Was Brotherhood Member Brenice Lee Smith a Felonious Monk?
After three decades in Nepal, a fugitive in a hippie-era hash-smuggling case returns to OC in handcuffs
He spent decades on the run, but the last member of the so-called “Hippie Mafia” to evade the long arm of the law, has finally been captured and is now in custody at the Orange County Jail, having pleaded not guilty to 40-year-old charges of hash smuggling and LSD peddling.
Brenice Lee Smith, who grew up in Anaheim, was one of the founding members of the Laguna Beach-based Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a group of hash-smuggling hippies who befriended Timothy Leary and sought to turn on the entire world through their trademark acid, Orange Sunshine (see “Lords of Acid,” July 8, 2005). As the Weekly first reported on our Navel Gazing blog, he was arrested by U.S. Customs agents at San Francisco International Airport on Sept. 26 around 9 p.m., just minutes after arriving from Hong Kong on the second leg of a trip that started a day earlier in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Along with many other members of the Brotherhood, Smith, better-known as “Brennie” among family and friends, allegedly traveled to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in the late 1960s and smuggled hashish back to California inside Volkswagen buses, mobile homes and other vehicles. The Brotherhood distributed more LSD throughout the world than anyone else and famously raised cash with acid sales to bust Leary out of prison and help him escape to Afghanistan, where he was arrested in 1973. Smith was indicted for his role in the group but was among about a dozen members who managed to evade arrest in August 1972 when a task force made up of federal, state and local cops raided Brotherhood houses from Laguna Beach to Oregon to Maui—where many members of the group had fled after OC became too hot—and arrested some 50 people.
NBA Preseason Basketball: Los Angeles Lakers v Sacramento Kings
TicketsTue., Oct. 4, 7:00pm
Premium Level - NBA Preseason Basketball: Lakers v Sacramento Kings
TicketsTue., Oct. 4, 7:00pm
Anaheim Ducks v. San Jose Sharks
TicketsSun., Oct. 9, 5:00pm
NBA Preseason Basketball: Los Angeles Lakers v Phoenix Suns
TicketsFri., Oct. 21, 7:00pm
The last Brotherhood fugitive to be captured was Orange Sunshine chemist Nicholas Sand, who was arrested in British Columbia in 1996. Sand spent several years in prison for manufacturing LSD. Two years earlier, a friend of Smith’s named Russell Harrigan was arrested by police near Lake Tahoe, California, after they learned his real identity. However, an Orange County judge dismissed the charges against Harrigan because he’d lived a crime-free life while quietly raising a family.
Despite that fact, Deputy District Attorney Jim Hicks says dropping charges against Smith “wasn’t something [he is] considering.” Hicks says the DA’s office is still investigating Smith’s involvement with the Brotherhood, as well as his activities during the past four decades, including his reasons for returning to the United States. “We’re interested in a fair resolution,” Hicks told the Weekly on Oct. 16, just minutes after he told Judge Thomas M. Goethals that he imagined Smith’s trial would take “at least” a month.
Details now emerging about Smith’s life in the past 40 years suggest he has a strong case for having his own charges dismissed. After living underground in California for several years, Smith fled for Nepal in 1981. “He absolutely wanted to go,” says Eddie Padilla, a founding Brotherhood member who is married to Smith’s niece, Lorey James. “He was tired of running around, trying not to get arrested here in the U.S. Then he left and went over to India, then Nepal and lived in the mountains 8,000 feet up in this monastery for five, six, seven or eight years as a shaved-head monk. He fell in love with this guru, Kalu Rinpoche.”
According to Padilla and James, Smith kept in touch with them in frequent letters from Kathmandu, where he moved after Maoist guerrillas began attacking monasteries in the Himalayan foothills. In Kathmandu, Smith—who took the name Dorje with the blessing of Rinpoche—married a Nepalese woman, Rukumani, and fathered a daughter, Anjana, who is now 21 years old.
Recently, James says, her uncle seemed worried about both the mounting political violence in Nepal and his daughter’s future there. “He was starting to get concerned about Anjana,” James says. “He wanted her to be here because the opportunities for her are so vast here compared to any kind of life she could have in Nepal.” So Smith went to the U.S. Embassy in Nepal and applied for a passport under his real name—something he hadn’t done since before smuggling hash in the late 1960s. “He got the passport, and I think he was thinking—and so were we—that if they [the cops] wanted him, that would be the time to get him.”
Both James and Padilla were waiting at the airport to greet Smith, as were William Kirkley, a filmmaker who is working on a documentary about the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, and his co-producer and cinematographer, Rudiger Barth. The filmmakers planned to interview Smith in the Bay Area. Kirkley says he still hopes to interview Smith soon and that the interview won’t be through the bars of a jail cell. “I am hoping they see that [Smith] completely changed his life around, became a Buddhist monk and is much more rehabilitated than he would have been if he had gone to prison,” he says. “We’re all hoping for the best outcome.”
In a Oct. 5 court hearing, Goethals set Smith’s bail at $1.1 million. Hicks had requested a much higher amount, arguing that Smith could face a life sentence if convicted of all charges. But Smith’s Chicago-based attorney, Gerardo Gutierrez, argued that marijuana and hashish were treated much more harshly 40 years ago than they are today. Ultimately, Goethals went with what he said was a middle-of-the-road bail amount after taking other factors into account.
“Mr. Smith has been out of the country for over 30 years,” Goethals said. However, he continued, “at least part of that time he was in a monastery in Tibet or someplace, and he came back voluntarily. . . . I don’t know what the sentence could be for this case. I can’t imagine it’s a life sentence, but it has to take into account the time he was gone and the fact he came back voluntarily. I don’t know why he did that; maybe it was because he thought everyone would have forgotten him by now.”
Unfortunately for Smith, memories run long at the Orange County DA’s office. Prosecutor Hicks happens to be the son of Cecil Hicks, Orange County’s DA at the time of the original Brotherhood case and therefore the top law-enforcement official involved in the group’s prosecution. (One law-enforcement source who helped take down the Brotherhood remarked that the case was so old he couldn’t believe the charges hadn’t already been dropped.)
For his part, Gutierrez believes the DA’s office is trying to punish Smith before convicting him of any crime. “I think this case is being prosecuted backward,” he says. “They want him to spend as much time behind bars as possible because that may be the only punishment he gets.”
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss OC Weekly's biggest stories. Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts