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Pot Holds Bowie in Rochester

March 25th, 2013

David Bowie's mugshot after being arrested in Rochester NY for possession of marijuana. [PHOTO: Provided by Todd Hess]
It was 37 years ago today when the greatest photo in RPD history was taken. David Bowie was in town on his 1976 World Tour. After giving a performance at the War Memorial Arena on March 20, Bowie was arrested in a hotel suite in the early morning hours of March 21. Three others were also booked including James Osterberg, or Iggy Pop, the “godfather of punk rock.” This infamous mugshot was taken when the rockstar returned to Rochester and pleaded “not guilty” to the felony drug charge in Rochester City Court. This was the story printed in the Democrat and Chronicle the morning of March 22, 1976…

David Bowie's mugshot after being arrested in Rochester NY for possession of marijuana. [PHOTO: Provided by Todd Hess]

‘Pot’ holds rock singer

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle – March 22, 1976

David Bowie, the English rock singer, was arrested early yesterday at the Americana Rochester Hotel on marijuana charges. Three other persons, including a Rochester woman, were arrested with him.

They were charged with fifth-degree criminal possession of marijuana. Police said they confiscated what they described as about half a pound of marijuana. The charge is a class C felony, carrying a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

The Rochester woman was identified by police as Chiwah Soo, 20, of Owen Street.

The other two arrested were members of Bowie’s entourage, which appeared Saturday night at the Community War Memorial. The two were identified as James Osterberg, Jr., 28, of Ypsilanti, Mich., and Dwain Voughns, 22, of Brooklyn.

All four were freed on bond — at Bowie’s expense — and were to be arraigned in City Court this morning.

But Bowie, according to his attorney, left Rochester yesterday for a concert in Springfield, Mass.

Lawyer Thomas G. Presutti said there are heavy penalties when concert engagements are broken and he will “request the court’s indulgence” for Bowie’s absence. Bowie also has a concert scheduled in New Haven, Conn., and should be back in Rochester by Wednesday, Presutti said.

The four were arrested at 2:25 a.m. in a three-room suite in the hotel at 70 State St. external link by four city vice squad detectives and a State Police investigator.

They were held in the Monroe County Jail for a few hours. Bowie gave police his real last name, Jones, and listed his address as 89 Oakley St., London, England.

Presutti said he wanted Bowie out of jail early so he could drive to Springfield. The rock star had a fear of flying, he said.

Presutti contacted the district attorney who recommended bail at $2,000 each. That was approved by County Court Judge Andrew Celli about 7 a.m. Bowie’s bail was ordered in cash, and $2,000 in bond was set for the others.

None of the four had a prior arrest record, Presutti said.

• • •

David Bowie's mugshot after being arrested in Rochester NY for possession of marijuana. [PHOTO: Bob Gapspy, D&C]

Bowie: “Not Guilty, sir”

Story by John Stewart
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle – March 26, 1976

After silently walking through a crush of fans, police and reporters, English rock star David Bowie pleaded innocent to a felony drug charge yesterday in Rochester City Court.

Bowie, 28, entered the Public Safety Building through the Plymouth Avenue doorway at 9:25 a.m., just five minutes before court convened, with an entourage of about seven persons, including his attorneys and the three other persons charged with him.

He was ushered into a side corridor by police and was arraigned within 10 minutes, as a crowd of about 200 police, fans and reporters looked on.

Bowie and his group ignored reporters’ shouted questions and fans’ yells as he walked in — except for one teenager who got his autograph as he stepped off the escalator.

His biggest greeting was the screams of about a half-dozen suspected prostitutes awaiting arraignment in the rear of the corridor outside the courtroom.

Asked for a plea by City Court Judge Alphonse Cassetti to the charge of fifth-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance, Bowie said, “not guilty, sir.” The court used his real name — David Jones.

He stood demurely in front of the bench with his attorneys. He wore a gray three-piece leisure suit and a pale brown shirt. He was holding a matching hat. His two companions were arraigned on the same charge.

Bowie was represented by Rochester lawyer Anthony F. Leonardo, who also represented his companions, James J. Osterberg, 28 of Ypsilanti, Mich., and Dwain A. Vaughs, 22, of Brooklyn. Osterberg, described as a friend and Vaughs, described as a bodyguard, also pleaded innocent to the drug charge.

