Eddie Padilla's Escape From Lurigancho
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.
"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.'"
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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.
The group began with communal acid-dropping sessions at Griggs' house in Modjeska Canyon, but by 1967, it had moved to Laguna Beach; its new headquarters was Mystic Arts World, a head shop, art gallery and retail boutique on Pacific Coast Highway. Inside the store, Padilla managed a small bead shop; other members sold everything from incense and candles to esoteric literature and copies of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi, and Leary and Ralph Metzner's The Psychedelic Experience.
Every weekend, groups would head off to local beaches, hot springs and mountains to drop acid. Meanwhile, trips to Mexico to haul back blankets, ponchos and other indigenous handicrafts doubled as pot-smuggling ventures. Padilla's first stint as a smuggler was also almost his last. He and a trio of Brotherhood members took a truck to Mexico and camped out on the beach near Mazatlán. While one of their friends traveled to Oaxaca to purchase some native crafts, Padilla and two of his partners purchased 200 kilos of weed and waited on the beach for the friend to return.
The cops arrived first and lengthily questioned the Americans, but they failed to discover the pot that Padilla had hastily buried in the sand. Once his friend returned from Oaxaca—and before the Mexicans were the wiser—Padilla stashed the marijuana in the truck's side panels; the group drove across the border without a hitch. "People started bringing loads in from all over the place," Padilla says, "smuggling like crazy and getting really sophisticated at it, too."
Soon, Padilla and his friends had become such reliable marketers of marijuana that they had their own in-house attorney: George Chula, the Saul Goodman of his day, whose investigator, Michael Marvich, an ex-con, would often alert Padilla or another Brotherhood member when and where to pick up a car full of pot that had just arrived from Mexico. But Padilla was ambitious. In 1967, he and a brother filled every available panel of a double-cab Volkswagen bus with 500 pounds of Mexican weed and proceeded to drive it to San Francisco, where they hoped to unload enough of it to keep the city's Summer of Love going through winter.
Instead, the cops almost immediately busted Padilla. An FBI agent arrived at the jail to interrogate him.
"They knew about the shop, the Brotherhood, everything about me," Padilla says. "They wanted me to rat on the Mexicans. I said, 'Give me one month. Let me out of jail, and I'll call you in a month and try to set something up for you.'" The agent didn't find that funny. Thanks to the Brotherhood's attorney, Padilla quickly made bail. He bounced back and forth to court for the next two years, as did many of his friends, before realizing that if he remained in California, he'd be headed to prison for a longer time than he could afford to spare.
Meanwhile, time was running out for the Brotherhood. While single members of the group took over a neighborhood they called "Dodge City" on Woodland Drive in Laguna Beach, Leary had joined many married members of the Brotherhood at a ranch in Idyllwild, in the mountains above Palm Springs, where he lived in a Native American teepee and hatched a campaign to run for governor of California on a platform to legalize marijuana, outlaw football and return the state to a pre-capitalist barter economy. But a series of mishaps drove the Brotherhood from its commune. First, a member who'd just returned from Afghanistan with a surfboard full of hash was busted driving up to the ranch. The 17-year-old girlfriend of another Brotherhood member drowned in a swimming hole while tripping on acid, leading to Leary's arrest for criminal negligence in the incident. Griggs' untimely death in August 1969 from what appears to be the only known case of overdosing on synthetic psilocybin sealed the group's fractious fate, with members evading police in Mexico, Central and South America, and Maui.
Maui was a natural choice for Padilla, who'd always hoped that the Brotherhood's illicit smuggling activities could somehow finance the purchase of a tropical island where the group could pursue the hippie ideal of dropping out of society and living in harmony with nature. At the time, the island had yet to be overrun with tourism, and the Brotherhood easily blended in with the thousands of hippies who arrived each year and formed a natural customer base for the group's drug enterprise.
As I recounted in my 2010 book, Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love and Acid to the World, Padilla arrived on the island in May 1970 by the most arduous route imaginable. Along with a handful of friends, almost none of whom had any sailing experience, he sailed to Maui on the Aafje, a 70-foot yacht the Brotherhood had loaded with a ton of high-quality Mexican marijuana it dubbed "Lightning Bolt," the clones of which, when planted on Maui, became the legendary "Maui Wowie" strain. Because the boat had no functioning navigational equipment, the Aafje strayed off course by hundreds of miles, surviving several tropical storms in the process; the trip was saved when a sympathetic Norwegian ship captain gave them fuel and food to complete their voyage.
