Distant Karma Catches Up With the Brotherhood's Brenice Lee Smith
The wheel of life brings Brotherhood of Eternal Love member Brenice Lee Smith back to OC for a brief stay in jail
My passenger for the day walks out of the Best Western Hotel on Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach. It’s just after 8 a.m. on Nov. 23, the sun is glaring blindingly over the roof of the building, and I have to hold my hand up to shield my eyes. Brenice Lee Smith, 64, closely resembles George Carlin in his later years. He has the same prominent eyebrows and high forehead, and his thin white hair is pulled into a short ponytail. But there the similarity ends: Smith is wearing a yellow smock, a bright-orange cotton jacket and a maroon robe, all of which, I gather, constitute the standard attire of a practicing Buddhist from Nepal.
Smith shakes my hand and introduces himself as “Dorje,” the name given to him by his Tibetan guru, the great Lama Kalu Rinpoche, many years ago at a monastery in Darjeeling, India, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Dorje means “diamond” or “thunderbolt” in Tibetan—the word also can refer to the ceremonial scepter held in their right hand by lamas—and the moniker is clearly a great honor for Smith, whose somewhat unusual first name rhymes with Dennis and who is better known by his friends and family simply as Brennie.
This morning, I am acting as chauffeur for Smith, who does not drive. He has to be at John Wayne Airport by 12:30 p.m., and before that, he has a date at the Orange County Superior Courthouse. Specifically, Smith must present himself at the DNA collection room on the second floor to provide the court with a sample of his genetic makeup by swabbing the inside of his cheek with a plastic scraper.
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As he sits down in the front passenger seat of my four-door sedan, his niece, Lorey James, who is sitting in the back seat, reminds him to put on his seat belt. “It’s the law,” she adds.
“Ah, yes,” Smith says. “Seat belts.”
A puzzled expression forms on his face as he cocks his head from one angle to another, struggling to figure out how to work the device. Helplessly, he lifts his right arm up in the air while his other hand pulls in vain on the buckle clasp on the left side of his seat, the part of the assemblage that doesn’t stretch because it’s anchored to the floor. “I really don’t understand these things,” he finally says. “How does this work?”
* * *
This is only the third time that Smith has ever worn a seat belt. As a kid growing up in Buena Park in the 1950s and later, as a member of the Laguna Beach-based band of acid-dropping hippie drug smugglers known as the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, he never wore one, he says, and by the time they became mandatory for automobile passengers in California in the mid-1980s, he was long gone, a fugitive of the first major skirmish in America’s seemingly eternal so-called “War On Drugs.” The last time he set foot in Orange County, Jimmy Carter was in the White House and the Bee Gees topped the charts. He only came home a few months ago, and he’s already eager to get out of the country.
The last time Smith wore a seat belt was a few nights before I met him, shortly after midnight, when he got a ride from Theo Lacy Men’s Jail to his Long Beach hotel room, with a quick detour to a fast-food restaurant in Newport Beach. After decades away from Southern California, the first meal Smith wanted when he got out of jail was a cheeseburger. Driving the car that night was William Kirkley, a filmmaker working on a documentary about the Brotherhood of Eternal Love called Orange Sunshine, and his director of photography Rudiger Barth, both of whom were more than happy to oblige Smith’s request by driving him to an In-N-Out.
“You really ought to get the double-double,” Kirkley had suggested as they sat in the drive-through lane. (Full disclosure: I’ve provided research assistance for Orange Sunshine.) Smith, not knowing what the hell that meant, gruffly insisted he just wanted a simple cheeseburger. They drove to the beach at the end of the Balboa Peninsula for an impromptu, celebratory picnic. After he wolfed down his burger, Smith, still hungry, sighed with wistful resignation. “You’re right,” he muttered. “I should have gotten the double-double.”
Before that night, the only other time in his life that Smith had worn a seat belt was two months ago when, along with a pair of prostitutes and another male prisoner, he sat handcuffed in the back of a police van on a several-hours-long journey from the San Mateo County Jail to the Orange County Men’s Jail. Three days earlier, at about 9 p.m. on Sept. 26, he had been arrested at the San Francisco International Airport after arriving on a flight from his home in Kathmandu, setting foot on American soil for the first time since 1979.