Osterberg also is a rock musician and performs under the name of Iggy Stooge. Bowie has produced at least one of Osterberg’s album in the past. Judge Cassetti set April 20 for the preliminary hearing for the three men. He also agreed to set the same date for the Rochester woman charged with the same offence, Chiwah Soo, 20, of 9 Owen St., who was also in the courtroom.

Cassetti allowed Bowie to remain free on $2,000 bail, as well as continuing the $2,000 bond on the other three persons charged.

37 years after his arrest, his legend lives on the streets of Rochester. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]Bowie and the other three were arrested by city vice squad detectives and state police Sunday in the Americana Rochester hotel, charged with possession of 182 grams, about half a pound, of marijuana in his room there. Bowie was in Rochester of a concert Saturday night.

Bowie’s arrangement was witnessed by his fans, some of whom had waited two hours to catch a glimpse of him. All remained quiet in the courtroom and scrambled after his arraignment to watch his exit from the building.

But fans and reporters were disappointed as city uniformed and plain-clothes police slipped him out unnoticed.

Using a maze of elevators and stairwells, police took Bowie and his entourage out a side exit, across the Civic Center Plaza and into Leonardo’s office on the Times Square building’s seventh floor.

Only about 30 fans were on hand to yell goodbye as Bowe and his friends left from Leonardo’s office at 12.30pm. Bowie, for the first time, waved to the crowd as his limousine pulled out from a parking space on West Broad Street, made a U-turn and headed for the expressway and the drive back to New York City.

The blue-and-black Lincoln Continental limousine had been ticketed for overtime parking, but a plainclothes policeman took the ticket, and put it in his pocket.

Bowie had remained silent throughout the morning but granted a five-minute interview to newspaper reporters in Leonardo’s office. Leonardo, however, wouldn’t allow any questions directly concerning the arrest, saying it was the first criminal charge he’d ever faced. He complimented city police, though, for the protection they provided him yesterday.

“They (city police) were very courteous and very gentle,” Bowie said. “They’ve been just super.”

Quiet and reserved, Bowie answered most of the reporters’ questions with short answers, shaking hands with them when they entered and left.

Asked if the arrest would sour him on returning to Rochester, Bowie said “certainly not, absolutely not.” He also said he was “very flattered” by the fans who turned out for this arraignment.

“I felt very honored,” he said.

Bowie and his entourage arrived in Rochester about 4am after performing a concert in the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island Wednesday night, Leonardo said, he will appear tonight at Madison Square Garden, his final concert of his America tour, Pat Gibbons, said.

Gibbons, 25, who described himself as Bowie’s “right-arm” man, said after tonight’s concert, Bowie will return by boat to England, starting a new European tour April 7 in Munich, Germany.

Bowie’s entourage stayed at the Downtower hotel [I think this was at Broad and South] yesterday morning. Before the arraignment, he had a conference with his attorneys in Leonardo’s office.

Leonardo said he and Thomas G. Presutti had been asked to handle the case by Bowie’s business attorney, Stanley Diamond of Los Angeles, who also was there yesterday. Diamond had no criminal trial experience and wanted local trial lawyers for the case, Leonardo said.

Bowie won’t appear at the April 20 hearing for any defense motions or possible grand jury action, Leonardo said.

“We’re talking about millions of dollars he could lose in concert commitments (if he appeared for such proceedings),” Leonardo said.

Bowie would have to appear for another arraignment and subsequent trial if he is indicted by a County Grand Jury on a felony drug charge, Leonardo said. But grand jury action isn’t expected until June, and Bowie should be vacationing in Switzerland then, Gibbons said.

District attorney’s office officials said Bowie and the others can’t plea bargain on any of the charges until an official grand jury indictment if there is one.

Bowie talked with immigration officials here yesterday before his arraignment, Leonardo said. The officials wanted to know his itinerary abroad for the next few months, Leonardo said. There are no problems now with his entering or leaving the United States, he added.

Bowie faces a minimum of 15 years’ imprisonment on the drug charge but could get as little as five years’ probation if convicted.

