He Used to Rob Banks. Now he's an Ayahuasca Shaman Performing Psychedelic Healing Ceremonies in Kentucky

Steve Hupp was a stone-cold career criminal. And by his own admission, he was “damn good at it,” too.

“I was a bank robber, a car thief and a lot of other stuff,” he told me over the phone in his characteristic Kentucky drawl. “I was the worst kind of offender you could face because you would never know I was coming, and you usually didn’t know I was there till I was gone. I’m not tatted up; I know how to speak eloquently; I’ve been through all kinds of classes. There was nothing off my radar. And that’s what made me hard to catch, because I did not have a specialty.”

But in 1999, at the age of 34, Hupp's luck ran out and he was arrested. Although, he could not have known it at the time, this run-in with the law was just the first in a fateful series of events that would end up turning his world upside down.

The story begins with a bank job gone wrong.

“My partner panicked after we switched from the stolen car to my van by staring at a cop at an intersection. He was driving, and I was still in disguise.”

“He pulled over—we had scanners and heard the call—and he got out with hands up. I jumped to the driver seat as the deputy opened fire with his riot gun—the first charge glanced off the glass and showered me with broken shards. He then shot out the rear tire but it was a front-wheel drive and I took off. Long story short, I hide the van and escape on foot. Three helicopters and a whole bunch of cops later, I surrender.”

“The robbery went smooth, the switch went great. Everything else was jacked up.”

After a trial, Hupp—who had previously spent time in the military—was sent to a federal prison. Initially, he faced being locked up for 40 years but managed to reduce his sentence to just 33 months by pleading guilty and handing a lot of money back to the authorities. In jail, he found himself sharing a cell with a Peruvian man named Guadalupe.

“I didn’t know what or who he was and he knew nothing about me. He was just a little brown man in my cage to be honest with you. I thought he had some good drugs in prison, so I was gonna rob him, that’s what got me interested in him.”

But as time went by, Hupp began to notice that the man he referred to simply as “Loopy” was quite unlike anyone he had ever met before.

“He had a different outlook on life that I didn’t understand in an environment that I hated. It wasn’t messing with him like it was messing with me, and I thought he had a quick fix for it. I realized he didn’t have no drugs but he had a strange way of looking at things and I started interacting with him. Six months down the road, he reveals to me that he’s a shaman and starts talking to me about Ayahuasca.”

Despite having taken psychedelics since the age of 12, this was the first time that Hupp had heard of Ayahuasca—a powerful shamanic brew, containing the hallucinogenic compound DMT—which has long been used by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon for the purposes of physical and spiritual healing.

KA photo 5 Steve Hupp was a career criminal. VICE Media

But his illuminating encounter with Guadalupe was cut short when he reached the end of his sentence. As Hupp said his goodbyes, the shaman gave him the address of a sister in Peru, which he mailed without much expectation of receiving anything back. Months passed without any reply and Hupp settled back in to his old ways.

“Trust me, just because I met Loopy and came in contact with the word Ayahuasca, nothing changed in my world. I was a criminal swimming among criminals. You’re often asked by many different people, ‘Hey did you learn your lesson?’ When I first come out of prison my answer was, ‘Well if I didn’t learn my lesson, I learned a lot of new tricks’ and that’s the reality of it.”

But one day he received a strange package in the post covered in markings from customs. Inside was a two-liter bottle—filled with a mysterious dark liquid—marked “dog shampoo,” accompanied by a note which simply read “be careful.”

Hupp—who says he was a stone-cold atheist at the time—went into his garage, locked the door and told his wife not to come in no matter what she heard.

“It wasn’t unusual for me to try things on my own, I’d been doing it my whole life. But this unnerved me when I poured the cup. Every question started hitting me. How well did I know this little brown man?”

“I drank that whole bottle, I didn’t know a damn thing about what I was doing. And I stumbled out of that garage six days later, looking like a cat dragged me in—I mean snot, puke, everything, scattered all over me—and I was no longer an atheist. I wasn’t a Christian, I wasn’t a Muslim, but I could not deny that I had just interacted repeatedly with something that was far beyond me.”

The liquid was, of course, Ayahuasca, and Hupp had just endured a rollercoaster of a hallucinogenic trip that he says was nothing short of life-changing—"And I don’t say that lightly.”

