The August 1 Shootout
On that morning, Heidi Grossman-Lepp got a phone call from Dante Jones, a member of a Sugarleaf satellite church in the remote town of Oregon House, about 70 miles north of Sacramento.
Jones sounded anxious.
‘This is Reverend Heidi,’ she told the police on August 1. ‘We have a madman with a gun desecrating our property.’
An angry, disturbed man was acting strangely, he told Grossman-Lepp. The man, an itinerant laborer hired to work in the Oregon House cannabis garden, was pacing and muttering just beyond the farm’s gate, where a banner reads, “This garden belongs to ONAC Sugarleaf and Rev. Heidi Grossman.” Jones, 34, belonged to a Sugarleaf-affiliated satellite church known as the Yuba Tree Church.
When the angry man began yanking out the Yuba Tree Church’s marijuana plants, Jones ventured out to speak to him. “He was acting strangely, weird,” Jones later recalled. “I got alarmed. I approached him…That’s when I realized he had a gun. He pointed it directly at me and threatened me.”
Grossman-Lepp advised Jones to back away. Then she called 911.
“This is Reverend Heidi,” she told a sheriff’s dispatcher. “We have a madman who has a gun and he is desecrating our property.”
Officers search for a suspect after a shooting at a Sugarleaf-affiliated cannabis grow in Yuba County, Calif., on Aug. 1, 2017. Two sheriff’s deputies were shot and wounded after they responded to reports of an armed and agitated man pulling up plants. (AP Photo/Sophia Bollag)
Two Yuba County deputies, Phillip Bronson and Andrew Everhart, arrived within minutes. They chased the man out of the garden. He fled to a nearby property, and then into a neighbor’s trailer. The officers entered. There was an exchange of gunfire. The deputies fell from multiple wounds. A third deputy, Daniel Harris, pulled the injured deputies away from the trailer and called for emergency medical attention. Bronson had been struck by two bullets; Everhart had been shot in the arm. Both deputies survived the shooting.
The shooting galvanized local police. They’d watched all year as the Sugarleaf Church expanded its affiliates and membership. They’d taken a live-and-let-live position. But not anymore.
Raids Across the Region
In the weeks that followed, police executed raids on church properties and cannabis farms across Northern California.
Vern Warnke, Merced County Sheriff
In August and September, law enforcement authorities served search warrants and eradicated hundreds of marijuana plants at seven Sugarleaf affiliates in Tehama, Merced, Yolo, Madera and Calaveras counties. On Tuesday, search warrants were served on the Yuba Tree Church farm and authorities eradicated its 207 plants, said Yuba Sheriff’s spokeswoman Leslie Cabrah. She said six people, whose names weren’t released, were arrested at the farm. A total of 1,500 plants were taken down in raids by local and state authorities.
In Calaveras, where supervisors had allowed licensed cultivators to grow a half-acre of plants outdoors, authorities conducted raids that took down 29,000 plants at unpermitted sites. The sheriff and state water officials particularly assailed a Sugarleaf Church affiliate for growing seven acres of plants while illegally damming streams, syphoning water and leaving pesticide contamination.
Furious, Grossman-Lepp charged that the raids violated the sect’s religious freedom. The police actions, she said, were akin to sending armed agents “into a Catholic Church to smash all the wine, destroy all the communion and arrest people for worshipping.”
Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke had a simple answer to that. “I’m the sheriff, she’s a drug dealer,” he said. Officers in Warnke’s jurisdiction ripped out 131 plants at two church-affiliated properties. The San Joaquin Valley county bans cultivation of more than 12 plants for medical use. “It’s putting lipstick on a pig,” Warnke told the Merced Sun-Star. “She wants to be a commercial grower.”
Responding With a Lawsuit
The Lepps insisted in recent interviews that they weren’t participating in cultivation by church members, and they were furious over being cast as rouges and outlaws. They rejected critics’ allegations that their church was nothing but a profit-making scheme to sign up California marijuana farms as churches only in order to skirt state and local cannabis regulations.