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.
Meanwhile, beginning in 1967 and expanding over the course of the next several years, the Brotherhood became not only America’s biggest acid distribution network, complete with its own brand of legendarily intense LSD, Orange Sunshine, but also the nation’s most prodigious group of hashish smugglers. Brotherhood smugglers flew to Europe; purchased Volkswagen buses, Land Rovers and other vehicles; drove them overland to Kandahar, Afghanistan—later to become the birthplace of the Taliban—and then shipped them home to California from Karachi, Pakistan.
It all came crashing to a halt at dawn on Aug. 5, 1972. In the largest narcotics raid that had ever taken place in California, police from Laguna Beach to Oregon to Maui to Kabul, Afghanistan, raided dozens of houses and arrested 53 people. One of them was founding Brotherhood member Glenn Lynd, who’d lived at the ranch with Leary, Griggs and Smith, but had fallen out with the group. After moving to Grants Pass, Oregon, Lynd had boasted about the Brotherhood’s exploits to his brother-in-law, Robert Ramsey, who, unbeknownst to Lynd, had been busted for selling speed and become an undercover informant for the Josephine County Sheriff’s Department.
To the surprise of everyone who knew him, including Smith, Lynd agreed to cooperate against the Brotherhood. Over the course of several days, Lynd told members of the Orange County grand jury everything he knew about the group—how it had formed, how acid had been viewed as a tool of cosmic mind-expansion that could bring peace and love to the world, how Leary had come into their orbit, and, more to the point, how they’d smuggled all that hashish into the country.
Lynd had been on only one smuggling trip to Afghanistan in 1968. His partner in the adventure: Brenice Lee Smith.
* * *
Testifying under oath, Lynd described how he and Smith had flown to Germany, purchased a Volkswagen van and driven it to Kandahar, where they met up with two merchants who a year earlier had procured hashish for the first Brotherhood smugglers to reach Afghanistan, Rick Bevan and Travis Ashbrook. By the time they met the merchants, however, Lynd was sick with dysentery, and the pair were flat-broke. To save the deal, Ashbrook flew to Kandahar, sent Lynd home wearing a jacket lined with hash and instructions to sell the drug to a trusted friend and wire the proceeds to Karachi, where Ashbrook used the cash to ship the Volkswagen to Los Angeles.
Lynd did as instructed, and shortly after Ashbrook and Smith flew home, the Volkswagen, along with a few hundred pounds of hash, arrived safely at the Port of Los Angeles. According to Lynd, he and Smith drove to the port to pick up the vehicle. After filling out some forms and getting the keys to the bus, they were directed to another building for an impromptu inspection. Terrified, they drove the Volkswagen toward the inspection site, but before they reached it, they noticed an unguarded gate with a freeway on-ramp just beyond it. They left the port and drove straight to a safe house in the desert where they unloaded the hash.
By the time Lynd betrayed the Brotherhood four years later, the group had already imploded, at least in part thanks to the rise of cocaine, which had turned several members into addicts and perverted the idealism of the group’s spiritual origins. The Brotherhood had also suffered the loss of its most charismatic member, Griggs, who in August 1969 died of an overdose of synthetic psilocybin at the ranch near Idyllwild. In 1970, Leary, who had been jailed in a Laguna Beach pot-possession case, escaped from prison with the Brotherhood’s help. He made his way to Kabul, where he was arrested several months after Lynd spilled the beans (see “OC’s Brotherly Connection With the Weathermen,” Sept. 16, 2009).
The last Brotherhood fugitives were captured 15 years ago. Police found smuggler Russell Harrigan near Lake Tahoe, living under an assumed name; a judge promptly dismissed all charges against him. Two years later, the cops nabbed Orange Sunshine chemist Nick Sand, who was still operating a clandestine laboratory in British Columbia. Sand spent the next six years behind bars.
