Re: Sunday times article
Date: September 18, 2009 21:51
The Sunday Times
March 27, 2005
The death of Meredith Hunter at Altamont
The murder of a teenage fan at a Rolling Stones concert signalled the end of the hippie dream. But what really happened at Altamont in 1969 — and why have the police reopened the case?
The song has barely finished, the last chord just faded. Mick Jagger, 26 years old, in his billowing half-black, half-red shirt, has ended his repeated ad-libs of the last line of Under My Thumb. "I pray that it's all right . . . I pray that it's all right . . . it's all right."
Now here comes Meredith Hunter, stumbling out of the darkness to the left, a few feet from the stage, arms flailing, legs askew. Something unseen has happened and he is moving from it in a hurry. He crashes into the arms of Patti, his girlfriend, and falls away. As his left arm goes down, the revolver in his hand is silhouetted against Patti's white crocheted top, which her mother knitted for her. His arm rises again. The ground around them clears. Patti screams.
Over on the right, towards centre stage, a Hell's Angel strains to see what is happening.. He alone seems to see the gun. You can see his hand go to his waist and this must be when he pulls the knife from its sheath. He rushes forward and is at Hunter's back, his left hand gripping Hunter's gun hand, forcing it down, while raising the knife in his right fist and plunging it into Hunter's neck. Hunter lurches forward, back towards the darkness from where he came. The Angel clings on, moving with him, again raising his right fist and bringing the knife down on Hunter's neck.
In these few feet of film, it is forever December 6, 1969, around 5.50pm. A black man is being killed by racist Hell's Angels. It will soon be claimed that the Stones had hired the Angels to provide security for the free concert at Altamont Raceway & Arena in California. The Stones will face the threat of being charged with conspiracy to commit murder.
Thus the film has preserved a controversy and highly sensitive issue for the band and those involved on that crowded stage at that chaotic show. A day so notorious it was said to have helped bring the "flower power" age to an end.
The Stones have been touchy about the case ever since, and have made almost no public comment on Hunter's death for 35 years. In recent weeks the police have been re-examining the killing, conducting a "cold case" review, trying to put Hunter's ghost to rest. And still the band refuse to comment. The true story of that afternoon, the story of Meredith Hunter, who he was, how he died, what happened after, has never been told. He was the young black man who got killed at Altamont. That was all. In most accounts his name didn't get mentioned. In 35 years nobody had called his family to try to find out more. Or establish what it was, if anything, the Stones (and Hell's Angels) were trying to hide.
Nobody, except perhaps the band themselves, seemed to know that their lawyers had tried to get a wrongful-death lawsuit against them thrown out of court on a technicality. Nobody knew that, when the attempt failed, the Stones' lawyers quickly made an out-of-court settlement with Meredith Hunter's mother. Mick Jagger was said to have made a court deposition denying any involvement with the Hell's Angels. But if the Stones hadn't hired them, what were the Angels doing there, standing sentry on stage beside Mick, Keith, Charlie, Bill and Mick Taylor? Who invited them? Who put them in a position where they could kill Hunter?
The footage of his murder was filmed for the documentary Gimme Shelter, which recorded the final stages of the Stones' North American tour in the last weeks of 1969. There had been a dozen film crews out among the 300,000 to 500,000 people scattered over the 83 acres of Altamont during the concert, but only one had captured the killing. The directors of Gimme Shelter, Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, had not known until the material was processed that the killing had been recorded.
The film had helped the Alameda County sheriffs to identify and put a Hell's Angel named Alan Passaro on trial for murder. It also helped Passaro's defence, proving that Hunter really had been wielding a gun. And it left open the possibility — exploited by Passaro's lawyer — that there could have been more than one Hell's Angel wielding a knife. Hunter's body had six stab wounds and Passaro was only seen delivering two blows. Passaro was acquitted in January 1971. Yeeeeooooww, he was recorded as saying when the verdict was delivered. And so the killing passed into the Alameda sheriffs' archive — their "murder book" — as "Hunter, Meredith. Unsolved. 69-SO2262."
Sergeant Scott Dudek had taken charge of the sheriffs' Crimes against Persons Unit two years ago, and began a programme of reviewing the cold cases. He had worked through six "unsolveds" before arriving at Hunter, using modern techniques such as DNA to make breakthroughs that would not have been possible in the past. Though he was not yet a teenager at the time of Altamont — he's now 46 — Dudek was aware of the high profile of the case. The focus of the review would be: was there a second assailant? A "second stabber", as Dudek put it.