Padilla spent the next three years on Maui. He was there when Jimi Hendrix played what amounted to a private show for the Brotherhood and their friends thousands of feet above sea level on the slope of the Haleakala volcano, an event immortalized in the eminently unwatchable 1972 film Rainbow Bridge. Before long, though, cocaine moved in—as well as the ego, greed and paranoia that came along with it. Padilla abandoned his wife and young kids in Kihei and retreated to a house in Makawao, spending more time getting high and chasing younger women than surfing. "I had a total fucking relapse," Padilla recalls. "It was like I had never taken acid."
In August 1972, a multi-agency task force busted the Brotherhood, raiding stash houses and hash-oil operations from Laguna Beach to Oregon to Hawaii. Although many of his friends were caught in the arrests that took place that month, most spent only a few months or a year in jail before going back into smuggling. Padilla managed to evade arrest and fled to Costa Rica, where he stayed until the heat had passed. He then began traveling again under an assumed name.
"I had the genius to think I could smuggle coke," he says. Padilla hollowed out the neck and body of a Fender electric guitar so he could fill it with 1,800 grams of cocaine. "I found somebody who had a connection and went to Cali [Colombia] and started running coke from Cali, flying from Bogota right to LA."
When the police busted the Colombian network, Padilla turned to Peru. He made seven successful coke runs from Lima to LA before a friend invited him to sail from Tahiti to Hawaii to supervise a load of "Thai Stick." Before he could take up the offer, though, Padilla had one last deal he had to finish in Peru. "I was burned out," he says. "I made up my mind that this trip was going to be the proverbial last time."
* * *
When the Peruvian police busted into Padilla's room, his world blacked out, and all he could see was the barrel of the gun pointed at his face.
Padilla had arrived in Peru the previous day and was staying at a high-end resort outside Lima with his friends Richard Brewer and James Thomason—both of them fellow Orange County-bred smugglers. They were posing as a trio of jet-setting tourists on a surfing safari, but in reality, they were about to fly back north with as much Peruvian flake as they could carry.
The man pointing the pistol at Padilla's skull was named Delgado. He had dark skin, jet-black hair and a body built like a tank. "That guy was the evilest fucking guy I met in my life," Padilla recalls. "He reeked of murder and mayhem. Every word had a threat in it; it seemed like there was no hesitation that he would kill you."
It didn't help things that Delgado and his Peruvian Internal Police (PIP) cohorts had followed Padilla's in-country coke contacts for days before he landed at the airport. Or that there were 20 kilos of cocaine in his hotel room. The only thing in Padilla's favor was that he'd hired a San Clemente machinist to craft a diving tank with a hollow bottom, which was now filled with $58,000 in cash and sitting next to the coke. "They came in the door, started kicking us around, slapping us around," Padilla says. "That's when I got Delgado to get that bag of money."
As Padilla would only later discover, Delgado and his PIP henchmen were elite anti-narcotics officers with license to murder drug traffickers. They were backed by the newly created U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), whose birth in 1973 was a consequence of the rapid rise in drug smuggling fueled by groups such as the Brotherhood.
The PIP, or at least Delgado, was also corrupt to the core. As soon as Padilla offered him $58,000 as a down payment to drop the charges, Delgado appeared willing to sabotage his own case against the three American smugglers. Ostensibly to keep them isolated from the DEA agents who were eager to interrogate them until he could come up with a cover story that would exculpate them, Delgado took Padilla and his pals to the PIP's infamous Pink Panther villa, which the agency had seized from a recently deceased cartel figure.
"It was a two-story, pink mansion," Padilla says. "They took the whole bottom floor and made it a jail, put metal doors on closets and dining rooms. The cell we were in was literally a walk-in closet, with a metal door and framing. It was pitch dark, and I was handcuffed for two days. You could hear people screaming and women being raped."
Padilla began to lose hope. He apologized to his friends for luring them to Peru on such a stupid mission. "I broke inside that closet," he recalls. "I fucking broke down crying."
* * *
About six months into his incarceration at Lurigancho, Padilla began to realize he wasn't going home any time soon. Although the Brotherhood's attorney, Chula, had flown to Peru to help facilitate his defense—even smuggling a ball of hash to Padilla—the Peruvian justice system was proving difficult to thwart. Delgado had testified in court that there were no drugs in Padilla's room until after Padilla had been handcuffed, meaning that someone had set him up, and if anything, Padilla should only face possession charges. The judge had pronounced Padilla and his friends abseulto—absolved—of the crime. But now they needed to wait for the Peruvian Supreme Court to sign off on the ruling, and the judges seemed to be in no particular hurry to do so.
Padilla began to lose track of time, as the horrors of Lurigancho caused one day to bleed into the next. Although the prison was heavily guarded from the outside, few guards ventured inside the facility, and inmates were free to roam wherever they wanted during daylight hours. Although Padilla and other foreigners were lucky to have their own tier, which afforded them the slightest protection and privacy from other inmates, the floor of most wards of the prison were typically covered in piss, shit and human vomit. "People were murdering people, stabbing them," Padilla says. "People were turning white, and people were stepping over bodies."
Food was hard to come by, and while drugs were easily obtainable, they came at a price. Padilla's dealer, a thug named Pelón, demanded Padilla carry out a hit on another man, and when Padilla failed to do so, Pelón attacked him with a knife. An older inmate who took pity on Padilla helped disarm Pelón and even paid him money to leave Padilla alone. In return, he demanded Padilla forsake all drugs except marijuana, and Padilla once again cleaned up his act.
As more inmates began pouring into Lurigancho in the late 1970s, conditions in the prison continued to deteriorate. The daily battle for food was so intense that the least-favored inmates were starved—in at least one case, fatally—by fellow prisoners. Inevitably, the inmates began to demand better treatment. Some of them managed to take a guard hostage. "Three Peruvians in the nastiest cell block that no guard would go inside had stabbed a guard," Padilla says. "The animals had cut him up; you could see the blood running."
The prisoners released the guard in exchange for a promise for better treatment. Everything was calm at Lurigancho until three days later; Padilla looked out his cell window and saw a group of soldiers lining up on a hillside overlooking the prison. They positioned a 50-caliber machine gun on a tripod; an officer shouted, "Fuego" and blew his whistle, and bullets flew into the mutinous ward for the next five minutes.
"The amount of ammunition that went into that building was incredible," Padilla says. "Then they shot tear gas, and the soldiers went in with gas masks, shooting anyone in sight with pistols. That was the first time I experienced tear gas, and it rolled into our block. The guards unlocked our cell and let us lay down in the hallway. They killed something like 100 or 170 guys, piled out dead in the main hallway. The next day, in the paper, it said it was an attempted escape."
In early 1979, the Peruvian Supreme Court finally granted Padilla, Brewer and Thomason a hearing to determine if they would be absolved of their cocaine-trafficking charges. While they waited for the ruling, they were removed from Lurigancho to a jail near the courthouse in downtown Lima. But on a Friday evening in July, after six months at the jail and four years in Lurigancho, their lawyer announced the court had refused to grant the trio their freedom. Padilla and his friends now faced the prospect of returning to Lurigancho to finish out their 20-year sentences.
To Padilla, the news felt like a death sentence. "If you do 15 or 20 years in Lurigancho, there is a good chance you will not make it," he explains. Although Thomason, who had his own attorney, said he was willing to try to escape, he didn't seem sure of the plan. Padilla and Brewer made a pact: No matter what happened, they were not going back to the prison. "It was do or die," he says. "We were serious as a heart attack. There was no going back."
Padilla and Brewer knew the location of a church in Lima where a friendly minister who often visited the prison might shelter them until they could figure out a way to reach the Brazilian border. They hoped to find transport to the Urubamba River and float their way to freedom. Once in Brazil, they could walk into a police station and claim to be tourists who had been robbed and lost their passports. They'd even used toothpaste to create a rudimentary map of their escape route on the wall of their jail cell, telling the guards the map showed their future travel plans once they were released.
After six months at the jail, Padilla had won over the guards, who seemed convinced the Americans really were just harmless surfers who, if released, had no plans to even leave Peru, but rather pick up where they left off four years ago and find some waves. The following night, a Saturday, Padilla bribed the guards, who brought beer and whisky into their cell. "I took a sip of beer and a sip of Johnnie Walker," he recalls, "but James [Thomason] drank almost half a fifth and was sick, barfing."
