Seventy-four-year-old William Leonard Pickard is a stand-up guy. Employed as a paralegal at a law firm in New Mexico, he specialises in case work for the local indigenous Pueblo community – a long-suffering group for which he facilitates disputes, evictions, civil spats, and other everyday torts. He enjoys walking, hanging in nature, and reading Victorian literature in his spare time, of which he has lots after being released from jail in July 2020.
Pickard is one of the two people convicted in the largest LSD manufacturing case in history. His lab, buried in the recesses of a decommissioned Kansas missile silo owned by his eccentric co-conspirator, Todd Skinner, contained as much as 41.3kg of LSD-impregnated material: enough for nearly 400 million stamps of pure lysergic acid.
But, so the story goes, maybe it’s too good to be true. Not only did he never work with Skinner, Pickard claims, but the true quantity of acid – stripped of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s sexed up numbers and funny chemical accounting – was really less than half a pound: so a lot less than the amount apparently seized, but still enough to turn on everyone in Wales (and most of Northern Ireland).
By approximate street prices, the stock claimed by the DEA would boast more than $8 billion in value, an amount which exceeds the nominal GDP of many major economies in Sub-Saharan Africa. Yet the DEA never found any money.
Pickard was sentenced to two life sentences without parole but continually appealed his case while in prison. In 2016, he won a decade-long lawsuit against the DEA asking for records on the confidential informant that helped put him behind bars. In July 2020, 17 years into his sentence, Pickard was granted compassionate leave.
This is all documented in new book Operation White Rabbit: LSD, The DEA, and the Fate of the Acid King, a deep-dive built from years of regular visits and interviews with Pickard in prison, by Dennis McDougal – a journalist known as “LA’s number one muckraker” for his exposés of celebrity scandal and Hollywood drama.
VICE spoke to McDougal about the peculiar story of the 90s “Acid King”, how he came to be arrested and the difference between his chemistry operation and Breaking Bad.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: How did Pickard’s operation work?
Dennis McDougal: According to the government, Pickard imported the raw materials and active ingredients for LSD from clandestine sources in Europe and then “cooked” the compound in safe houses that he turned into laboratories. These were in Aspen, Colorado, then Santa Fe, New Mexico, and finally two different abandoned Atlas missile silos in eastern Kansas, which were owned by Gordon Todd Skinner, his alleged co-conspirator.
Do you have any sense of the quantity of LSD he may have produced over the course of his career?
The DEA claimed that Pickard had manufactured several millions of doses. In their initial press release [upon his arrest], agents boasted of seizing 41.3 kilograms of LSD, equivalent to over 400 million standard hits: enough to give the whole UK population a strong trip six times over. They claimed that the availability of LSD had dropped by 95% across the American mainland after his arrest. But there was never any evidence that the supply was even a tiny fraction of that wildly exaggerated amount.
How did he end up getting caught?
On election day in 2000, the DEA executed a trap at the abandoned Atlas missile silo in Kansas, where Pickard was allegedly manufacturing the LSD. After using Skinner to lure Pickard to the site, agents led by the DEA’s Karl Nichols tried arresting Pickard and his sidekick Clyde Apperson. Pickard – a marathon runner – bolted, outpacing police, and hid overnight in a barn some five miles away from the silo. The next morning, the barn’s owner turned Pickard in.
Some people would be quick to draw a comparison between Pickard and Walter White, the meth-producing chemistry genius in Breaking Bad. There’s an important difference in being an LSD manufacturer, though, right?
Big time. From Owsley to Tim Scully and Nick Sand to Dr. Hofmann himself, acid cookers have drawn a distinct line between their product and that of lesser drug manufacturers. Pickard wrote an entire book, The Rose of Paracelsus, on the fundamental premise that LSD is more holy than a communion wafer and twice as potent: the polar opposite of the cheap high that Walter White’s crystal killer bestowed on its consumers.
Pickard’s upbringing was unusual for a drug dealer, too.
Pickard and his older sister grew up wealthy in the Atlanta suburbs. His father was a corporate lawyer and his stepmother a scientist for the fledgling Centers for Disease Control. He was a brilliant science student in high school and went to Princeton on full scholarship, but flunked out in his first year after stealing a car and crossing state lines joyriding.
Pickard spent the next few years in Connecticut at a mental hospital, where he was diagnosed as a narcissist. Once he left, he moved to the West Coast and became a below-the-radar chemist and on again, off again student for the next 20 years. During this murky period - which he glosses over even now - he became something of a trust-fund vagabond, traversing the U.S. and Mexico, learning the ins and out of the drug trade without necessarily taking part as an actual dealer, but always increasing his skills as a manipulator of molecules.