Early on in his inquiries, Dudek contacted Maysles Films in New York. Of the directing trio, both David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin had died. Albert Maysles was 78 and still going out filming. He said there was other footage, outtakes from the original reel shot by Baird Bryant that had not made it into the final film and might shed some light on what happened. He never understood why the police hadn't asked to see the whole reel at the time. He spoke of scenes that seemed to show Hunter taunting the Hell's Angels and of another shot that showed an orange flash, perhaps the flash of Hunter's gun being fired. Whether or not he had fired the gun is an enduring puzzle. But Maysles only owned half the film. The Stones had a half share too (including half the profits) but their permission was not needed for any further release.
In autumn 1969 the band had arrived in America for the start of their tour to be greeted by complaints that they were charging too much for their tickets, ripping off the fans. Stung by the accusations, they decided to put on a free concert. San Francisco was the city of love, Haight-Ashbury the headquarters of the counterculture and the obvious place to stage the show. The Grateful Dead had organised a series of free concerts in Golden Gate Park, on the edge of the Haight. They were unofficial, unannounced shows — word always got around somehow — and the Dead would invite the Frisco Hell's Angels along to stand by the generators and ensure nobody shut down the power. The Angels' mere presence tended to deter trouble.
The Stones' 1969 tour manager, Sam Cutler, is now in his early sixties and settled in Brisbane, Australia. He was on stage throughout Altamont, both as the master of ceremonies and looking after his band, which, as he describes it, was like protecting the president. If anyone hired the Hell's Angels to provide security on the Stones' behalf, it was him. But that's not what happened, he says. He's been saying it for 35 years. He says, if you think you can hire the Hell's Angels, go and try it. To secure their presence at the show he agreed to buy them $500 worth of beer. In fact, he passed on $500 in cash to them through an intermediary. Cutler says he thinks he got the money from the Stones' San Francisco lawyer, Mel Belli. He says he kept trying to call Mick Jagger to get some money. The band were on the other side of America in the run-up to Altamont, at Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama, recording, among other things, the first version of Brown Sugar.
Cutler says the Angel he spoke to said he would take the beer money, but Sam shouldn't think that had bought him "jack-shit" by way of a deal. You didn't make deals with Hell's Angels. The Angel was Pete Knell, who had just lost leadership of the Frisco Hell's Angels to Bob Roberts. Bob now says Pete had no right making any arrangement on the Angels' behalf. It seems clear that, even if there wasn't a signed contract for the Hell's Angels to act as a security, there was an arrangement for them to be there, and everyone involved knew that their presence was meant to prevent trouble and provide a degree of protection to those on stage, including the Stones. After two false starts the band settled on Altamont as the venue at the last minute.
Cutler was dismayed when he arrived at Altamont and saw the stage was only 3ft off the ground. But it was too late to change the stage or call off the concert. He accepts too that, in the ensuing mayhem, nobody advised the Hell's Angels against parking their Harleys in front of the stage, as they usually did at the concerts in the park. Some of the Angels arrived earlier, travelling on the Frisco bus. Bob Roberts didn't like the bus and came on his bike. Bob says they had their cue sticks with them because they often went to bars and played pool when the chance arose. You can see the Angels at Altamont, in the film and in photos, beating and poking concert-goers with their cues. If Bob is telling the truth, the cues were not, as they have always been described, lead-weighted for use as weapons. They were the Angels' version of a police officer's nightstick, says Bob.
Roberts had recently seized control of a rival motorcycle club from San Jose, the Gypsy Jokers. He had offered to set them up as the San Jose branch of the Hell's Angels, but they had said they wanted to be Frisco Angels, and so had just joined as new recruits, prospects, as the Angels called them. One of the new prospects was Alan Passaro, who was 21 and, as Roberts recalled, went on a bit too much about how he would prove himself a worthy Hell's Angel.
Even though Dick Carter, the owner of Altamont, says they were harmless enough, there is plenty of evidence that the Angels were brutal in their treatment of the crowd. It's clear too that, from early in the day, when the first acts were playing, they had a role on the stage: keeping order, even as they were creating disorder.
Now here comes Meredith Hunter, who is known to his family and friends as Murdock, who tells his girl, Patti, she can call him Murdock Supreme. Patti is enthralled by Murdock, who wears sharp, bright suits and sometimes matching nail polish. When he takes her in his arm and they walk in the park next to the Berkeley High School campus, it feels good, good that he chose her over all those other women, white and African-American, who admire him.
They are just teenagers, Meredith and Patti. He is 18, she is 17, and they've met outside the school as part of a bigger mixed group of young white and black kids who hang out together, this being liberal Berkeley, north of San Francisco, where the rules are different from the rest of North America, where white and black are not yet noticeably mixing.
