On a weed-choked lot in South-Central Los Angeles there is a single palm tree, the only surviving remnant of a fire that put an end to one of the most infamous shootouts in the city’s history.
On Tuesday, 20 years after the gun battle, only Florence Lishey paid tribute.
Lishey had watched from her living room window across the street as, for two hours, police SWAT team members exchanged fire with six Symbionese Liberation Army members, the urban guerrillas who had kidnaped Patty Hearst. A fire, ignited by tear gas, touched off a large cache of ammunition inside the house. Four SLA members died in the house and two others were killed in a shootout with police as they tried to escap.
Lishey, who owned the house and still lives across the street, wandered by the site on the anniversary. She had received compensation from the city and her insurance company. But she decided not to rebuild.
Many of her neighbors were from Louisiana, she said, some of them carrying with them superstitions and spirituality rooted in African religion. “A lot of people were very frightened by the place,” said Lishey, now 81. “Some claimed they heard screams at night coming from the empty lot. I could have rebuilt the house, but nobody would have moved there.”
On the night of the shooting thousands of people flooded into the neighborhood, watching the action. And for weeks after, East 54th Street was filled with rubber-neckers and tourists who drove by and took pictures of the charred lot. Soon people forgot about the infamous site, and the only one who showed any interest in the location was the mother of William Wolfe, an SLA member who died in the fire.
Once a year, on the anniversary of the shootout, Lishey said, Wolfe’s mother stopped by the lot. She placed a memorial wreath on the palm tree and stood in silence for hours. For about 10 years she showed up every May 17. Then she stopped coming, and Lishey never knew why.
The street has changed little in 20 years. It is still an impoverished area, filled with small ramshackle houses, weathered apartment buildings and cinder block walls covered with gang graffiti.
At the time of the shooting, police had suspected that Patty Hearst was in the house. But it was later discovered she and two other SLA members had fled the city the previous day after a shootout at an Inglewood sporting goods store, touched off by a bungled shoplifting attempt.
While many who watched the confrontation have long since moved, a few who remain are still angry at the way the Los Angeles Police Department responded.
On Tuesday, M. L. Leverette, who watched and took pictures of the shootout from a nearby street corner, criticized the police as he sifted through photos of the confrontation in his small Compton Avenue photo studio near the site.
“It was overkill, no doubt about it,” Leverette said. “The LAPD was making a statement to revolutionaries to stay out of the city.”
After the shootout, the LAPD was criticized by some who claimed that the department’s response was excessive. The day after the incident someone scrawled on a charred wall in front of the house: “It Took 500 Cops.” And that is what many in the neighborhood believed .
But later reports on the incident indicated that only 19 SWAT team members actually took part in the gun battle. And it was determined that the six SLA members had an arsenal with more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition. Authorities recovered 17 guns and two pipe bombs in the ashes of the house.
“I remember that police had the place surrounded and they kept telling the people to give themselves up,” Lishey said. “The SLA answered with a pistol shot. That started the war. Bullets were flying fast and furious. I was with my granddaughter and we saw the whole thing from my front window. One bullet zipped right through the window and missed my granddaughter by just a few inches.”
Leverette said he knew people “connected to SLA members,” who assumed that once the shooting started, “the neighbors in South-Central would grab guns and help with the revolution.”
“But hey, this isn’t Berkeley,” Leverette said. “This is a depressed area and people are just trying to survive.”
Police discovered that the SLA members were staying in the house when a woman approached an officer directing traffic, recalled Sgt. Albert Preciado, a member of the SWAT team that surrounded the house. The woman asked the officer if police “were looking for the white people with the bullets and guns.”
The woman’s daughter, who was renting the house, had been offered $100 by the SLA if they could stay there with her. The mother spotted all the guns, became frightened and decided to contact police.
After the SWAT team surrounded the house, an officer grabbed a bullhorn and announced: “This is the LAPD. Come out with your hands up and leave your weapons in the house.” He repeated the message 25 times with no response, Preciado said.
Finally, police fired tear-gas into the house, and the SLA began shooting. The furious gunfight lasted two hours .
“It was definitely the scariest thing I’ve ever been involved in,” said Preciado, still with SWAT as an assistant platoon leader. “I’ve handled many armed suspects in barricaded houses with the SWAT team. But this was something else. My team was at the front, facing six heavily armed suspects who were trying to kill us.”
Hundreds of officers were at the scene, according to reports at the time--the vast majority working to control the crowd of more than 10,000. The incident was broadcast live on television in Los Angeles. Four of the SLA members were found dead beneath the house. Donald (Cinque) DeFreeze, who founded the SLA, was one of those killed. Two others died attempting to escape, Preciado said.
“These two had pistols in each hand and went down blazing,” Preciado said. “It was like the movie ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.’ ”