Death of Meredith Hunter
October 24, 1951|
Alameda County, California, U.S.
|Died||December 6, 1969
Altamont, California, U.S.
Meredith Curly Hunter, Jr. (October 24, 1951 – December 6, 1969) was an 18-year-old African-American who was killed at the 1969 Altamont Free Concert. During the performance by The Rolling Stones, Hunter attempted to climb on stage, and was driven off by members of the Hells Angels motorcycle club who had been contracted to serve as ushers and security guards. He subsequently returned to the stage, drew a revolver, and was stabbed to death by Hells Angel Alan Passaro. His motivations—whether an intent to shoot a member of the Hell's Angels, or as self-defense against the Hells Angels—have been widely speculated on since the event.
The incident was caught on camera and became a central scene in the documentary Gimme Shelter. Passaro was charged with murder. After an eight-man, four-woman jury deliberated for 12 and a half hours, following 17 days of testimony, Passaro was acquitted on grounds of self defense.
Hunter, an 18-year-old from Berkeley, California, was nicknamed "Murdock" and described by friends to be a flashy dresser with a big Afro. Hunter, his girlfriend Patty Bredahoft, and another couple traveled from Berkeley to attend the Altamont Free Concert.
The Hells Angels had been hired to provide security for the concert in a deal that involved $500 worth of beer, about US$3000 adjusted for inflation to 2012. They stood directly in front of the bands in an effort to keep people off the unusually low stage.
Fueled by LSD and amphetamines, and given the limited amount of space in front of the stage, the crowd became restless and unpredictable, and the Hells Angels began hurling full cans of beer from their stockpile and striking concert-goers with sawed-off, weighted pool cues and motorcycle chains to drive the crowd back from the stage. By the time the Rolling Stones took stage in the early evening, the mood had taken a decidedly ugly turn, as numerous fights began to erupt between Angels and crowd members. Denise Jewkes of local San Francisco rock band the Ace of Cups, six months pregnant, was hit in the head by an empty beer bottle thrown from the crowd during their set and suffered a skull fracture.
Lead singer Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones (who had been punched by a concertgoer within seconds of emerging from the Stones' helicopter ) urged the audience to "Just be cool down in the front there, don't push around." Within a minute of starting their third song, "Sympathy for the Devil," a fight erupted in the front of the crowd, at the foot of the stage. After another appeal for calm, the band restarted "Sympathy" and continued their set with less incident until the start of "Under My Thumb." At this point, two of the Hells Angels got into a scuffle with Hunter when he attempted to get onstage with other fans. One of the Hells Angels grabbed Hunter's head, punched him, and chased him back into the crowd.
After a few seconds Hunter angrily returned to the front of the stage where, according to Gimme Shelter producer Porter Bibb, Hunter's girlfriend Patty Bredahoft found him and tearfully begged him to calm down and move farther back in the crowd with her. By her report he was enraged, irrational and "so high he could barely walk". Grateful Dead associate Rock Scully noticed Hunter in the crowd, remembering, that “I saw what he was looking at, that he was crazy, he was on drugs, and that he had murderous intent. There was no doubt in my mind that he intended to do terrible harm to Mick or somebody in the Rolling Stones, or somebody on that stage."
At this point, footage from the documentary shows Hunter (seen in the film in a lime-green suit) drawing what appears to be a long-barreled black .22 caliber revolver from his jacket and pointing it at the stage. The film shows what might be an orange flash at the end of the pistol in one frame. Due to the film's low fidelity, it is impossible to determine whether the flash is a gunshot, a reflection, or a film defect. The Angels did not report any discharged cartridges in Hunter's pistol. The film then shows Hells Angel Alan Passaro, armed with a knife, running at Hunter from the side, parrying the gun with his left hand and stabbing him with his right. The footage was shot by Eric Saarinen who was on stage taking pictures of the crowd. Saarinen was unaware of having caught the incident on film. This was discovered more than a week later when rushes were screened in the New York offices of the Maysles Brothers.
In the film sequence, lasting about two seconds, a six-foot opening in the crowd appears, leaving Patty Bredahoft in the center. Hunter enters the opening from the left, his hand rises and the silhouette of a revolver is clearly seen against Bredahoft's bright crocheted dress. Passaro is seen entering from the right and delivering two stabs as he pushes Hunter off screen. The opening closes around Bredahoft. Passaro is reported to have stabbed Hunter five times in the upper back. Witnesses also reported Hunter was stomped on by several Hells Angels while he was on the ground. The gun was recovered and turned over to police. Hunter's autopsy later confirmed his girlfriend's report that he did have methamphetamine in his bloodstream at the time of his death.
Passaro was arrested and charged with murder for Hunter's death, but was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense, after the jury viewed the footage from the concert showing Hunter drawing the revolver and pointing it in the air.
The Rolling Stones were unaware that a killing had taken place during their set. In 1995, lead singer Mick Jagger commented on Hunter's death in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine publisher Jann Wenner, who asked, "After the concert itself, when it became apparent that somebody got killed, how did you feel?" Jagger replied, "Well, awful. I mean, just awful. You feel a responsibility. How could it all have been so silly and wrong? But I didn't think of these things that you guys thought of, you in the press: this great loss of innocence, this cathartic end of the era.... I didn't think of any of that. That particular burden didn't weigh on my mind. It was more how awful it was to have had this experience and how awful it was for someone to get killed..."
Shortly after Hunter's death, Altha May Anderson, Hunter's mother, requested that Altamont Raceway be turned into a public park to "prevent any more wrongful deaths at Altamont". Alameda County officials later voted to allow the Raceway to still host races, but barred future concerts and restricted the number of attendees to 3,000. Anderson later sued the Rolling Stones for $500,000. After withdrawing attempts to get the case dismissed, the band paid Anderson $10,000.
Over the years, there were rumors that a second, unidentified assailant had inflicted the fatal wounds, and, as a result, the police considered the case still open. On May 25, 2005, the Alameda County Sheriff's Office announced that it was officially closing the stabbing case. Investigators, concluding a renewed two-year investigation, dismissed the theory that a second Hells Angel took part in the stabbing.
In 2006, filmmaker Sam Green released a short documentary titled Lot 63, Grave C (Hunter's gravesite), which revolves around the last day of Hunter's life and the unmarked grave where he was buried. After the film screened widely at film festivals, several people sent donations to the cemetery to buy Meredith Hunter a headstone. The headstone was installed in 2008.
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