LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Nearly four decades ago, Los Angeles experienced the biggest shootout in the city’s history and now two retired LAPD colleagues are speaking exclusively to CBS2’s Pat Harvey about the ordeal.
Al Preciado told Harvey that it was about 3 a.m. on May 17, 1974, when he received a call to respond to South Central.
“A little old lady comes up to a patrol officer that’s directing traffic. She says, ‘Are you looking for all those white people with guns and ammunition,'” he said.
That was the clue that broke open a nationwide mystery.
What happened next actually took root months earlier and hundreds of miles away in the Bay area. It was there that the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a self-styled militia, kidnapped publishing heiress Patricia Hearst.
The crime captivated the nation and took an even more shocking turn when Hearst “joined” her kidnappers.
In audio tape recordings, Hearst was heard saying, “I’m beginning to feel that the FBI would rather that I get killed than safely released.” She added, “I have chosen to stay and fight.”
Hearst next showed up on bank surveillance video participating in a robbery in San Francisco, armed with a semi-automatic weapon. With the $10,000 they stole, the SLA headed to the Southland where they shot up an Inglewood sporting goods store in a bid to get survival supplies.
“The community at that time was about 95% black,” Ron McCarthy said. “[They] offered up all kinds of information to our detectives.”
That information led police to 54th and Compton and to the yellow house with white trim, with the intriguing possibility that Hearst might be inside.
Preciado and McCarthy directed the on-scene SWAT response that day.
“I could hear Cinque … giving orders to his people … a lot of profanity … saying that we’re not going to give up,” Preciado recalled. “It was about 26 commands given to them to surrender.”
He said, “The lieutenant … fired several rounds,” adding, “They opened up with gunfire that was unprecedented in Los Angeles police history.”
According to Preciado, the SLA had converted semi-automatic weapons to fully automatic weapons.
“It was just so loud and so many rounds at one time going off, it sounded like a bed sheet being torn and being ripped,” he recalled.
Preciado said, “We had semi-automatic rifles … shotguns and a .38 revolver.”
Eventually, police deployed an overpowering amount of tear gas that filled the air and sickened those in the area.
“The tear gas grenades that were being tossed would bounce off the window and it would roll down at my feet and I was trying to kick them away from me,” Preciado said.
Law enforcement soon realized the SLA members inside the home were determined to fight to the end with people in South Los Angeles trapped in the middle.
Preciado said they had 19 SWAT members and 500 patrol officers deployed to the shootout. But the LAPD firepower was quickly depleted.
“We ran out of ammunition,” McCarthy recalled. “I think Albert fired more rounds than anybody. I think he had 594 rounds?”
Law enforcement decided to throw more tear gas into the house, which touch off the large amount of ammunition inside, causing a fire to erupt inside.
The house eventually collapsed. Inside, the charred remains of the house, law enforcement found rifles, pistols, and shotguns but no Hearst.
She was eventually captured 16 months later, hiding out in Northern California. She’d serve two years in prison for her role.
The standoff lasted two hours, and claimed the lives of six SLA members. Police estimate that over 9,000 rounds were fired by the police and the SLA.
And even four decades later, the shootout remains a moment etched into Los Angeles’ history.
“There were no citizens injured. There were no police officers injured.” Preciado said, adding, “Our unit was a fledgling unit that didn’t have a lot of equipment. Did not have a lot of training and yet was successful because of the teamwork and we can work together to get it.”
Law enforcement agents around the world modeled their SWAT teams on the LA unit following the high-profile incident, reported Harvey.