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The Altamont Trial: How It Happened

Page 5 of 6

Walker asked him what happened to Hunter when he was knocked off his position on the speaker box a few feet away.

"It looked like he was pulled off of position."

Who did that?

"It was someone out of the crowd. It looked like he was blocking the view . . . he had a weapon in his hand... He stepped back on the box and when he did I hit him and yelled, 'Look out, he's got a gun!' . . . I could see the man coming back toward the stage with a gun in his hand . . . someone intercepted him . . . it looked as if he fell to the ground and the crowd was on him."

John Burke's turn: he wanted to know how many beers Tannahill [an Angel] had – more than two?

"Yes."

"More than ten or 20?"

"I couldn't say."

"Could you have drunk more than 20?"

"Yes."

"Does beer affect you at all?"

"No sir, it doesn't. I drink whisky."

The prosecutor wanted to know if he saw Hunter stabbed.

The newspaper reporters identified Passaro as "a Hell's Angel." It would have been as accurate to identify him as "a husband," "a father" or "a barber." He was all these. And it was evident, as the month-long trial went on, that he had succeeded as a husband. His blonde-haired, soft-speaking wife. Celeste, was there every day, watching for the moments when Alan would turn around and give to her one of those intimate facial signals that recollect good times in bed, good meals eaten together, skiing (which he loves) and the hours of delicious whispering and joking and telling of secrets. There were some sensitive verbal exchanges, too. On the day before the verdict, while the injury was deliberating, Celeste asked him, "Where did you sleep last night, Alan?" He gave her a really affectionate smile and said, "at the Hilton."

He likes his father a lot and the name of his four-year-old son is Michael Alan Passaro. His father likes him and, Celeste said, promised to deed to him a "hotel" he owns in Italy if the jury got him off the murder rap.

Alan and Celeste met when he was 17 and she was 18, seniors at a high school in Santa Clara. They met in an art class. She said he used to go around at Christmastime and make spare change by painting nativity scenes on gas station windows.

(In the solitude of Soledad, his bent has become more intellectual. "I read a lot in here," he said. "When I was in the hole I read The Trial. Yeah, the one by Kafka. That was a trip. I read Fromm, Understanding of Dreams. Shit, the only dreams I have in here are of getting out."

(And he's a student again: "I'm signed up for a course in butchery.")

Celeste said that when they first met he told her he really would like to be a lawyer, and not to follow the career of his father, Michael, who was born in Italy and has a barber shop in San Jose.

(He said he had to sell his bike to help pay Walker's legal fee. "That hurt," he said. "It was a Harley-Davidson. I built it myself. Full custom. Chopped. I made the frame. Shit, I'd cut off my arm before I'd sell my motorcycle.

("When I get out I'm going to get another chop. Another Harley. I think maybe a 71 PX. And I'm going to ride and ride. And ride. I been riding bikes since I was 14. I rode while I was cutting hair and coming clean – you know, I tried all that straight shit, and it wasn't me. All my life I wanted to be a Hell's Angel. Like some dudes want to be lawyers and some dudes want to be barbers, I wanted to be an Angel. I can't tell you why. How do you describe love?")

Celeste said she herself wasn't crazy about his joining the Angels. But, she said, "I guess he wanted somebody to ride with." And she expressed some warm sentiments about their Angel friends; those who those spoke with her during the trial were almost courtly in their manners toward her, as though being terribly nice to her could help Alan.

"I like a lot of the Hell's Angels because they stick by you," she said. "I do care for a lot of the people because they are down to earth. They helped us with money for the lawyer. They took me to lunch and made sure I ate."

No, things haven't gone the way Alan and Celeste would have liked best. They couldn't find right ways to earn their living; she a graduate of a beauty college, he a graduate of a barber college.

"I got where I hated the beauty business," she said, "and he got where he hated the barber business. It's like a machine."

Alan and Celeste got themselves a nice, two-bedroom house in San Jose. He worked for awhile at Dalton's Barber Shop in Milpitas, a few miles away. But the brotherhood and its mystique – sprawling between all of the establishments and the mediaeval rigidity of the old German duelling fraternities – pulled more strongly. He kept getting in trouble with the law.

When he waived his constitutional rights not to testify against himself and sat down in the witness chair some of the jurors leaned forward. This was an unexpected event (Walker said the D.A. didn't know the defendant would testify until an hour before he took the stand).

The jurors knew him well, watching him from a distance of 15 feet for nearly four weeks, passing within 18 inches of him two or three times a day. And they knew him from his movie role.

He was wearing a smart leather jacket with old-gold sleeves, Oxford grey pants, black socks and well-shined black shoes. He made himself comfortable in the witness chair, letting his well-muscled legs fall wide apart. (By weight lifting he had got his weight up to 186 pounds, a gain of 34 pounds since Altamont.) He testified he might even be as tall as 5' 10", but at Soledad he was measured as 5' 6". If you think you're too short, you might do some attention-getting things to show the world you're not a nobody, and to show the cops (who have to be, by law, taller than average) that you can stand up to them.

Alan Passaro responded in an easy baritone to his lawyer's questions. He said he left the Altamont stage because "somebody threw a gallon wine bottle at a motorcycle" and knocked it over – tantamount to knocking over the altar during a Catholic Mass. When he was asked about the confrontation with Hunter, he astonished the reporters by saying, "I went for my knife."

And, he testified, "I attempted to get his gun hand . . . I tried to shake the gun loose." He said he "struck at" Hunter twice with the knife and later was "riding" the black teenager, who was "dead on his back." And "everybody started climbing all over him... and I was knocked away and I couldn't see the guy no more." And when the concert was over he "helped pack up all the instruments," jumped on his bike and rode home.

The D.A. at bat. Burke, in his lowkeyed way, asked Passaro why he and a couple of other Angels left the stage.

"For one thing, the motorcycle was laying on its side... May be we had to have a little talk with the guy that knocked it down."

And he said Hunter not only waved his gun, but fired it. Other witnesses thought they saw a flash near the end of Hunter's hand; indeed, the movie showed a strange glint there and nobody was sure what caused it.

Burke asked him if he stabbed Hunter.

"I don't know if I did or not."

Since he was so scared of Hunter, and his avowed purpose was to get the gun, did he use the knife on Hunter "to get the gun"?

Passaro replied: "I used it."

How much blood was on the knife afterwards?

"I didn't see any." But he said later,

"I stuck it [the knife] in the ground, cleaned it off."

He said he hadn't been smoking grass. But had he been drinking?

"Beer, a little wine."

Walker stood up and asked him why he had taken off the windbreaker jacket he'd been wearing.

"Because it had blood on it, on the collar and on the front."

There was little indication of emotion in Passaro's voice until he talked about his role in the brotherhood of the Angels.

Burke: "Why did you strike at Hunter with a knife?"

"I think some fear came over me."

"For your own safety?"

"For mine and my brothers."

"Were you worried about yourself?"

"I was looking after my people."

The bike people have bonds that are deeper than patriotism and tie them tightly into a brotherhood that is as spontaneous as a twitching nerve in a wounded man's back; their protective way of loving roots down toward the watery beginnings of our lives, where mother and child are one. Is it a coincidence that Alan Passaro, as he heard the verdict read and yelled YEOWWWW! soon began to think of something more than himself? For, on the tenth floor of the courthouse, in the jail, facing reporters, he declared: "I am more glad for my mother than for myself." A jailer gave him a cigar, and as he leaned back to light it, his mother, Katherine, in his mind, was more glad than he was!

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