TV news footage of David Bowie’s 1976 arrest in Rochester, NY

Fascinating new footage has been unearthed by writer and director Matthew Ehlers in the basement archives of WHEC

This fascinating piece of Bowie history has been unearthed by writer and director Matthew Ehlers, who was allowed by WHEC to explore their basement archives to find this 16mm clip of David Bowie being interviewed following his appearance at Rochester City Court in 1976.

The story began after David Bowie’s performance at the Community War Memorial in Rochester, New York on Saturday 20 March 1976. Bowie threw at party in his three-room suite at the Flagship Americana hotel in State Street and invited a couple of women he met in the hotel bar.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, the two woman revealed themselves as narcotics officers and at 2:25am four vice-squad detectives and a state police investigator charged Bowie, Iggy Pop, Dwain Vaughns (Bowie’s bodyguard) and a 20-year-old Rochester woman, Chi Wah Soo, on suspicion of possession of 182 grams (a little over 6.4 ounces) of marijuana. This was a Class C felony, carrying a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

Chi Wah Soo was 20 at the time, and at first many accused her of being the “narc” that blew Bowie into the cops.

“Everyone has the wrong idea of what happened,” Soo told a Rochester reporter days after the arrest. “They can think what they wish, but I know I’m innocent.” The Times in London also contacted Soo, but she declined comment on her lawyer’s advice.

Born in China, Soo moved from Hong Kong to Rochester with her parents and sister when she was 11. She worked at her father’s restaurant every day after school until 11 pm, and used lyrics from her favourite music to help her learn English. After attending Monroe Community College, she was a Kodak employee when Bowie came to town.

“I was not going to miss it,” Soo said.

She and her friends made sure to get near the stage. Toward the end of the concert, her long black hair tangled among other fans. Perhaps this drew Bowie’s attention, because he leaned over and handed Soo a bracelet that landed on stage.

“I felt bad,” Soo said about the woman who lost it. “But I wasn’t going to give it back.”

Before she left the show a man gave her a note saying, “Meet me at my party. David.” When Bowie entered the party, Soo said he seemed to have a “halo around his head.”

“Hello, love,” were Bowie’s first words to her.

Later, they retreated to his corner suite at the Americana on State Street (now the Holiday Inn Rochester Downtown) with rocker Iggy Pop and Dwain Vaughns. Two other women joined them — undercover police.

Apparently the police acted on a tip that Bowie had cocaine, and secured the adjacent hotel room. Using stethoscopes to eavesdrop through the wall, police heard something unexpected. Bowie received a phone call saying his young son was very sick and his wife, Angela, could not be found.

“I slowly watched a gentle meltdown of David Bowie,” Soo said.

While Bowie made frantic calls, she used a phonebook to identify the original call as a Florida area code. When Soo told Bowie, he instantly that it was a cruel prank perpetrated  by a couple of girls from Florida.

Bowie’s entourage had marijuana but they didn’t have cocaine. Undercover police officer Deborah Kilborn said they only asked her where they could score some. Nevertheless, police had enough evidence to raid. Soo saw three faces peer into the room when Bowie cracked open the door. It slammed him in the face and knocked him backward.

“That was the start of the nightmare,” said Soo.

Soo now runs a beauty salon she opened in 1993, and after almost 40 years of silence during which she regularly shrugged off requests for details of the arrest, below she tells her side of the story.

The four were held in the Monroe County jail for a few hours before being released at 7:00am on bond – at Bowie’s expense. Bowie later said he bore the police no grudge: “They were just doing their job.”

He later said, “Rest assured the stuff was not mine. I can’t say much more, but it did belong to the others in the room that were busted in. Bloody potheads. What a dreadful irony – me popped for grass. The stuff sickens me. I haven’t touched it in a decade.”

Many consider the arrest a “wake-up call” in a drug-addled chapter of Bowie’s life.

On Thursday 25 March 1976, fans mobbed Bowie as he arrived at Rochester City Court, pleading not guilty to charges of fifth-degree criminal possession of marijuana, as did Iggy Pop, Dwain Vaughns and Chi Wah Soo.

The case was adjourned until April 20 and Judge Cassetti allowed Bowie to remain free on $2,000 bail, as well as continuing the $2,000 bond on the other three.

Bowie’s LA attorney, Stan Diamond, told the press, “He’s not a user of marijuana and it is my opinion that he is not guilty of any illegal possession.”

At the arraignment, Soo gave Bowie her traditional Chinese wedding blanket. Although Soo cannot be sure the song “China Girl” was written about her, she does believe her blanket appears in the music video. Soo and Bowie never spoke again.

Leaving the court, Bowie was besieged by reporters, giving the interview shown here which was shown on Channel Five News later in the day. One reporter asked him if he thought the marijuana could have been planted by a former business associate. Bowie looked shocked but declined to comment.

David Bowie police mugshot taken at Rochester City Court in 1976

This five-by-four inch mugshot was taken when Bowie appeared at the city court for arraignment. In 2007 the photo was rescued from the rubbish during an estate sale of the retired Rochester police officer by Gary Hess, who was working for the auction house handling the sale. Hess didn’t realise its value until he became ill and his brother put the photo up for sale.