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Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood arrested in Fordyce, Arkansas 1975
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Back in 1975 the Rolling Stones played a July 4th concert to a crowd of 50,000 in Memphis. The morning of the fifth, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, bodyguard Jim Callaghan and a fan, Fred (or maybe “Red” ) A. Sessler, who had been following the tour, rented a yellow Chevrolet Impala and took the scenic route to their next show in Dallas.
At about 3:00p.m. they stopped here for a late lunch. This is the 4-Dice Restaurant in Fordyce. The restaurant signage used to feature four tumbling dice, which might or might not have attracted the attention of driver Keith Richards. (The Rolling Stones 1972 “Main Street” album featured the song “Tumbling Dice”)
At about 3:30, after having steaks and fried chicken and signing autographs, the group piled back into the car, pulled onto the Fordyce Bypass and pointed the grill toward Camden. Before they got out of Fordyce, however, the city police (Joe Taylor and Eddie Childers) had pulled them over. The newspapers reported several different versions as to exactly why they were pulled over. One story was that a waitress at the restaurant called in a complaint that the rockers had been overly boisterous and rowdy, disturbing the peace.
Another story holds that a motorist called the police to report a car that was running other drivers off the road. Yet another story has the Fordyce Police stopping the car on the request of the State Police. And yet still again a further another story is that the Fordyce police car saw the car swerve, pulled it over, and detained the driver on a weapons charge when a leather-sheathed hunting knife was spotted in the seat next to him.
Richards passed a sobriety test, but Judge Thomas Wynne issued search warrants for the car and luggage based on the reek of marijuana reported by the arresting officers. Everybody in the party denied smoking anything.
At about 7:00pm their lawyer, Bill Carter, flew in from Little Rock. Carter was a native of Rector, Arkansas who had served on the Secret Service security detail for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
He had originally signed on with the Stones as a security consultant, but eventually became part of their legal representation. (He also represented country singer Tanya Tucker.) He is at least partly responsible for the decision to take the scenic drive. For years he had been telling the band about the state’s natural beauty, so this little crew took the opportunity to check it out for themselves. Touring by car while others flew was characteristic of Richards, who liked driving the back roads and seeing the country.
The Stones were detained at the brand new City Hall, pictured above, while the car was searched at the Old City Hall, pictured below. There, officers found a small vial of cocaine and a coke spoon. Sessler was charged with possession of a controlled substance and posted a $5000 bond.
The police department and Judge Mays told me that the cocaine and coke spoon, along with a finely tooled leather pouch containing hashish (found on the roadside near the spot where the car was stopped) were made part of an educational anti-drug display. Eventually, the drugs were destroyed as a matter of procedure, but the police still have the coke spoon in a safe. It can’t definitively be proven that the leather pouch belonged to the traveling party since it was not found in the car itself, so it’s not part of the case.
The longer the incident went on, the more embarrassing things were becoming for the town. The Stones weren’t high and didn’t have any drugs in their possession and weren’t really causing a lot of problems and there were conflicting stories on exactly why they had been pulled over in the first place. To make matters worse, the rock stars were being very polite, patient and well-behaved. It would be awfully easy for the press to present this as harassment, and Arkansas has never looked very good in the mainstream press. Therefore, Deputy Prosecutor Tom Mays was eager to work with Carter to wrap things up and move the party along ASAP.
Carter advised Richards not to contest the reckless driving charge, but to defend the concealed weapon charge. There was a provision in the Arkansas law dating back to the 19th century that if you were on “a journey” you were allowed to carry weapons that you couldn’t legally carry around your home town. By conventional application of that law people fourteen miles from home had been found to be “on a journey.” For the reckless driving charge, Richards posted $162.50 bond, which he later, as expected, forfeited.
This was big excitement for the local teenagers, meaning fifty or sixty kids in this town of five thousand. The kids flocked around the jail in hopes of talking to the rock stars or getting an autograph or souvenir. One kid suggested trading hats with Keith Richards, who is pictured in the newspaper wearing his new denim railroad worker’s hat. On my visit to Fordyce I tried to find out who that kid was and whether or not he still had Keith Richards’s floppy brimmed hat. No luck. It’s probably still in town somewhere, but I didn’t find it.
I did however discover that there are several other Fordyce Incident artifacts in addition to the coke spoon and the allegedly connected leather pouch. Somebody in town has either a heavy shirt or light jacket with a Rolling Stones bird emblem on the back. Supposedly the former property of Richards. The cop that described it to me remarked about how skinny Richards must have been to be able to wear it. According to Judge Mays the original traffic citations have appeared on eBay but were not sold. Since the record was eventually expunged, some of the paperwork is now at large.
City Hall started getting phone calls from everywhere. From newspapers. From the State Department. From the British Consulate. From all the capitols of Europe. Streets around City Hall were jammed, and the Little Rock TV stations had all sent crews who were pressing the local cops to hurry up and reach some kind of conclusion in time to make the ten o’clock newscast. The rental car was a 1975 Chevy Impala similar to this one. Pictured is a two-door model. The actual car might have had four. The band’s road manager arrived via chartered plane and a third, larger charter was summoned to get the band members to Dallas in time for the next show. The major expense incurred by the Stones organization as a result of the Fordyce Incident was probably charter aircraft.
For the most part, Richards and Wood cooled their heels in City Hall. They were never locked up, and they occasionally appeared at one or another entrance to chat with the locals and sign autographs. It was at one of these appearances that Richards traded hats with one of the local kids.
Finally at about 11:40pm, Carter and Mays held a press conference to announce the official version of what had happened. It went like this: Driver Richards swerved the car when he leaned forward to adjust the radio. He was pulled over. The cop thought he smelled pot and thought the weapon was illegal. The group was therefore detained. Richards was given a sobriety test, which he passed. Warrants were issued. The search turned up coke, which belonged to Sessler. The knife was found to be legal. Richards posted $162.50 bond on the reckless driving charge. The Stones were taken into the courtroom where they posed for pictures and then everybody went out to the municipal airport to watch them fly off to Dallas.