city. His girlfriend Susan was worried, too. 

“I kept imagining him hurt in a ditch or something similar. It was clear he was in trouble,” she said. 

Matthew’s father contacted the Lynwood Police, who were hesitant to do anything at the time as the family continued to worry about their son’s whereabouts. 

After driving for hours, the SLA group went to a drive-in movie theater nestled in the Hollywood Hills — the spot of their rendezvous with other SLA members. Matthews remembers watching two movies, the crime thriller “The New Centurions” and the Western action film “Thomasine and Bushrod.” The Harrises put an empty coffee cup on top of the van — a signal so their SLA compatriots could find them, but they never showed up. 

“The shooting at a sporting goods store scared them off,” Matthews said. 

Since they did not meet up with the other SLA members, about 1 a.m. the Harrises decided they needed to move again and ended up near Mulholland Drive, where they all slept in the van for a few hours. Matthews said it was during the night that Hearst covered him with a blanket making sure he was warm in the cool night air. 

“She patted me on the head to comfort me,” he said.  

They dropped by one house trying to hide again but decided it wasn’t safe. As dawn approached, the two women woke up, hid their guns, and left the van trying to hitchhike to get another vehicle. They came back in a Lincoln Continental the two women carjacked. 

A display of books about Patty Hearst's time with the Symbionese Liberation Army.
A display of books about Patty Hearst’s time with the Symbionese Liberation Army. (Ruth Baum Bigus | Flatland)

Big Surprise 

What happened next surprised Matthews — and still does to this day. 

“William Harris got out of my van and tossed me my keys” before jumping into the other car with the two women, recalled Matthews. “I waited a few minutes then I drove home.” 

It was about 7 a.m. when Matthews made it back home in his midnight blue Ford Econoline van, with the “For Sale” sign still in the window. Matthews’ brother was driving around the neighborhood looking for him when he spotted Tom’s van and called the police. 

”I just walked into the house with a smile on my face and said, ‘What’s going on?’,” said Matthews, as if nothing had happened. 

Matthews, accompanied by his father, went to the police station to tell his story. Although he had missed his finals, Tom Matthews went to school that Friday so he could compete in the baseball tournament. By that time, news leaked about his adventure. 

“Press had started to gather at the school, but the coach had me run out in a pack of teammates,” he said. Matthews’ team won the game and had another over the weekend as the SLA story grew bigger with a shootout and fire in the area. 

In the meantime, Matthews’ brother and coach helped him escape the press. 

“We always ran sprints, and my brother picked me up and took me to his apartment in Hermosa,” he said. 

Back home in Lynwood, Matthews and his girlfriend were walking home from her house when a Lynwood police car pulled up asking about Tom. The next thing you know, Matthews is back at the police station telling his story. 

Witness for the Prosecution 

That visit to the police station was the beginning of post-abduction legal proceedings. Questioned again by police and the FBI, Matthews provided more details, including that Patty Hearst was in the car with him. Whisked to the federal building in LA, Matthews identified Hearst’s voice from a recording. 

By Monday morning of the next week, Matthews would appear before a grand jury in San Francisco. 

“It was the first time I ever flew on a plane,” he said. “I got back (to town) for the second game on Tuesday, and we won…. And the headlines were that the grand jury came back with 19 counts against Patty Hearst.” 

Matthews graduated from high school that summer and went off to college in Colorado. By the time it was all over, he testified in three trials involving the Harrises and Hearst. At one of the trials, Matthews recalled William Harris yelling out, “Come see me in jail!”  

“I did try to go visit him in jail and the officers were whispering after I signed in, so I got scared and left,” he said. 

Throughout his 12-hour abduction, Matthews said he wasn’t scared. 

“I never felt threatened,” he said. “The most scared I was the whole time was the recess on the second day of trial with (attorney) F. Lee Bailey.” 

Matthews had heard the famous attorney yell at other witnesses. 

“But it wasn’t that bad,” Matthews said. “He busted me on keeping part of the handcuffs as a souvenir.” 

Matthews did receive a $25 restitution check to clean his van. He saved the check instead of cashing it. 

A $25 restitution check.
Tom Matthews never cashed the $25 restitution check he received after he was abducted by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army. (Ruth Baum Bigus | Flatland)

Patty Hearst would remain on the run until her capture in September 1975. She was tried and convicted in March 1976 for bank robbery and felonious use of firearms and sentenced to seven years in prison. 

Hearst served 22 months in jail before President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence in 1979. She later was pardoned by President Bill Clinton. William and Emily Harris pleaded guilty to kidnapping Patty Hearst and served eight years in prison for that crime. 

A Quiet, Normal Life 

After one year in college in Colorado, Matthews returned to California, tried junior college baseball, and eventually married his high school sweetheart Susan. 

After spending a few years in a family business and with three children, the Matthews decided in 1995 to move to Susan’s hometown of Overland Park. Tom Matthews went into real estate, eventually bringing in his wife and children into the business.  

With a half-century to reflect on his adventure, Matthews said, “It was more of an adventure than anything else.” 

Susan Matthews said the first few years after Tom’s joyride were frightening. 

“We did not know exactly who or what we were dealing with,” she said. “Were there sympathizers or remaining members who could do us harm? We just didn’t know. But I don’t remember living in fear.“ 

Now 50 years later, Susan Matthews has had a change of heart. 

“All these decades later I have a sense of pride in how Tom handled himself so well from the time he was taken until his last trial. His story never changed,” she said. 

Tom Matthews stands next to a poster and news clippings about his abduction by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Tom Matthews stands next to a poster and news clippings about his abduction by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army. (Ruth Baum Bigus | Flatland)

Married for 48 years, Tom and Susan Matthews have five grandchildren, some of whom were on hand for the showing of the “Dateline” episode featuring their grandparents. 

Seventeen-year-old grandson Hudson Veltri interviewed his grandfather for a history class project. While Veltri knew bits and pieces of his grandfather’s story, he learned more details during his conversation, yet some things have never changed. 

“He still acts as carefree as he described himself back then,” Veltri said. “I knew writing about him would be like nothing my teacher had ever heard.” 

Veltri’s older brother Jeffrey — a student at Kansas State University — enjoyed reliving his grandfather’s adventure at the anniversary event. 

“It’s crazy,” said Jeffrey of his grandfather. “He acts like it was no big deal.” 

Mike Modlin, the boyfriend of Matthews’ granddaughter Courtney, enjoyed taking in the entire scene. 

“Seeing his smile as he told the story was great. He was happy and so excited to share his story,” Modlin said. “How lucky he was to survive what could have been a bad situation.” 

Ruth Baum Bigus is a Kansas City-based freelance journalist and nonprofit communications professional. 

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