Timothy Leary’s Escape From Prison

Timothy Leary’s escape from prison seems to be torn straight from the script of a bad movie, but the best part is that it actually happened.

On January 21, 1970, Leary received a ten-year sentence for [possession of two marijuana roaches], with a further ten added later while in custody, for a previous [marijuana possession] arrest in 1965, twenty years in total to be served consecutively. When Leary arrived in prison, he was given psychological tests that were used to assign inmates to appropriate work details. Having designed some of the tests himself (including the “Leary Interpersonal Behavior Test”), Leary answered them in such a way that he seemed to be a very conforming, conventional person with a great interest in forestry and gardening. As a result, Leary was assigned to work as a gardener in a lower security prison, and in September 1970 he escaped. Leary claimed his non-violent escape was a humorous prank, and left a challenging note for the authorities to find after he was gone. For a fee, paid by The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, the Weathermen smuggled Leary and his wife, Rosemary Woodruff Leary, out of the United States and into Algeria.

The FBI didn’t seem to see the humor in the situation, as seen in part of the Weather Underground file. Their part in the escape was seen as evidence for “continuing foreign influence” of the movement.

The Weathermen couldn’t resist needling the government with a letter stating their involvement (Communique #4 referenced above).

After hopping from country to country, he was arrested on a plane in Kabul, Afghanistan, and returned to the United States.

He was then held on five million dollars bail. President Richard Nixon had earlier labeled him “the most dangerous man in America.” The judge at his remand hearing remarked, “If he is allowed to travel freely, he will speak publicly and spread his ideas.” Facing a total of 95 years in prison, Leary hired criminal defense attorney Bruce Margolin and was put into solitary confinement in Folsom Prison, California.

Leary made somewhat of a pretense of cooperating with the FBI’s investigation of the Weathermen and radical attorneys, by giving them information that they already had or that was of little consequence; in response, the FBI gave him the code name “Charlie Thrush”. Leary would later claim, and members of the Weathermen would later support, that no one was ever prosecuted based on any information he gave to the FBI.

Leary was released from prison on April 21, 1976, by Governor Jerry Brown. After briefly relocating to San Diego, Leary established residence in Laurel Canyon and continued to write books and appear as a lecturer and (by his own terminology) “stand-up philosopher.”

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