In July 1992, police officers found 23-year-old Timothy Tyler wandering naked on Interstate 10 near Palm Springs, California, trying to build a dam across the highway after taking too much LSD on the way to a Jerry Garcia concert. Tyler, who’d been touring with the Grateful Dead and considered the drug a spiritual sacrament, was checked into a nearby hospital — then arrested upon release.
He had recently mailed 5.2 grams of LSD to friends back home in Florida, one of whom had become a confidential informant. A pre-sentence report detailed Tyler’s lack of financial assets, noting, “Being paid for the drug was of secondary importance [because] Mr. Tyler was convinced the use of LSD would spread peace.” The investigation found “no specifically identifiable victim” associated with his offense. But mandatory minimums rendered these factors irrelevant, and Tyler was condemned to a double life sentence.
Two decades later, now 46 and imprisoned in Jesup, Georgia, Tyler vividly remembers his first Grateful Dead concert, which he hitchhiked 900 miles to attend in Rosemont, Illinois. “I felt this energy,” he says. “I immediately knew I had found what I was searching for.”
“Tim was captivated by the tie-dyes and the people twirling,” says his younger sister, Carrie. “But it was also sanity, acceptance, peace.” Growing up in rural Connecticut, the two endured physical abuse at the hands of their stepfather. Carrie describes her brother as “too trusting” and a “gentle soul,” and remembers their stepfather instructing him as a nine-year-old to bury a litter of puppies that had died after contracting heartworm. “Tim was punched and put down,” she says. “The Deadheads taught him about the earth and karma and positive things.”
On the road with the band, Tyler ran a popular fried dough stand and became a vegan, because “I did not want to promote death,” he says. He also regularly used LSD, which his sister worried exacerbated the underlying mental health issues that ran in their family. “I would drive across the country and bring him back,” she says, describing several drug-induced psychotic episodes that led to periods of hospitalization. Years later, Tyler would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
In 1991, he was arrested twice and later sentenced to probation for selling acid to his friends. Then, the next year, a member of his circle began assisting federal officers, seeking leniency for his own drug charges. Tyler says the informant requested more than he usually handled, and claimed envelopes had been lost in the mail. Nevertheless, he sent 13,000 hits of LSD over the course of two months. “I just thought I’d help my friends out, and it turned into a nightmare,” he says.
Although Tyler mailed a total of 5.2 grams, mandatory minimum statutes calculate weight based on any “mixture or substance containing a detectable amount” of LSD. Blotter paper bumped up the quantity he was held responsible for to 10 grams — a threshold that demands life without parole on a third felony drug offense.
By linking punishment to drug weight, mandatory minimums often distort culpability; consider that a hired hand unloading contraband from the back of a truck may handle more drugs than the cartel leader who arranged the shipment. Forty percent of drug defendants in the federal system were couriers or street dealers, and like Tyler, most weren’t violent: of the 25,000 drug offenders taken into custody last year, 85 percent did not have a weapon associated with their case.
To Tyler’s dismay, his father — who he maintains picked up an envelope as a favor to a friend — was also ensnared in what investigators deemed a “very loosely woven conspiracy.” Tyler says he pleaded guilty to avoid testifying against family, but his father received 10 years anyway, thanks to a decades-old marijuana conviction. He died of a heart attack in 2001, 18 months before his scheduled release.
“We were talking about having a big party,” Carrie says, “and then he came out in a box.” She knows her brother might face the same fate. “I’ll put it out of my head for a few hours, and then a reminder will intrude on my temporary amnesia. It’s like a never-ending death.”
Years into his sentence, Tyler spent time at a medical facility in Springfield, Missouri, where he received psychiatric treatment. But despite ongoing health concerns, he’s repeatedly been held in solitary confinement. During a lockdown last year, Carrie says, guards found him singing loudly and smearing feces on himself, overcome by the pressure of isolation.
She has tirelessly advocated on her brother’s behalf, gathering nearly 400,000 signatures in support of his clemency petition. “In Springfield, they had a couple of trees,” she recalls. “Tim hugged a tree. It had been 14 years since he touched a tree. He’s been hurting for a long time.”