Tune In, Turn Out, Bust Out: When LSD Guru Timothy Leary Escaped From Prison

SAN LUIS OBISPO, CA — On September 12, 1970, Dr. Timothy Leary — the brilliant Harvard psychologist turned “high priest” of the 1960s psychedelic youth movement — broke free from the California Men’s Colony West, a minimum-security prison.

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Leary had been sentenced to 20 years at the Colony, following a bust the previous year for possessing two marijuana “roach” cigarettes, compounded by a previous pot arrest.

Obviously, the government thought it important to forcibly contain Leary and his pro-drug message of “tune in, turn on, and drop out.”

In fact, President Richard Nixon himself had once deemed Leary “the most dangerous man in America.”

Fortunately or unfortunately — depending on one’s point of view (and/or degree of chemically enhanced consciousness) — Leary cut short his lock-up stint by reaching out to crafty criminal connections he had in the counter culture, constituents of which conspired to liberate their acid-espousing leader.

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To emancipate Leary from prison, The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a massive California drug ring alternately known as the “Hippie Mafia,” paid $20,000 to the violent radical coalition the Weather Underground Organization to concoct and execute a plan.

Timothy Leary [California Department of Corrections]

Leary had been put to work as a gardener at the Colony. His actual escape from the barely protected confines involved the doctor hopping a fence and shimmying along a telephone wire just far enough to get out of sight.

Once in a relatively secure wooded area, seasoned left-wing iconoclast Clayton Van Lydegraf met Leary with a truck and snuck him to a Weather Underground hideout.

That stop would be first of many safe-houses where the doctor and his wife Rosemary Woodruff holed up while being smuggled “cell to cell” out of the country.

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The Weather Underground ultimately succeeding in transporting Leary and Woodruff to Africa, where they settled with Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver and his “government in exile” in the nation of Algeria.

Leary proclaimed his liberty in Algeria and stated:

“World War III has begun. Join us, because we’re happy, and we’re free, and we’re going to make the world free!”

Later, Leary would say that Cleaver attempted to hold him hostage for ransom.

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In time, Leary and Woodruff fled Algeria for Switzerland, where they stayed with arms-dealing multimillionaire playboy Michel Hauchard. The U.S. government worked to extradite Leary, but the most the Swiss did on that front was toss the doctor in jail for a month.

Woodruff split from Leary in 1971, and he took up with jet-setting socialite Joanna Harcourt-Smith.

After a reported LSD-and-cocaine bash turned into a mock wedding, Leary and Harcourt-Smith traveled from Vienna to Beirut to Afghanistan.

Since the couple traveled on an American airline to Afghanistan, the United States used a legal loophole to circumvent any extradition processes and seize Leary as a fugitive.

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Upon being returned to California, authorities locked up Leary in Folsom prison on $5 million bail.

Facing 95 years in jail, Leary cut a deal with the FBI to reduce his sentence by providing “secrets” and other evidence against the Weather Underground.

Reportedly, Leary fed the FBI nonsense and sent the agency on any number of wild goose chases. The Weather Underground backed up Leary’s claim that no one was ever arrested as a result of his testimony.

Since then, other major counterculture figures have maintained that Leary did not in any way betray the movement.

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Governor Jerry Brown cut Timothy Leary loose in 1976. Leary remained a prolific author, media personality, and, as he put it “stand-up philosopher” until his death at age 75 in 1996.

Read more:
The Smoking Gun
Chicago Tribune
Boing Boing
On This Deity
Count Your Culture
Justia U.S. Law
Weather Underground Blog

Main image: Timothy Leary [California Department of Corrections]

  • Martha Bartha

    Far Out Man!