Fugitive Buddhist Monk Pleads Guilty, Goes Free Tonight, Brotherhood Case Finally Closed!
Brenice Lee Smith and his family in Kathmandu, circa 2000
Brenice Lee Smith, the last remaining fugitive from the once-infamous 1972 Brotherhood of Eternal Love case, will be set free from Theo Lacy Prison tonight, having pleaded guilty this morning to transporting hashish from Afghanistan to Orange County between 1966 and 1972. Although questions remain about whether justice was served, one thing can be said with certainty: history has finally closed the book on the longest, most surreal saga in the annals of Orange County criminal justice: the strange case of the so-called "Hippia Mafia."
The Brotherhood was formed in Modjeska Canyon in 1966 by a group of mostly high school friends from Anaheim, many of them street thugs or heroin addicts, who after dropping acid, found a new sense of spiritual purpose, adopted Eastern religious teachings, became vegetarians, and swore themselves off violence. They soon befriended Timothy Leary with the aim of transforming the world into a peaceful utopia by promoting consciousness-expanding drug experimentation through LSD, including their famous homemade acid, Orange Sunshine.
To finance that goal--becoming America's biggest acid distribution network in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Brotherhood also became the nation's largest hashish smuggling ring, with a direct pipeline between Kandahar, Afghanistan--now infamous as the birthplace of the Taliban--and Laguna Beach. The Brotherhood's reign ended, officially at least, in August 1972 when police raided dozens of houses from Laguna Beach to Oregon to Maui to Kabul, Afghanistan in what was then the largest narcotics raid in U.S. history. However some members of the group continued funneling hash from Afghanistan until the fall of the Shah of Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
Along with many of his friends, Smith, better known as "Brennie," evaded arrest in 1972. He lived underground in California until the late 1970s, then fled to Darjeeling, where, according to his brief remarks in the courtroom he provided at the behest of Judge William Froeberg, he lived in a monastery for 11 years, until it was attacked by Maoist rebels. Then, under cover of darkness, Smith waded through a river into Nepal, where he eventually settled in Kathmandu, married and raised a daughter who is now 21 years old.
Smith returned to the United States on Sept. 26 on a flight from Kathmandu via Singapore, using his own passport obtained with his real name, apparently unaware that there were still two nearly 40-year-old warrants out for his arrest. Customs police nabbed him at the San Francisco airport where he was awaited by family members and a film crew making a documentary about the Brotherhood--and he's been behind bars ever since. 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."
As Froeberg queried Smith about whether he understood the plea agreement he'd just signed--actually by putting his initials--"B.S." next to every item--Smith repeatedly answered in the affirmative, apparently quite happy with the deal. He also gave a thumbs-up sign several times, grinning with visible relief at the prospect of being released from custody after two months in jail.
"This case really brings me back," Froeberg told Smith. "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, I don't believe it has," said Smith.
Froeberg waived all penalties and fines Smith would normally have to pay the court, citing the fact that Smith, who has lived penniless ever since first becoming a Buddhist devotee, has no means of paying them. "Good luck, Mr. Smith," he said.
Smith's niece, Lorey James, expressed relief that she can finally bring her uncle home to Northern California before he returns to Nepal. "The last time I hugged him was in 2000, in Nepal," James said. "I'm beyond joy that this is finally over and now he can go back to his peaceful life which was so rudely interrupted."
Outside the courtroom, Deputy DA Jim Hicks, whose father Cecil Hicks was Orange County's DA at the time of the original Brotherhood conspiracy case, said he was unaware of any remaining Brotherhood fugitives, meaning the case is finally closed. "This is it," he said. "We've concluded it."
Hicks said he had been prepared to go to trial with testimony by former Brotherhood member Travis Ashbrook, who was recently released from prison for growing marijuana, that Smith was "one of the original 13 members of the Brotherhood." According to Hicks, Ashbrook had spoken voluntarily about Smith's involvement with hash smuggling, but had stated that this involvement was minimal.
Reached by telephone this afternoon at his house near San Diego, Ashbrook expressed amazement that Hicks had claimed he'd agreed to testify. "Absolutely not," he said. "I can't believe they said that. There is no way I would have taken the stand. They asked me about Brennie and all I said was that Brennie didn't do anything in the Brotherhood, he wasn't any kind of kingpin and how come you haven't let him out of jail yet?"
"It's clear he wasn't the biggest player," Hicks said of Smith. "If anyone was, it was probably Ashbrook. What he said helped us determine a plea that would adequately describe his conduct and that's what we have."
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