Nobody in the Brotherhood of Eternal Love lived on the run nearly as long as Smith. Because he was indicted in 1972 but never arrested or jailed, Smith still had two warrants out for his arrest when he returned to California nearly 40 years later.
After Smith had spent two months behind bars awaiting trial, the Orange County district attorney’s office seemed to have realized it didn’t have much of a case against him. Lynd, the main witness in the 1972 conspiracy case, died of cancer in 2002 and was therefore unavailable to testify. Their next-best hope was Travis Ashbrook, who had just been released from prison after serving nearly a year behind bars for a large marijuana-growing operation at his house near Temecula. (After living on the run for several years, Ashbrook was caught in 1980; he spent the next decade in prison for smuggling hash from Lebanon.)
Perhaps to increase the likelihood that Smith would accept some kind of plea agreement, the DA’s office claimed it would bring Ashbrook to the stand to testify against Smith. In an interview with the Weekly, however, Ashbrook vehemently denied he’d agreed to do so. “They came to my house with badges and asked me some questions about Brennie,” he says. “I told them Brennie was a member of the Brotherhood as far as it being a church, but that he didn’t do anything and wasn’t any kind of kingpin, and they were milking a dead horse. I asked them why they hadn’t let him out of jail yet, and they told me they were going to give Brennie a deal and let him out of jail on Friday.”
Indeed, on Nov. 20, Deputy DA Jim Hicks—whose father, Cecil Hicks, had been Orange County’s DA at the time of the original Brotherhood conspiracy trial—offered Smith a deal: If he pleaded guilty to a single charge of smuggling hashish from Afghanistan to Orange County between 1966 and 1972, they’d let him go with three years of unsupervised probation, meaning he was free to travel, including back home to Nepal. Hicks agreed to drop all charges relating to the second arrest warrant that police had used to nab Smith at the airport.
That case involved a 1979 Afghan smuggling operation carried out by several members of the Brotherhood, which fell apart after the Shah of Iran was ousted and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan that year. But transcripts from that trial, which originated when a load of hash was captured in the Bay Area, show that Smith played no direct role in the scheme other than traveling to Kabul. The government’s witness, Walter McAllister, testified Smith had done nothing other than “build a tennis court,” and visit his “goofy guru” while there.
At the Nov. 20 hearing, Orange County Superior Court Judge William Froeberg asked Smith if he agreed to the terms of his plea. Asked by the judge about his plans for the future, Smith said, “I’ll be moving back to Nepal. I won’t be giving you any more trouble.” Smith then signed a series of items indicating his acceptance of the deal by writing his initials—“BS”—wherever his lawyer pointed.
“This case really brings me back,” Froeberg observed, waxing nostalgic. “I was in high school back then.”
“So was I,” Smith responded.
“Orange County has changed a lot since then, hasn’t it?” the judge asked.
“No, your honor,” Smith said. “I don’t believe it has.”
* * *
Three days later, I’m driving Smith to court to provide that DNA sample he’s obliged to donate. Despite telling the judge he didn’t think Orange County had changed much, it’s clear Smith is in the grip of a powerful culture shock. “Is this the freeway?” he asks as we drive along Seventh Street past the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Long Beach. When we get off the 22 freeway in Santa Ana, Smith can hardly believe how many tall buildings there are everywhere. “Where did all these people come from?” he marvels.
At an intersection several blocks from the court, James hands a dollar bill to her uncle, who struggles to find the right button to push to lower the window so he can hand it to a homeless man holding a sign on the sidewalk.
A few minutes later, we park next to the courthouse and spend the next three hours trying to find someone who can give Smith the correct forms so his mouth can be swabbed for DNA. Nobody knows what to do with him; when Smith was indicted 37 years ago, computers were still decades away from being used to track court cases in Orange County. So we wait in line for an hour only to discover the computer system has no record of his ever having been arrested, much less convicted.
Finally, after several telephone calls to the DA’s office and Smith’s Chicago-based defense attorney, James arranges for the lawyer to e-mail the clerk a copy of the judge’s minute order requiring Smith to submit his DNA sample upstairs. Our next stop is the DA’s second-floor window, where a suit-wearing prosecutor who looks like Eliot Ness asks Smith in an ironic tone whether he can afford to pay the $75 filing fee for the DNA sample.
“No, sir, I can’t afford to pay because I have absolutely no money and haven’t had any money for 40 years,” Smith says. “And I don’t plan to have any money ever again in my life.”
The attorney nods his head, unimpressed. “We’ll see about that after HBO gets a hold of you,” he remarks.
As we walk out of the courthouse 15 minutes and a few DNA-carrying cells later, I ask Smith how he feels now that it’s all over, now that his life on the run has officially come to a close. Until now, I hadn’t been sure he’d agree to answer any of my questions on the record, but because I’d helped him avoid wasting even more time in the courthouse, Smith allows me to turn on my tape recorder.
“I feel basically the same,” he says. “Not any better, not any worse, just an ordinary day, coming and going, in one door and out the other.” We get in my car for the drive to the airport, and I hand my tape recorder to Smith so I can steer with two hands. He hands it back as he resigns himself to the challenge of buckling his seat belt again. “I really am not used to these safety belts,” he admits.
I try to ask Smith about the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, but he balks. “That’s all in the past,” he says as we leave the courthouse parking structure. “I live in the present.” Finally, Smith agrees to tell me what the Brotherhood tried to accomplish. “It was not about drugs or LSD or anything like that,” he says. “We wanted people to be happy and free and not like what society conditioned you to want to be. Basically, we loved everyone and wanted everyone to find love and happiness. We wanted to change the world in five years, but in five years, it changed us. It was an illusion.”
He still recalls the night Griggs died from his overdose of psilocybin. “He just took some, and as soon as he took it, he realized he had taken too much.” Griggs wandered back into his tepee and asked his wife not to take him to the hospital. “He knew he was going to leave his body that night,” Smith says. “He went into convulsions, and we put him in the car, and by the time he got to the hospital, they pronounced him dead.”
Happier memories include the time the Moody Blues showed up at the ranch to meet Leary, but they dropped so much acid they never got around to it, and how he and another Brotherhood member visited Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in their hotel room in Hollywood. “We smoked and hung out with them that evening and never saw them again,” he says. “They were aware of the Brotherhood but didn’t want to go to the ranch. Mick Jagger was nervous and thought we’d bring them trouble, and he was in enough trouble as it was with the different police departments all over the United States and Europe that wanted to bust him.”
As we reach the airport, Smith rushes to finish telling me how he spent the past 30 years of his life. He met his guru, Lama Kalu Rinpoche, at a Buddhist retreat in Palm Springs, about five years after becoming a fugitive. He followed Rinpoche from California to Maui to Darjeeling, India, where he spent the next 11 years living at Rinpoche’s monastery. Half that time, he lived in isolation, praying, “om mani padme hum” 100 million times. He befriended a quiet Norwegian, a fellow devotee of Rinpoche, who turned out to be extremely wealthy and who offered to sponsor Smith for the rest of his life if he continued to pray for the betterment of humankind.
In the mid-1980s, just as Smith wrapped up his prayers, civil war erupted in Darjeeling as the ethnic Nepali population sought to secede from India. He slipped across the border to Nepal, married a Nepalese woman and raised a daughter, who is now 21 years old. Besides spending time with his family and passing a few unpleasant months in Orange County, he says, he’s led a very quiet life. He says he just wants to give his interview to the documentary crew making their movie about Buddhism, and then go back to Nepal.
I stop the car in front of the terminal where Smith is to board his flight. He shakes my hand and thanks me for my help. “Have a great life,” he says. “This may have been a short interview, but I am a simple man leading a simple life and don’t have much to give. I practice my religion day and night, all the time. I sleep very little, maybe three or four hours a day, and other than that, I sit and pray for the benefit of the world and the people who live in it and my own karma that follows me like a shadow in everything I do. What goes around comes around.”
To learn more about the Brotherhood, look for Nick Schou’s book, Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love and Acid to the World, to be published in March 2010 by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press.
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