Remembering the moment Keith Richards was saved from a drug charge by an “angel” named Rita
It’s no surprise that The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards has been subject to one or two drug busts. In fact, by 1977, he was a bit of dab hand at manoeuvring his way out of the charges which naturally followed once the cops had found his stash.
That said, there was one particular Canadian drug bust, on this day in 1977, which would’ve seen Keith behind bars if not for a fan named Rita Berdard.
The incident arose when the guitarist’s girlfriend of the time Anita Pallenberg, who had been travelling with Richards, had been nabbed on her flight from London to Toronto with 10g of marijuana and a spoon containing traces of heroin on it. Not a good way to start a business trip.
The pair were travelling separately and trying to catch up with the rest of The Stones who were preparing to record their Love You Live album at the El Mocambo nightclub. Pallenberg’s customs issue was enough for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to raid of Richards’ room at the Harbour Castle Hilton, February 27th, 1977.
“They couldn’t wake me. By law you have to be conscious to be arrested,’’ Richards recalls in his 2010 autobiography Life. “My memory of it is waking up and them going slap, slap, two Mounties dragging me about the room, slapping me. Trying to get me conscious.’’ Richards admitted that he had been awake for “five days” straight prior to his arrest. The police would find nearly an ounce of high-grade heroin in his room and later charged him with “possession of heroin for the purposes of trafficking.”
The RCMP had entered the room on a warrant from Pallenberg’s earlier infringement but with Richards owning up to the heroin as his, charges were placed on Keef. This would provide one lucky moment though as Keith was charged on Pallenberg’s warrant, it allowed the guitarist out on bail with a no-deposit $1,000 bond. Richards would appear on March 8th, 1977, to plead his case with now the bail being set at $25,000—but he was allowed to keep his passport. Now, this is where the story, as most Stones stories do, gets a little salacious.
The wife of then-President Pierre Trudeau, Margaret, was a big fan of the band. We’re talking a huge fan. She was desperate to see the performance at the El Mocambo club which still went ahead between Richards’ court appearances. Margaret Trudeau would arrive at the gig with Mick Jagger in a blacked-out limo, a scenario which sparked wild rumours they were engaged in an affair. To make matters worse, Trudeau then finished the evening at the band’s hotel, at which she had booked herself a room.
While the whispers around Jagger and Trudeau’s supposed relationship would swell, Richards would reveal in his book that it was actually Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood who had been “hitting it off really well” with her. Richards did lament the extra scrutiny on the shows though, saying it was “worst combination of circumstances… Trudeau’s bride… was seen walking in our corridors in a bathrobe.’’
By 1977, Richards’ drug use had gotten out of control. It had seen him yet again in front of judges and had cast doubts on The Rolling Stones’ ability to carry on as a band with the weight of their substance abuse starting to show.
The depth of Richards’ reliance on drugs encouraged the ‘Start Me Up’ guitarist to seek an experimental rehab facility. This facility would not only tackle his swirling substance abuse problems but would also allow him out of the country and let him return to America. Considering the weight of the charges against him, this was a real coup.
By the time Richards faced his case, on October 1978, “there were five to six hundred people outside every time I turned up in court, chanting, ‘Free Keith, free Keith,'” the guitarist recalls but there was another person on his side. The ‘angel’ was one of Keith’s most undyingly committed fans, Rita Berdard.
Rita, who is blind, had spent much of her youth hitchhiking to Stones’ concerts to bathe in their rock and roll majesty. As Keith says: “She hitchhiked to our shows. The chick was absolutely fearless.”
In her mind, with Richards seemingly looking at a compulsory seven-year jail term, Berdard set about trying to convince whoever she could of the guitarist innocence. She notes his ongoing contribution to not only her life and her struggle but the lives of millions. Berdard was the orchestrator of the aforementioned mass of people that surrounded the court every day. But her most important role was when she spoke to the Judge before Richards’ sentencing.
With the Crown Prosecution, who had weakened their bid for jail time to six to twelve months, would see the Judge would throw away any chance of that happening upon hearing the defence’s case for leniency. Instead, he would order Richards to continue with his drug therapy and to “give a special performance at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.”
With that in mind, we’re pretty certain that there was only one person for us all to thank for Keith Richards not going to prison in 1977 and that is the brilliant, Rita Berdard.