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.

On a recent afternoon at the Mercado homestead, Leo and Raven Mercado stroll through what is left of their "sacramental gardens." Moses, who is now 8, follows his parents. He is home-schooled and, according to his parents, has never eaten peyote. Moses spots tiny peyotes camouflaged in the soil and points to them with his small hand.

On this day, a young woman named Ellen McMillen kneels in front of some peyote, rattles a gourd and sings to the cactuses. She is one of a once seemingly endless stream of guests--mostly white--who join the Mercados for ceremonies.

In the distance, a man named Mike Grey, who has lived on the streets most of his life, rakes the grounds. Grey and McMillen are the only guests at the ranch on this day.

Leo is intermittently glum and hopeful.
He has faith that God will take care of him, but on the other hand, he doesn't have all the friends he thought he had.

There is no Rutherford Institute attorney to defend his religious freedom this time.

Spiritual leaders in the Native American Church whom Leo and Raven had counted on for support have distanced themselves in the wake of news of the latest bust.

They aren't pleased that Leo keeps saying he's a member of the Native American Church. Most Native American Church members who were interviewed for this story say a membership card requires a tribal affiliation, and Leo is not an Indian. He has been a guest in their church, they say, not a member.

Leo, on the other hand, claims to be a member by virtue of his attendance. Only one Road Man will attest to Leo's membership in the church, and he is a white guy named David Eaglefeather.

All of this is not to say that Road Men don't like Leo--they just won't testify on his behalf. Several who visited the Mercado homestead say Leo started out with good intentions, but his ego got in the way. He wanted to be a peyote guru.

He brought too much negative publicity to himself and then claimed affiliation with their church.

"I worry about publicity affecting the Native American Church," says Delbert Pomani, Road Man of Sioux lineage who lives in California. "Our peyote use is protected under law, and a lot of people went through a lot of bureaucratic crap just to make sure the Native American Church could legally use peyote."

Pomani says Leo should respect the sacrament, shouldn't graft the peyote to another cactus, or eat it with any other substance--like San Pedro or pot. Sobriety, after all, is a tenet of the Native American Church.

(Leo admits that he once ingested both cactuses, but says he quit when Native American Church members chastised him. He claims not to mix pot and peyote during ceremonies.)

"He's a nice guy, and he has good intentions and everything," Pomani says. "But he's trying to go over Road Men's heads and go over the Native American Church. He's going against what this church is all about. . . . A lot of people who read about Leo will say, 'Look, that peyote is making people crazy.' But it's not the peyote. When peyote grows in the desert, it is perfect. There is nothing bad about it. The only thing bad about it is the man or the woman eating it."

One Pima Road Man observes, "Maybe the medicine is trying to tell him something. Leo's always running into trouble with it.

"I think if he was using it in a good way, he wouldn't have all these problems."

Leo says he's "chagrined" by the lack of support, says plenty of church members he knows are less than perfect.

"I really feel unity is what is called for in this case, not division," he says.

"This peyote religion was started by Mexican Indians," he says. "It was given freely to North American tribes . . . the North American tribes never had a common ceremony they could share. But with the advent of the peyote religion, they had one common ceremony they could share from coast to coast.

"Just like it spread to North American tribes, the peyote religion is now spreading to all parts of the Earth. . . . Now the peyote religion is for all people."

Raven seems dispirited by Leo's battles. Right now, she says, she just "wants to stay out of harm's way."

She knows her husband will be shipped off to prison if Carter Olson gets his way.

Asked why on Earth he would martyr himself and risk being separated from his wife and child, Leo responds: "Peyote gave me my wife and child. If peyote wants me to go to jail for a while, I will go.

"And anyway, I don't have a choice. This is the way I believe.
"I am just a God-intoxicated peyoteist."

Contact Terry Greene Sterling at 229-8437, or online at tgreene@newtimes.com

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