Home » Episodes » Episode 57 – San Joaquin Valley, CA & The Bermuda Triangle (Assless Chaps for Days)

In today’s episode, Emily talks about the Altamont Speedway Free Festival in Tracy, CA in 1969. This was a counterculture rock concert headlined by The Rolling Stones that resulted in multiple deaths  – including the murder of Meredith Hunter by one of the “security guards” aka a member of the Hells Angels. Then Rachel gets spooky and talks about Flight 19, a group of planes that disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle during WWII. Hopefully, you’re horrified!

The Altamont Speedway Free Concert

Let’s talk about the vibe of 1969, the year it took place and one very influential happening that had a big impact on our main story.  1969 was an especially unique time in American history. People were becoming disillusioned with the Vietnam war, Nixon was replaced by Johnson and people didn’t love that because even though Nixon sucked Johnson seemed like an “old white guy” that didn’t fit the vibe of the 60s. People were starting to lean into more of a counterculture where they were not going to just be OK with what society said they were going to be ok with. This is the year that Stonewall happened and people started really getting into harder drugs… and one very big event happened: Woodstock. 

The Woodstock Music & Art Fair took place in August 1969 (the Summer of 69, if you will) and it happened on a dairy farm in Bethel, NY. Now, we’ve all heard of Woodstock, even those of us who weren’t born then – and that’s because it was one of those moments in history that forever represents a generation of people. Some people even say that it was the most pivotal moment in music history. 

It might surprise you to hear that when they were planning WOodstock, they were like “oh… maybe if we’re lucky like 50,000 people will show up.” Well, they far exceeded that goal because over half a million people came to a 600-acre farm to hear 32 acts play over the course of four days (August 15-18). Acts included Jefferson Airplane, CCR, Santana,  Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, the Who, Janis Joplin and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It was a MASSIVE event, but it also was the epitome of peace and love – it was literally billed as “3 Days of Peace and Music.” 

Obviously people didn’t even know how big this event was going to be, and so some big names declined to attend. Notably, The Rolling Stones. They were invited but declined for a couple reasons… first, Mick Jagger was in Australia filming Ned Kelly, and Keith Richards’ girlfriend Anita Pallenberg had just given birth to their son Marlon. So, they didn’t go to Woodstock, but of course post-event they were experiencing some major FOMO. They wanted to be part of the counterculture hippie zeitgeist, too! So, they were doing a tour later that year and were “returning to glory” after taking a short break earlier that year. 

The tour actually began in London, with a free show in Hyde Park. Now, that concert was a success, an entirely peaceful event financed and filmed by Granada Television. Security had been provided by a group of people wearing leather, so obviously the Stones assumed this ragtag group was part of the Hells Angels, the motorcycle gang that rode Harley Davidsons and pretty much were reserved for white men in the 60-70s. This seems like an odd note, but it will be significant in the future. 

Anywho, after this big success, the Stones hired the man who organized the Hyde Park concert. This was a guy named Sam Cutler, and he set off to work on an American tour in the fall of 1969. The Stones’ return to America! 

Remembering how jealous they were after missing out on Woodstock, they decided to create a concert that would be the West Coast equivalent of Woodstock, in both scale and spirit. Unfortunately… If Woodstock represented peace and hippie idealism, then the concert they planned pretty much shattered that innocence. This concert was eventually planned and called the Altamont Free Concert – and my oh my was this concert a SHIT SHOW. In fact, it resulted in multiple deaths, injuries, and issues. Let’s talk about them. 

FIrst things first, unlike Woodstock, a concert that they spent months planning by a full team of well-funded organizers… Altamont was essentially WINGED. It was super improvised and they didn’t even have a venue until days before the event. In my past life I planned large scale events. There is no way to plan an event for five HUNDRED people in less than like 6 months (well, not WELL at least), let alone planning one for five hundred thousand. Most venues need months advance notice. So winging the creation of a massive event like this – bad idea, even if you’re the Rolling Stones. 

