The Altamont Trial: How It Happened

Rolling Stone digs a little deeper into the events that led to the acquittal of 21-year-old Hell's Angel Alan Passaro

The Rolling Stones at The Altamont Speedway in Livermore, California on December 6, 1969.
Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
April 1, 1971

SAN FRANCISCO, October 7, 1961 — The Rev. Patrick Peyton of County Mayo, Eire, appeared before 250,000 persons in the Polo Grounds of Golden Gate Park, telling them: "The family that prays together stays together." The lovable, round-faced priest also reported on praying victories over "communist infiltrators" in South America.

The huge crowd of admirers was brilliantly controlled by Police Chief Tom Cahill, a member of the Faith. First-aid stations ringed the field, litter-bearers abounded, a field hospital was set up nearby, and a special force of 300 policemen and 40 California Highway patrolmen were maneuvered to keep the peace through command posts from radio-equipped helicopters.

The Municipal Railway outdid itself in getting special bus service so as to avoid a traffic mess.

Despite the size of the crowd and the ardor of it, there were no casualties, save for the customary cases of fainting women and bruised toes.

* * *

SAN FRANCISCO, FEBRUARY 12, 1971 — Attorney Mel Belli announced he had filed suit in Superior Court against "the guys who released Gimme Shelter," a movie that achieved notoriety by showing a member of Hell's Angels with a knife and stabbing at or into a black teenager at Altamont.

Part of the movie was shown, without sound, to a jury trying Alan David Passaro, an Angel, on a charge of murder. Passaro was acquitted.

Belli said he had filed the suit on behalf of Passaro and expected to win a "substantial" amount in damages for using Passaro as a movie star without his consent.

"I think he has a cause of action," the noted compensation lawyer said. "His was a very dramatic and active part of the picture."

(Passaro expressed surprise that Belli had teamed up with him. "I don't know what he's using me for, but I never met the man," he said. "First I heard he was my lawyer was when I read it in Herb Caen's column. I don't know shit about Belli.")

Belli alleged that the Maysles Brothers, who made the film, had offered Passaro $10,000, but the 22-year-old Angel had said no.

"I'm in that picture, too," Belli said. "You ought to see it, it's wild."

* * *

Wild" is one way of looking back at the events of December 6, 1969. But when all of the Big People and the 300,000 pilgrims had gone home, there was only that wasteland of tromped-on, pissed-on grass, lost beads, lost earrings, lost panties and broken bottles. The scavengers pawed over the ground as once thieves had ransacked the bodies of the soldiers on the field of Waterloo. Even the gun of Meredith Hunter was lost on the field of Altamont: as he lay dying on his stomach, somebody stole it.

The plunder of the dead festival has not ceased.

Altamont itself was heroic – an epic as Wagnerian in stature as the Nuremberg rally had been: closing out an era with a bang, not a whimper.

But the murder trial that grew out of it was full of exasperating, grubby Little People. The investigation of the crime and the trial demonstrated again what a great artist Franz Kafka was (that strange little man twisted up by Germanic official ness, telling how hard it is to beat city hall, what happens to us when we let our institutions mechanize us).

The trial began 370 days after the killing. A panel of 60 persons was called to the courtroom of Alameda County Superior Court Judge William J.Hayes in a courthouse that looks like a half-ruined wedding cake, and is located on the shore of the only pretty thing in downtown Oakland, Lake Merritt. Of these 60 jury prospects, no more than seven were under the age of 30. The questioning by the prosecutor and the defense attorney brought out that few of them knew anything about Altamont except that there had been some kind of a youth fuss there around Christmastime and a few people got knocked off.

The jury selection game is combination chess and poker. In this case, the district attorney, Lowell Jensen, made a strategical error by not ruling out the death penalty at the outset. Prosecutors in murder cases try to avoid demanding death in cases where black persons are the accused – too much heat from public opinion. But here was a case where the victim was black and the accused was a Hell's Angel: the devil and the deep blue sea. Jensen goofed. A number of prospective black jurors were excused by Judge Hayes because they admitted they could be prejudiced in favor of the gas chamber. And the defense attorney, George G. Walker, used some of his 20 peremptory challenges to get rid of other black prospects.

"We ended up getting a great law and order jury," said John Burke, the deputy D.A. who tried the case. Some of his colleagues thought that would help him – figuring that Angels are neither for law nor order. Maybe the eight white-skinned men and four white-skinned women of the jury decided that Meredith Hunter, waving a gun that day, and a certified speed user, was even more lawless and disorderly.

The first witness was a cameraman, Baird Bryant of Los Angeles, who shot the cemetery scene in Easy Rider. He faced the jury wearing a powder-blue sports shirt, plain white beads and medium-long hair. He had been really hard to get. When Jensen's office leaned on the Maysles Brothers in New York to get the name of the cameraman who caught the killing, nobody seemed to know which one it was. One of Jensen's investigators, Lieutenant Mark McDonough, finally located Bryant and subpoenaed him – only three days before the trial began. As soon as Burke got through with this reluctant witness, George Walker zoomed in to develop one of his favorite themes: That everybody around the Altamont stage had been so stoned nobody would know who was stabbing whom.

He asked Bryant: "If you 'smoked a couple of numbers' would you know what that meant? . . . Are you familiar with the jargon I'm using?" Walker worked on this theme with Paul Cox and other prosecution witnesses.

The defense strategy also worked the racial theme. Walker, in his summation to the jury, complained that his knife wielding client had been "confronted with a six-foot-four black male with a gun and a girl (blonde) shouting, 'Don't shoot'." (Walker said after the verdict he had allowed one retired Air Force man to remain on the jury on the hunch he might be "an uptight right winger" given to racial prejudice).

The situation didn't look too promising for the defense, at the beginning: Walker certainly didn't mind getting help from jurors who might think it would be good for the country if white guys kick and stomp or even stab a few niggers. Walker needed help in a situation where you had movie footage showing a guy in an Angel's jacket running hard like a pole vaulter at a track meet, running with an eagerness quicker than any thought, quicker than any feeling, and just a shade quicker than most people's impulses, running right at that man who died, and with his knife.

That's the way it looked from the D.A.'s table. And any juror, watching Alan Passaro, could see, just by the way he walked in and sat down, and the way he flicked his arm away from the bailiff, that his body was away ahead of most of the ideas he might have.

The jurors saw that movie footage about twenty times during the next four weeks. They saw the Angel hard on that quarry on his like a naked African hunter moving out of hunger on a giraffe, moving with just as sharp a reflex as the wanted animal had and having only one advantage, the knife.

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