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The Altamont Trial: How It Happened

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Alan Passaro was not guilty. He wasn't! Even if he had hunted down that black Berkeley kid just out of an impulse of revenge, getting even with all the cops and prison guards who had hassled him; even if he rammed that knife into Hunter's back two times, as Paul Cox said he did; and even if he was glad, glad, glad to use the knife on the guy and it made his muscles sing like a PG&E high tension line; even if Hunter died from the two top wounds in his back that Cox thought he surely saw made by Passaro; even if all that was true, and the jurors had any reasonable doubt about it, Passaro was not guilty.

(Not guilty–and not free. He's in Soledad on a felony rap of "possession of marijuana for sale." It was more than a lid–having so much in California makes you a dealer. He may be in for eight years.

(Sitting at the formica-topped table in the prison reception room, Alan Passaro was so eager to talk to Rolling Stone that he brought with him a sheet of vellum on which he had written in pencil, in a small, artistic hand, a numbered list of points he wanted to cover.

("I read they busted some big dude from the Corrections Department on weed," he said. "He was whipping around the road in a car full of shit and a load of weed and a known prostitute. Three hundred dollars. He gets three hundred dollars and I'm in here for fucking eight and a half. Statute book says I'm out in November.

("You know in November I'm going to go before the Adult Authority for them to set my sentence and they're going to stick all kinds of shit on my jacket [prison file] – 'racist, Nazi-affiliated,' and all. And they're going to hang me up on a silent murder beef. They're going to keep denying me parole for a full eight years and a half. Especially after I talk to you.

("Fuck, I'm going to do a year just for my tattoo." He glanced at the blue, yellow and red rondel on his left forearm: the grinning skull with a heart-shaped eye, under a winged helmet. Above, in Gay Nineties script, was the legend: 'Hell's Angels, Frisco, California.'

("Shit," he said, "when they picked me up on this weed they made a deal: I cop out and they give me six months in the country jail. So I plead guilty and it's straight off the streets and into the pen. On my first beef as a adult.

("A word to the wise: never cop to nothing.")

So the "great law and order jury" in the courtroom in Oakland studied this man from Soledad as he sat at a table with his attorney, George Walker, and watched them take their 12 judgment seats.

The apprehended cameraman, Baird Bryant, folded his hands and waited for Walker to use him in his portrayal of the stonedness of the prosecution case.

It takes premeditation in a killing to get a man into the gas chamber: if you're stoned, how can you tell if somebody is premeditating? He asked Bryant, "Were you under the influence of any drug or narcotic when you shot that film?"

Certainly he was not!

Well, Mr.Bryant, did you see what the cops and the D.A. saw in your movie (the tall black teenager in the shiny, Polyester suit the color, almost exactly, of the paint on the walls of the gas chamber, the color of ripe pippin apples... the tall man falling to the ground)? Mr.Bryant, did you see blood, did you see a gun flash?

"Only after I had seen the film," the witness said, "was I aware of the nature of the happenings." With Dave Maysles at his side, he had been on a quest for "color," swinging his lens around to pick up, now Mick Jagger, now and then a naked man, or the hips or breasts or big-eyed glory of a stoned girl, or the very colorful Angels as they stood so intransigently planted on the edges of the stage, their Death's Head jackets to camera.

And there was gleaming Meredith Hunter in his lovely green suit, so photogenically high on a speaker box, so close to the stage. Talk about color! And wow! he's got his big red tongue out and is licking his lips. A natural film extra!

Another person who was facing the epicenter of the violence that day was Cox, a skinny, frightened young man whose passion for the art of the Rolling Stones was so great he arrived at 11PM the night before and staked out a claim to the right of the stage. He was so scared he sometimes looked like ectoplasm.

He got into this ambiguous drama by telephoning Rolling Stone and unloading some of the horror and disgust that were jammed up inside him like hard turds. He let it out over the phone to John Burks. After Sergeant Robert Donovan of the sheriff's office read the article in Rolling Stone, he and other detectives finally located Cox by finding the telephone number where the call had been placed; and persuading people there to lead them to this guy who has said, "I saw everything." Cox appeared before the county grand jury in March of 1970 and later in a lineup identified Passaro as the guy he saw stab Hunter in the back.

There were 300,000 people in front of that stage that day, but it was so hard to get any eye witness, let alone keep him. Cox talked freely enough to the grand jury and his testimony helped get the D.A. the murder indictment. But as the months went by, the fright built up in him. He disappeared. Sergeant Donovan even gave up his Thanksgiving holiday so he could go out to Cox's home and catch him with a subpoena. No luck. John Burke, as prosecutor, felt up against the wall. He, himself, went out with the D.A.'s investigator, Lieutenant McDonough, in the manhunt. Just one week before the trial began, on December 14th, they caught this valuable witness.

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