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Indian Activist Wins Round in Fight Over Peyote
Dec 10, 1996
By SCOTT HADLY, Special to The Times

VENTURA--A onetime robber with a long history as a Native American activist won at least a temporary victory Monday in a battle to get drug charges dropped in a case involving the possession of 250 pounds of peyote.

Prosecutors decided against filing charges at this time against Paul Skyhorse Durant and a friend, Buzz Berry, after they determined that it looked as if the two were going to use the peyote in legitimate Native American ceremonies, as they had claimed all along. But Deputy Dist. Atty. William Redmond said charges may be filed later after further investigation.

Monday's decision came at a brief Municipal Court hearing that was preceded by about an hour and a half of ceremonial Native American drumming and chanting outside the courthouse by Durant and a small group of supporters. Durant had said he was being singled out for harassment by Ventura County law enforcement officials because of his history as a Native American activist and because of his run-ins with the law here and elsewhere.

In 1978, Durant was acquitted of murder after a celebrated yearlong trial in Ventura County. He and another man, Richard Mohawk, had spent more than three years in the Ventura County Jail in the death of cabdriver George Aird, whose mutilated body was found near an American Indian Movement camp in Box Canyon near Simi Valley in 1974. In 1984, Durant and Mohawk were convicted in a Los Angeles federal court of bank robbery. Durant was sentenced to eight years in prison, while his partner was sentenced to 20 years.

During Monday's hearing, Durant told Judge Steven Hintz that under a recent federal law protecting religious expression--the Religious Freedom Restoration Act--he had the right to use and transport peyote. "These are our sacraments," said Durant, who compared the blue-green cactus buds to the sacramental wine in Roman Catholic ceremonies.

Durant and Berry were arrested in Ventura County on Nov. 22 after deputies found 10,000 buttons of peyote in their car during a routine traffic stop. "It's not as if we were hiding it or anything," Berry said. "It was all over the van, you know. . . . We weren't hiding it. Why should we?"

During Monday's arraignment, prosecutor Redmond said the district attorney decided to drop the charges after the two men produced apparent proof of their tribal membership as well as letters showing that they belong to the Native American Church. But Redmond defended the original arrest, saying that the papers the two men initially produced were not valid.

Despite the decision to drop charges at least temporarily, officials did not return the 250 pounds of confiscated peyote.