So, first the Stones decided to get the Grateful Dead on board as the second act. They agreed, which was a big get for them. Then they went to find a venue. First they wanted to hold it at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, but a previously scheduled Chicago Bears–San Francisco 49ers football game at Kezar Stadium, located in Golden Gate Park. SO, that was not a viable option. Then they looked at the Sears Raceway in Sonoma. However, that fell through when the company that owned the site wanted $100,000 upon learning the concert was being filmed. Finally Altamont Speedway in Tracy stepped in on December 4 TWO DAYS before the concert took place. 

By this time the roster of performers had grown. Now Santana; the Jefferson Airplane; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; and the Grateful Dead were all planning on attending. Plus, of course, the Rolling Stones. 

In a matter of days, the stage was set up. It was completely thrown together and they built the stage too low so there was barely a barrier between performers and fans. They also neglected to identify some kind of central command or figurehead running the whole concert and handling the logistics; nobody in the crew knew who was in charge.

On top of this, the Stones decided to hire that great security crew that they had worked with in London… the Hells Angels! Yep, the motorcycle gang came on board as an “informal security staff.” The payment they accepted? $500 worth of beer … and access to a crowd of people they could beat the shit out of, apparently. 

So, on the day of the event the first issue hit… there was no commuter path to the speedway, so people walked along the highway to get there. Some for up to TEN miles. Nothing had been done to turn the site into a venue, so most concertgoers could barely see the stage. The only protection for the bands was a piece of twine stretched in front of the crowd and no surprise, it had completely disappeared by the time Jefferson Airplane began playing in the late afternoon. 

Another thing: if the Rolling Stones wanted a love fest like Woodstock was… all naked and fun, they didn’t get it because they held their concert in December. This was California so it was definitely milder than an East Coast winter, but it was still winter. So, instead of a colorful nakey crowd like at Woodstock, there was a lot of corduroy. 

During the show, the Hells Angels were physically violent towards the crowd. Some of them used pool cues to beat unruly concertgoers… They even assaulted Jefferson Airplane co-singer Marty Balin during his band’s set. Why? Marty tried to intervene and stop a scuffle. 

Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that there were a LOT of bad, bad drugs at this concert. Like, yes, they were bad drugs in terms of intenseness like LSD and Cocaine and whatnot, but they were also bad drugs in the sense that they were cut with all kinds of things that made people experience freak-outs. One on-site doctor called it “toxic mass psychosis”. One youth (YOUTHS!) was so high that he leapt from a freeway overpass and fell 40 feet breaking his pelvis. 

The police were no help either… Apparently there were four or five plainclothes hanging around backstage, weapons in their holsters, but they were so outnumbered by the Hells Angels that I guess the cops basically ceded the field to the gang as the show went on. 

It was dark by the time the concert’s next-to-last act, the Grateful Dead, was scheduled to appear. But the Dead had left the venue entirely out of concern for their safety when they learned that Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin had been knocked unconscious by one of the Hells Angels, so it was time for the Rolling Stones to go on stage. 

Things were CHAOS by now. As the Stones were trying to play “Sympathy for the Devil,” Jagger was telling everybody to “cool out” but things were getting more and more out of control.

Stephen Stills from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young was stabbed repeatedly in the leg, with a sharpened bicycle spoke, by an unknown Angel. What’s worse… Four people died. One young man drowned in an irrigation ditch. 

Then Two Berkeley men, Richard Salov, 22, and Mark Feiger, 19, were killed when a car ran over them as they sat around a roadside campfire. The driver fled on foot after killing them and seriously injuring another man and woman.

It was as Mick Jagger was performing “Under My Thumb” that a 21-year-old Hells Angel named Alan Passaro had a confrontation with an 18-year-old named Meredith Hunter.

Meredith was a young black man who went to the show with his girlfriend.  Prior to the festival, Hunter’s sister warned him not to go to the event with his white girlfriend because of the racial tensions of the time. Tracy (the town where Altamont was) was much more conservative than Berkeley where he lived. But, Hunter disregarded her advice, and decided to just arm himself with a .22 caliber revolver.

