Kearny, Arizona. Peaceful family home ransacked.
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
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 Raven's 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 friend's 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 Raven's 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;
A. A person who knowingly possesses, sells,
transfers or offers to sell
or transfer peyote is guilty of a class 6 felony.
B. In a prosecution for violation of this
section, it is a defense that
the peyote is being used or is intended for use:
1. In connection with the bona fide practice of a religious belief, and
2. As an integral part of a religious exercise, and
3. In a manner not dangerous to public health, safety or morals.
Leo and Raven Mercado
PO BOX 491 KEARNY AZ 85237
(520) 363-5389 or 363-7715
The cultivation of