“It was the first spiritual experience I ever had in my life and it was mind-blowing for me. I’ve done LSD; In Europe, when I was in the military, I was on machine gun nests in night-fire ranges trippin’ so hard I burned up a machine gun. But at the end of the trip I was always an atheist. This was something totally different. It made me stop dead in my tracks.”

Essentially, the effect of the Ayahuasca was akin to peering into a brutally honest mirror, which allowed Hupp to reflect on his criminal past and come to terms with mistakes he had made.

“I helped create an uncompassionate world. I can’t make up for it, I can’t go back and make all the wrongs I’ve done right. My God the list is so long I can’t remember them all. But what I can do is treat this day as the first day of the rest of my life and try to bring some healing and compassion into the world.”

“I also had to come to terms with the fact that law enforcement wasn’t my enemy, they weren’t hunting me down—I was doing things to capture their attention—and that I had to forgive myself for all this to move forward. That’s what Mother [Ayahuasca] helped me do. She helped me reconstruct prosocial boundaries.”

A big part of the six days, he says, was coming to terms with his formative years—starting right from the beginning—and his path towards a life of crime.

“I came from a great family, there’s no way I can point my finger at anybody and say, ‘I was abused’ or anything like that.”

KA photo 2 Hupp now performs healing ceremonies using the shamanic brew Ayahuasca. VICE Media

However, his father was very traditional and Hupp—who grew up in Shively, Kentucky, in the suburbs of Louisville—thinks this upbringing hardened him at an early age, alongside his later experiences in both the military and what he described as a “broken” school system.

“You gotta realize, my father was born in 1918. He raised me with all the skillsets that got him through the Great Depression, a coal mine cave-in, a broken back, and the Battle of the Bulge.”

“He tried to instil in me all those skillsets, but the problem was the world had changed. Being able to hunt, kill and skin game was very important in his survival, but in my world the groceries were full. At five years old he took me hunting and my job was to carry the dead game and if anything was wounded, I had to dispatch it. Now it sounds brutal, but back then it was a way of life for a lot of rural kids.”

Talking of his experiences being a kid in 1970s Kentucky, Hupp paints a picture of a very different time—one in which KKK rallies and gang fights took place in the high school parking lot and corporal punishment was meted out to children who stepped out of line.

Then in his early teens, Hupp began experimenting with drugs—including marijuana and psychedelics—something which he credits both with making him very independent-minded and leading him down a path of criminality.

“There was all kinds of crap going on and the system was very permissive back then. A cop found you with weed, the worst he did was dump it out, and a lot of times he gave it back to you. Then all of a sudden they flipped that switch, the War on Drugs, and guess what, if you wanted to get high, you had to become a criminal. And you started thinking like a criminal.”

At the age of 17, he joined the military, in part, to get himself out of a lot of trouble.

“I was kinda pointed there judicially. I had really screwed up. I had totaled my car, I’d ran away from home, dumb teenage kid shit. It got me out of all that.”

But far from offering him a clean slate, the military simply opened up a new avenue for Hupp to engage in mischief. After being assigned to a military base in Bamberg, Germany, he says he fell into a “little drug cartel” which ran hash from the communist East to the West. Funnily enough, his involvement in the drug trade began after another chance encounter with a roommate.

“When I walked into the barracks for the first time, this guy stood up and a 1000-gram block of bubblegum black hash fell out of his pocket, right onto the floor. He looked at me and the blood drained from his face. There I am little 19-year-old baby-faced Stevie and he goes ‘Man, I hope you party’. And I looked at him and I said, ‘Dude, you met the right guy’” he tells me laughing.

“From there I was welcomed straight in and we had a blast. Imagine being 19, all the money you can spend, in a place that has whorehouses, four stories high and you can do anything you want. You see, that also put me in a frame of mind in my early life that I may not live long. So all that played into me being who I was.”

Meanwhile, Steve’s officers—who recognized his potential as a soldier—put him through a punishing training regime in an effort to get him to stay on in the military.

"The whole time, they were kicking my ass, marching me around with a rucksack full of sandbags, down tank trails at three in the morning. All I had to do was tell them I would stay and it all would stop. It was brutal because you were being trained by a bunch of angry Vietnam vets. A lot of things happened that no one talked about. When you see Full Metal Jacket, that’s what it was like for me."

