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The Long, Strange Trip of a Federal Prisoner Who Loves the Grateful Dead and Acid

Thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing, Deadheads like Tim Tyler—who has been locked up for almost a quarter of a century—are missing out on the Grateful Dead 50th anniversary shows this weekend.

by Seth Ferranti
Jul 2 2015, 6:30pm

Tim Tyler. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

With the Grateful Dead set to play three massive 50th anniversary shows at Chicago's Soldier Field this weekend, the spotlight is back on the band and its legacy. But almost as resonant as the actual music has been the LSD culture that sprung up around the Dead: the parking lot scene—a.k.a. Shakedown Street—and the roving "Deadhead" community that followed the musicians from show to show.

When the War on Drugs was in full swing in the 80s and early 90s, the feds were targeting LSD dealers almost as often as they targeted inner-city crack dealers. I know, having been arrested and sentenced to 25 years for selling LSD at East Coast colleges in 1993. I'm out now, but some of those arrested are still incarcerated, serving life sentences for non-violent offenses. Their Deadhead sojourns turned into a ghastly nightmare.

Trapped in an American gulag due to the draconian mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, men like Tim Tyler—who has been down for almost a quarter of a century—are on a seriously bad trip that has no end date.

"I was at the [Grateful Dead] shows from 1988 to 1992 and was known as the Fried Dough Man," Tim Tyler tells me from his prison cell at FCI Jesup in Georgia.

The 46-year-old federal prisoner first heard about the Grateful Dead in 1988, when he was 19. "I was in Hartford, Connecticut and went to see all these people camping at the governor's mansion, which was unheard of," Tyler remembers.

The parking lot scene that surrounded the Dead was like an open-air drug market and counterculture bazaar. Deadheads would pitch tents wherever and just take over.

Besides the band, LSD was the main attraction.

"Someone gave me a dose and I thought I was in a time warp," Tyler says. "I did not go inside the show. I knew nothing about them. As sad and true as it was, I saw a nitrous seller with a line around the building. I tried it while on the trip and I ended up selling it the next day at the shows in Boston. I didn't go in these shows either, but at the end of the third show, I wanted to know what went on inside."

Like many Deadheads, Tim quickly found the magnetic pull of the band as strong as the spectacle surrounding them. The whole atmosphere was magic.

"I bought a ticket at the last Boston show. I was doing nothing with my life at the time but searching for something," Tyler says. "When I walked inside the show, a man was handing out paper [acid] for free, asking, 'How many do you want? 'I said three for no real reason. I did the three and felt like this was the entranceway into what I searched my [whole] life for. Without another moment, I was on the bus, as you say."

But as Tim was getting on the bus, the feds were busy enforcing mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. A collision course was set.

After dipping his feet into the Deadhead scene, Tyler got an old truck from his dad, and followed the band on tour. Like other Deadheads, he found various things to sell to support himself—whippets, fruit smoothies and, finally, fried dough. Eventually, Tyler got involved moving LSD, falling in with some older guys who preached to him about the band and supplied him with the acid.

"We did the kind doses and that made me realize even more that I was meant to be in this family—like a world family where the rest of the planet had not found themselves yet," Tyler says.

But the brotherhood wasn't all tripping balls and good vibes, as Tyler soon found out.

"I was arrested because a friend was arrested in Florida and set me up," Tyler says. "I did not actually go up and do the deal, because I was flying out to see Jerry at the Warfield [in San Francisco] the next day. My other friend drove up there to Bay County and they arrested him. Then they came to me and brought me up there from Pinellas County. I denied knowing anyone there, and in 37 days they had not filed formal charges against me, so they released me on promise to appear."

By not snitching, Tyler endeared himself to the Deadhead community. LSD fueled their illicit economy and allowed them to follow the band around, but they were always looking for new blood that was committed to the cause.

Tyler was now in full Deadhead outlaw mode, running from the cops and the court cases piling up against him.

"I went right back dealing to my Florida friends," Tyler says. "One of them beeped me all night when I had just flown in with a gram. He wanted a tenth. I gave 1300 hits to him. The narcotic officers came in two van-loads at 3 AM in the morning with black masks on. It was like in the movies."

The feds were going after LSD dealers with a passion. (It's still a schedule one drug according to the United States government, by the way, making it a priority for DEA agents and narcotics cops.)

