Life is a Cosmic Giggle on the Breath of the Universe
A Tour of Gordon Todd Skinner's Subterranean LSD Palace
Photos by David Feinberg and Santiago Stelley
Archival photos courtesy of Krystle Cole
Krystle stands inside the silo tunnel where she spent countless hours tripping on various psychedelics.
There is no facile synthesis of the events that transpired at the Wamego missile silo between October 1 and November 4, 2000. The available information is a viscous solution of truths, half-lies, three-quarter truths, and outright lies, the fractionation of which yields no pure product. The dramatis personae are many and varied. The chemicals in question often obscure and untested. What is known is that in 1997, a virtuosic organic chemist named Leonard Pickard joined forces with Gordon Todd Skinner, the heir to a spring-manufacturing fortune, to organize what would later become the world’s most productive LSD laboratory. A laboratory that, according to some sources, produced 90 percent of the LSD in circulation, in addition to unknown quantities of MDMA, ALD-52, ergot wine, and quite possibly LSZ... but I’ll get to that later.
Leonard Pickard is an anomaly among clandestine chemists—one of very few who was able to achieve great success in academia. He studied at Harvard, Purdue, and UCLA while producing kilos of MDA and LSD in secret laboratories under the auspices of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. He was charismatic and gentlemanly, with excellent posture (he would advise slouchers to let their vertebrae fall vertically, like “a beautiful string of pearls”). A notable photo depicts Leonard at a scientific conference in Sussex, gently appreciating the scent of a long-stemmed rose. He was like that.
Gordon Todd Skinner (known by friends as Todd) is an autodidact chemist of uncertain ability; indeed, whether he is a chemist at all is subject to debate. He allegedly performed his first mescaline extraction from L. williamsii at the age of 19. By 25, he was incarcerated and facing life in a New Jersey prison for trafficking 42 pounds of marijuana. In order to beat the charges, he began a long and fruitful career as a government informant. In 1996, he purchased a decommissioned Atlas E nuclear-missile silo in Wamego, Kansas, and transformed it into a subterranean psychedelic palace. Three years later, he purchased a second silo to house an LSD superlab. The laboratory, however, only operated for a short time, and by October 2000 Todd was providing DEA agents with a guided tour of the premises. Simply dismissing Todd as a snitch would ignore the fact that he seemed to possess a deep and honest commitment to the distribution of psychedelic drugs for the betterment of mankind, which makes what he did all the more complex.
Lastly, there is Krystle Cole, a former goth stripper from Kansas, who fell in love with Todd and was ushered into his private circle of chemists and dealers. Krystle met Todd in February 2000, and they shared six months of lysergic bliss in the silo before things began to catabolize into chaos. By August 2000, Todd was afraid the LSD laboratory was under government surveillance and decided to preempt any criminal charges he might face by turning in Leonard. He furtively began recording conversations and compiling evidence. This led to Leonard’s arrest, and a nationwide (and possibly global) LSD drought that lasted throughout the early 2000s.
In October 2000, Todd formally contacted the DEA and declared, “I have what I believe is the world’s largest LSD conspiracy… and I would like to try to work something out.” Todd received total immunity for his involvement with the laboratory and walked away a free man, while Leonard was given two concurrent life sentences without parole. In the wake of the trial, Todd and Krystle traveled across America, dealing kilos of crystalline MDMA to survive. As time passed, Todd became increasing violent and paranoid, and in September 2003 he was arrested and began a protracted legal battle that culminated with a sentence of life in prison for assault with a dangerous weapon (a hypodermic needle) and kidnapping.
In the years since the arrests, Krystle has parlayed her experience into a series of books and YouTube videos, the most popular of which involves an in-depth discussion of an intrarectal DMT-administration technique termed “the shamanic colonic.” Apparently, it burns. Krystle is one of very few people who participated in the LSD operation who is not currently incarcerated, and so I flew to Kansas to meet her, ask some questions, and pay a visit to the legendary missile silo. Despite all she has gone through, Krystle is an ebullient bundle of entheogenic energy. When I picked her up to drive to Wamego she was wearing a tie-dyed shirt that read “.&.”
