Meet The Guys Who Made America's LSD ... In An Ol' Missile Silo
Back in 2000, residents of Wamego, Kansas started to suspect something odd was going on at the abandoned missile silo next door. Neighbors saw strange lights and deliveries in the dead of night, while the mysterious inhabitants kept the gates locked and quickly emerged to ward off any trespassers. The locals were probably close to calling in Velma and the gang when the DEA swooped instead. Inside the silo, they discovered Italian marble floors, cedar wood closets, a jacuzzi, and $85,000 in stereo equipment. They also discovered a state-of-the-art laboratory and enough precursor chemicals to produce millions of doses of LSD.
The DEA would allege that the silo was the headquarters of a sophisticated operation which produced up to 90 percent of the LSD in the United States. The supposed mastermind was a UCLA professor named William Leonard Pickard, who became the target of a massive manhunt after sprinting off into the woods when agents pulled his van over near the silo. But how did a Harvard-educated researcher end up dominating the LSD market from a luxury bunker in small-town Kansas? To understand that, you have to understand the history of LSD in America, a tortuous yarn involving a years-long secret plot to get the entire world high.
Before the DEA raid, Pickard seemed like a respectable academic, who occasionally advised government officials in his role as deputy director of UCLA's Drug Policy Research Program. On closer inspection, his career raised some question marks. When UCLA lacked funding to hire him, they quickly received anonymous envelopes stuffed with donations for Pickard's position. He rarely published research or appeared at the office. And his resume had a 20-year gap after leaving a research job at Berkeley in 1974. That was the same year he sought out Tim Scully, who was on trial for producing millions of hits of acid for a mysterious group called the Brotherhood of Eternal Love.
Tim Scully, possibly the most successful LSD producer in history, was a timid physics nerd who went to college early after his high school discovered him building a particle accelerator in a vacant classroom in an attempt to turn mercury into gold. Possibly somewhere on the autism spectrum (he now self-diagnoses with Asperger's), Scully ate the same all-white meal of buttered spaghetti every night for 30 years and seemed set on a boring government job before taking LSD in 1965. The trip left him with the deep conviction that all the world's problems would be solved if everyone just took acid -- and that it was his mission in life to make that happen. Scully calculated that this would require producing 750 million doses of LSD and then giving them away for free. And so he set out to do just that.
To get started, Scully apprenticed himself to Owsley "Bear" Stanley, the Grateful Dead's sound engineer and the biggest underground acid producer in America. The grandson of a distinguished senator, Stanley was a Walter White figure who was obsessed with producing the purest LSD possible, to the point of strictly monitoring the music playing while he worked in case certain sound vibrations produced better crystals. With Scully's help, Stanley began pumping out huge quantities of "99.9% pure" LSD known as White Lightning, which quickly swept the West Coast. Dan Aykroyd and Carrie Fisher tried some and spent three days weeping to Christmas albums, while Pete Townsend found a single hit so strong he swore off drugs for the next 18 years. John Lennon was so obsessed he sent a cameraman on a risky mission to smuggle back a lifetime supply hidden in a lens case. It was clearly primo stuff.
With the secrets of LSD chemistry mastered, Scully still needed financing and a distribution network if he was going to flood the world with acid. Fortunately, both could be acquired with a quick visit to Dr. Timothy Leary, the Harvard professor who had become the most famous LSD advocate in America. After leaving Harvard in disgrace for his acid research, Leary retreated to Millbrook, the palatial New York estate of millionaire stockbroker and acid lover William Mellon Hitchcock. Under Leary's direction, the country mansion became the site of numerous acid experiments (another Harvard professor once broke his leg after meandering out a second-story window) and was eventually home to a variety of semi-feuding acid sects, including the Neo-American BooHoo Church. Leary introduced Scully to "Billy Hitch," who quickly agreed to fund his new lab.
