Longform

A Vision Gone Bust

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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.

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Terry Greene Sterling