Eventually though, the cartel got busted and Hupp failed a drug test for smoking weed, leading to his eventual discharge from the military under honorable conditions. (He says that the battalion commander who chaptered him out told him on his departure: "Hupp, if this was a war situation, I’d take a million of you but we can’t tolerate you in peace time.")

It was on his return to the U.S. that Hupp says he became fully embedded in a life of crime, developing an addiction to the adrenaline rush and immediate gratification that it offered—although he says he always had a normal job, which he used as a cover.

“I had a psychologist tell me in prison: ‘You are so lucky that you never tasted blood during your crimes, because you have the exact makeup of a serial killer. You just hadn’t thrown that switch.’ That made me really stop and reflect. I started going to the library and pulling up different psychology books and that’s when I became self-aware that I was living the life of a psychopath. Whether it was done in childhood through hunting and other things that my father had taught me at a young age, or I was predisposed, I don’t know.”

But after his experiences with Ayahuasca, everything shifted for Hupp.

“Now of course, when that two liter bottle was gone, I had no more access so then I was really frustrated because I wanted to go back. I had to go back. I was being called and I knew I had experienced something that was unexplainable.”

KA photo 4 Hupp set up an Ayahuasca church deep in the Bible Belt. VICE Media

Inspired by the healing potential of the brew (the Indigenous people of the Amazon refer to it as a medicine not a drug,) he decided he had to learn how to make it and found a Native American church that ordained him as a shaman.

From there, he set up a “church,” with the help of his family, deep in the Bible Belt of Kentucky which offers Ayahuasca ceremonies. It attracts people from far and wide seeking enlightenment or healing from all manner of afflictions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, addiction, and trauma resulting from physical or emotional abuse.

Often, these ceremonies have a transformative effect on the participants, Hupp says. However, an Ayahuasca trip is no easy shortcut to nirvana. Expect to be confronted with your worst inner demons and most painful memories. Furthermore, the experience—which can last several hours—may involve puking, laughing, crying and even defecating (sometimes, all at the same time).

Shamans will tell you that this “purging” is a beneficial part of the process as it facilitates the letting go of troubling thoughts or emotions, enabling the individual to arrive at important realizations about their lives.

“We can do in two days what conventional therapy may take years to do, but only If you are willing to step into the pain,” Hupp says. “We have observed severe addicts be free from opiates, meth and alcohol in just a couple of days and clean years later. We have seen people on the brink of suicide re-evaluate their life and decide to hang around.”

“I don’t care if you’re Christian, I don’t care if you’re Muslim, I don’t care if you’re atheist, you can come and be a member of our church, and we are not gonna preach any kind of dogma to you. All we’re gonna do is make sure that we hold a safe space for you and introduce you to some things that maybe you’ve never been introduced to before. But at the end of the day you’re gonna have to hold the conversation, if you choose.”

The irony of a church slinging one of the most powerful psychedelics known to man in a dry county is not lost on Hupp. While he describes the area as “very conservative” and admits that not everyone understands what he is doing, he says that he has largely been received with open arms by the community.

“I’m gonna be honest with you, they have been very accepting of us. I’m not saying they totally understand what we’re about but they have allowed us to coexist with them, and that is beautiful.”

This acceptance has even extended to law enforcement, despite DMT’s classification as a Schedule I drug. In fact, the church can count the local sheriff’s department as a friend on their Facebook page and Hupp says a deputy recently praised him for the work they were doing.

With these cordial relationships in mind, Hupp is currently trying to put together a pilot program which would see hard-core drug offenders receive leniency or a suspended sentence if they go through the center’s treatment program.

“I am living proof that Ayahuasca can help anybody. But I’ll be the first one to say, a tiger really can’t change their stripes. I’m still a tiger, but I changed who I hunt. Now, I hunt people to help rather than to hurt. I’m not out here to try and change anyone’s philosophies, I just wanna help them with this life. I offer you no promises of paradise. This is real, and sometimes it can be terrifying—what’s inside of us. But we have to make peace with it to move forward.”

“I’m sure law enforcement keeps an eye on us and I welcome it. I kinda keep in the back of my head that an honest man don’t mind being treated like a thief. And that’s what I have become. I’m an honest man.”

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