Peyote advocate charged with illegal possession, distribution
Indictment: He is accused of posing as an American Indian to obtain peyote
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A Utah County man, who won a state court ruling that says all members of the Native American Church regardless of their race can use peyote in religious ceremonies, has been indicted on federal charges of illegal possession and distribution of the hallucinogenic cactus.

A grand jury indictment unsealed Thursday accuses James "Flaming Eagle" Mooney, 61, of Benjamin, founder of the Oklevueha Earthwalks Native American Church, of misrepresenting himself as an American Indian in a conspiracy to get peyote.

Also indicted were Mooney's wife, Linda, 51, and church member and self-styled medicine man Nicholas Stark, 54, of Ogden.

The indictment alleges that James Mooney fraudulently obtained a membership card for the Oklevueha Band of Yamassee Seminole Indians, a tribe that is not federally recognized and one that traditionally does not use peyote. In November 1997, a few months after the Mooneys started the Oklevueha Earthwalks church, the band terminated its affiliation with James Mooney because of his activities with the hallucinogens and asked that he stop using the Oklevueha name, according to the indictment.

However, Mooney allegedly continued to use his card to obtain peyote.

The Mooneys are charged with 13 counts each of conspiracy to possess peyote with intent to distribute, conspiracy to distribute peyote, distribution of peyote and possession of peyote with intent to distribute. James Mooney also faces an additional count of attempted possession of peyote with intent to distribute. Stark is charged with one count each of distribution of peyote, possession of peyote with intent to distribute and possession of coca leaves.

The Mooneys, who were arrested Thursday, have an initial court appearance today. A summons was issued to Stark.

The indictment was applauded by the presiding elder of the Utah Native American Church. In a written statement, Jeffrey V. Merkey, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation, thanked federal prosecutors "for protecting the rights of Native Americans and Native American communities who have been preyed upon by frauds and impostors."

Forrest Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, said his office has received complaints from tribal members about the Oklevueha Earthwalks church.

The charges are the latest round in a long legal fight over peyote.

Federal authorities argue that only enrolled members of tribes who also are members of the Native American Church can use peyote. James Mooney, who says he is part Seminole, contends that all church members have the right to use the substance.

The dispute started in 2000, when police raided the church in Benjamin and seized 12,000 peyote buttons. The Mooneys were charged in 4th District Court with a dozen first-degree felony counts.

After prosecutors refused their request to drop the charges, the two appealed to the Utah Supreme Court. The justices ruled unanimously last year that the Mooneys and other church members legally can use the hallucinogenic cactus under a federal exemption passed in 1970 that is incorporated into Utah law.

Stark was charged in a separate case in 2nd District Court with felony drug counts for allegedly possessing 10 pounds of peyote buttons and 5 pounds of coca leaves seized by police in July 2004. The charges were later dropped after the Utah Supreme Court issued its ruling in October 2004.

pmanson@sltrib.com