At one time, the silo was a testament to Todd’s unrestrained profligacy. The main missile bay was filled with fine Persian carpets and luxurious leather couches. He owned a $120,000 stereo system, which he used to listen to Deep Forest and Sarah McLachlan at high volumes. The bathroom alone contained a shower with three heads and a bathtub that could easily accommodate half a dozen people. Krystle said it was fun. After the bust, the silo was gutted, and everything of value was sold. The space was vandalized and abandoned, it flooded with water, and eventually Todd’s henchmen broke inside to steal a cache of MDMA, LSD, and DMT hidden within the varicose pink marble walls. Today, very little of the original silo is intact, and the property is owned by a military-vehicle fanatic, who uses the missile bay to store a collection of WWII-era Soviet T-34 tanks. After leaving the silo, I sat down with Krystle for a chat.
Krystle and Hamilton cut loose with a steamed-vegetable platter at Houlihan’s.
Vice: How did you and Gordon Todd Skinner meet and subsequently fall in love?
Krystle Cole: I was stripping at a place called Club Orleans. Todd didn’t frequent strip clubs, but his employees did, and one of them saw my act and told Todd, “There’s this girl down there you should really see.” I did an interesting act—a bondage act. I certainly stood out for the Kansas crowd that was in there. I was really goth because I hated Kansas. I would play death-metal music and have this chain that I would wrap around the pole, and then I would whip myself with the chain. I wanted to rebel against everything Kansas was about. When Todd came in, he wasn’t like the other customers, he didn’t want lap dances or anything like that. He would just sit in the VIP room and hand me lots and lots of money. Eventually, he asked if I wanted to see where he lived. At strip clubs they always preach a rule: “Never go home with a customer; you’ll be chopped into pieces and raped.” So I was nervous, but I said, “OK, I’ll go.” After driving for hours we arrived at these huge metal gates with barbed wire along the top. He had at least ten security cameras outside, as well as these motion-sensing floodlights. There were no other buildings in sight, and the door to the missile silo was large enough to accommodate a semitruck. As he led me inside, I was freaking out.
Why did Todd choose to live in a decommissioned nuclear-missile silo as opposed to, say, a house?
When I first met Leonard and Todd, their story was that they were eccentric investment bankers, and Todd said he had been stockpiling food and machine guns to prepare for Y2K—we met right after the millennium. Todd had everything you would need to survive the apocalypse in the silo. They explained that they carried briefcases stacked with foreign currency and $1,000 bills because they thought the US financial system was on the verge of collapse. They threw around money, drove Porsches, bought me Armani clothes, and I didn’t have to work at the strip club anymore. Here in Kansas you aren’t raised to scrutinize people about whether they are lying to you or not, you know?
So Todd said he was an investment banker-cum-survivalist preparing for post-Y2K financial collapse, but how did he explain the kilos of MDMA?
Todd very much hid it. When I first met him, I never got to see anything like that. I had virtually no experience with drugs. I did the basic drinking alcohol and smoking pot, but I had never even heard of MDMA. He said, “Try it just once, you’ll like it.” And boy did I… but I only got to see this small amount. Eventually, I began to suspect something was going on, but I didn’t know exactly what. Everyone was so nervous. If you talked about drugs on the phone, or visited drug-related websites, there would be a major chew-out session. It was only later that I was shown the stockpiles of drugs and I found out they had an LSD lab in addition to the MDMA lab, but it never got busted.
I’ve read that he told people he was using the missile silo to manufacture high-performance springs for NASA.
Technically, at one time, they had springs being made out at the missile silo. Some of his employees said they had tried to make a few springs, but it was mainly just a cover.
Did you see any springs at all?
No, I never saw a single spring at the silo, but Todd’s mother actually does own a spring factory in Tulsa, and they do make springs for NASA.
An apparatus consisting of 182 batteries Todd claimed to have designed for experimental electrochemical MDMA synthesis.
