A Vision Gone Bust

Police have ripped up Leo Mercado's "sacramental" peyote garden. His claim that he has constitutional rights to use the drug for religious purposes may be shredded next.

For several years, Leo and his former wife Deana lived with their three children on the grounds of the Peyote Way Church, says Rabbi Matthew Kent, a church founder who despite his title is not Jewish. Kent says Deana, however, did not eat peyote. In 1988, Leo and Deana divorced. Leo later told a probation officer they split "for religious reasons." (Deana now lives in Kearny and would not comment for this story.)

Leo had a falling out with the Peyote Way Church around the time he and Deana split, says Kent, because Leo wanted to distill peyote into a tincture that would make it easier to swallow. Church officials considered such a practice sacrilegious, Kent says.

For his part, Leo insists he never did distill the peyote--he'd merely heard that it could be done and thought it was an "interesting idea." But he would later be criticized by Native American spiritual leaders for experimenting with another "interesting idea"--grafting--on a cactus they consider divine.

After leaving the Peyote Way Church, Leo traveled to Mexico to visit the Huichol Indians, ancient practitioners of peyote rituals.

He met Raven during a guided tour to Huichol country. Raven was a teenager at the time, recently graduated from a private high school in Philadelphia. She was an accomplished violinist and had won a college scholarship.

But she never went to college. She fell in love with Leo after they ate peyote with the Huicholes. The two married in 1990.

Raven gave birth to their only child, Moses, at a Tennessee commune. The Mercados then drove their converted school bus to Kearny. Once they settled into the ranch, they lived a lifestyle partially modeled on the Peyote Way Church of God--they grew their own peyote and tried to support themselves by making and selling pottery.

But Leo owed thousands of dollars in child support to Deana, who was surviving on public assistance, according to court records. Leo still owes Deana more than $12,000 in child support--a debt that has given police fodder to arrest Leo twice.

Leo's peyote plants were thriving when he was busted the first time, in October 1995. The raid came after his 12-year-old daughter by Deana told authorities that Leo was growing marijuana, and the Pinal County Narcotics Task Force (made up of state, local and county police) swept down on the cactus ranch. Police confiscated more than 1,000 peyote plants, small amounts of marijuana--some roaches, a few stems, some seeds--and two Ecstacy tabs.

Leo claims he'd forgotten he even had the Ecstacy and says the tabs were several years old. He won't say much about the marijuana, except to admit the police found it. Raven, however, told a probation officer she used marijuana as a medicinal herb.

During the first raid, according to Leo, police tore up the house, violated the Mercados' civil rights, illegally seized their peyote and painted a swastika on his door. The police have denied all those charges.

The Mercados were indicted and charged with three separate felony counts in connection with the pot, the peyote and the Ecstacy. And because Moses was free to toddle around the Mercado home, where peyote grew in an "altar" planter, the Mercados were slapped with a fourth criminal charge--child endangerment.

Leo and Raven insisted their peyote was used for bona fide religious purposes. Leo alerted the press to his well-publicized hunger strike, which commenced in front of the office of former Pinal County attorney Gilbert Figueroa. He fasted for a week, eating nothing but peyote and water.

Numerous supporters, including botanists at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, attested to the Mercados' fine characters. Native American Church spiritual leaders, or Road Men, read about Leo in newspapers. They hectored prosecutors about the peyote, explained that it was their holy sacrament and should be treated with the greatest of care.

There was just too much bad publicity for Figueroa.
In 1996, he dropped the felony charges and allowed Leo and Raven to plead guilty to a misdemeanor--possession of drug paraphernalia. Figueroa even returned Leo's peyote plants. (Now a judge in Pinal County, Figueroa did not return repeated phone calls requesting an interview for this story.)

The Mercados' lives changed after the 1995 raid. Area Road Men began to visit them and conduct all-night peyote ceremonies at their ranch. Many, understanding the shortage of peyote, approved of his cultivation methods except for the grafting.

The Mercados believed they had been accepted into the bosom of the Native American Church, a powerful spiritual and political ally.

Leo was so busy with his peyote cultivation that he stopped working at the arboretum and started the Peyote Foundation, which purports to enlighten the masses about peyote conservation, religion and history.

But newly elected Pinal County Attorney Robert Carter Olson didn't think Leo's foundation was all that religious.

Olson soon got a chance to prove it in court.
In 1996, Kearny police stopped Leo for a traffic violation. They ran Leo's name through the computer and found out about the delinquent child support. Leo was arrested and searched. Police confiscated part of a peyote button from his medicine bag.

Leo enlisted the help of Lynn Goar, a volunteer attorney affiliated with the Rutherford Institute in Virginia. The Rutherford Institute specializes in providing legal services to people who contend they have suffered religious persecution, but is most famous for representing Paula Corbin Jones in the final phase of her civil-rights case against President Clinton.

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