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The Altamont Trial: How It Happened

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When Cox took the witness stand he was wearing a double-breasted, dark-blue coat with brassy buttons and white twill pants slightly flared at the bottom: the kind of clothes the heroes of British light operas used to wear 30 years ago to produce a blithe yachting flavor. His black hair was too neat and too thick. It looked as though he was wearing one of the wigs that long-haired guys wear to get across the border into Mexico.

Cox testified on three days. Judge Hayes and Burke sneaked him into the courthouse and were most careful to arrange that nobody found out where he lived or anything else about him but his name. From the witness chair he had to face, in the audience, two or three Angels (out of uniform) who stared at him with considerable interest. He laced his thin hands together continually and worried his knees together and glanced fearfully at nothing else but his own confused memories of that day. He was lucky that Walker had spared him the full Angel treatment. On the first day of the trial, a score of Angels showed up in full parade dress. Walker approached them during a recess and suggested that their massive militant presence might not have a relaxing effect on the 12 law and order people in the jury box.

Cox talked in tones so low they would have been inaudible without the microphone. He told how he saw Hunter standing on a box and blocking the view (they're getting so pushy). He said he saw an Angel "grab the side of his head and shake him": and that when Hunter shook loose, the Angel "hit him and threw him into the crowd." He said he saw Hunter try to get to his feet, and he saw Hunter's girl friend, Patricia Bredehoft, run over and try to get between him and some Angels, and that she shouted to him not to use his revolver.

He testified that:

• Hunter "fell to the right of the stage."

• "Four other Angels jumped him."

• "Somebody reached out and grabbed his left hand with the gun in it and pulled it down."

• "A man stabbed him in the back."

• "I saw him stabbed about twice. I saw Hunter fall down, and he was still being kicked on."

• Hunter said, "I wasn't going to shoot."

Burke asked him if he knew who the man was whom he saw stab Hunter twice. Cox pointed to the table where Passaro was sitting with his lawyer.

The man he pointed to looked very different from the one who had ridden his Harley Davidson down to Altamont that day. Gone was his longish hair, gone was the Fu Manchu mustache, gone was the Angel uniform, gone were his "colors." His black hair had been shorn to regulation length at Soledad. When he looked at Cox, his eyelids drooped a trifle. He allowed himself to lean half an inch forward and his eyes looked somewhat out of focus, as though this fidgety snitcher was not quite worth the dislike of a member of the mystic Angel brotherhood.

(Afterward, Alan Passaro said of Cox: "That dude was no pro. Just a scared punk.")

Cox had the morning off the next day, when Judge Hayes let some police officials tell about their bad experiences with Angels. The judge said Cox "has expressed his fear" and "the court needs to know whether in fact the Hell's Angels are a dangerous group." But he did not let the jury hear this testimony.

An Oakland narcotics officer, Edward Hilliard, said that in 1968 informers had quoted a young woman as saying that if the Angels didn't "cut her loose" from dope charges she would "tell all she knew about Hell's Angels and narcotics." Her body was found later in the Oakland hills. The coroner said it had been "an accidental death." Sergeant Hilliard said three of his informants had told him that Angels had remarked, in comment on her death, "This is what happens to snitchers." Oakland patrolman James Carreker testified that one informant told him once: "I'd rather go to the state penitentiary for 20 years than be involved [as an informer] with the Hell's Angels and get caught at it."

At this point the trial sank into a fog of surrealism that had the jurors blinking and fidgeting; two of the men scratched their balls and two of the women crossed their legs very tightly. Here was George Walker zero-ing in on Cox with questions about what he had told John Burks of Rolling Stone. And there in the room, six feet from the jury, was John Burke, the meticulous deputy D.A., with a pleasant, almost childlike smile, who certainly doesn't look as though he would want to have a man gassed to death.

Burks – Burke – Burks – Burke – Burks – Burke. What is this? It seems that Cox had said quite a few things to Burks that didn't fit into the scenario made by his courtroom testimony. This tentative young man in his light-opera costume was very embarrassed by the contradictions. He told the jury that when he phoned Rolling Stone: "I was very nervous, wound up like a clock, and agreeing with everything he said." (Commenting on this the other day, Burks said: "I still think he was telling us what had gone on there. His conversation did not sound disoriented." What did Cox mean by "agreeing with everything he said"? Burks explained: "I didn't say anything. But sometimes I make statements during interviews to loosen a guy up . . . I probably was a little excited talking to him.")

The contrasts in Cox's testimony with what he reported over the phone to Burks pretty much decimated him as a witness. John Burke, the prosecutor, said after the verdict: "He was impeached by his inconsistent statements."

Walker brought out not only inconsistency but evasiveness when he interrogated Cox about the semantics of the marijuana subculture.

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