How the ‘Acid King’ Won a Lawsuit Against the US Government
The ruling on behalf of a former LSD giant offers hope for drug war transparency in the Obama era.
An example of blotter art allegedly used as a medium for Pickard's LSD. Photo via DEA/Wikimedia Commons
William Leonard Pickard was sentenced to life without parole in 2003 for manufacturing massive amounts of acid at a decommissioned nuclear missile silo. But last week, Pickard—one of the biggest LSD manufacturers in American history—won a decade-long lawsuit against the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for records on the confidential informant that helped put him behind bars.
Pickard, now 70, filed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit in 2006. The suit plodded along for ten years in an epic case of government foot-dragging and stonewalling, according to his current lawyer, Mark Rumold, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Rumold is representing Pickard pro bono—and not as part of his day job—and the way he sees it, Pickard's case represents "absolute government and DEA obstinance."
"I've done a lot of FOIA litigation, and I've never encountered something like this," Rumold tells me.
Last Monday, Pickard finally caught a break when a federal magistrate ruled the government must produce at least some of the documents he requested. The decision doesn't mean the convict will somehow overcome his life sentence, but it does offer promise for transparency advocates concerned about the obstruction of FOIA requests in the Obama era.
Pickard was originally busted in 2000 after a DEA raid on his LSD superlab inside the old Atlas E nuclear missile silo site near Wamego, Kansas. According to court records, the spot was owned by Gordon Todd Skinner, who later received immunity in exchange for his testimony against Pickard (and a second defendant in the case).
The DEA claimed the raid recovered nearly 91 pounds of LSD, which might have been the largest acid bust ever. Of course, the actual figure was probably closer to half a pound, but it was still a historic haul, considering there have only been a handful of seizures of complete LSD labs in the history of the DEA, according to the agency.
After Pickard and another man were busted, the DEA also claimed—much more dubiously—that the US acid supply dropped by 95 percent.
In prison, Pickard became an ardent FOIA activist, suing the DEA to get information on Skinner, and initially represented himself in court. Justice Department attorneys originally tried to argue that the DEA could neither confirm nor deny Skinner's status as a government informant, a strong-arm move typically employed by the CIA. (The DOJ declined to comment for this story.)
A district court ruled against Pickard, but in 2011, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the government's arguments, declaring that, since Skinner had testified in an open and public trial, the government had officially confirmed his status as an informant for the purposes of FOIA.
Rumold says there's a public interest in finding out more about the DEA's use of Skinner as a confidential informant, especially given its problematic use of informants in general.
"The DOJ told the court in trial that Skinner had only been an informant once before in his life," Rumold says. "That turned out not to be true. I think we've found five or six different times Skinner had been an informant."
Skinner was also charged with manslaughter after a man visiting the silo overdosed on drugs, but those charges were dismissed between the time of Pickard's arrest and Skinner's testimony in court.
"Here's the government's star witness in an LSD manufacturing trial in the middle of Kansas, and those charges just disappear," Rumold adds. "That raises some pretty serious red flags."
Skinner was later convicted of kidnapping, as well as assault and battery with a dangerous weapon (a hypodermic needle), for abducting an 18-year-old teenager for six days and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Prior to his life sentence, Pickard was a gifted chemist, an ordained Buddhist priest and a UCLA researcher who received a master's degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
He also had a string of prior arrests for drug possession and manufacturing. According to lengthy profiles in the San Francisco Chronicle and Rolling Stone (the publication that dubbed Pickard the "Acid King"), the DEA suspected he was connected to the "Brotherhood of Eternal Love," a clandestine group of acid cooks who operated out of California starting in the late 60s. They also suspected that Pickard laundered LSD profits—with the help of three exotic dancers in San Francisco—to a well-heeled research institute that studied psychedelic drugs. Pickard, the exotic dancers, and the research institute all denied those claims. And the Brotherhood of Eternal Love has never been available for comment.
For now, Pickard and Rumold will have to wait and see which records the DEA actually turns over.
The lawyer suspects there's plenty of waiting left.
"It's been a wild ride, and I hope this is the beginning of the end, but something in me says it's not," Rumold says.
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