This 1990s LSD Lab Built Inside An Underground Missile Silo Gave Us The World's Acid
From the outside, it's just a slate gray, Cold War–era missile silo, but the inside is a different story. No one can agree on exactly what happened on there, but we know it involved the manufacture of a lot of mind-altering substances. From the late 1990s to fall 2000, Leonard Pickard and Gordon Todd Skinner used the silo as an LSD lab that supposedly produced much of the world's supply of the drug. If they'd kept their cool, Skinner and Pickard would probably still be producing LSD today.
Believe it or not, the military didn't anticipate people making LSD in their silo
Built in 1961, this Topeka-area silo was a part of the Air Force's missile defense system until it was decommissioned in 1965. No one in Kansas wanted to take over such a hefty chunk of real estate, so it just sat empty until the '90s, when it was purchased by the heir to a spring fortune: Gordon Todd Skinner.
Before he became half of a midwestern cartel, Skinner bounced around various universities while bouncing around various scams: fake money orders, cashing checks with fraudulent ID, that sort of thing. He was briefly an FBI informant in 1984, helping to bring down cocaine trafficker Boris Olarte in Oklahoma. Nearly a decade later, he made a $40,000 down payment for the decommissioned missile base in Wamego, Kansas. The entire payment was in traveler's checks. He quickly got down to business, outfitting the silo with leather couches, multiple showers, and a killer sound system.
Leonard Pickard was a genuinely talented chemist
Before joining up with Skinner, Pickard had made a life out of science. After just one semester at Princeton, Pickard dropped out and started hanging around Greenwich Village, but his lack of formal education didn’t matter. His preternatural gift for chemistry earned him a job as a research manager at the Department of Bacteriology and Immunology of University of California, Berkeley in 1971. After leaving the job in 1974, he got into manufacturing LSD, eventually getting busted in 1988 with 200,000 doses of the stuff. He was basically the real-life Walter White.
Skinner and Pickard were introduced by Jerry Garcia
While Skinner and Pickard were initially producing drugs on their own, they found each other much in the same way any two legendary players in a given field are bound to cross paths eventually. In fact, the two were supposedly introduced by Jerry Garcia at the guitarist’s home in northern California around 1998. They became fast friends, joined forces, and soon began raking in so much cash that they had to concoct a semi-plausible story to explain their wealth to acquaintances. Krystle Cole, who dated Skinner during his reign as a Kansas kingpin, told Vice:
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 U.S. financial system was on the verge of collapse.
Skinner was always paranoid about the FBI
Skinner began to believe that he was under FBI surveillance, which wasn't unreasonable for a man who was bringing hundreds of thousands of dollars into rural Kansas selling illegal hallucinogens, but he thought they'd been tailing him since his stint as an informer. By 2000, Skinner became so paranoid that he just called the DEA on the phone and gave up the whole operation in exchange for immunity in the ensuing trial.
How Pickard and his helper, Clyde Apperson, came to be caught is a little more hazy, if only because no one involved seems to be able to tell a straight story. The most agreed-upon version of events (by news outlets, anyway) is that Skinner set a trap for Pickard and Apperson while they were moving the lab. They were stopped by federal agents while in transit, and even though Pickard ran into the woods, he was unable to avoid capture.
Skinner and Pickard were making A LOT of LSD
Although authorities only came up with 6 oz. of ergotamine tartrate (a stimulant used to create LSD) during the arrest, they believe that the men were manufacturing around a kilogram of LSD every five weeks. It's likely that the two manufacturers were in possession of 2 billion hits of acid, which Slate reports is worth about $2 billion on the street. Skinner and Pickard weren’t just making LSD, either: The silo also contained massive amounts of MDMA and synthetic mescaline.
Skinner had immunity for his role in the crimes, but he ended up in jail anyway
For their roles in the manufacture of what the DEA claims to be around 90% of all the LSD sold in the late '90s and early 2000s, Pickard and Apperson got the book thrown at them. Following an 11-week trial, Pickard received two life sentences, while Apperson was given two concurrent 30-year terms for acting as an employee of Skinner and Pickard.
Skinner walked away from the trial thanks to his services as a big ol' snitch, but in 2004, he was arrested for kidnapping, torturing, and forcibly dosing his former girlfriend, Cole, with different psychedelics. Cole later claimed that on top of his crimes against her, Skinner had kidnapped and attempted to kill an associate of theirs by injecting him with various chemicals. In June 2006, he was found guilty and received life in prison plus 90 years.
Today, what's left of the silo is used as storage for military vehicles and a collection of World War II–era Soviet tanks. Any trace of illicit substances has been wiped from the concrete, and the LSD kings of Kansas are a distant memory.
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