Skip to main content

by Gene Schmiel

The call from the police station was a welcome diversion for this newly-minted vice
consul from the dreary boredom of visa stamping at the American Embassy. An American woman, about twenty-five years old, named “Amelia Barnes” (not her real name) had been found sleeping in the women’s toilets in the Stockholm railroad station. She had been arrested as a vagrant and a suspected drug dealer or, more likely, a mule. She was dirty, bedraggled, and had only $30 in her pocket, a few clothes in her moth-eaten duffel bag, and a well-worn passport with several entry stamps for India and Pakistan.

I gladly handed over the keys to the visa machine to my equally junior colleague and, on the ride over to the police station, prepared for my first American citizens services case. Mentally I carefully reviewed what I’d learned in the inadequate consular training course in Washington several months before about dealing with Americans arrested overseas.

“Remember,” the instructor had said, “you’re there to make sure the arrested American gets treatment equal to that of the citizen of the host country, not to get him or her out of jail or avoid the local justice system. Be sympathetic, and even empathetic if the situation warrants it. Do everything you can to make him or her comfortable in what will inevitably be a very trying situation.”

But it was what the instructor had said after class over a beer at the local pub that stuck with the junior officer now. “All too many traveling Americans will tell you loudly that they’re ‘taxpayers who pay your salary.’ They think they have the Bill of Rights sewn into their clothes and thus that those rights go right along with them wherever they travel. They know that it’s your job, as a public servant, to make sure their rights are fully respected by the foreign government.”

“Trust me,” he added, quaffing his Bud, “they also ‘know’ that you can force the host government to let them out of jail, and that it’s only your indifference or laziness that stops you from doing so. They also ‘know’ that you’ll tremble in your jockey shorts when they threaten to have their Congressman take your job away if you don’t help them right now!”

I was shaken from my reveries about my “after-hours” training when the police lieutenant came to escort me to the holding room. There I was told to wait, and that the person who had been arrested would be brought in soon.

While I waited, I overheard, in the next room, some of the officers discuss the fact that the American consul had arrived and that there was a new theory about the identity of the young girl which they didn’t want me to know about — yet. There was no doubt that the Swedish police presumed that, like most Americans, this vice consul didn’t speak or understand their language. Fortunately for me, I’d paid attention not only during my consular training, but also during the five months of intensive Swedish language training supplied by the Department of State.

Once I’d arrived in-country, and after a few days on the job, I’d decided that to really learn the language, the best approach was not to speak English at all during the business day. The consular section provided the perfect atmosphere, since I had no need to speak to the visa applicants or my Swedish Foreign Service national staff in English.

Thus, I now heard that the police were operating on the theory that Amelia Barnes was none other than Patty Hearst! The young heiress-turned-gun-toting-radical was still on the loose in 1974 and the subject of a worldwide manhunt. Her case has only been rivaled since then by the 1994-1995 media frenzy over the O.J. Simpson case in California. Thus, the Swedish police saw a chance to make a name for themselves — if their unexpected guest was really the fugitive they thought she might be.

I was busy trying to absorb this piece of news and, admittedly, thinking of my own picture on the front page of the New York Times , when the subject of everyone’s attention was brought into the room.

I knew immediately that this poor, bedraggled creature wasn’t the fugitive all the world had come to love or hate. Although she was about the right age, she looked nothing like the newly minted revolutionary whose image had been plastered across Swedish and American newspaper front pages for months. At about five feet three inches, she was several inches shorter than the heiress. Further, her choice of vocabulary in speaking to me and her captors showed that she lacked the kind of upper class breeding young Patty could hardly have sublimated while being on the lam.

“God dammit, get me the @#$% out of here!” she introduced herself, continuing with, “these blankety-blankers are holding me illegally, I have my rights, and you have to get me released,” as she took a breath and finished her first sentence. She proceeded to regale this neophyte diplomat with her tale of woe as a vagabond world traveler who was simply bumming her way around the continents while making her way through “new experiences” and “new friends” (most of them, I thought to myself, in areas of heavy drug trafficking).

She then concluded with the litany my instructor had promised those in such situations would use, including questioning my manhood if I didn’t get her freed within the hour.

My response, a recital “straight from the book” of the rules and regulations about what could and could not be done for her, was met at first by deaf ears — and then a deafening scream of anger. She proceeded to jump up and down and demand that her rights be respected, either by the vice consul or the Swedish police.

Eventually, after several minutes of this and further venting of her scatological vocabulary, I concluded that there was no point in continuing two one-way dialogues. I got up, told her that I’d be talking to the police about having her either charged or released, and promised to return the next day. With a final cheerful “Z@%^ you, (expletive deleted),” Amelia wished me the fondest farewell of which she was capable.

On my way out, I put on my most innocent face and asked the policeman in charge of the case, in English, what he planned to do with his prisoner. The Swede pulled me aside and, in a whisper, told me of the Swedish authorities’ concern not to let Patty Hearst out of their grasp. I acted incredulous, said I really didn’t see the resemblance at all, and requested a quick decision on her fate. With the Swedes’ promise that their inquiries would be completed within 24 hours — if the FBI cooperated — I departed.

Meanwhile, the local yellow press had gotten wind of the incident and, never wanting to lose a chance to criticize the police, published articles the next morning noting the police’s suspicions but questioning whether this waif could be Patty Hearst. The articles said that the American vice consul who had seen the girl didn’t want to comment — as indeed I did not when the press called that afternoon.

Not having received a call the next day by noon, I had my secretary call the police to tell them I would be at the station at three o’clock to see the prisoner and, more importantly, to request formally that she be charged or released. When I arrived, I wasn’t surprised to hear that the police had been advised by the FBI that they, the police, didn’t really have Patty Hearst in custody. I also didn’t blink when they told me they had decided that since they had enough vagrants in the country, they were going to expel Amelia to the United States. (Their embarrassment over the press coverage wasn’t mentioned, but clearly they wanted her out of their hair as rapidly as possible.) Since deportation was a more promising outcome for her than spending thirty days in jail for vagrancy, I hoped she would be happy.

Gratitude not being one of her more prominent attributes, Amelia wasn’t pleased when I told her she was going home. Her response was along the lines of “I have no $%#*&in’ home, you blanketyhead. Just tell them to let me go, and I’ll get out of this $@*&X%@ country as fast as possible!”

I just shrugged my shoulders, repeated that deportation was the best alternative, and waved goodbye to little non-Patty. She left the country under guard the next day, the trip paid for by what seemed then to be endless Swedish welfare funds.

It wasn’t much later that the real Patty Hearst was captured, stood trial, was convicted, served her sentence, and then resumed a relatively normal life. As for “my” Patty Hearst, the odds are good that she continued both to seek new friends and experiences in dangerous venues overseas and to cause problems for other consular officers. But the odds are even better that, unlike in Stockholm in 1974, she did so in anonymity.

© Copyright 1997 by Gene Schmiel. All rights reserved.

Author Gene SchmielGene Schmiel, a retired Foreign Service officer, had a vignette about his service abroad, The Purple Captain’s Final Voyage, published in the Oct.-Dec. 1997 issue of American Diplomacy. He has written a volume on his experiences abroad, forthcoming from Aletheia Publications, Bayside, NY.

Comments are closed.