So once you figured out that Todd and Leonard were involved in an LSD-manufacturing ring, did you want to end your involvement with them?
As I started to figure it out, I didn’t, I wanted to get more involved! I didn’t find out exactly what was going on until after Leonard had been busted. I was on a lot of drugs, and I was only 18. I didn’t have enough foresight or world experience to be able to discern the things that were happening around me. Before I was just like, “Hey, let’s party.” I didn’t think about the consequences or the future or anything, really.
What were some of the substances that the group synthesized and experimented with?
Todd’s specialty was tryptamines. He would perform Mimosa hostilis extractions but could also produce synthetic DMT. He was very proud of all the different chemicals he had. If you got close enough to him, you would get to see this huge “library” of different substances—hundreds of different drugs. This was back in 2000 before most of these substances could be purchased online as research chemicals. Todd would go around giving everybody stuff, and we were like, “Give me!” I don’t know what most of the things were. Back then I was on so many different substances, it was like living in an entheogenic monastery. I didn’t have to work. I didn’t have to worry about paying bills. I didn’t have to do anything other than take psychedelics. I had the opportunity to use all kinds of unusual things like ALD-52 and ergot wine, as well as some totally novel things that I have not heard of before or since.
What were some of the novel substances?
Well, I couldn’t talk about a lot of this stuff before, but I can now because the statute of limitations has expired. Specifically, there was one substance that nobody had ever tried before. It was something completely new, and what I experienced on it was above and beyond anything I can describe. Because it was like looking... It was like it turned reality into this whole… I mean, it was reality, but like a layer over reality. It’s hard to explain, but afterward I felt like it taught my brain that there was a neurological switch I could just flip and enter an altered state at will.
What was the name of this substance?
Todd didn’t name most of the chemicals he created, but this was a novel analog of 5-MeO-αMT. He sent me a number of letters from prison describing the synthesis in coded language; apparently it could be made with electrified rhodium foil in a 20-gallon fish tank.1 There were lots of new things, but that one was particularly crazy. He also said it was an especially sensitive molecule that was prone to degradation, and so when storing that particular “book” in one of his “libraries” it had to be “bound” with a “light-blocked book cover.” There were other novel substances as well. Leonard made a new LSD analog called “diazedine,” though I don’t know exactly what that was either.
Are you familiar with lysergic acid 2,4-dimethylazetidide?2
No, but they were calling this diazedine. It was also crazy, but nothing earth-shattering. Leonard gave it to Todd in a bottle of Everclear for testing, and we would dose a capful at a time. Apparently, diazedine failed to be doable on a large scale because the production costs were too high and the yields too low. Diazedine caused a lot of stress between Todd and Leonard, because they had high expectations for it as an LSD alternative.
1 In Todd’s letters from prison, he describes using both 5-Fluoro-αMT and 6-Fluoro-αMT. The former is commercially available in small quantities, and the latter was distributed by Leonard’s group and is said to be a “beast.” Both are active psychedelics, but neither could be produced with the precursors and electrified rhodium-foil fish-tank apparatus Todd described.
2 Lysergic acid 2,4-dimethylazetidide (aka LSZ) belongs to a very small group of serotonergic psychedelics that surpass LSD in potency. Aside from the fact that “diazedine” is a lexical clipping of dimethylazetidine (diazedine<dimethylazetidine), the first paper describing the chemistry and pharmacology of LSZ came out of a laboratory at Purdue University, where Leonard had previously studied under the renowned chemist David Nichols. Though the paper was published after Leonard’s arrest, it is still quite likely he was aware of the preliminary research. When I asked Dr. Nichols whether he thought Pickard may have produced LSZ, he replied, “Leonard knew of our work, of that I am certain.” Rumors of LSZ distributed on blotter paper (purportedly under the name λ) have circulated for years, though there are few confirmed reports of its existence. Of course, the name diazedine is ambiguous and could be referring to just about anything, but I would bet a kilo of benzotriazole-1-yl-oxy-tris-pyrrolidino-phosphonium hexafluorophosphate that LSZ and diazedine are one and the same.
