BENJAMIN — Grand jury indictments have been handed up against a self-proclaimed "medicine man" and his wife and one of the man's followers alleging the man lied about being an American Indian tribe member and that he illegally consumed and distributed peyote in religious ceremonies.

James "Flaming Eagle" Mooney and his wife, Linda, were arrested Thursday by Drug Enforcement Agency officials at their Benjamin home.

DEA agents originally attempted last week to arrest the Mooneys but were unable to take them into custody because they were out of town visiting relatives.

The Mooneys and Nicholas Stark, of Ogden, were indicted June 15 by a grand jury. Those indictments were unsealed Thursday, according to a statement by Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney in Salt Lake City.

The Mooneys were scheduled to appear today before U.S. Magistrate Judge Sam Alba in Salt Lake City. Stark has not been arrested but will be summoned to appear in court.

James Mooney is charged with seven counts of distribution of peyote and one count of attempted possession of peyote with intent to distribute, while Linda Mooney is charged with one count of distribution of peyote. The Mooneys are charged jointly with one count of conspiracy to possess peyote with intent to distribute, one count of conspiracy to distribute peyote, one count of possession of peyote with intent to distribute and four counts of distribution of peyote.

Stark is charged with one count of distribution of peyote, one count of possession of peyote with intent to distribute and one count of possession of coca leaves.

The indictment also contains a notice of intent to seek forfeiture against Stark in the amount of $10,900 — roughly the amount of money the U.S. Attorney's Office believes the trio made from distributing peyote, according to Rydalch.

Peyote — a hallucinogenic drug used in American Indian religious ceremonies — is a controlled substance under federal law.

With the exception of the count relating to possession of coca leaves, which is a misdemeanor, the maximum penalty for each count is up to 20 years in prison, Rydalch said.

Congress has passed laws allowing American Indians who are members of federally recognized tribes to use peyote in religious observances.

Federal prosecutors allege the Mooneys and Stark are not members of an Indian tribe.

"The traditional ceremonial use of peyote by Native Americans as a religious sacrament has been protected by (the) federal government for many years. However, the law very clearly defines who can use peyote and who can't," said Paul M. Warner, U.S. attorney for Utah. "We believe the Mooneys and Mr. Stark are not allowed to use peyote under federal laws. Drug dealers engaged in the distribution of a controlled substance are going to be prosecuted."

Mooney claims membership in the Oklevueha Band of Yamassee Seminole Indians, a tribe based in Florida, but it is not a federally recognized tribe.

The Oklevueha do not use peyote in religious ceremonies, and the indictment states that in 1997 the tribe asked Mooney to return his identity card and cease to use the tribe's name on the church he founded, the Oklevueha EarthWalks Native American Church of Utah. The indictment charges that Mooney kept his identification card and used it to illegally obtain peyote.

The actions of the federal government have won praise from some Native Americans, who felt Mooney misrepresented their culture and damaged their public image.

"He has perverted this whole process," said Jeff Merkey, a presiding elder in the Native American Church. "A lot of our members are very upset at his conduct. He has created the perception that all Native Americans are drug users, when in fact, it's a very small percentage."

Merkey said Mooney did not use peyote in an acceptable manner and was a danger to the public.

"I'm glad he's off the street," he said.

When reached for comment, Stark said he had not heard of the new charges and was "shocked (the government) would go to this extent."

Stark said he sincerely believed the problem had been resolved when the Utah Supreme Court ruled last year that the church could continue its use of peyote. Now, he is preparing for yet one more legal battle.

"It's been so hard for all of us to maintain our lives with all this pressure," he said. "It's like a little war, and that's not what religious freedom is about."

Stark said he knew peyote was a hot topic. He said he made sure he was legally using it before he became involved. He said he separated from Mooney's church until it was given official recognition and he approached the Ogden police to tell them he would be using peyote for religious purposes before he opened a branch of Mooney's church there.

"(The police) said it was no problem," Stark said. "I believed it was all 100 percent legal. That was my understanding, and that's why I did it."

Stark said using peyote helped him change his life and made him a better person.

"Life's been difficult for me," he said. "I carried a gruff energy. (Peyote) made a huge emotional change in my entire outlook on life. It's miraculous."

As for the charge of possessing coca leaves, Stark maintains he declared them when he brought them into the country, and U.S. Customs officials inspected them and cleared them. The leaves are used in ceremonies as offerings.

Stark said he was "concerned" by the severity of the charges but is convinced he and the Mooneys are innocent.

"I know in my heart that none of us have ever broken the law in this regard," he said.

Attorneys for the Mooneys could not be reached for comment.

The Mooneys were arrested on state charges in 2000 for distributing peyote to non-American Indians at their Oklevueha EarthWalks Native American Church of Utah.

Although the Utah Supreme Court decision in 2004 acquitted them of those charges, the federal government was not bound by the decision and continued its investigation.

In April, Mooney filed a civil-rights lawsuit against Utah County officials who led the failed criminal prosecution.

Mooney, who claims his membership in the Seminole Indian tribe is valid, alleged Utah County Attorney Kay Bryson violated his First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion. He also alleges unconstitutional seizure of peyote buttons from his church. The suit also named Utah County deputy attorney David Wayment and members of the Utah County Sheriff's Office as defendants.

Despite the state high court's ruling in his favor, Mooney alleges the state has refused to return some 18,000 peyote buttons seized during an October 2000 raid on his church.

Mooney alleges Bryson and others have abused their authority and attempted to intimidate him into no longer including peyote in his ceremonies, which Mooney has said he hasn't done since he was first charged but is anxious to resume. Rydalch said she was not familiar with the original case filed by Utah County, but said the federal case is a strong one.

"We think clearly that the distribution of peyote by someone who is not a Native American and is not a member of a federally recognized tribe is a crime," she said. "It boils down to dealing drugs."


What is peyote?

Peyote only grows in Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental and north of the border near Laredo, Texas. It contains a small amount of mescaline — a hallucinogen — but is said to be about 1,000 times less powerful than LSD.

The buttons are consumed whole, crushed into a powder or brewed as a tea.

According to archaeological evidence, peyote, which is not smoked, was first used as a medicine by Mexican natives some 10,000 years ago.

The drug is used in religious ceremonies by some branches of the Native American Church, which has some 250,000 members. Church members say it doesn't make them feel intoxicated.

Instead, most report a feeling of wrenching emotion and introspection.


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