Now, Meredith was a vivacious, fun guy. He was a teenager of the 60s and had a signature avocado-colored zoot suit that he loved to wear. With his suit, on that night, he wore a black silk shirt and a broad-brimmed hat. 

So, let’s talk about the confrontation between Meredith and Alan, the Hell’s Angel. Here’s an account from a witness who later testified at Passaro’s trial. An unidentified Angel, the witness said, “reached over and grabbed the guy beside me”—Hunter, that is—“by the ear and hair, and yanked on it, thinking it was funny, you know, kind of laughing. And so, this guy shook loose; he yanked away from him.” Another Angel “hit him in the mouth,” the witness went on, and Hunter tried to run, “and four other Hell’s Angels jumped on him.” 

Then, Alan Passaro stabbed Hunter in the back and Hunter “pulled out a gun and held it up in the air you know . . . like that was kind of his last resort.” This was like opening a door for Passaro because he immediately reached down to his ankle, pulled out a huge hunting knife and plunged it into Meredith’s neck, and then again around the kidney. 

Other Angels piled on and kicked Meredith; they stood on his head, and they hit him with a garbage-can lid. As he lay dying, he reportedly told his attackers that he did not intend to shoot anyone. Several audience members lifted his body onto the stage, trying to get him to help, but the Angels pushed it off and said, “Don’t touch him, he’s going to die.”

Hunter’s body was eventually taken to a tent but he died waiting for an ambulance. His spilled blood was washed away with hot coffee – so nonchalant. 

Sadly, the Rolling Stones didn’t even know that someone had just been killed in the audience and completed their set. By the end of the day there were three additional (albeit accidental) deaths and interestingly, four live births.

In a very creepy note, the killing of Meredith Hunter at Altamont was captured on film in Gimme Shelter, the documentary of the Stones’ 1969 tour by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin. It’s right there on the film, which is so spine tingling. 

Even more tingling was the fact that no one from the concert contacted Hunter’s mother, Alta Mae Anderson, after his death. I didn’t actually read how or when she found out, but it was not the immediate / first thing anyone did. And I’m not sure if this correlates or not but his remains were buried on Dec. 10, 1969, in an unmarked grave at Skyview Memorial Lawn in Vallejo, CA, about 35 miles north of San Francisco. 

Eventually they got the information to his family and I believe a headstone was added to the grave at a later date. Plus, the Stones eventually settled with the Hunter family for a reported $10,000. Years after being acquitted of killing Hunter (self defense), Passaro was found dead in a lake, coincidentally with $10,000 in his pocket.

The Disappearance of Flight 19

I’ve got to be honest, all of those true crimes that really hit us hard, and WW2 crimes are that for me. And I will get there eventually, because I think it’s important to cover all the horrible stories with empathy and compassion, but today I’m dipping my toes in the water with something a little less crime-y and a little more mysterious. Today, I’m going to tell you about the disappearance of Flight 19, AKA the Lost Patrol.

It’s December 5, 1945. World War 2 has been declared over for about 4 months: Spoiler alert: the allies won. 

Five torpedo bombers departed from a Naval Air Station in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Collectively, these planes were known as “Flight 19.” Flight 19 wasn’t going into battle – they were on a 3-hour training exercise. They were going to head east from FL, practice their bombing, you know, as one does, then head north, fly over the Bahamas, and then fly back to base. They were to fly around in a triangle… and more specifically, what would come to be known as the Bermuda Triangle.

The leader of the flight was Lieutenant Charles C. Taylor. He was an experienced veteran and pilot. In fact, most of the men on the planes were experienced fliers. 

