Eddie Padilla's Escape From Lurigancho

The onetime OC man is the only man still alive who escaped from Peru's most notorious prison

Eddie Padilla's Escape From Lurigancho
Jillian Seaman

When Eddie Padilla first learned he was headed to Peru's San Juan de Lurigancho Prison, he was happy.

It was the winter of 1975, and he had just spent the past few weeks locked up in a closet in an ex-drug dealer's mansion in Peru's capital, Lima, a building that Peruvian Internal Police had seized and converted into a detention center and torture chamber. But the corrupt cops who had busted him and his friends for a cocaine-smuggling venture gone awry had a plan. In return for a large chunk of change, they'd fabricate a story that would clear the trio of the crime. All Padilla and his pals had to do was wait six months in Lurigancho. It would be easy, the cops said, a vacation. It wasn't so much a prison as a country club, with tennis courts and a swimming pool.

The trip to the prison, located in the desert outside Lima, was nightmarish. Padilla, his two friends and fellow Orange County smugglers, Richard Brewer and James Thomason, were packed on a school bus with more than 120 other men. His left hand had been handcuffed to the right hand of the man sitting to his right, and his right hand was similarly cuffed to the man to his left—Padilla had to place his head between his knees so he would not lose circulation in his wrists.

Padilla in Maui, circa 2001
Courtesy Lorey James
Padilla in Maui, circa 2001
Worst suburb ever
Worst suburb ever

"The first time I lifted my head was when we were going through a sally port into the yard of the prison," Padilla says. "We could see there were no fucking tennis courts. We went into the administration area, and a soldier came in, a lieutenant, and he started telling us, 'This is a prison. The rules are strict. If you try to escape, we will kill you.'"

While that warning resonated in Padilla's head, a leader of the inmates' welcoming committee approached the new group of prisoners. His face, neck and arms were covered with tattoos; his eyes betrayed no glimpse of a human soul. He had only one message, one simple piece of advice that he wished to share with Padilla and the others.

"You need to get a shank," the man advised, "if you want to stay a man."

*     *     *

Eddie Padilla's journey to the Peruvian equivalent of hell on earth began in another hard-luck locale: in South Central Los Angeles, just across the railroad tracks from Watts. He was born on Oct. 31, 1944, to a mixed-race couple: a German-Irish mother and a half-black, half-Native American dad. In the early 1950s, the family moved to Anaheim, where Padilla was just about the only non-white, non-Mexican kid he knew.

"I was the darkest kid around forever," Padilla says. By the time Padilla had enrolled in Anaheim High School, he had a chip on his shoulder. "Everyone went to Disneyland to get a job for the summer and hang out on 15th Street Beach in Newport. I went to apply to Disneyland and was the only one to not get hired."

Padilla began regularly fighting with his mostly white classmates. After being expelled from the city's public-education system, he briefly attended St. Boniface Catholic Church's school, but he was kicked out after cracking open a classmate's skull. Following a stretch in juvenile hall, Padilla wound up at Servite High School, where he promptly swung a chair at a teacher who had slapped his face. Next followed a football-playing stint at a school in Downey, more fighting and a full-circle transfer back to Anaheim High.

It was in his junior and senior years at the school that Padilla fell in with a group of other troubled, drug-addled, violence-prone teenagers with nicknames such as Mad Dog, Black Bart and Dark Cloud, dead-end suburban street fighters who would become his close friends and compatriots. Some of them were surfers, some dealt pot, some were members of a car club called the Street Sweepers. The most charismatic of them was a young trouble-maker named John "the Farmer" Griggs, a varsity wrestler who made up for his short stature with an epic temper.

Making new friends didn't keep Padilla out of trouble. He became a speed addict, his bizarre behavior leading to repeated arrests for everything from indecent exposure to assaulting a police officer, a depraved spree that only ended when a judge sentenced him to 18 months of mental-health detention at Atascadero State Hospital in central California. Upon his release, Padilla married his high-school sweetheart and took lackluster steps toward finding work. Easier money was to be made peddling marijuana, however, and he set about trying to become a significant player in the pot trade.

Padilla would eventually accomplish that goal, but not before a mind-altering substance, LSD, set him on a course that would come to define him—and would lead him to Lurigancho. It was on his 21st birthday that Padilla took a ride into the hills east of Anaheim and dropped a hit of acid that gave him his first "ego-death" experience, in which he "saw god" and decided to ditch every other drug except marijuana. In 1966, just before California became the first state to outlaw LSD, Padilla, together with Griggs and a few dozen other Anaheim High alums, helped to form a church called the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, which aimed to turn on the world to the drug, and eventually lured Timothy Leary, the psychedelic prophet and defrocked Harvard professor, to Orange County to assist them in achieving that purpose.

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