Real-life Breaking Bad

The following story you are about to read is so mind bogglingly fascinating that most of you will question the veracity of it. It involves one of the biggest drug busts in U.S. history along with kingpins, a nuclear silo, strippers, kidnapping, torture, snitching, conspiracy and psychedelic drugs, a whole lot of drugs.


This is a story of a brilliant Ivy League chemist who was so productive that to label him a “drug lord” would be a euphemism. And no, I am not confusing a fictional character by the name Heisenberg from the popular TV series “Breaking Bad”. The character of Walther White Sr. was most probably inspired by the one below.


His name is William Leonard Pickard. William was from a well-off family, a product of the post-World War II baby boom. In high school, he was an honors student, played basketball, he was almost too-good-to-be-true ideal type of a boy. He even earned the scholarship to Princeton University but he dropped out of it and went on to graduate from Purdue, Indiana instead. For the following three years, from 1971 to 1974, he was working as a research manager in the department of Bacteriology and Immunology in Berkeley, California.


But sometime during that period he must have found the “American dream” – a suburban house, beautiful wife, kids, a dog and weekend barbecues – too boring and/or not engaging enough. Why? Because in December 1988, when federal agents went on a raid after receiving a tip of “strange odors” coming from a Californian architectural shop, they found Pickard inside along with 200,000 doses of LSD! He had built a laboratory with state of the art equipment inside a trailer that he placed in a warehouse…


“Ok, great! Yup, I get the analogy with Heisenberg, but that’s it?!” I imagine some of you impatiently protest. But wait, this is only the beginning!


Pickard served a five year prison sentence during which he became a Buddhist. The correctional system apparently worked on the now middle aged Leonard because he came back on the right track. After serving, in 1994 he enrolled in Harvard and managed to obtain a master’s degree in chemistry and public policy and for a couple of years he worked as the deputy director of UCLA’s Drug Policy Analysis Program.


One correction – he didn’t change his habits, it seems. He never stopped using his trailer-laboratory.


The use of entheogens, hallucinogenic chemical substances found in mushrooms, fungi, and other plants permeate indigenous spiritual traditions throughout history but it wasn’t until 1938 that a Swiss scientist, Albert Hofmann, tried synthesizing ergotamine (an extract of ergot fungi) and ended up with lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD.


LSD requires a sophisticated system of manufacture under highly controlled conditions, including raw materials and scientific expertise. And Pickard had both. He would move his trailer approximately biannually to different states not to arise suspicion.


In the late nineties Pickard was known in the hallucinogenic circles as a very capable entheogen chemist and one man was especially eager to meet him: Gordon Todd Skinner.


Skinner grew up in Tulsa. His mother was married to a government agent. Gordon was a smart kid with a bright future ahead of him. Throughout his childhood and teen years their house in Tulsa was frequented by colleagues of his stepfather, government agents. According to him they often asked young Gordon to do surveillance and drug-related informant type activities. He was certainly interested in psychedelics: in high school he would concoct various types of drugs that he would distribute to his friends.


He didn’t enjoy the drugs himself until later, however he studiously observed the effects of psychedelics he distributed to his friends. They were his lab-rats. Allegedly he would also bring a tank of nitrous oxide to school so he and his friends could inhale in the bathroom between classes. One weekend, according to a classmate, Skinner experimented on another student, dosing him heavily with something he’d conjured. The teen was later found in front of a full-length mirror, naked and talking to his reflection. He tried to negotiate a cocaine deal with an oak tree.


At the end of his teenage years Skinner felt he was ready to tryout the consciousness altering chemicals himself. He had acquired 10,000 peyote buttons on behalf of a Native American church and synthesized mescaline from them. That trip was a profound experience for him and he decided to step it up a notch: first he fasted for two weeks and then consumed 52 peyote buttons.


Skinner was the prime example of the culture of experimentation which was possibly best immortalized in the famous quote by Hunter S. Thompson in the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:  “once you get locked into a serious drug-collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can”.


According to Skinner he subjected his body to more-or-less 160 various types of substances, not counting the uncountable amounts of derivatives.


His appetite for psychedelics got the attention of drug enforcement agencies and he served time for possession and distribution of illegal substances. However the sly and paranoid Skinner struck a deal with the feds and became a government informant. With his help the government won several notable “battles” in “War against drugs”, successfully taking down powerful drug lords and cartels.


By the late nineties an unusual property caught Skinner’s eye: a decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missile silo from the Cold War era in Wamego, Kansas. He bought and converted it into an underground palace in which he threw lavish psychedelic parties.


Even though he knew the feds were aware of his actions, Skinner had an ambitious business plan to make easy money by producing and distributing LSD on an industrious scale. However he lacked the affinity for production. That’s the reason he was looking for someone like Pickard.


They met at the 1997 Entheobotany Shamanic Plant Science Conference in San Francisco and from then on formed a partnership and a business plan. First production facility was in Aspen, Colorado, then sometime in early 1999 they moved to Santa Fe. The man by the name Clyde Apperson was assigned to construct and dismantle the lab in the moving phase of operations. By some estimates the yearly “acid” revenue of Santa Fe operation was 30 million dollars! However they needed to move often and their next location would be a decommissioned missile silo close to the one Skinner owned in Kansas.


About three years into the lucrative partnership a new character enters the story: Krystle Cole, 18-year-old stripper from a local club. Skinner convinced Cole to move into his silo-home where she would spend hours partying and tripping on whatever Skinner would give her, often through IVs.


The psychedelic extravaganza came to an end when Skinner decided to inform on Pickard because of the growing differences between them and Skinner’s growing paranoia. On November 6th 2000 federal agents stormed the Wamego site when Apperson and Pickard came in. Pickard, who was a marathon runner, took off in the woods, only to be found the next day. Authorities found less than six ounces of ergocristine, an LSD precursor, during the arrest. The DEA estimated this amount would produce approximately 10 million 100 µg doses. As the approximate cost of 100 µg dose on the street was 30 cents that would put the potential cost per kilo of LSD at around 3 million dollars. Skinner estimated that Pickard was able to produce about a kilo of LSD every 5 weeks!


Pickard was found guilty and received two life sentences, while Apperson received 30 years. Skinner, who struck a deal with DEA for his informing, was granted immunity from persecution. However he resumed selling his LSD products all over the country with Cole at his side. His relationship with Cole was not perfect because Cole feared him and also because she had a boyfriend on the side by the name of Gordon Green, an 18-year old drug dealer. In 2003 Skinner and Cole lured Green to a hotel room, tortured him and held him captive for 6 days. That incredible and gruesome episode cannot, unfortunately, be described here because its length. Here is the short version from Tulsa Newspapers: “Three people were charged Thursday in a Tulsa County kidnapping in which the victim [Gordon Green] reportedly was held for six days and repeatedly tortured. Gordon Todd Skinner, Krystle Ann Cole Skinner and William Ernest Hauck were charged with kidnapping…the victim was held captive in the hotel, where he was tortured with beatings and chemical injections…”


Gordon Todd Skinner was sentenced to life for the assault charge, and 90 years for kidnapping and conspiracy but interestingly Krystle Cole was, controversially, set free. She now hosts a successful Youtube channel and a website called “Neurosoup” where she “strives to educate people on responsible drug use”. I guess she learned from Skinner because in 2011 she has testified against the advertisers on her own website, putting them behind bars.