By Nick Schou
The strange case of the so-called “Hippie Mafia,” the longest, most surreal saga in the annals of American counterculture, is finally over.
On November 20, Brenice Lee Smith, the last remaining fugitive from the legendary band of outlaws known as the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, pleaded guilty to a single charge of smuggling hashish from Afghanistan to Orange County. In return, the Orange County District Attorney's office, which had originally charged Smith with smuggling hash in 1972, dropped all other charges against him. After having spent the previous two months behind bars, Smith left jail a free man early the next morning. He has now returned to his wife and daughter in Nepal, where he has spent the past 30 years.
In an interview shortly after being released, Smith said he returned to California after four decades on the run to be interviewed by a documentary crew making a film about Buddhism. He claimed he spent six years in isolation during his time at a monastery in Darjeeling, India, alongside his guru, the Lama Kalu Rinpoche. Smith's tenure at the monastery ended in the mid-1980s thanks to civil strife at the hands of ethnic Nepalese who were demanding an independent “Gurkaland” state.
Denying that he's had anything to do with drugs since the early 1970s, Smith says that he instead has dedicated his life to constant prayer. “I practice my religion day and night, all the time,” he said. “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.”
For his part, Deputy District Attorney Jim Hicks, whose father Cecil Hicks presided over the original Brotherhood conspiracy case, confirmed in an interview outside the courtroom that the Hippie Mafia case is now closed. “That's it,” he said. “We've concluded it.” Hicks added that 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 at his house near San Diego, however, 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."
The Brotherhood was formed in Modjeska Canyon, California in 1966 by a group of mostly high school friends from Anaheim, including Ashbrook and Smith. Many of them were street thugs or heroin addicts but who after dropping acid, found a new sense of spiritual purpose, adopted Eastern religious teachings, became vegetarians, and swore themselves off violence. At the behest of the group's leader, John Griggs, they 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 and Laguna Beach. By the time police finally cracked down on the Brotherhood in 1972, the group was in disarray, a downward spiral that began when Griggs perished of an overdose of synthetic psilocybin in August 1969, an event that Smith witnessed. He says that Griggs immediately realized he'd taken too much and retreated to his teepee with instructions that he not be taken to the hospital, no matter what happened. “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.”
Although law enforcement declared victory over the Brotherhood in August 1972 when the largest drug raid in California's history at the time took place, new evidence reveals the group continued to smuggle hashish from Afghanistan for several more years. One of the arrest warrants used to jail Smith when he was arrested at the airport in San Francisco pertained to a smuggling case from 1979, just weeks before the Soviet invasion. Grand jury transcripts from that case show that several Brotherhood members, including Smith, were charged with shipping hashish from the Kandahar-based Tokhi brothers – who had been supplying the Brotherhood since 1967 – after a load was captured by police in the Bay Area. The government's main witness in the case, however, testified that Smith had played virtually no role in that operation, however, other than flying to Kabul, Afghanistan to “build a tennis court” and “visit his goofy guru,” an apparent reference to Rinpoche.
Smith refused to answer any questions about that case or the charges against him, or to talk in detail about the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. “It's all in the past,” he said. “It was not about drugs or LSD or anything like that. 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.”
Nick Schou is the author of the forthcoming book "Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love and Acid to the World."
To read Schou's previous coverage of the Brotherhood, visit www.ocweekly.com