The guards unlocked the cell door while Thomason puked his guts out in the latrine across the hallway. When they weren't looking, Padilla and Brewer crept out of their cell. Using a metal spoon's handle, they pried open a locked door at the end of the hall, climbed a 20-foot wall topped with a 5-foot-high chain-link fence strung with three strands of barbed wire. Although it was completely dark, Padilla and Brewer knew that they were about to jump into an abandoned lot half-filled with lumber, the other side of which, beyond a short wall, was a busy Lima thoroughfare.
Brewer jumped first and landed safely in the grass. Padilla took a deep breath and flung himself after his friend. One foot reached the grass. The other came up short, crunching stiffly into a stack of wood, and Padilla collapsed in a heap. "The plan was completely over because I could not walk," Padilla says. "My foot was the size of a cantaloupe." Padilla would later discover he had broken several bones in his foot and the fall had sheared his Achilles tendon.
Because their plan was to separate and meet up at the church, Brewer had already vaulted the second wall and was hailing passersby in an attempt to get a ride. Somehow, Padilla managed to drag himself to the wall, where Brewer had left a wooden ladder that had been discarded in the lot. He pulled himself over, and Brewer helped carry him 20 feet down the street. Seconds later, a car stopped; Padilla and Brewer disappeared into downtown Lima.
* * *
I first met Eddie Padilla in 2009 at his then-home in Santa Rosa, where he was living with his wife of 32 years, Lorey James. I was researching Orange Sunshine; her uncle was a fellow Brotherhood member, Brenice Smith, whose decades-long run from the law ended in 2009 when he returned to California from Nepal and spent a few months at the Orange County Jail (see "Distant Karma," Dec. 10, 2009). It wasn't an easy interview to get. When I emailed Padilla, asking if he'd share his tales from the days of the Brotherhood, he seemed cautious to the point of paranoia. He asked several questions regarding my intentions as a reporter, and when I responded that I wanted to meet with him in person and tape record an interview, he didn't reply for a few days. When he finally did answer, it was to tell me to get lost. "May all your days be six feet and glassy," he'd said, which seemed to be surfer lingo for goodbye and good luck.
Eventually, though, Padilla changed his mind, and over the course of two days, he shared his story with me—so much of it that the single-spaced transcript of my interview with him stretches more than 50 pages. He became a central character in my book, which also features a photograph of him taken on Maui in the early 2000s, when Padilla returned to the island as a drug counselor who had been sober for 17 years. In the shot, the shirtless, muscular, 60-something Padilla is grinning like a conquering warrior.
The only thing Padilla refused to share with me at the time was the story of his experience in Lurigancho. He was saving that for an article called the "Pirate of Penance" by former LA Weekly deputy editor Joe Donnelly that crowned the inaugural issue of the literary journal Slake in August 2010. "It's easy to see why Eddie Padilla was such a central figure in this entire drama," says Donnelly. "He's charismatic, egotistical, curious, and while he's a generous and kind person, he still has a bit of an edge to him. I should add, too, that the man can surf."
Padilla is now the only person alive who is known to have escaped from Lurigancho. Thomason, who wasn't included in the escape plan, served six months at the prison before being pardoned. Like Padilla, he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction; he is now supposedly living on a friend's property in a rural area of Hawaii. Brewer passed away in Dana Point on June 2, 2008. Two weeks later, Padilla and other friends held a paddle-out memorial service for him at Old Man's Beach.
For the rest of Padilla's amazing story, you'll have to read his newly published book, Lurigancho (Flying Rabbit Press, 2013), which he coauthored with the Maui-based scribe Paul Wood. He covers the depths of despair he reached inside that hellhole—not to mention the amazing escape from Peru that followed his foot-fracturing leap. But what he experienced in Lurigancho has made him such an effective addiction counselor that he hasn't been out of work since he went back to school in the mid-1980s following a near-death experience that led to his own recovery. "I think he's doing exactly what he's supposed to be doing," Lorey James says. "He knows just how far down you can go and what it takes to get out of that."
You can also get the abridged version of Padilla's escape from Lurigancho in the recent episode of the National Geographic Channel's Locked Up Abroad, which features interviews with Padilla that the British film crew had to fly to the Bay Area to film because Interpol still has a warrant out for Padilla's arrest on the Peruvian coke charges. To film the re-enactment scenes, the show's producer found what he called a "disgusting" prison in Ecuador that seemed to fit the part.
"I hope it does Lurigancho justice," the producer told Padilla.
“I looked at it,” Padilla recalls, “and thought, 'This place looks nice.'”
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