"They brought me in a room and I told them I considered LSD a sacrament, and I would never help them in anyway," Tyler says. "No formal charges were filed and they released me on my own recognizance. I traded some paper for a car, got a friend to register it, and we went on tour."

Tyler was now in full Deadhead outlaw mode, running from the cops and the court cases piling up against him.

"I blew both of those cases off for two years," he says. "When they finally caught me again in Florida, they offered me 18 months in prison, or three years probation to plead guilty. I pleaded guilty and then went to take care of the other case. They eventually gave me three more years concurrent probation after I requested a speedy trial. I also had a failure to appear on top of it all, and they gave me probation for that, too."

With a light slap on the wrist for his youthful indiscretions, Tyler was ready to go back on tour. But with two felony convictions, he was setting himself up for a big fall because of how the three strikes law was configured. Tyler was just one of many Deadheads living this type of life, but in the eyes of law enforcement, he was a big drug dealer, flying across the country and sending large quantities of LSD through the US mail.

"I only sold to my friends. I wanted it for myself and felt like I could help them get it since I knew where to get it," he says. "This guy named Jeff Rhodes was my friend and I sold to him. Jeff was arrested. I told him that they would give him probation for his first offense in Florida, but he was secretly setting me up. He recorded all our conversations. They had 26 audio taped conversations of me and him talking."

Through Rhodes, the feds assembled a serious case against Tyler.

"I eventually told Jeff that I was leaving Florida," Tyler says. "They could have arrested me. I had sold him 4000 hits up to that time. I ended up sending 9045 hits to an address and that guy—who knew me my whole life—cooperated. I called every one I knew and told them I gave them permission to go against me in case it ever came about."

Tyler was dealing with the feds now, and the feds didn't play—especially with LSD.

"I was charged with conspiracy to possess with attempt to deliver ten grams or more of a substance or mixture containing a detectable amount of LSD," Tyler explains. "I pled guilty because my dad was involved and the only defense I saw plausible was calling it a sacrament and using the band as a witness. I elected to place no burden on Jerry and friends and plead guilty. My dad wanted me to tell, and I am proud that I have gotten no one in trouble—ever."

Tyler's father died while serving a ten-year sentence of his own.

"At my sentencing, I was calm. I knew I was going to prison for a long time. I thought it would be 21 to 27 years but it was minimum mandatory life," Tyler says. "To me at the time, it didn't matter. My sister was there and started crying. The police that made the arrest high-fived each other openly in the court room. When I walked away into the elevator, I shed some tears because of my sister. Then I was OK after that."

"I am optimistic that the president will step in and help. He has done it for some people that I know. Maybe this year I can get a break." -Tim Tyler

And so began Tyler's long, strange trip inside the belly of the beast. At the age most kids are graduating from college, he was looking at life in the federal pen. A gregarious Deadhead surrounded by brutal gangsters, thugs, bank robbers, and drug dealers, Tyler's seen his share of sticky situations. Still, he endures.

Tim Tyler in prison. Photo courtesy Tim Tyler

"I never checked in [voluntarily going to solitary confinement for protective custody], and spent 20 of 23 years in pens including USP Atlanta and USP Beaumont," Tyler says. "I play handball as much as possible to try to keep in shape. I have an MP3 player and can listen to the Dead now. Of course, I spent 20 calendars with no access to my favorite band, other than listening to them over the telephone. But anyone coming into the system now can instantly get their favorite music. It has helped plenty."

But what would help more is Tyler's release. He has served more than enough time for a nonviolent offense. There's been a lot of media attention surrounding his case, including from Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul, and with the pardons President Obama has been granting, Tyler could be in line for forgiveness. Public opinion has swayed, and federal prisons cost taxpayers over $6.5 billion a year.

"I am optimistic that the president will step in and help. He has done it for some people that I know. Maybe this year I can get a break," Tyler says hopefully.

Unfortunately, if that does happen, it won't be in time to catch the Dead this weekend. Still, a pardon would be a very welcome respite from the way Tyler's been living.

Mandatory minimums and the War on Drugs have cost our country enough—in dollars, in wasted lives and in human wreckage. It's time to right the wrongs of the drug war and let nonviolent offenders like Tim Tyler out of prison.

Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.