The Altamont Trial: How It Happened - Rolling Stone
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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 Mick Jagger Hells Angels Altamont

The Rolling Stones at The Altamont Speedway in Livermore, California on December 6, 1969.

Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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.

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.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.

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.)

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?


“More than ten or 20?”

“I couldn’t say.”

“Could you have drunk more than 20?”


“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!

But as he took some drags on the cigar the softness of him was covered over by a tough, con-wise expression on his face. A man must not show feelings. His wife, Celeste, had recalled: “Alan, when we first met, hated to have me take his arm. He was afraid it would make him look like a sissy.”

At Altamont Alan had proved to his brothers that he was not a sissy. He and his brothers had given their proof abundantly that afternoon. It might be said that they overdid their proving because the superstar they were hired to defend had raised a great turmoil of ambivalent vibrations in the crowd. Here is how Robert Hatch, writing about Gimme Shelter in The Nation, saw Mick Jagger as he was filmed at Altamont:

“He hits the crowd with his pelvis, flings his scarf around his shoulders, jabs nervously at his flowing hair, mouths like a woman in heat, jerks with an aggressive, staccato beat that is as explicit as an anatomy chart. The ambiguity of his sex, the spectacle of raper and victim in one body, threw the witnesses into convulsions of excitement.”

(It’s enough to drive a man to read a psychoanalyst. In Soledad, Alan Passaro read The Trial and The Understanding of Dreams. He said: “I’m writing a book about how we got to white culture groups like the blacks and browns have to hassle out problems with the institution. About the indeterminate sentence. About the sham of rehabilitation. A lot of guys just hang up their paroles at the gates. They know they’re coming back.

(“Rehabilitation for what? To sit around on your ass some more like I done in here? I’m signed up for a course in butchery, and I cut hair sometimes, but it’s bullshit. Mostly I just read philosophy and psychology and wait for my wife to come down. And my kid. He’s five now.”)

The jurors, after 12 1/2 hours of deliberation, rejected Burke’s argument that Passaro was guilty of premeditated murder because: “He goes at a man with a gun into a position of danger, and he does that when he says he’s afraid.”

Perhaps they went along with Walker’s argument that someone else stabbed Hunter. But it seems more likely that they concluded that Passaro stabbed the victim but in doing so was committing justifiable homicide. Walker told the jury: “Under the theory of self-defense, he [Passaro] could have struck all five of those blows if that was necessary to subdue that man.”

After 5 1/2 hours of deliberation, nine of the jurors wanted acquittal and three held out for some kind of guilty verdict – it could have been first-degree murder, second-degree, or manslaughter. The next day, for six hours, all but one woman wanted acquittal. She gave in during the last hour of deliberation.

(Alan Passaro described the jurors as “the people, the citizens, the straights, the squares.” He said: “They didn’t try me as a Hell’s Angel. They tried me as a person. It shot my whole theory of ‘don’t trust anyone over 30.’ I mean I don’t know none of them. I ride motorcycles, you know…”)

A murder trial is, at best, a grossly imprecise way of arriving at justice. The problem in the Altamont case is that the state of California had accused only one of many who should be defendants. How could one Hell’s Angel be held more accountable than Mick Jagger, for his incitement to Satanism: than Sam Cutler, for his nativete in assigning police powers to the Angels; to Sheriff Madigan for letting these bike-fetishists take over his duties? The sheriff said it was not his responsibility because the festival was held on private property. But some mighty big sporting events are held in his country, and there is no lack of law enforcement officers surrounding the sacrosanct private property, to assure the public safety.

At Altamont, Sheriff Madigan explained, “Mel Belli and the promoter said they were hiring 300 private patrol.” Translation: Let them take care of their own.

Officials of the California Highway Patrol said they weren’t required to make a big effort in the Altamont area because the whole affair was set up at the last minute. It’s hard to adjust to quick changes in plans. But the patrol has no hesitation about moving in on last-minute situations caused by anti-war demonstrators.

And where was the Alameda country health department? Hunter might not have died, according to medical testimony at the trial, if there had been an emergency hospital on the premises.

The established authorities consider an affair like Altamont to be different from an affair like the one in 1961, when Father Patrick Peyton, on behalf of a private organization, commanded lovely cooperation for his Family Rosary Crusade rally in Golden Gate Park.

The psychologists and sociologists of America are very good at night writing Ph.D. theses about “the alienation of the young.” The authorities in public power are very good at boycotting the people-hood of the young.

The young people heading for Altamont on December 5th and 6th, 1969, did not exist.

This story is from the April 1st, 1971 issue of Rolling Stone.


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