“The notion that we are selling churches is an out-and-out fucking lie,” Eddy Lepp told Leafly in an interview last month at the couple’s home in Sacramento’s urban midtown. He says the couple is financially struggling as they fight for their right to practice cannabis spirituality. “People say I’m doing something wrong and I’m not. I am following the creator.”
Heidi Grossman-Lepp met Eddy Lepp when he was in prison, doing 10 years for cannabis cultivation. She was inspired by his work helping medical patients.
Grossman-Lepp, who is not an attorney, has drafted and filed 19 lawsuits or legal motions challenging government or police intrusion. One the suits was against Merced County. Grossman-Lepp saying she couldn’t wait to get the sheriff on the witness stand over that “lipstick on a pig” comment.
In June, she filed a federal lawsuit alleging harassment by code enforcement officers in Yuba County who were trying to enforce a local ban on outdoor marijuana cultivation. The suit said the church was wrongfully being denied its federally protected right “to practice our religion without the fear of being threatened, intimidated, discriminated, stalked, harassed, defrauded, taxed, fined or lied to.”
The civil action shows nothing if not a flair for the dramatic. The list of named defendants include California Gov. Jerry Brown, Sen. Kamala Harris, two federal judges who handled Eddy Lepp’s prosecution and probation, California marijuana regulation czar Lori Ajax, and several cannabis industry groups. Just for good measure, Grossman-Lepp added Barack Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton for their failure to end the War on Drugs.
The Sugarleaf church leaders are seeking $215 million in general damages (in the name of California’s Proposition 215 medical marijuana law), $420 million in special damages (for marijuana’s numeric nickname) and $720 million in punitive damages (with the 720, when upside down, spelling OIL as in cannabis oil.)
The Lepps also included an extra special third plaintiff in the lawsuit.
That would be Lucky Lepp, who is identified in court papers as “a four-legged individual.”
Lucky Lepp is Eddy Lepp’s service dog, a sweet, yellow-coated chihuahua who provides comfort amid the mounting chaos.
The Backstory: When Heidi Met Eddy
The romance of Heidi Grossman and Eddy Lepp began well before they actually met.
It was when Eddy became Heidi’s hero.
Grossman read about Lepp while a student.
She learned of him while taking classes in 2009 at Oaksterdam University, Oakland’s famed marijuana trade school. She admired his intellectual bond and friendship with the late Jack Herer, author of the famed anti-prohibition manifesto, The Emperor Wears No Clothes. She read voraciously about how Lepp became California’s first medical cannabis defendant, raided by local authorities in Lake County over a 132-plant garden soon after the passage of the state’s 1996 Proposition 215 medical marijuana initiative.
Lepp was acquitted on the state charges. By the early 2000s, his cannabis farm had been listed by High Times as one of the “Greatest Marijuana Gardens of All Time.” The honor was well earned. At its height, Lepp’s farm boasted 32,524 plants. He called it “Eddy’s Medicinal Gardens and Multi-Denominational Ministry of Cannabis and Rastafari.”
He claimed the plants were being grown by—or for—2,700 medical marijuana patients. One of those patients was Linda Senti, Lepp’s wife of 18 years. A dedicated cannabis advocate in support of her husband, Senti later used the plant to help her get through thyroid cancer. She succumbed to the disease in 2007 three years after a federal raid on the garden. Two years after her death, Eddy would get sentenced 10 years in prison and pick up an admirer for his sacrifice.
At its height in the early 2000s, Eddy Lepp’s farm boasted 32,524 plants.
“He was treating sick and dying people,” Grossman-Lepp told me during a visit to the Sugarleaf compound last month. “He was traveling the world with Jack Herer and speaking to God’s intentions for the plant. I am in love with love, and what he was doing was such a kind act.”
Just as Eddy struggled with PTSD from Vietnam, Heidi also suffered from post-traumatic stress as a victim of childhood abuse. She also recalls her own exploitation by the adult film industry in the early 1990s. At age 19 she was addicted to hard drugs and booze, appeared in porn videos, and “had very much lost my soul.”
