By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Seven years ago, Leo and Raven Mercado grew tired of living in a converted school bus, so they settled down in ranch country near Kearny, a town of 3,000 located about 70 miles southeast of Phoenix.
To reach their hideaway, one must cross the Gila River on a rusty suspension bridge, and follow a dusty path that winds through desert scrub to a complex of two deteriorating houses, a dilapidated barn, an Indian-style sweat lodge and exquisitely landscaped cactus gardens. The Mercados live in one house; the other building serves as a guest house and office for Leo's beloved Peyote Foundation, which purports to educate anyone who's interested about the cultivation and conservation of peyote, a cactus that contains the hallucinogen mescaline.
Leo, 38, and Raven, 28, chose to settle in this isolated stretch of the Gila River Valley for two reasons.
First, Leo had grown up in Kearny, and the couple wanted to raise their infant son close to Leo's extended Latino family.
Second, Leo, who had worked in greenhouses and nurseries, figured the climate was well-suited for the cultivation of his beloved cactus--Lophophora williamsii, or peyote.
Leo knew that peyote wasn't native to Kearny, Arizona. It grows naturally in the deserts of northern and central Mexico and in a small belt of arid land that runs along the Texas-Mexico border. Mexican Indians consider it holy "medicine" and have eaten it during prayer ceremonies for at least 2,000 years. The top of the cactus, or button, is harvested from the cactus stem and prayed over, then eaten.
When Spanish priests discovered that peyote-eating natives were difficult to convert to Catholicism, they tried to have it outlawed. For the same reason, missionaries campaigned against peyote when Native Americans imported it into the United States in the mid-19th century and devised their own all-night prayer ceremonies.
It's not the easiest praying in the world. Whether eaten raw or as a powder or as a tea, the peyote button is exceedingly bitter and often induces severe vomiting. Devout peyoteists rarely speak of hallucinations; rather, they comment on the way in which praying while eating the cactus connects them to their God and their own souls.
In purely scientific terms, peyote and LSD have similar effects on the mind, according to Desert Botanical Garden senior research botanist Edward Anderson, who has written a book about peyote. Anderson says the "divine cactus" is not addictive and is about 1,000 times less potent than LSD.
In Arizona, possession and use of peyote is a Class Six Felony unless it is possessed or used for a "bona fide" religious purpose. State law does not mention race. Federal law is more stringent, prohibiting transportation, use or purchase of peyote by all but Native Americans--registered tribal members adhering to a genuine native religious practice.
By the time Leo and Raven Mercado settled down near Kearny, they had been eating peyote for quite some time and claimed they used it for bona fide religious reasons. They figured they were not breaking any state law by ingesting it in their ceremonies.
Leo became so interested in cultivating peyote that he got a job as a nurseryman at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior. Arboretum horticulturists, he figured, would be experts at cultivating cactuses. Leo wanted to expand his knowledge of cactuses in general so he could become a superb peyote cultivator.
That same year, The Cactus and Succulent Journal published a study by Anderson that revealed a shortage of wild peyote in a limited habitat in southwestern Texas. Peyote supplies were dwindling in the very locations where licensed dealers could legally sell the cactus to card-carrying members of the Native American Church. (Most Native American Churches do not issue membership cards to non-Indians.)
From time to time, Leo has claimed to have gotten his peyote from card-carrying church members. He told anyone who would listen that his peyote cultivation was an important ecological experiment. He grew seedlings. He grafted slow-growing peyote onto San Pedro cactuses, which are also hallucinogenic. He planted peyote in greenhouses, and in the shade of mesquite trees.
Soon he had quite an impressive "sacramental garden."
He says he did not intend to grow peyote to sell it, has never sold it, would never sell it. He says he gives peyote to people during church ceremonies. He says he grows it exclusively for religious purposes.
Pinal County officials, who have busted Leo three times, do not agree.
Neither do many Native American Church spiritual leaders.
Leo Mercado himself is an affable fellow who fancies himself as a man with a grand cause, and he sometimes compares his struggles to eat peyote legally to the great causes espoused by Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez.
The natural question, of course, is whether Leo is using his ceremonies as an excuse to get loaded.
He says he isn't. It's all about religion, he insists.
Leo Mercado first began using peyote "sacramentally" in the mid-Eighties, after joining the Peyote Way Church of God, an all-race religious institution located near Safford.
The church, started in 1977, still exists and has about 150 members. Adherents take peyote as a sacrament during individual "Spirit Walks," and also follow Mormon tenets. The Peyote Way Church is not affiliated with any Native American Church, and members eat peyote individually, during vision quests. The church grows its own peyote and has been left alone by Graham County authorities, largely, says one founder, because Arizona's law allows peyoteists to eat the cactus regardless of race as long as there is a bona fide religious reason.
