Longform

A Vision Gone Bust

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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.

Mike Minter, spokesman for the Pinal County Sheriff's Office, admits the sanitary napkin incident "may" have happened and is being investigated.

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.

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Terry Greene Sterling