She went on to raise two daughters, take paralegal courses in community college and land a job as an office administrator for a Beverly Hills law firm. In 2004, that firm filed the first lawsuit on her behalf, Heidi Nelson-Grossman v. Excalibur Entertainment Inc., an action she says awarded no money but helped force removal of old pornographic images from the internet.
When Lepp went away on the cultivation conviction in May 2009, Grossman-Lepp became a loyal pen pal with the man she studied at Oaksterdam. What began as a written correspondence blossomed into twice-monthly phone calls and, eventually, in-person visits at various federal prisons.
The Startup Years
As Eddy sat in stir, Heidi founded and grew her own successful business. She saw how medical marijuana calmed her own PTSD, and recognized an opportunity to help others and create a thriving business. Her Sugarleaf Consulting firm drafted paperwork to organize some 200 cannabis producers as non-profit mutual benefit corporations that operated as patient collectives under California’s medical marijuana law.
Jacqueline McGowan, former business partner
“I thought she was brilliant,” said Jacqueline McGowan, a former stock broker and medical marijuana advocate who briefly partnered with Grossman-Lepp. “She understood Proposition 215 and the attorney general’s guidelines and all the patchwork of legislation creating the legal system.”
But California’s cannabis collective system, a product of nebulous 2003 legislation that gave patients a right to associate to collectively cultivate and share their medicine, is being phased out and will sunset in 2018.
Sugarleaf sacrament, growing in the California sun. (Photo: Peter Hecht for Leafly)
That’s because Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation in late 2015 to regulate the state’s medical cannabis industry, with state and local permitting, taxes and licensing fees. Those rules were expanded to cover adult marijuana use after voters passed the 2016 recreational cannabis initiative, Proposition 64.
Jacqueline McGowan, a defendant in the Lepps’ June lawsuit, said Grossman-Lepp didn’t appear to accept this new era of cannabis regulation. McGowan did. The two parted company, with McGowan pursuing her own consulting venture.
“I started working to help people get licenses,” McGowan said. “Heidi went the church route. Her philosophy was that everything was legal.”
‘Cannabis is a Connection to the Creator’
Grossman-Lepp doesn’t exactly dispute that characterization. She came to share Eddy’s belief in “cannabis as a connection to the creator,” a creed he forged in the 1990s though months of telephone counseling with a Rastafarian minister in Jamaica.
Her distrust in California’s regulated cannabis economy hardened after a police action in September 2016. A medical marijuana collective that Grossman-Lepp had helped organize in Yolo County, across the Sacramento River from the state capital, went on to get a local cultivation permit and a state water use permit. All of that good faith paperwork, though, didn’t stop a raid by an out-of-county drug task force.
Distressed, Heidi spoke by phone to Eddy in prison. He urged her to form a cannabis church.
“But you went to prison for that,” she argued.
No, that’s not the reason, Eddy insisted. He was convicted on the federal cultivation counts only because the federal judge had been indifferent to his religious defense, he said. Eddy’s religious defense had also been rejected on appeal.
Caught in a Bad System
In an interview with Leafly last month, Lepp said he believed that Patel violated two acts of Congress and a United States Supreme Court ruling on religious freedom. He cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which prohibits government agencies from “substantially burdening” the exercise of religion, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which protects religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and land use laws.
He referred to a 2006 Supreme Court decision, Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente União do Vegetal. It upheld the rights of small American branch of a Brazilian church to perform ceremonies with a sacramental tea brewed from Amazonian plants that included dimethyltryptamine, an otherwise federally-prohibited hallucinogen.
Mason Thomas, Sacramento-area cannabis farmer
After that conversation with Eddy, Heidi went on to register 40 percent of her medical marijuana collective clients as affiliated members of the Sugarleaf Rastarian Church. Then she moved to further expand the congregation.
For would-be recruits, including some providing cannabis to California’s retail dispensaries, the church seemed to offer a celestial promise: to be free of government oversight, onerous taxes and fees and even outright bans on cultivation imposed by local governments.
