Crime History: Sid Vicious Arrested for Murder in 1978 — But Who Really Killed Nancy Spungen?

On the morning of October 12, 1978, a 21-year-old Englishman born John Simon Richie but better known as infamous Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, called the front desk of the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan.

Vicious needed some help, he said, in regard to his girlfriend/manager, Nancy Spungen, age 20.

The couple had been residing in the renowned artists’s mecca for the previous few months, degenerating, it would turn out, into increasingly drug-fueled madness, despair, and, ultimately, violence.

New York Daily News cover, February 3, 1979

New York Daily News cover, February 3, 1979

Now Spungen lay dead on the floor from a stab wound. That was the issue with which Vicious needed assistance.

Over the next few hours, NYPD officers arrested Vicious and charged him with Spungen’s murder. Sid gave muddled accounts of what happened and, ten days later, attempted suicide by slashing his wrists with a broken lightbulb. While hospitalized for the wound, Vicious attempted to hurl himself out a window, declaring he wanted to be with Nancy.

Defense lawyers got Vicious out on bond but, on December 9, police arrested the infamous punk rocker yet again, for assault during a Skafish concert. This time, Vicious underwent forcible, 55-day drug detoxification at Riker’s Island jail.

Vicious got out on bail on February 2, 1979, attended a party thrown in his honor, and died that evening from a heroin overdose.

In the wake of Sid Vicious’s demise, then, authorities immediately closed the case on the murder of Nancy Spungen. Others, however, did not.

Alternate theories as to who killed Nancy Spungen have arisen through the years, arguably coming to a head in 2009 with the release of a documentary titled, Who Killed Nancy?

Alan G. Parker, the movie’s director, told the BBC: “Realistically, the worst title in the world for this film is ‘Who Killed Nancy?’ What it should have been called is, ‘Who Didn’t Kill Nancy and Here’s 500 Reasons Why.’”

The film posits that Vicious was passed out cold when someone else in the hotel room stabbed Spungen and made off with $2,400 in cash. Specifically, Who Killed Nancy? presents the following as evidence of Sid’s innocence:

• Vicious had taken 30 Tunial tablets, enough to keep even the most hardened drug addicts unconscious for hours.

• Police found six different sets of fingerprints in the room, but never interviewed anyone but Vicious.

• Witnesses placed a fellow hotel resident and notorious druggie known only as Michael at the scene. Some claim they later spotted Michael with a wad of cash that was tied with one of Spungen’s distinctive purple hair ties.

By the end, though, Who Killed Nancy? does not (and perhaps can not) answer its own titular question. Parker says he thinks Michael did it. Not everyone agrees.

Whispers around New York’s underground scene pointed a finger at now-deceased actor and performance artist Rockets Redglare. He regularly supplied Vicious and Spungen with drugs, and had delivered 40 capsules of Dilaudid to their room the night of the stabbing.

In his 2007 book Pretty Vacant: A History of Punk, author Phil Strongman claims flat-out that Redglare killed Nancy Spungen and went on to brag about it, writing:

Redglare decided to help himself to a bit more of the couple’s cash. Nancy saw the attempted theft and flew at him, nails flailing — and copped a Bowie knife in her lower abdomen. She slumped to the floor immediately. With no one standing in his way, Redglare took everything but pocket change and left behind what he thought were two corpses.

On 21 January, seated at the bar of CBGB’s, Rockets Redglare casually admitted to several fellow drinkers that it was actually he who’d robbed and stabbed Nancy Spungen — and produced a handful of her blood-stained dollars to prove it. But it would be years before his stoned statement made it out … by which time the principals were all either bankrupt or dead.”

Elsewhere in Pretty Vacant, Strongman indicates that Redglare sold Sid Vicious the heroin that killed him.

Redglare, who died in 2007, said that he “would shoot [up] Sid [with drugs],” but denied both stabbing Nancy and any notions that he ever claimed he did. He even contributed his version of the events to a timeline leading up to the murder that ran in the Soho News on October 26, 1978. An excerpt follows:

“At one point Nancy went to her bag, and some $50s and $100s spilled out on the floor. She told me that if I could get 40 Dilaudids for her she would give me twice the price. She said to me, ‘Rockets, you could make $800’… Now this money, it was new money [new bills]. She tells me that she has $1,400 to spend on dope that night.”

Shortly before 5 A.M, Rockets left the couple in their room. He says that he stopped at the front desk in the lobby to make a phone call and observed Steven C., whom he identified as Nancy and Sid’s regular “Quaalude and Tuinal dealer,” turning the corner and entering the elevator.”

Alas, the mystery remains. The NYPD is satisfied to pin Nancy’s death on Sid. Rockets Redglare is no longer among the living to shed any further light on the killing. Ragged outlaws known only by their first names and most likely among the ranks of Spungen and Redglare remain the best guesses to some theorists. Still others imagine that Nancy stabbed herself as part of a suicide pact that Sid completed three months later.

The entire affair is very much a tragedy to the couple’s family and loved ones. In the realm of punk, it’s lived on as a gruesomely romantic legend. Love kills.

Read more:
Pretty Vacant: A History of Punk by Phil Strongman
New York Magazine
Daily Beast
The Guardian
SoHo News
Ultimate Classic Rock
Den of Geek

New York magazine

Main image: Sid Vicious’s mug shot [New York City Police Department]



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