Holes drilled by Todd’s henchmen in order to check out the “books” in his “library” that contained popular titles such as 500g MDMA, 100g DMT, 1g LSD, $10,000 American, $10,000 Canadian, and ƒ10,000 Dutch guilder.
So at what point in all of this did Todd become an informant for the DEA and turn Leonard in?
As the time of the bust approached, Todd began to tell me various things about Leonard: that he was involved in the heroin trade and the trade of Stinger missiles in Afghanistan, and that he had contracted the murder of a man who was supplying them with an LSD precursor. I don’t know if I believe Todd now, but I certainly did at the time. I was completely in love with him, and anything that he said I took as the truth. Now I can look back and see that he was such a liar a lot of the time.
I’ve exchanged letters with Leonard, and he seems like a gentlemanly and kind man.
You have to realize that he’s not that innocent in all of this. I mean, it’s horrible that he is serving a life sentence for committing a nonviolent crime, which is not even a crime but a service that has had a profoundly positive effect on humanity, but Leonard was not an angel either. A lot of people try to paint him as this Buddhist-monk-like guy who would never do anything bad. Both Todd and Leonard were drug dealers at the top level; neither of them was good. On the flip side, I don’t think Leonard was a murderer.
Did Leonard seem like someone who would be involved with the heroin trade?
Probably not, but he didn’t seem like someone who would be involved with the LSD trade either! Leonard was so good at acting the part. I never once saw him use a drug or even speak of a drug. The only thing he ever said to me was, “You should go to raves. You will like them.” That’s the only remotely drug-related thing he ever said before the bust.
Did Todd ever allow you to observe the synthesis of any drugs?
Well, I saw kilo upon kilo of indole. I saw glassware and lab equipment and things that were in the last stages of synthesis or purification. I saw glass jugs filled with wine made from ergot cultures, but I never once entered one of the labs or observed any syntheses. I think I knew Todd better than anybody, but he still didn’t trust me enough to take me into his lab.
Todd pensively stares off into space while massaging a sore shoulder.
I was always confused about Todd’s role. Clearly Leonard had a specific purpose—he is a highly educated organic chemist, a student of Alexander Shulgin—but why was Gordon Todd Skinner involved?
Well, Todd told me many different versions over the years. According to official reports, he was there to launder money and take care of other cash-flow-related things. Initially, he told me he was the head of security for the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, but then later, when he began to trust me more, Todd explained that he was an LSD chemist as well. He said that he was responsible for making “white fluff” LSD, while Leonard would make large amounts of “lavender” LSD for sale.3 From what I can deduce, I think that Leonard was making the bulk majority of the LSD. Todd was just making these small batches, and also Todd would make the DMT.
You once wrote that Todd synthesized something called “Black Tar Acid,” which gave people seizures. Why was he giving this to people?
Yeah, I don’t know what it was. It looked really bad. Instead of being crystalline, it was this black, inky tar. When you would try to dissolve it in solution, it would turn this really dark color. This was toward the end, when he began to unravel. He was making a lot of really poisonous tryptamines that gave people seizures. All the stress of the court cases, years of running, and years of shady dealings with the government began to take their toll. As for why he gave it to people, why did Todd do anything he did? He was mentally ill. I really think he is a sociopath. I mean, at the time I didn’t know what a sociopath was. Now having gone to school for psychology and understanding the definition of what that is, I realize there is a very small percentage of the population who are sociopaths.
At one point, Todd claimed to invent an HIV vaccine and was offering free injections to all of your neighbors, correct?
Yes, the bigger his lies, the more likely he was to get away with them. I had been doing so much MDMA that I was afraid I had brain damage, so I went to a naturopathic doctor for treatment. The doctor prescribed a number of different IV vitamin infusions. When Todd saw me with the IV, he wanted to experiment with his own vitamin infusions by adding psychedelics to the mixture. He would go to this naturopathic doctor’s office—if you can imagine, there are all these old people in there undergoing chelation therapy in the same room—and he would put a DMT solution in the IV bottle. He would adjust the flow so he would start tripping more and then restrict the flow to cool down. He was surfing the DMT high. He would just sit like that with the old people, tripping his ass off for hours while everyone thought he was undergoing chelation. But he could totally keep it together. I wouldn’t do that.