“There is an unfair system in many counties. It is bans and extortion, raids and fines,” said Sacramento-area cannabis farmer Mason Thomas, 32. “The counties keep coming up with crazy regulations they know no one is going to follow and then they extort you [with enforcement actions] at harvest time.”
Thomas signed up as a congregation member and donated a pound of marijuana over several months for its ceremonies, in which members make offerings or savor the herb before an antique, dark wood altar at the Sacramento church. Despite the anti-regulatory bent of Sugarleaf’s priestess, Thomas secured a cultivation permit for his farm in Yolo County.
The Feds Spring Eddy
After serving nearly nine years of his ten-year sentence, Eddy Lepp finally regained his freedom last December. Heidi Grossman-Lepp was there to greet him upon his release from a federal prison in Colorado. They flew back to San Francisco, where they embraced overlooking the ocean.
“I ended up kissing her,” Eddy Lepp recalled. “I said, ‘You know, one day, you will marry me.’ She looked at me with her little eyes and said, ‘When?’”
They were married this past June at a raucous ceremony with cannabis community members at a Sacramento wedding hall. Heidi was Eddy’s eighth wife. Eddy was Heidi’s fourth husband—or fifth, she says, if you count a one-day quickie in Las Vegas.
Controversy From the Start
The seeds of conflict in the Sugarleaf Rastafarian Church may have been planted at its inception, when Grossman-Lepp partnered with a controversial religious sect, the Oklevueha Native American Church.
James Mooney, Oklevueha’s elder and co-founder, welcomed her and agreed to let Sugarleaf operate under the ONAC banner.
“She was really spiritually oriented and very service-oriented toward people,” Mooney said. “I wanted to help. I was very impressed with her.”
Mooney and his Oklevueha church were no strangers to conflict and the court system. In 2015, the church lost a notable court ruling in which the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals declared that a Hawaii branch of the church failed to demonstrate that its cultivation of cannabis constituted a bona fide exercise of religion. Despite the ruling, many Oklevueha church members continued to cultivate and consume cannabis as a sacrament. When Grossman-Lepp contacted Mooney and suggested they join forces, it seemed like a natural confluence of shared beliefs and interests.
The relationship, however, went bad nearly from the start.
Early on, a fight erupted between Sugarleaf and Oklevueha over money and claims of deceit. The details are hazy. The upshot was clear: The two religious groups split apart after Sugarleaf began distributing a “Branch Application and Agreement” under the name of “Heidi Grossman, Founder and Queen.”
That paperwork, obtained by Leafly, appears to be seek donations of up to $35,000 for permission to establish a Sugarleaf spiritual center. The agreement also calls for annual tithes of 10 percent of each satellite center’s cannabis crop. The documents suggested a standard donation of $7,000 through a variety of payment plans.
When he read the agreement, Mooney told Leafly that he perceived it as a scam. He immediately called Eddy Lepp, who was by then out of prison.
“I said, ‘Eddy you’ve got to get out of this,’” Mooney claimed. “Our phone was ringing off the hook with people saying that they (the Lepps) were selling churches.”
The Lepps, in turn, contend that they were the victims of a fraudulent scheme. They said Mooney pressured them to collect and funnel donations to Oklevueha. Mooney denied the accusation. No money was paid to Oklevueha, he told Leafly. Mooney’s church administrator, Tracie Rutledge, said the Lepps did send funds “to the mother church”—meaning Oklevueha—but said she didn’t know how much.
On a recent autumn afternoon, binders filled with legal briefs sat piled on Heidi Grossman-Lepp’s kitchen table as she logged onto her bank account through a laptop computer. She ran through transactions from January through April, 2017. They showed $18,500 in transfers to a bank account in Mooney’s name and $7,062.50 to Rutledge, who had done work on behalf of Sugarleaf. In total, Grossman-Lepp claimed, Sugarleaf sent nearly $50,000 to Oklevueha, counting separate direct payments from church affiliates.
