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Authorities Return Peyote to Indians in Ventura County
Los Angeles Times
December 19, 1996

By TRACY WILSON, Times Staff Writer

VENTURA--Ending what amounted to a bad road trip through Ventura County, a Native American minister and his supporters loaded up 250 pounds of confiscated peyote plants Wednesday and headed back out on the highway.

Standing in the bed of a white pickup with arms raised high, two men arrested by sheriff's deputies last month for possessing the 10,000 hallucinogenic peyote buds cheered their victory, while supporters cupped handfuls of the spineless cactus. "Ventura County is giving the Native Americans a spiritual Christmas," said one man, who was helping to heave bags of the chestnut-sized plants into the truck.

The peyote and the men transporting it have been the subject of a two-week legal tussle as prosecutors tried to withhold the narcotic and Native Americans struggled to get it back. Paul Skyhorse Durant and Buzz Joseph Berry were arrested and the peyote was seized after a routine traffic stop Nov. 22. They told police they were on their way to Washington state, where the plants were to be used in religious ceremonies.

Although the district attorney's office decided not to file drug charges against the pair, it refused to give the peyote back pending further investigation. Prosecutors were suspicious, citing Durant's prior run-ins with the law here and elsewhere. Durant and another man, Richard Mohawk, were acquitted in 1978 in the murder of a cabdriver whose mutilated body was discovered in 1974 near an American Indian Movement camp in Box Canyon, near Simi Valley.

In 1994, Durant and Mohawk were convicted in a Los Angeles federal court of a bank robbery in which a customer was shot and injured. Durant was sentenced to eight years in prison and Mohawk to 20 years. During his most recent court case, Durant contended that he was being targeted by Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury. Durant, Berry and a small cadre of supporters chanted, prayed and beat drums outside the courthouse for several days to protest the seizure of the peyote, which they said violated federal law.

In 1994, Congress amended the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 to allow Native Americans the right to use, transport and possess peyote for religious purposes. During court hearings this week, Deputy Dist. Atty. William Redmond argued that the case was not about Native Americans' constitutional rights to religious expression, but about whether Durant obtained the peyote lawfully. He said the Texas Department of Public Safety was investigating the transaction.

Municipal Judge Steven Hintz ruled Tuesday that whatever transactions occurred in Texas were an issue for that state and ordered the peyote returned to its intended recipient--the Native American Church group in Washington state. The minister of that church--Durant's brother Kenneth Littlefish Durant--testified that the Squohomish tribe intended to use the peyote for worship, and Hintz ordered that the peyote be given to him instead of Durant and Berry.

Prosecutors asked that the judge delay the release until noon Wednesday to allow them time to consider pursuing an injunction. But without a stay from a higher court, the Sheriff's Department had to give the cactus to Kenneth Durant. Sheriff Larry Carpenter issued a statement Wednesday saying that he was disappointed with the judge's decision to return the powerful hallucinogen.

"There was ample evidence to suggest that there was a problem in this case," Capt. Mark Ball said. "We don't believe it is a Texas problem," he said. "The peyote found its way to California in the hands of a convicted felon." Authorities also were concerned that the peyote would find its way back to Paul Durant. "He could end up in the same boat again," Ball said.

Despite the return of the peyote, the fight between authorities and the Native Americans flared again late Wednesday after the release when defense lawyers learned that the sheriff's crime lab had destroyed a pair of gallon containers of peyote water. "That's the equivalent of holy water to them," said Deputy Public Defender Michael Schwartz. "It is just icing on the cake with how disrespectful law enforcement in this county is for . . . cultures and religions other than their own."

But Ball said the containers leaked, smelled rancid and looked like unsafe "swamp water." For the safety of the crime lab workers, he said, they were destroyed.