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.
Goar asked Pinal County Superior Court Judge William O'Neil to order law enforcers to return the partial peyote button they'd taken from his medicine bag. Leo claimed his constitutional right to free exercise of religion had been violated. And he said he was a member of the Native American Church, which claims a U.S. membership of 250,000.
But now all the publicity was working against Leo. Not a single Native American Church spiritual leader would agree to testify on his behalf.
Instead, the prosecutor convinced one Native American Church leader, a deputy prosecutor for the Navajo tribe named Victor Clyde, to testify against Leo. Clyde disagreed with Leo's peyote cultivation, testified that peyote must be left to grow in the desert; it is too holy to be cultivated by man.
O'Neil ruled in June 1998 that Leo failed to produce convincing evidence that he was using peyote in "bona fide pursuit of a religious practice" as required by state law. The judge refused to order the police to return the partial peyote button.
O'Neil's written ruling strongly rebuked Leo: "Mr. Mercado has failed to demonstrate to this court's satisfaction that peyoteism or the peyote religion, however referred to, is a religion that is embraced by him. Instead, he presents himself far more as some carny offering cotton candy for any and all to use."
County Attorney Olson relished his court win. The judge's decision set the legal stage for the Narcotics Task Force to visit the Mercado ranch yet again, on January 8 and 9.
By this time, the Mercados had filed two separate declarations at the Pinal County Recorder's Office, attesting to their religious use of peyote.
Their "sacramental gardens" contained thousands of peyote cactuses, and Leo had started his "vast experiment" to see how to harvest the peyote cactuses on a sustainable basis. And he does need a lot of peyote. He runs "devotionals" during which he and guests ingest both San Pedro cactus and peyote. He says he models them after Huichol rites. He says he never mixes peyote in ceremonies with anything other than the occasional San Pedro cactus.
Leo insists that peyote ceremonies are reverent affairs.
"The way we eat this peyote in a ceremony takes a lot of work, a lot of devotion and a lot of prayer," he says. "The reward is nothing like drinking a six-pack or snorting cocaine. The reward is the strengthening of spirit and clarification of mind and a reverification of purpose for your life.
"We can prove in court that I don't drink and I don't deal drugs. I could have made a choice to run a Peyote Foundation scam and fund it on the side with drug dealing. I could have made that decision, but I didn't."
None of these arguments holds much sway with prosecutor Olson, which explains why, on January 8, Leo was arrested at his ranch. Once again, he was served with a warrant for failure to pay child support. Of course, the cops spied the "sacramental gardens" and called in the Narcotics Task Force. Leo was arrested and released from jail the next day after he paid $1,000 in child support. Leo claims he can't pay the huge sum he still owes. He says that by selling $25 annual newsletter subscriptions and soliciting donations, the Peyote Foundation earned about $12,000 last year. Raven earned about $2,000 last year selling natural herbs and pottery. That is their total income, he says.
Leo got back from jail in time to see police seize more than 11,300 peyote plants, plus an unidentified "white powdery substance intended for personal use," and some marijuana, according to Pinal County officials. Leo says the police also confiscated the Peyote Foundation's computers, financial records, books and some personal photographs. He says he was told the computers were needed to determine if Leo was involved in drug trafficking.
As the peyote was loaded into trucks, a Native American Church Road Man from Phoenix--alerted by Leo--drove to Kearny and asked police to turn the peyote over to him. They refused.
The Gila County Attorney's Office has since been "inundated" with phone calls from Road Men and others concerned about the seized peyote, says spokesman Charles Ratliff. Olson "consulted a horticulturist" about the proper care of the cactuses, and the peyote is in good condition in a secret location, according to Ratliff.
Leo is heartbroken.
"They're holding the peyote hostage," says Leo.
Leo calls the raid a "hate crime," claims the police illegally seized his peyote, tore up his house, shredded the plastic on his greenhouse, even stuck an unused sanitary napkin on a cabinet that once held peyote. Raven had apparently stored her sanitary napkins in a nearby cabinet.
Minter won't comment on Leo's other charges, citing the ongoing investigation.
"This was a legitimate search warrant," he says. "It was served in the same manner as all warrants are served."
Olson is waiting for the sheriff's office to conclude its investigation before deciding whether to prosecute Leo and Raven.
If the Mercados are successfully prosecuted, their case "will probably set a precedent in Arizona for non-Native American Church members using peyote," says Ratliff.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org