The Lepps said they kept less than $12,000 of that money to cover their own expenses, including office help and filing fees for lawsuits that Grossman-Lepp was bringing against police and government agencies. They say many churches were signed up for free, but they are still accepting donations—though no one has given anything close to the $35,000 figure.
Is Any of This Actually Legal?
I asked Mark Reichel, a Sacramento attorney and former federal public defender, to review the Sugarleaf documents. “At first blush, it looks like they are franchising religion so you can grow and sell marijuana,” he said. On closer inspection, though, Reichel said the documents appeared to have been carefully drafted. They emphasized donations and not fees, spirituality and not commerce.
Mark Reichel, Sacramento attorney
“The more you read, it appears she has the protection of the exercise of religion,” he said of Grossman-Lepp. “I think her defense would stand up in court.”
Others in Yuba County disagree. Charnel James, a land use attorney who represents a number of cannabis business clients, says Grossman-Lepp and the Sugarleaf Church have become “a blight on the cannabis industry” by offering promises of legal protection they can’t guarantee.
“She is tricking property owners,” said James. “She is convincing them she can protect them. And she is attempting to practice law without a license.”
“When she can’t protect them, they are stuck with hundreds of thousands of dollars in code violations or criminal violations,” James added.
James used to represent Jevaughn Bennett, a 25-year-old property owner who got an abatement notice from Yuba County for growing marijuana despite a local ban on outdoor cultivation. Bennett and three associates, including Dante Jones, removed their plants last year and paid fines exceeding more than $100,000.
James said she tried to negotiate a solution, encouraging Yuba County supervisors and staff to draft more permissive cultivation rules. But she says those efforts blew up when local farms began reorganizing as Sugarleaf Rastafarian branch churches.
One of those was Jevaughn Bennett’s property. Bennett joined the church as an affiliate congregation, put in a new garden, and watched it grow. He adopted a new name for his operation. He called it the Yuba Tree Church and cultivated a new garden, soon blooming with a Sugarleaf banner at the gate.
“Our expectation this year is that we will get our sacrament and will be at peace with the community,” he said.
Then yesterday, authorities tore the second garden down.
Feathers, Sage, but No Cannabis
Under the terms of Eddy Lepp’s five-year federal probation, he is prohibited from using cannabis. He wears a drug-detecting sweat patch on his back.
At home, in the downstairs unit of a Victorian house in Sacramento’s midtown, the Lepps opt for non-medicinal rituals. The only cannabis present is some buds lacquered onto a chalice as ornamental decorations. The Lepps burned sage and prayed amid turkey and peacock feathers and a ceremonial drum gifted to Eddy by Rastafarian elders in Jamaica.
Eddy and Heidi say they don’t grow any marijuana themselves. She says her last garden was eradicated for code violations in Yuba County in 2014, an action she claims killed off cannabis genetics she valued at $1 million.
In July, Eddy Lepp filed a federal court motion to lift terms of his probation to restore his right to the sacrament.
“I am a co-founder of the…Sugarleaf Rastafarian Church,” he wrote in the pending motion. “Currently as the terms of my probation, I am prohibited from receiving sacrament within my own church.” He went on: “I have not been able to expand my consciousness with my congregation for over a decade, due to my conviction for violating laws that are quickly becoming obsolete…My probation, as it stands, is forcing me to abstain from my spiritual believes, aggravating my well documented PTSD.”
It galls him that he can’t wander through the many fragrant gardens of the Sugarleaf Rastafarian Church and offer his blessings.
But he made one exception as the Lepps recently visited the Yuba Tree cannabis farm. They made a sand sculpture, the Chinese Yin and Yang for darkness and light, in tribute to the deceased garden worker and the deputies, who are out of the hospital and recovering at home. “It was our prayer for the sheriffs and the loss of life,” Eddy Lepp said. “I did a blessing and a healing. Anytime someone is hurt, it affects us. If they want to say I violated something (in his parole) for going up there and praying for two officers, then screw them.”
Then Tuesday, Heidi Grossman-Lepp, the new bride of the California marijuana movement martyr, was taken into custody—adding to his traumatic stress.
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