Todd Skinner was a key witness in Pickard’s trial and allegedly worked as the Acid King’s right-hand man in distribution. Who was he really?
Todd Skinner was a drug dealer and con artist. He met Pickard at a scientific conference in San Francisco in the late 1990s, and they soon struck up a mutual affinity, if not a friendship. Like Pickard, Skinner also fancied himself a self-taught chemist, as far back as high school in Oklahoma.
But he was not above all sorts of drug dealing from the street level on up, and he used himself and his friends as guinea pigs whenever he produced a new compound. He dealt in marijuana, mushrooms and peyote buttons – anything and everything he could find and sell that got people high. Naturally, he got busted as much or more than Pickard, even though he was 20 years younger.
Pickard understood biochemistry on a level Skinner never would and Skinner understood how to get the goodies to market. It was a match made in some sort of heaven or hell, depending upon one’s point of view.
According to Pickard, there was never a relationship - merely an acquaintance that Skinner exploited in collusion with the DEA to bring Pickard down. Skinner maintains that the relationship grew out of symbiosis: Pickard had perfected the LSD process and Skinner supplied the venue and manpower to build the inventory. Pickard had also apparently masterminded the distribution through his European resources and global reach. Pickard ascribes all of it – manufacture, stockpiling and distribution - to fantasy, but the DEA never listened to his side of the story.
Skinner has been described as a “sociopath”. What did he do to merit that description?
He used people. The best, and most public, example being the case of his ex-wife Krystal Cole’s young boyfriend, whom Skinner tortured, injected with various unknown chemicals and left to die by the roadside near Galveston, Texas. Skinner was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in Oklahoma prison, where he is expected to remain until at least 2040.
Pickard was well-acquainted with a number of drug researchers, including Sasha Shulgin and MAPS’ Rick Doblin. How close were Pickard and Skinner to the psychedelic mainstream at the time?
Pickard was in touch with all the latest findings and what little research that was being done into psychedelics in the 1990s, despite the ongoing mindless crackdown by the federal government into all things psychedelic. He read the literature, followed the few remaining psychedelic scholars like Shulgin, and attended scientific conferences. Skinner, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about the science of psychedelics. He was far more about the cheap thrills that he might be able to achieve, especially if it involved having sex at the same time.
Reading your book, it seems that the DEA investigation had some real problems. What malpractice did they get up to?
The most glaring was hiding Skinner’s participation in overdosing - and killing - one of his employees at the Wamego missile silo, where Pickard allegedly manufactured LSD before his capture. The overdose resulted in involuntary manslaughter charges against Skinner, but after the DEA falsely testified on Skinner’s behalf, the judge dismissed the case so that Skinner would be free to lie on the stand against Pickard.
In addition, the prosecution clearly withheld evidence and testimony from the defense that might have exonerated Pickard. Further, Judge Richard Rogers was 80, senile and ought to have recused himself, but saw glory in making an example of Pickard. He remained on the bench repeatedly ruling in favor of the prosecution and against the defense, climaxing his judicial farce by handing down two life sentences plus 20 years.
What environment was Pickard dealing with in prison?
I began visiting Pickard in Tucson federal prison six years ago after our long email correspondence. It’s a high-security facility with some notorious inmates, including Black Panther H. Rap Brown, the mobster Whitey Bulger, and the sex-abusing Mormon President Warren Jeffs. Pickard witnessed two murders while he was there.
Until the mid-2000s, you specialised in reporting on LA, Hollywood, and celebrity culture. What drew you to Pickard’s case?
In January of 2006, I attended the 100th birthday celebrations of Dr. Albert Hoffman, the creator of LSD, in Basel. My intention at the time was to produce a documentary about LSD’s cultural history, and I shot dozens of interviews with notable psychedelic figures.
But almost from the beginning of the project – which I called The Acid Chronicles – I kept coming across the name William Leonard Pickard. He was, I heard, a martyr to the psychedelic cause, and had been sentenced to life in prison twice by a Kansas judge in 2003 for the crime of making LSD.
The more I researched the circumstances surrounding Pickard’s arrest, trial and conviction, the more I became convinced that he’d been completely done over by government corruption. I began a correspondence with Pickard that led further to friendship, and a campaign to overturn the DEA’s case.