• • •

David Bowie's mugshot after being arrested in Rochester NY for possession of marijuana. [PHOTO: Provided by Todd Hess]

About the Bowie Mugshot Image

The Bowie mugshot was recovered by Gary Hess, now 43, while he was working for a local auction house which was clearing out the estate of a retired Rochester police officer. Gary recognized the man in the picture as Bowie and literally rescued it from the garbage. Because he was falling behind on bills and needed the extra money, Gary gave the photo to his brother, Todd Hess, to sell on ebay. Todd says the photo sold in the fall of 2007 for more than $2,700 to an “uber fan” in the midwest who had some connection with the superstar. According to Todd, the buyer made Bowie aware that she had purchased the mugshot; and, she reported, Bowie was pleased that she won the one-of-a-kind item.

• • •

No answer yet as to whether or not Bowie will ever return to Rochester.

No Hard Feelings?

Although Bowie has said the experience didn’t sour him on Rochester, from what I can find, he hasn’t done another show here since the arrest. One previously scheduled show at Silver Stadium on September 26, 1987 (The Glass Spider World Tour) was cancelled. And he has not yet responded to my tweet 🙁

• • •
Newspaper articles via bowiegoldenyears.com external link

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This entry was posted on Monday, March 25th, 2013 at 7:54 am and is filed under Art + Culture, Rochester History, Rochester Images. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

31 Responses to “Pot Holds Bowie in Rochester”

  1. Ed says:

    Another great piece–thanks. But…what happened? The newspaper articles stop with the arraignment. What happened at trial?

  2. @Ed, that’s the kicker. I wasn’t able to find anything on that. The article speculates about a plea bargain, and mentions all this money that Bowie could lose if he has to keep coming back to Rochester, and possible probation… But I don’t have any info. I would venture to say some kind of “arrangement” was worked out.

    If anyone knows, please drop a comment here.

  3. Love this…so interesting

  4. Ed says:

    This website (http://www.stephenbailey.com/sight/david-bowies-1976-mugshot/) reports that “The charges were all dropped after their court date.” I’d love to know if there was any public statement by the judge as to *why* charges were dropped in a felony case with up to a 15 year sentence.

  5. Michael Tomb says:

    This arrest was in the era when the push to decriminalize small amounts of pot was very active. If fact, within about a year after this arrest, New York did reduce the private possession of up to 25 grams to a civil fine. That was a very big deal at the time to those of us who spent most of our 20s in that decade. Of course that was also a period where prison incarceration rates were dropping or stable…not on a rocket to the moon fueled by victim-less crime. But allow me to do a little threadjacking here and invite all readers of this blog to a meeting tomorrow night (Tuesday March 26) which will include at least one special guest who should be familiar: See this link. http://highlandparkrochester.org/placemaking-a-special-meeting-with-special-guests/ If you can bring Ziggy or Iggy so much the better, but given that it takes place in a park, they will have to go acoustic.

  6. Jason Haremza says:

    Was the Downtowner Hotel the place on Byron Street between South and South Clinton that was torn down about 10 years ago?

    Would love to know who that teenager was that managed to snag his autograph when he stepped off the escalator at the Public Safety Building.

  7. Ed says:

    Thanks, Michael Tomb. But half a pound these days will get you a class E felony conviction, and while I’m no expert on late 70s drug law, the articles cited above suggest that the (no doubt hungry for a scoop) local media reported it as a serious offense.

    Given that lots of Rochesterians then and now do hard time for the same crime, I’m curious about what the DA’s office and/or judge had to say about dropping the charges. I’ll see if I can dig up anything and report back if I do.

  8. joe says:

    Off topic, but wasn’t there a movie with a Rochester mugshot ?

  9. Brian says:

    I had tickets for the Glass Spider concert. The show was canceled shortly before the show. The reason given was that the set wouldn’t fit into the stadium.

    Unfortunately I also purchased tickets to the U2 concert in Rochester that was cancelled about the same time.

    Maybe they were telling me something.

  10. John Zicari says:

    He was afraid to “fly high” or was that “fly, high”?

  11. JD says:

    “Iggy Stooge”. Heh.

  12. Randall says:

    Isn’t Iggy’s name James NEAL Osterberg?