Around the same time, a Hollywood producer was robbed at gunpoint by a heroin-addicted biker gang led by a guy called John Griggs. The producer turned out to have a stash of LSD among his valuables, which the bikers sampled about a week later in Joshua Tree National Park. They ended up running around the desert throwing away their guns and loudly renouncing violence to an audience of startled Gila monsters. Shortly afterward, they made a pilgrimage to see Leary, who introduced them to Scully as potential distributors. Leary also put Scully in touch with another LSD chemist named Nick Sand, who came on board as his streetwise sidekick. A seemingly carefree hippie with a taste for nude yoga, Sand had a troubled childhood -- his parents divorced after his father was exposed as a Soviet spy operating within the Manhattan Project -- and was enthusiastically on board with solving the world's problems via LSD. The Brotherhood Of Eternal Love was born. You don't have to soundtrack the next few paragraphs to Hendrix, but it'll help.
From their hidden lab in northern California, Scully and Sand began pumping out millions of doses of their new Orange Sunshine LSD, which the Brotherhood distributed as widely as possible, as cheaply as they could. They even started a lucrative side hustle smuggling Afghan hashish so they could afford to hand acid out for free. At one concert alone, they threw 25,000 tabs of acid out of a plane onto a whooping crowd. Another Brotherhood member fondly recalled the time "Jefferson Airplane was doing a free concert in Golden Gate Park and we passed out 8,000 doses of Orange Sunshine. We got the whole place loaded. I'll tell you what, nobody went home that night the same as when they woke up. It was downright revolutionary."
The Brotherhood were deadly serious about their mission to change the world through LSD. They even made incredibly dangerous plans to smuggle acid into the Soviet Union, having decided that only enlightening the United States would be akin to "unilateral disarmament." Scully and Sand also made sure that Orange Sunshine was freely available to US soldiers fighting in Vietnam. Puzzled law enforcement were at a loss to explain the sudden appearance of Orange Sunshine in all 50 states and dozens of foreign countries. It even turned up in Mecca during the annual pilgrimage. Distributing LSD, one Brother explained, was not "just selling drugs, but selling to people a great and important part of their existence."
It couldn't last. The '70s brought the War on Drugs, complete with new laws and more aggressive police action against the Brotherhood. Timothy Leary staged an abortive bid for president (John Lennon wrote "Come Together" as a campaign song for him), then broke out of prison to lead Richard Nixon's goons on an incredible round-the-world chase. John Griggs became quite possibly the first person in history to die of a psilocybin overdose. Billy Hitch flipped under pressure and testified against his former pals, while Nick Sand fled to Canada and ultimately became a follower of the Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh, of Oregon mass poisoning fame. Meanwhile, Tim Scully wound up sentenced to 20 years in prison for manufacturing millions of hits of LSD in an isolated farmhouse. Which is where William Leonard Pickard entered the picture.
During a break in Scully's 1974 trial, Pickard walked up and passed him a "U.S. Army Chemical Warfare Group pin with a flask and test tube design" before disappearing off into a corridor. Scully felt that the pin was supposed "to express some brotherhood of underground chemists," a theory confirmed when Pickard donated a valuable M.C. Escher print to help pay his legal fees. That was the same year Pickard quit his research job at Berkeley. For the next two decades, his movements can be reconstructed mostly through arrest records, but he appears to have bounced around the country as part of a new breed of LSD chemists, less ambitious than the Brotherhood and more savvy about avoiding law enforcement.
Although the era of free LSD was over, chemists like Pickard still felt some sense of the Brotherhood's mission. According to the San Francisco Chronicle's definitive profile, Pickard saw psychedelics as a positive for humanity, adding "I agree with (hippie leader) Wavy Gravy. There's blood on heroin and cocaine." Unfortunately, the authorities didn't see the distinction. In 1988, Pickard was arrested leaving a warehouse in Mountain View, California. Inside, the DEA found 200,000 hits of acid and an elaborate lab. There was reportedly so much LSD in the air that the agents all got contact highs and at least one guy wound up in a ball on the floor, twitching. A note inside the lab referenced making "third kilo" of acid, which is incredible when you realize that would be enough for close to 10 million hits.
