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Sacramental Peyote Confiscated from The Peyote Foundation
Press Release
Jan 11, 1999
Kearny, Arizona. Peaceful family home ransacked. Religious liberty threatened. Sacred Peyote Conservatory gardens shoveled up. 11,323 endangered plants taken. Church grounds desecrated. Family left in the cold. This story has happened three years after Pinal County authorities returned 700 Peyote plants confiscated in 1995.

Are we to tolerate hate crimes and religious persecution inflicted by law enforcement?

On January 8th, 1999, several officers of the Pinal County Multi-Jurisdictional Narcotics Task Force served an arrest warrant for $1,000 of child support arrearage on Leonard Mercado,co-founder of The Peyote Foundation (TPF). This type of warrant is usually served by Sheriff's deputies, not the Task Force.

Several Task-Force officers immediately surrounded the Mercados' residence and the surrounding area. After forcing their way into the house, the officers asked Mercado to please accompany them outside. He was arrested immediately and placed in handcuffs. Soon after, another resident of the property, Michael Grey, was placed in handcuffs but not arrested. Three of the officers dispersed about the property to search for other people and found Tim Castleman resting in his residence, a 24-ft RV. Tim was also handcuffed but not arrested.

Only after multiple requests to either be arrested or released from the handcuffs, were Mr. Grey and Mr. Castleman released from the handcuffs. Mr. Mercado was taken off the property shortly thereafter.

Mr. Mercado's wife, Raven, and their son Moses arrived from the woods, where they had been gathering firewood, and were detained. Except for one occasion, from that point on no one was permitted to enter any of the buildings, nor was anyone allowed to use the phone to call legal counsel or anyone else.

At this point Raven, Moses, Mike and Tim were all told that they would have to leave the property. It was decided that Raven and Moses would leave on bicycles to go to town and make phone calls. Mike and Tim elected to try and stay in order to witness the actions of the officers, but were soon ordered to leave the property under threat of arrest. They were not allowed to take even a sleeping bag, but were promised that if the investigation was not complete by 11:00 PM they could return and get their sleeping bags. When they did return at 11:00 P.M., they were refused their sleeping bags and told to sleep in the cold. (The search warrant itself states that operations were to be conducted only before 10:00 PM or after 6:30 am.) It was also at this time they were informed that Pinal County was seizing the entire property until a search warrant could be obtained, on the pretense that they had seen a Peyote plant through the window. The officers were alone on the property from that time on, even though they didn't have a search warrant and nobody was under arrest for the Peyote plant they had allegedly seen. Just before dark, Raven and Mike returned to ask for permission to get a coat for Moses, an 8-year boy. They were refused access to their home or the coat.

Meanwhile, the Pinal County Attorney's office was contacted by two ranking members of the Native American Church, informing them of their support of The Peyote Foundation and of Leonard and Raven, as well as confirming Leo and Ravens membership in that church.

That evening Leonard was released after paying the $1,000 arrearage. He then joined several other members of TPF in an all-night prayer vigil held at a friends nearby residence. Mercado contacted Sergeant Strang by phone, offering full assistance and cooperation. The Sergeant was also advised of Mercado's service to and membership in the Native American Church, and the delicate nature of Peyote if mishandled.

Early the next morning Raven returned to the property and spoke with detective Aubrey Keck at the gate. She informed him that they were members of the Native American Church and that the Peyote on the property belonged to the church and was not solely their property. She also offered reference to state law 13-3402(b), which states that Peyote is allowed for use as an integral part of religious belief.

Later that morning more officers arrived with two trucks, in order to remove the Peyote Gardens. As the removal of the sacrament got under way, members of the Foundation and several other members of the Native American Church from local tribes prayed and sang church songs, separated from the trucks by a barrier, armed guards, and K-9 units. These Elder representatives requested that they be allowed to take charge of the sacrament, to no avail. Foundation members continued to sing and pray all day as the trucks were loaded.

Finally, on the evening of January 9th, just before sundown, the residents of the Foundation were allowed to return, after being informed that 11,323 plants had been removed. Still, no search warrant had been actually served. A copy was "left somewhere on the property" according to Sgt. Stang, lead detective in this miscarriage of justice.

Nothing could have prepared this family for the destruction inflicted on the homes and property. Covers on the greenhouses were slashed, and little more than potholed ground was left to indicate the site of the cherished sacramental Gardens. Trucks had been driven across the ceremonial grounds, flattening trees and shrubs in the process.

Inside the houses, drawers had been emptied, curtains pulled from the window, family photos scattered on the floor and other senseless acts of destruction were evident. Particularly disturbing was the discovery that officers had taken Ravens medicine box of church instruments and feathers, made for her by her father, and dumped its contents on the floor. Her personal jewelry box was also taken. Moses' medicine box was also opened, its contents disturbed and spilled about.

Three computers, cancelled checks and all cash, ($117) were taken, as well as family photo albums and scrapbooks with newspaper articles concerning Peyote and the Foundation's history. Other ruthless and mean-spirited acts that were perpetrated on the peaceful family home included the ridiculously juvenile posting of a sanitary napkin on the cabinet where this church's sacrament had been kept.

All evidence of needless destruction was captured on video as well as by a photojournalist. Fortunately, nearly two hundred mistreated but living Peyote plants were found by the crew of 12 who worked all the following day to make reparations to their homes, sacramental gardens, and church grounds. This difficult but ultimately joyous day was finished with sweatlodge prayer services, food, and fellowship. Native American Church members have planned a prayer service for the following weekend.

The Mercados had previously suffered the confiscation and eventual return of 1,000 Peyote plants at the hands of Pinal County authorities in the winter of 1995.

The actions taken by the Pinal County authorities are a complete violation and desecration of our home and church. This is a HATE CRIME of the worst magnitude as our public servants and government officials under the color of law inflicted it.

Our rights to freedom of religion, privacy, due process of law and protection against unreasonable search and seizure have been grossly violated. As Officer Morgan, one of the armed guards at the trucks, said, they "didn't want to argue about the Bill of Rights".

The members of The Peyote Foundation are continuing their prayer vigil, thanking God for the blessings of the sacred plants they are still protecting, and seeking intercession in the return of their sacrament.




Arizona revised statutes 13-3402 . Possession and sale of peyote;

classification

  1. A person who knowingly possesses, sells, transfers or offers to sell or transfer peyote is guilty of a class 6 felony.

  2. In a prosecution for violation of this section, it is a defense that the peyote is being used or is intended for use:

    • In connection with the bona fide practice of a religious belief, and
    • As an integral part of a religious exercise, and
    • In a manner not dangerous to public health, safety or morals.