One thing to note is that Flight 19 was not a creative name. In fact, Flight 18 had taken off from Ft. Lauderdale the previous day. So, Lieutenant Taylor and his team of pilots flew where they were supposed to, dropped their practice bombs at about 2:30 in the afternoon, and then started their way north. But then, for some reason, Lieutenant Taylor started to feel disoriented. Apparently, he was convinced that his compass was malfunctioning, and that the planes were headed in the wrong direction. 

Adding to the confusion came rain, big gusting winds, and lots of heavy clouds. At some point that afternoon, one of the pilots radioed for help, stating, “I don’t know where we are; we must have got lost after that last turn.”

Another Navy Flight Instructor, Lieutenant Robert F. Cox, who was flying near the Florida coast, overheard the pilot’s radio for help. He informed the Air Station of Flight 19’s disoriented path, and was able to get a hold of Lieutenant Taylor. He told Lieutenant Cox that his compasses were broken and that he was somewhere in the Florida Keys, but he was unsure of exactly where.

Now, you and I are not about that geography life. So let me just throw out there, up until this point, Lieutenant Taylor was going the right direction. Flight 19 dropped its bombs over Hens and Chicken Shoals, which was the practice drop site in the Bahamas. The Florida Keys would have been hundreds of miles off course.

Later, people would speculate that Lieutenant Taylor may have been confusing the Bahamas for the Florida Keys, but this guy was convinced that he was somewhere over the Golf of Mexico. This wasn’t great, because if pilots got lost, they were supposed to fly west until they saw land. But because he thought he was elsewhere, he directed all of the planes to fly northeast, which only led them further out into the Atlantic.

The other pilots seemed to recognize Lieutenant Taylor’s mistake, with one ominously saying over the radio, “If we would just fly west, we would get home.”

Finally, Lieutenant Taylor did direct the fleet to turn around and head west. But a little after 6:00 that evening, he became convinced that they did not go far enough east. So they needed to turn around and keep going east. All being military, they followed their commander’s lead, although some investigators think that one plane did end up turning around and going west.

As happens in tiny planes on long flights, fuel tanks began to run low. Lieutenant Taylor began prepping his fleet for an ocean landing. He was heard on the radio saying, “All planes close up tight. We’ll have to ditch unless landfall…when the first plane drops below ten gallons, we all go down together.”

And then, nothing but static.

Obviously, the Navy was not stoked to have an entire patrol end up in the ocean. They started the search for Flight 19. And they used flying boats, which I did not realize was a thing outside of movies, but here we are. About 20 minutes after leaving, one of the Mariner boats also mysteriously disappeared.

Now, as much as I love a conspiracy and would love to tell you this was because of the Bermuda Triangle, apparently these boats were nicknamed “flying gas tanks” and were known for catching on fire. So, let’s take that one with a grain of salt.

The next morning, the Navy sent out over 300 boats and an aircraft to search for Flight 19 (as well as the missing flying gas tank which probably caught on fire). But they found nothing. No bodies. No wreckage. It was like they all just vanished. And, although they thought perhaps Lieutenant Taylor may have confused the Bahamas for the Florida Keys, this guy was a super experienced pilot, and no one could figure out why he was so disoriented. 

Apparently, there was a briefing before Flight 19 took off, to which Lieutenant Taylor had arrived several minutes late. Then, he tried to be excused from leading the Flight. Allegedly, he said “I just don’t want to take this one out.” 

Another chilling detail – none of the pilots of crew used the ZBX receivers on their planes or the radio frequency created specifically for rescues. These would have helped them steer toward the Navy radio towers.

The disappearance of Flight 19 was probably the oddity that began the legend of the Bermuda Triangle. Some conspiracy theorists believe that the planes were abducted by aliens. Some think that the flight somehow made way into a strong electromagnetic disturbance, which messed up their compasses.

But probably what happened is that the planes ran out of gas and ended up in the ocean, somewhere within the Bermuda triangle. Lieutenant Taylor thought that he was over the Florida Keys and most likely flew into some stormy weather. And, at least as of this recording, no signs of the 6 planes or any of the 27 crewmen have ever been found.


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