Pickard served five years, and supposedly went straight when he got out, resuming his academic career and ultimately landing a job at UCLA. In reality, he seems to have continued his clandestine chemistry career, since very few professors reportedly try to launder shoe boxes full of cash with the help of a ballet-loving New York financial adviser. It was around this time that he met Gordon Todd Skinner, the black sheep heir to a spring-making fortune (yes, that's a thing), who lived in an abandoned missile silo outside Wamego, Kansas. And that's when things took a turn for the worse.
Skinner's home was a 15,000 square foot labyrinth of tunnels built to house the Atlas-E nuclear missile. Skinner spent a decent chunk of his inheritance turning it into a luxury bachelor pad, complete with an oak bed, marble bathtub, and ample parking for his fleet of Porsches. The site itself was part of a network of silos built in 1961, then decommissioned less than five years later after a different missile design was judged to be more effective at exterminating all life on Earth. Most of the silos ended up in private hands, because the US military will apparently just sell off any unused supervillain bases they have lying around. Which is also why a community of pacifist Hutterites ended up owning this terrifying death pyramid in North Dakota.
The collection of oddballs who bought the silos soon developed a somewhat dark reputation. Another silo outside Wamego became notorious after the owner shot a 17-year-old boy dead in the tunnels, while a raid on a silo in rural Washington state produced the dismembered body of a state auditor. Skinner's own underground lair began to attract police attention after a computer programmer overdosed inside (the place had been "sanitized" of drug paraphernalia before the cops were shown inside). Skinner himself would ultimately be convicted of abducting an 18-year-old and torturing him for six days with beatings and painful chemical injections, including a compound injected directly into his penis in the hope it would become gangrenous and "fall off."
But back in the late '90s, when he met Pickard, Skinner was just a guy with a bunker, seemingly perfect for LSD production on a massive scale. The timing was perfect too, since the Canadian police had just arrested Nick Sand for running a giant underground lab of his own. The Mounties were so over-excited that they initially claimed to have seized enough acid to get every single Canadian high twice over, which certainly sounds like a fun weekend. The actual amount seized was more like 400,000 doses, but it still took the last source of Orange Sunshine out of commission. As the last of the old Brotherhood-linked LSD chemists, Pickard seemed like the perfect guy to fill the gap in the market.
What he didn't realize was that his new friend Skinner had actually become a government informant following a weed bust 10 years earlier, and had since provided information in "five or six" drug cases. In Pickard's case, it's unclear if Skinner was an informant from the beginning or simply panicked when the cops started sniffing around, but before long their conversations were being recorded for the DEA. In November 2000, Pickard drove out to the silo to find Skinner in a strangely bombastic mood, yelling "I'm not afraid of the Mafia or the government! I'm more powerful than you realize!" Pickard then tried to enter the silo, unaware that DEA agents were already inside, holding the door shut. As Skinner slipped away, Pickard loaded his Buick with LSD precursor chemicals and drove off, only to jump out and sprint into the trees when sirens erupted all around him.
A massive manhunt through the woods ensued, which ended when a local farmer discovered Pickard hiding in the back of his truck. At his bail hearing, he produced supporting letters from a variety of prominent backers, including San Francisco DA Terence Hallinan and a British aristocrat who once ran for parliament on a platform of drilling a hole in your skull to boost creativity. Sadly, the judge had only the holes nature gave him and he wound up with two life sentences.
For his part, Pickard denies producing any LSD in the bunker, saying he was set up by Skinner from the beginning. The DEA, on the other hand, claim that it was one of their most important busts ever, insisting that the LSD supply in America dropped by 90% after Pickard was arrested and never recovered to anywhere near its former levels. Acid use did indeed drop dramatically in the early 2000s, although that may have been more closely related to changing social trends than the DEA storming a silo. It was increasingly seen as an old-fashioned drug, the stuff of dippy hippies dreaming of changing the world. Even the LSD available was increasingly a pale impression of the triple-set "99%" pure acid made by the Brotherhood's dedicated chemists. Despite their dreams, LSD didn't change the world. Instead, as Tim Scully put it, acid simply became "a party drug -- and I'm not saying that parties should be illegal or that it's a bad thing ... but I wouldn't have chosen to go to prison for a long time so more people could have a party."
Top image: Tiko_Photographer/Shutterstock