Nor would I…
It’s one thing to smoke DMT and then be done with it, but having a multihour DMT trip with a needle in your vein does not sound appealing to me. Although once you do it enough, you can make almost any trip a pleasant experience regardless of the environment. For example, when Todd became violent he knew I would try to escape, and so he began booby-trapping my house with various psychedelics. He wanted other people to think I was going insane, or maybe he wanted me to doubt my own sanity. Leonard told me that Todd must have coated my doorknobs with psychedelics. As a result of these booby traps, I tripped for three days in a row, each day stronger than the day preceding it. Whatever this substance was, it was the strongest thing I have ever taken. It’s very off-putting to be going about your daily business and then find yourself inexplicably plunged into a +++ trip.4 Totally slammed beyond belief. Yet, it was also a really good experience in some ways. I just remembered that life is a cosmic giggle on the breath of the universe. So like I said, any psychedelic experience has the potential to be good unless there is a person literally standing above you and stabbing you with needles, strangling you, and screaming, which is what Todd did the second time around. So that was hard to get through, you know? There’s no way to make that good.
3 “White fluff” and “lavender” are terms used to denote different grades of LSD, with the former being of high purity and the latter being of medium to low purity. These names are derived from the appearance of the crystalline LSD, but it should be noted that this is acidhead nomenclature and is not rooted in any kind of formal chemical analysis. Whether Todd was actually capable of producing white fluff is unclear. In his court testimony, he said he could not synthesize LSD despite the fact that he had total immunity. Accordingly, I have always wondered whether Todd simply liked the image of being a patriarchal Alexander Shulgin figure and his entire chemist persona was an elaborate hoax. Todd considered Dennis McKenna a personal friend, and so I asked McKenna for his thoughts on the matter. He replied, “Skinner claimed to be many things that he was not. As far as I’m aware, a chemist was one of them!”
4 Alexander Shulgin developed a five-point rating scale, ranging from +/- to ++++, with +++ indicating, “Not only are the chronology and the nature of a drug’s action quite clear, but ignoring its action is no longer an option. The subject is totally engaged in the experience, for better or worse.”
Krystle dons a gas mask and G-string, nay LSD-string.
I’ve read that Leonard was also working as a DEA informant. I find it amazing that two of the world’s most powerful drug dealers were both working for the DEA independently, unbeknownst to each other. Did Todd give you the impression that the DEA is closely involved with the distribution of Schedule I drugs?
Yes, absolutely. He would say those exact words. At the top of the pyramid there is no division between drug distribution and drug enforcement. Fifty-four percent of the prison population are sentenced for drug-related offenses. The assets of those prisoners, and the money they draw through the court system, is absolutely enormous. Without chemists to produce drugs, the DEA cannot profit off busts. If they bust people at the lower echelons while retaining the production at the top, they can sustain the agency. Without these chemists, the entire organization would disintegrate.
So if they were working with Todd and Leonard while profiting off lower-level busts, why would they arrest Leonard?
I have no evidence that they were working with Leonard during the silo bust, but I know they had worked with him in the past from time to time. I think the reason they busted Leonard and didn’t give him a chance was because Todd went directly to the head of the DEA in Washington, DC, and got these immunity agreements. So at that point it had all become too big. Leonard had no way to get out of it.
Todd received immunity for absolutely everything related to the silo bust. It seems as if his government connections were so strong that he was almost invincible. What he got caught for in the end was unrelated to LSD distribution, but rather for torturing your ex-boyfriend, correct?