  13. Dick H. says:

    The Downtonwer was on South Ave. That site is now the Bausch & Lomb building of the Rochester Public Library.
    Postcard view of Downtowner: http://mcnygenealogy.com/pics/picture.php?/1472/

  14. Joe says:

    Its a shame it’s gone. I mean its a good looking building in that funky 60ish style. It’s ugly, but you can appreciate it for what it is. I know most people like the older stuff, I do too, but I do appreciate that funky 60’s architecture. 1 East Ave is one of my favorite buildings in Rochester just because its such a good example of buildings from that era.

  15. Matthew Denker says:

    I actually really like the old hotel that is coming down as part of the whole College Town thing. The one at the corner of Elmwood and Mt. Hope. It’s an excellent example of a period piece from this time.

  16. Craig F. says:

    Is the Chi Wah who was arrested the same who works on Monroe Ave at a salon now?


  17. Joel Helfrich says:

    What ever happened to 20-year old Chiwah Soo, Rochester attorneys Anthony F. Leonardo and Thomas G. Presutti, and Judge Alphonse Cassetti? Where are they now?

    Nevertheless, I love all of the special treatment that he received from the police and other people.

  18. dump city roch says:

    thank goodness i got out of the crapchester..i feel bad for my friends that stayed..rochester,detroit…

  19. David says:

    Haha, love this. I was in Rochester once in the 90’s. Just wish that I had known about this fantastic episode. Would have pilgrimed to all the relevant adresses in town


    David, Stockholm, Sweden

  20. David says:

    FYI Leonardo was a big mob lawyer at that time…lots of action in the city in the mid 70’s. I am guessing $$ changed hands to get the charges dropped

  21. I would very much like to talk with any individuals who had either gone to Bowie’s show in 1976 or had any connection to the arrest. You can contact me via http://eggwork.com. Cheers!

  22. “Griff” says: My father, George Carlton Griffin was on duty during that time. He was a Captain for the New Your State Police at the time and remained on the force for almost 25 years. Stationed in Canandaigua, NY at the time, he was a very good cop. When he got back home from work I remember him handing me a copy of the teletype with the arrest information on it. I was a big fan of Bowie, like my big sister Sue. The “AKA” David Bowie name was mentioned at least twice on the paper. What the article failed to mention was that there was also a cocaine confiscated in the room. Dave was traveling with his wife and child along with a “male companion” as well.
    He also was on duty when another rock star and band which was arrested in the southern tier of NY State. The same reason, having been arrested, but that star’s name who was the leader of that band, his name was “Jim”. Dad referred to him as a loud mouth and a wise a*#, but also said they were just young kids blowing off steam and should never have been arrested for having marijuana in their possession. He may not have smoked it, but he didn’t agree with the law at the time.

  23. Anna Jerome says:

    Not my actual name. I worked as a legal secretary for Tom and Tony for many years, and was there during the Bowie debacle. Some of the comments make me laugh…a bit off base. Would love to tell the actual story to someone. Tom’s office was on the 7th floor of the Times Square Building, which was just down the street from the court house.

  24. Matthew says:


    I would love to hear your story. I’m doing a research project on the Bowie arrest. Feel free to contact me at [email protected] or call me at 585.503.4139.


  25. Working on a documentary about Bowie’s arrest. Having an open call for interviews Sunday 1/10/16 at VSW (31 Prince). For more info you can go to BowieGoesToJail.com

    If you have a story to tell please consider joining us this Sunday. And there’s also Bowieoke 2: Birthday Boogaloo http://bit.ly/bowieoke2

  26. T.W. says:

    My Father was the assistant DA prosecutor on this case and we have some original mug shot print scans from this. A very random and unique circumstance. I would love to answer any questions privately or share stories privately for those interested…..

  27. tom says:

    They made a deal with him to let him off if he didn’t return to Rochester and Chiwah Soo had connections with the DA

  28. Really, Tom? I’d like to hear your story.

    T.W., I’d like to hear from you too!

    And Anna Jerome (not your real name), please get a hold of me too at Bowie Goes To Jail dot com


  29. federica says:

    So, what is the real story? What happened actually? Can we know that? Thanks

  30. I’m trying to find the real story for my documentary, Bowie Goes To Jail. I’ve been interviewing people directly involved and the facts are starting to come together. I’m still looking for people who have involvement, either directly or indirectly. Hoping to release the film in 2017.

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