The Altamont Trial: How It Happened

Page 4 of 6

Question by Walker: "Would you know what I meant if I said 'Mr. Hunter did a couple of numbers and he was straight like the rest of us' ?"

Cox: "I don't really understand the question."

Judge: "Do you understand what the words mean?"

Cox: "'Straight' means someone with straight ideas."

Judge: "Have you used those words yourself?"

Cox: "Some people around me do."

Judge: "How about numbers?"

Cox: "I've had someone ask me if I'd had a number. I'd ask them if they meant 'joint.'"

The tall, curly-haired defense attorney walked up to within eight feet of the witness and asked him if he remembered telling John Burks that Hunter was "not so stoned that he was out of his wits." Cox did remember that. But shortly afterward, Cox maneuvered the witness into saying a hitchhiker at Altamont "offered me a hit." The defense attorney smiled and glanced toward the jury. The witness knew the language of the dopeloving underground. How could any clean-living man or woman believe a person like that.

Walker, giving out body English he learned as a star basketball forward for UC Berkeley 13 years ago, dribbled slowly past the jury and scored.

In his summation to the jury, later, Walker treated Cox as an expert on dope users. He reminded the jurors that Cox had described Hunter as "straight like the rest of us." So, the defense attorney warned, "in that euphoric state a man could fly through the air."

One of the objects shown to the jury was a 22-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver with a six-inch barrel. It was another hard-to-get item. The sheriff's people got it by contacting an inspector in the San Francisco police department who specializes in Hell's Angels. He talked to one of their leaders about the gun and was told: "It'll turn up on my porch one day." And it did (even though nobody knows for sure that it was Hunter's gun). Sergeant Donovan testified that the gun had not been fired in recent years. But when Passaro took the stand he said Hunter had fired his gun just before a knife, or knives, made hamburger of his back.

This gun, like the witnesses, did little or nothing for the prosecution. As John Burke said: "The movie was the whole thing. Without the movie there would have been an acquittal within five minutes." As Walker said: "The film was the strongest part of the prosecution case."

Perhaps there was a conscious or unconscious lassitude toward the investigation on the part of the police authorities. Sergeant Donovan testified that 12 days after the killing he had only one eyewitness (Cox). He didn't pinpoint any suspects for 47 days. He said he and another inspector couldn't get out to Altamont that evening because they couldn't penetrate the disorderly human anthill that surrounded the event. Nobody asked him if the siren on his patrol car was busted. (When Sheriff Frank Madigan was asked about this he said: "All we had at first was a report that someone was injured there, and when we got there we found a deceased person.")

It is interesting, therefore, to reflect on a statement made in a corridor of the courthouse by one of the defense witnesses, Richard Roy Carter, a used-car-lot operator who leased the Altamont racetrack. Carter said that eight helmeted sheriff's deputies got through to the murder scene that evening, took one look around, looked at Hunter and saw he was indeed dead, and hightailed it out of that agglutinated mass of longhairs, naked freak-outs, beaten-up kids, Angels, and bum-tripped people in all kinds of costumes that clean-cut kids wouldn't be caught dead in. It was one of their people that got killed, right? Let them take care of their own.

Still, 45 days after the homicide, lots of people, even lawyers and newspapermen, were reading what Cox told John Burks in Rolling Stone. Sergeant Donovan told the jury: "When I received a copy of the Stones newspaper I read it over and over again."

Wonderful. But wasn't it a little too late to corner those scores of persons who saw the knifing, and a dozen who were close enough to the dying man to see the knife, or knives, pulled out of the black young flesh? If you can't be quick, be through. Police investigated Angels' pads throughout the state. Donovan said they talked to 1100 persons and showed them photographs of possible suspects.

When Walker took this case, the Las Vegas odds makers probably would have bet 100 to one against him. Passaro, himself, was pessimistic. After the verdict he exclaimed, "I didn't think I had a chance!" Walker referred to his trial work as "what a painter does." The mural he painted for the jury showed a righteous Angel sticking to an assignment, loyal to his bike brothers, and feeling his life was in danger from a man seven inches taller than he, a man probably high on speed, paranoid, waving a gun, maybe even shooting it, and causing some people to believe he might want to assassinate Mick Jagger. That would be like some freak getting up in front of a Surrender for Christ crusade meeting and saying he's going to shoot Billy Graham.

Carter, testifying, said it was Sam Cutler, the Stones' road manager, who hired the Angels to guard his artists. He had had some experience with British Angels at a Stones concert in Hyde Park. On that occasion, the Angels behaved like Botticelli angels.

(In the antiseptic reception room at Soledad, Alan David Passaro, wearing his faded blue denim prison uniform, rendered for Sam Cutler – and other naive Britishers – just what it is to be a Frisco Angel.

("At Altamont that day," he said, "I was just doing what I had to do. I did what I thought was right. For me and my people.

("Maybe you can beat on a cop and get away with it, but don't beat on no Hell's Angel. You'll get your face kicked.

("I ain't no cop. Don't ask me to police nothing. And I ain't no peace freak – not by no sense of that word 'peace.' Somebody get my face and I'll get theirs. Sure, the Angels tie into the 'rock culture' as far as the music goes. But not the philosophy: 'Peace, and let everybody walk on you.'"

(At Altamont, he said, "People were loaded and fell out. I had to help one chick to the back with a cut foot. And she didn't care if she bled to death. By the time the Stones came on everybody was wired up. And the Stones blew it. They just kicked back and didn't do shit. When that dude [Hunter] pulled out a piece and somebody says, 'He's going to do Jagger' and, being closest, I jump in and almost get my head blown off and get a murder beef and get my face blasted from coast to coast – which I don't dig – well, I figure Jagger could have said something instead of blaming it all on the Angels.

("I don't know Jagger but I think he's a punk. A brat. I mean, maybe the Stones are all right, but they used us. They used the club for publicity for this movie of theirs. And they been using me since. Not just the Stones, all of them." He said it was true what Mel Belli said, that the Maysles Brothers had offered him $10,000 for his role as a superstar in Gimme Shelter.)

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

Music Main Next

blog comments powered by Disqus
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.


We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

Song Stories

“Madame George”

Van Morrison | 1968

One of the first stream-of-consciousness epics to make it onto a Van Morrison record, his drawn-out farewell to the eccentric "Madame George" lasted nearly 10 minutes, combining ingredients from folk, jazz and classical music. The character that gave the song its title provoked speculation that it was about a drag queen, though Morrison denied this in Rolling Stone. "If you see it as a male or a female or whatever, it's your trip," he remarked. "I see it as a ... a Swiss cheese sandwich. Something like that."

More Song Stories entries »