By NICK SCHOU
October 21, 2009
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 Mauiwhere many
members of the group had fled after OC became too hotand arrested
some 50 people.
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, Smithwho took the name Dorje with the blessing of
Rinpochemarried 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 namesomething he hadn't done since before smuggling hash in
the late 1960s. "He got the passport, and I think he was thinkingand
so were wethat 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."