Murdock is the third of four children born to Altha May Anderson. He and his younger sister, Gwen, share the same father, a Native American called Curley Hunter. Hence Murdock has been named Meredith Curley Hunter. The father left home soon after Gwen was born. Earlier in 1969, Murdock's other sister, Dixie, who is 10 years older, had lost her husband when he was electrocuted in a freak accident. Murdock has been playing a fatherly role with her children, helping out, showing signs of maturity, in Dixie's eyes.
Then there is Murdock's other life, away from his home, perhaps even away from his girlfriend. He is in a club called the East Bay Executors. Today it would be called a gang, and people would be shooting each other, but back then it was just fist fights, petty crime and drugs. Murdock and his friends smoke marijuana and take bennies (Benzedrine) and inject crystal meth (methamphetamine). Later, the pathologist will find old needle traces on Murdock's arms. Murdock has amphetamine in his blood and that revolver in his car boot. His cousin says he was always packing a gun, but his friend Stuart is not so sure. He only recalls one time, watching the Nixon motorcade go past, and his friend saying to Murdock, you got your gun? Give me your gun, let's shoot the president. They were just joking, of course.
Patti can see herself at the concert, even now. White blouse, suede wraparound miniskirt, the crocheted top her mum made. She is 52 and doesn't look the way she once did. She says she hasn't made much of her life, but she dated Murdock then, for just a few weeks. He took her to see the Temptations, the original line-up, at a San Francisco club. He then took her to Altamont. She and two friends got bored and sat in the car, which was parked on the verge of the freeway, the I580. Murdock came back. He said, come on, Patti, let's go see the Stones. He went to the boot and Patti saw him put the gun in his waistband. They had seen the fighting with the Angels by the stage earlier. The atmosphere had been tense, unpleasant. Murdock was packing now, just in case.
He stood by the stage and Patti saw him climb onto one of the boxes — monitor speakers — at the front. An Angel pushed him away. The Angel maybe punched him and jumped down and they began scuffling, then Murdock was trying to get away and Patti could see he had the gun in his hand. She was screaming now and other Angels jumped him — she never saw a knife, could not identify Passaro — then he was under the scaffolding on the ground and they were kicking and stomping him and she was sure he would be beaten to death. Nobody came to help, not at first. Then the Angels stepped back and others came forward. Other witnesses would say they tried to help but were kept back by the Angels. Let him die, they were told, he deserves to die, he wanted to shoot Mick Jagger, look, he had a gun.
No witness could testify to seeing a second stabber. One witness thought there were two, but couldn't be sure. He said he heard Murdock say: "I wasn't going to shoot you." But from what most people describe, Murdock was pretty quickly rendered incapable of saying anything. He must have died more or less straight away. Sam Cutler helped carry him and went home with Murdock's blood on his jacket. Patti remembers sitting in the ambulance looking at Murdock's ripped shirt and thinking how upset he would be when he woke up, that they had ruined his lovely shirt.
A few days later a runaway was picked up by police in southern California and told them she'd been at Altamont with two Angels — not Passaro — and one had stabbed Murdock and later had stopped the car to wash the nigger's blood off his knife. The sheriffs' investigators at the time had not relied on the girl's statement. As Sgt Dudek said, she obviously had issues. There was no evidence that anyone else was involved. Besides, as Dudek said, if he wasn't a Hell's Angel, Passaro might have been a hero, for stopping a man who was trying to shoot somebody. One girl said at Passaro's trial, she had heard a cry of, look out, he's going to kill Mick Jagger. But nobody else heard that. Dick Carter said there was no killing there, only a suicide, that when Murdock pulled his gun in front of those Hell's Angels he was as good as dead. While it was possible, even likely, that Passaro had delivered all six stab wounds, there could be no certainty about what had happened, before and after the moments captured on film. Hunter could already have been stabbed by another Angel when he stumbled into shot holding the gun. Someone else could have stabbed him after Passaro's assault. And surely the beating Hunter took must have contributed to his death.
The Stones stopped playing for a moment, then carried on to finish the show. They did not know someone had been killed. Besides, if they had stopped altogether, it was generally agreed, there would have been a riot and others might have died. The tour manager, Sam Cutler, was not the only one who thought they were lucky to escape with their lives in such a fraught situation. They left the scene in an overcrowded helicopter, people sitting on laps, lying across others on seats. Then, suddenly, they were back at the Huntington hotel in San Francisco. The financial manager, Ron Schneider, recalls he went to his room with two girls. He told them he was depressed. Cutler talked
to Jagger and said he would stay to straighten things out. Jagger said he would ensure Sam's expenses were paid, but they never were. The band left San Francisco the next day.
The district attorney threatened to indict the Stones, the managers, Altamont's owner, Carter, and anyone else who was involved on a charge of conspiracy to commit murder. But he relented when he retrieved the gun and saw the film. Sgt Dudek says the case against Passaro could have been presented better in court. Passaro already had a criminal record, was in jail by the time he was arrested, and went back in after his acquittal. He was later convicted of running a methamphetamine factory, the very drug used by Murdock.
Passaro died in 1985, not long after his most recent jail sentence. He left his home in a hurry after a shower — a wet towel was on the floor, the mirror still misted from the steam. His black Mercedes was found abandoned at a nearby lake, the door open, the keys still in the ignition. His body turned up a month later, floating in the lake, a bag strapped to his back containing several thousand dollars. It looked like drug money. The police could not determine a cause of death but seemed sure he had been murdered.
Murdock's sister, Dixie, would never forget being at home with a Christmas tree already erected in the corner of the room, hearing on the radio that a madman with a gun had been killed at Altamont. She knew Murdock was there but it never occurred to her that it was him. As Dixie says, he was at the age of "more to come". And he was just the kind of black man who got under white folks' skin back then. He personified threat, being overconfident, overdressed, with a white girl on his arm. Uppity was perhaps the word. You were meant to know your place and Murdock didn't.
His family never had any expectation of a conviction in the trial and had not bothered attending. That was white reality. There was, of course, no direct evidence that racism had played a part in Murdock's death. Patti said they certainly got a lot of looks in the crowds that day. There was no evidence, either, that the Angels had been the aggressors. But the pattern of the day suggested it was likely. Unlike their other victims, Murdock had a gun in his waistband.
His sister said Murdock never had the chance to get his life together. He had just got a job at the post office, but had yet to start. Maybe he would have turned his life around. It was certainly hard for his friends in the East Bay Executors. A few of them spent time later in jail and got into trouble with drugs. Blood, the friend who had gone with him to Altamont, was later shot and killed. Altha, Murdock's mother, had a nervous breakdown after his funeral and spent a month in hospital. When I met her, in January, she was still recovering from the death last year of Murdock's sister Gwen. Her son Donald too was gone. Only Dixie survived.
Altha had sued the Stones for $500,000 after Altamont and caused a flurry of activity among the band's lawyers. They had collected depositions from those involved, then attempted to get the case thrown out on the grounds that the papers had never been served. Altha's lawyer had to get a statement from the process-server who had pursued Jagger around the lobby of the Miyoko hotel in San Francisco, tapping him on the arm with the papers as Jagger ran out of the foyer, letting the papers fall to the floor. The Stones withdrew their attempt to get the case dismissed and got on the phone to Altha's lawyer.
According to Altha, she received $10,000. That might not sound like much for the loss of your son, $10,000, but Altha's lawyer said settlements were different then and not subject to the exponential rise in awards that has taken place since. Besides, he had been carrying a gun and did have a rap sheet and all this counted against him. Altha had not complained about the sum. The case never got to court, where one of the key issues would have been: who hired the Hell's Angels? The whole thing left a bad taste for some, including the tour manager, Sam Cutler, who recalled reading Jagger's deposition with the sinking feeling that he'd been hung out to dry by the band.
The Stones believed for some years that they were on a Hell's Angels hit list. It was certainly true that the Hell's Angels felt betrayed by the band. The Angels always believed they had been hired for Altamont and left to carry the blame for the chaos of the concert. Ron Schneider recalled a Stones gig in Paris sometime later, when they heard a rumour that there was an Angel with a gun in the crowd and were convinced that the death threat was about to be carried out. A search was made and, sure enough, there was an Angel with a gun, but it was just a starting pistol he said he wanted to fire at the ceiling for fun. It had been a hard case to review, with none of the usual scope for new scientific analysis. Now, for reasons he didn't fully understand, Dudek was unable to wrest the new-old footage, the rest of that reel, from Albert Maysles. Dudek had re-interviewed some of those involved, including Passaro's trial lawyer, George Walker, who said if there had been a second stabber he would have produced him at the time. All he could do in court was hint at the possibility. Dudek had felt sure he would end up proving there was a second stabber, but now began to feel there was nobody else. It had all been Passaro after all. Probably.
The Stones remain conspicuous by their silence. Of course, they are under no obligation to speak about it, but you might think, after all these years, they would feel a moral imperative to clear up the mysteries of Altamont and, as Dudek intended, lay the ghost of Meredith Hunter to rest. Altamont has clearly haunted the Stones too. If they do have something to hide, it can only be the fear of being found responsible for hiring the Hell's Angels — and so in turn sharing responsibility for Hunter's death.
Surely the Stones have little left to fear now. Like them, the Angels have grown old. When I met the former Frisco president Bob Roberts, he was in a wheelchair in hospital, in a dressing gown and slippers, after suffering his third stroke at the age of 66. He still remembered the "niggers", though. And still remembered how proud he was of Alan Passaro, for doing his duty and killing Meredith Hunter.