Yes, that’s true. I think his legal immunity started to drive him insane; he thought he could get away with murder. He’s now serving life for what he did to my ex-boyfriend Brad. After the trial, I was trying to get away from Todd because he was falling apart psychologically. He wanted me back and wasn’t going to take no for an answer. Todd dragged me into his car and strangled me while threatening to drive us both off a bridge. I knew that if I didn’t get help I was going to die. First I went to the local police and got a temporary restraining order, but that only made Todd angrier, so I had no choice but to go to the DEA. The DEA knew that I had dated Todd, and so they were willing to meet with me. I walked into the office with Brad, and we confessed everything. I told them I was an MDMA dealer, the location of one of Todd’s MDMA labs, and about his abuse and the forced druggings. It turned out there were other people Todd had drugged who had gone to the DEA as well, so they had more than enough evidence for a case. I told the agents, “I don’t care if I go to prison for a few years for incriminating myself; at least nothing else will happen to me or anyone else.” It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but I had no other options, Todd was either going to kill me or someone else. But the agents didn’t do anything. Conveniently, two days later, Todd called me up and told me that he knew we had met with the DEA. He was enraged, and that is why he kidnapped me and Brad.
What happened during the kidnapping?
It started with Todd offering Brad communion wafers laced with a psilocin analog. I have no idea why Brad agreed to eat the wafers. Then Todd offered Brad a drug that he claimed would amplify the effects of the psychedelic wafers. It was a really big white pill, and after Brad took it he fell unconscious for 12 hours. Todd would do that to people sometimes if he didn’t want them at a party; he would trick them into taking a pill that would knock them unconscious. He was like a pharmacological puppeteer, pulling everybody’s strings with these different chemicals. Then he repeatedly injected Brad with psychedelics, kicked him in the penis, and interrogated him about what, exactly, we had told the DEA.
Krystle and Hamilton are two lysergic peas in an entheogenic pod.
Was he using the psychedelics as a truth serum?
Yes, that was his plan, at least. He was giving Brad IV DMT injections and interrogating him and psychologically tormenting him. Todd would say, “We can keep him, we can make him trust us again.” And I said, “No, we can’t. He has to go to the hospital!” He was injecting me as well with what he said was sodium pentothal. I was so afraid. To think that someone would use psychedelics for the types of things he used them for. It was really horrible. After it was over, Brad had to go to hospital to recuperate from the damage done to his penis, but I had to stay with Todd for a whole month. He drugged me, he raped me, he sodomized me. He did horrible things to me.
Where is Brad now?
I don’t know. I haven’t had contact with him since then. He slowly became convinced I was a Satanist, and after a few weeks in the hospital he was making statements like, “Krystle was performing satanic séances over my dying body.” I assume that he hates me and if he ever got a chance to voice his side of the story he would probably say I was this Satan-worshipping devil woman who was in cahoots with Todd to do horrible things to him from day 1.
Were you performing satanic séances over his dying body?
No, I was giving him CPR! He was on enormous doses of psychedelics and barbiturates so his memory of the ordeal is seriously distorted. He was on the verge of death. I would have called the cops, but Todd had needles filled with some drug and said, “If you call the cops, I’m injecting him with this, and he’ll be dead long before anyone gets here.” I did everything I could in order to get him out of that situation, and Brad is still alive now as a result.
After listening to all of these stories about Todd as a sociopathic, controlling megalomaniac—I wonder, how did you fall so deeply in love with him?
Well, at first he was so nice. He seemed like the most spiritual person you would ever meet. Tripping with him was different than anyone I have ever tripped with. We experienced telepathy together. We experienced God together. I wholeheartedly believed that he was the most spiritual and the most perfect person out there, and I fell in love with him completely. After that, I was willing to overlook some of the bad stuff that I started to see in the first couple of years. I would tell myself that underneath all of the insanity he was a good person. Looking back on it, he was just manipulating me. I was a stupid girl. I have some major psychological scars from what happened. That’s why Todd’s serving life––what he did was not a good thing. That’s not what psychedelics should be for. So I wrote Lysergic to teach people to be careful about who they decide to trip with, so hopefully people don’t make the same mistakes I did. Because I really chose the wrong tripping partner when it came to Todd.
Watch Hamilton and Krystle traipse around what was formerly the world’s largest LSD factory on a new episode of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia this month.
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