By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
The first indication that Smith’s return from decades-long exile wouldn’t be so simple materialized in the form of a pair of uniformed San Francisco police officers who were waiting just outside the airplane. As the two passengers in front of him walked past the officers, one of the cops motioned toward Smith. “Come with us, please,” he said. “You’re under arrest.”
The cops informed Smith he was wanted on two charges of smuggling hashish from Afghanistan to Orange County nearly 40 years ago. Smith refused to answer any questions, except to say he had returned home to be interviewed for a documentary about Buddhism. During the next two months Smith spent behind bars, first at the Orange County Jail and then at Theo Lacy, he maintained his silence. All the other inmates appeared to know he was once part of the so-called “Hippie Mafia,” and they were cool with that. Nobody gave him a hard time. In fact, as Smith tells it, all the inmates appeared to regard him with great esteem.
Occasionally, a guard would ask him if he knew Timothy Leary. “You know that’s why you’re here, right?” they’d joke.
“Oh, I knew Timothy 40 years ago,” Smith would respond.
One night, a mysterious stranger visited Smith at the Orange County Jail and asked him about Leary as well.
“Yes, I knew Timothy Leary, but that was 40 years ago,” Smith recited.
Undeterred, the man asked Smith whether he knew someone named John Griggs.
“John Griggs? Who’s that?” Smith responded.
“He was the leader of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love,” the agent replied. “Weren’t you in the Brotherhood?”
Smith recalls pondering the broad, philosophical dimension of that question for a few moments. “Well, everyone is part of the Brotherhood as far as I know,” he finally answered. “It’s a world of Brotherhood: Everybody’s been our father and mother, and everyone’s been our uncles and aunts.” He refused to answer any more questions.
The agent, whoever he was—the Orange County Sheriff’s Department put a black line across the name of his employer before releasing Smith’s visitor log to the Weekly—left empty-handed.
* * *
Brenice Lee Smith’s long, strange trip from Orange County to the Far East and back began 43 years ago in a stone building on the steep slope of a heavily wooded property nestled in Modjeska Canyon. Renting the house was the aforementioned John Griggs, a 21-year-old recovering heroin addict and petty crook who had moved there with his young wife, Carol, from Anaheim. The stone house was known as “the church,” and it was there, in October 1966, on the screened upstairs back porch, that Smith (who was also 21 years old at the time), Griggs and about a dozen of their closest friends formed a church called the Brotherhood of Eternal Love.
The purpose of the church, according to legal paperwork the group filed in Sacramento, was to “bring the world a greater awareness of God through the teachings of Jesus Christ, Buddha, Ramakrishna, Babaji, Paramahansa Yogananda, Mahatma Gandhi, and all true prophets and apostles of God, and to spread the love and wisdom of these great teachers to all men irrespective of race, color or circumstances.” The Brotherhood’s sacrament of choice, lysergic acid diethylamide—or LSD, also known as acid—had just been made illegal in California. The fortuitous timing of this prohibition helped steer Griggs and his cohorts into the most organized and evangelical band of outlaws in the state.
Dubbed the “Hippie Mafia” by police and, later, Rolling Stone Magazine, the Brotherhood was famous for its headquarters, Mystic Arts World, a head shop, clothing boutique, art gallery and psychedelic reading room on PCH across the street from a Taco Bell. The street corner became infamous as the center of Southern California’s drug scene, where teenagers from as far away as Pasadena and San Diego knew they could find acid, marijuana or hashish (see “Lords of Acid,” July 7, 2005). The group lived nearby in a warren of clapboard shacks on Woodland Drive in Laguna Canyon, just a stone’s throw from the current location of the Sawdust Festival, in a neighborhood known as “Dodge City” for the density of drug dealers who lived there and the frequent raids by all manner of law-enforcement agencies.
The Brotherhood even lured Leary, who had famously commanded the world to “turn on, tune in and drop out,” to Laguna Beach, where he became something of a high priest for the group, even though he considered Griggs to be his guru and the “holiest man who has ever lived in this country.” Although the Brotherhood had talked about buying a tropical island where they could create an experimental utopia, Leary had no interest in abandoning civilization, and Griggs ended up hosting Leary at a more modest commune in the mountains above Idyllwild, near Palm Springs. There, several members of the Brotherhood, including Smith, lived in tepees, grew their own vegetables, delivered their own babies and dropped a lot of acid.