The Wamego Times, March 6, 2003
by Mark Portel
Wamego Times Editor
Using confidential informants to infiltrate drug trafficking rings is a "necessary evil" accepted by law enforcement and the courts, the lead DEA agent in the LSD conspiracy case testified last week in U. S. District Court, Topeka.
Special Agent Karl Nichols testified in the trial of William Leonard Pickard, 57, and Clyde Apperson, 47, the San Francisco men charged with one count of conspiracy to manufacture and distribute LSD. They were arrested in early November of 2000, just outside of Wamego after leaving the converted Atlas-E missile base where the alleged tab had been stored.
Nichols, a former forensic chemist and a special agent with the San Francisco Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration since 1992, said law enforcement uses confidential informants such as Gordon Todd Skinner because they have direct knowledge of the drug organization and the trust of the co-conspirators. It is very difficult, and often impossible, for an "outsider" to penetrate the upper echelon of a drug organization, Nichols testified.
SKINNER, AN admitted co-conspirator in the LSD investigation, pledged cooperation with authorities in exchange for his own immunity in the case. Skinner is former owner of the Wamego missile base, where the .alleged LSD lab was moved in July of 2000, from an Atlas-F missile base at Carneiro, KS.
Since the 1960s, San Francisco has been a primary source area for LSD, Nichols said. When the DEA saw a resurgence of the hallucinogen in the early 1990s, Nichols became part of a special LSD investigative team which operated from 1992 to 1996, when it was disbanded and absorbed into the DEA's clandestine lab 'group. The special LSD team was formed "out of a need to take the investigation from the street level all the way to the manufacturer," Nichols testified.
One of Nichols' first duties with the special LSD team was to search the criminal history records of the FBI and the state of California and develop a database of names with past associations with LSD and ergotamine tartrate (ET), a precursor chemical of LSD.
Before signing up a confidential informant, the DEA exercises a number of controls, according to Nichols. Only a street agent-not a supervisor can sign up an informant; the agent first interviews the potential source to see if the information he can provide is worthwhile and verifiable; the potential source is fingerprinted and photographed, and a background check is conducted to assess his credibility; and both parties must sign a confidential source agreement.
NICHOLS FIRST became involved in the LSD conspiracy case in early October of 2000, after receiving a call from DEA headquarters at Washington, D. C. An attorney had approached "Main Justice" (U . S . Department of Justice) in Washington and said his client was in possession of an LSD lab and wanted to turn it in. His client, Gordon Todd Skinner, was involved in the conspiracy and was "uncomfortable with law enforcement." He wanted to talk to someone knowledgeable about LSD.
Skinner flew to the west coast and was interviewed by Nichols and other DEA agents October 17-18, 2000. Following the interview and subsequent taped phone calls to Pickard, Skinner was signed on as a "confidential informant" and was granted immunity in exchange for his cooperation. Nichols became the lead agent in the LSD conspiracy investigation.
According to Nichols, it is not unusual for confidential sources to lie about drug manufacturing, distribution and importation, and it's not unusual for an informant to have a history of drug use and a criminal past.
"From the first point I met him, to say the least his story was ' as pretty fantastic," Nichols testified. "Mr. Skinner was not atypical, but kind of a wild guy. I told him from the get-go, I did not trust him and wouldn't until I corroborated some of the things he had said." Skinner later tried to conceal from the DEA 26 cannisters of ergotamine tartrate valued at $ 100,000 per cannister.
ACCORDING TO Nichols, the LSD community is very small and tight-knit. Its members are normally well-educated and they like to communicate among themselves. There is an "intelligence network" within the community making it extremely difficult to penetrate the organization.
Normally, it's not possible to identify all the co-conspirators in a drug organization, Nichols said. Members come and go within an organization and they often don't know each other at all, thus minimizing their exposure and protecting themselves from law enforcement or a competing drug ring from "coming in and taking you out."
Since LSD and other hallucinogens are not necessarily addictive, the demand is not as great as for other drugs, such as methamphetamine, cocaine and heroine. The potency of the drug is so significant, however, that a few tabs can supply a large number of people. In the past 20 years, the DEA has seized only about 20 LSD tabs nationwide. By comparison, an estimated 800 meth labs are seized annually in the state of California alone.
LSD is a very potent drug, sensitive to both light and heat. Synthesis of the drug must be done in a dry, low-light atmosphere with measures taken to prevent contamination from the manufacturer. Hallucinogens are "used for fun," Nichols said. "Sit down with your friends and have a fun experience' " Reaching a "higher level of consciousness" is promoted among members of the LSD community, he said.
FOLLOWING THE October 17-18 interview, Nichols said he corroborated the information obtained from Skinner by comparing it to the names in the LSD database he had developed as a member of the special LSD investigative team. Taped phone conversations between Skinner and Pickard, as well as a subsequent videotaped meeting between the two in a California hotel room provided further corroboration.
Finally, Skinner singled out a photo of Alex Reid (Petaluma Al) the member of the organization responsible for drug pickups adn money drops in California.
"That was the turning point when I knew Mr. Skinner had significant information about the operation; either that, or he was the luckiest man in the world," Nichols said.
Following is the sequence of events, according to trial testimony, leading up to the LSD bust November 6, 2000, just outside of Wamego.
1994-Gordon Todd Skinner meets Alfred Savinelli at the Telluride Mushroom Festival, after which Skinner makes frequent visits to Savinelli's Taos, N. M. home for "research" on hallucinogens.
1995-Savinelli begins buying chemicals and lab equipment for William Leonard Pickard through his Taos business, Native Scents.
1996-Skinner buys the Atias-E missile base northwest of Wamego from Wichita scrap dealer Richard Dawson for the purpose of developing a branch of Gardner Industries, his family's industrial spring factory at Tulsa, Okla.
Fall of 1996-Skinner first meets Pickard at an ethnobotany conference in San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts.
September 29,1997-David Haley leases a remote Santa Fe, N. M. house which he sub-leases to Pickard, who pays Haley approximately $300,000 in cash over a two-year period. Haley later learns the house is being used to conceal a clandestine LSD lab.
February 1998-Skinner meets Pickard again at a conference of the American Academy of Forensic Scientists at San Francisco, and their relationship in the LSD conspiracy begins.
December 1999-The LSD lab is moved from Santa Fe to an abandoned Atlas-F missile base at Carneiro, Ks., owned by Tim Schwartz, a friend of Skinner's. Recently divorced, Schwartz had asked Skinner to fix up the missile base while he traveled.
January 9, 2000-Skinner is arrested outside his Wamego missile base for impersonating a federal officer at Harrah's Prairie Band Casino near Holton.
March 2000-Apparently despondent over his divorce, Schwartz commits suicide.
May 2000-Skinner, Pickard and others travel to Chicago where Pickard makes a deal for 40 kilograms of ergotamine tartrate (ET), a precursor chemical of LSD.
July 2000-Skinner learns the father of Schwartz is trying to gain access to the Carneiro missile base following his son's death, prompting
Skinner to make a unilateral decision to assemble a team and move the lab to his Atlas-E base near Wamego. Pickard and Clyde Apperson are unaware of the relocation.
August 2000-Skinner is convicted in U. S. District Court of impersonating a federal officer at Harrah's Prairie Band Casino.
October 2000-Concerned that his trouble with the law will arouse suspicion, Skinner and his attorney fly to Washington, D. C. to try to cut a deal with the U. S. Department of Justice for providing information about the LSD lab.
October 17-18, 2000-Skinner is interviewed by Special Agent Karl Nichols, DEA San Francisco, to assess Skinner's credibility. A series of phone calls between Skinner and Pickard, taped by the DEA, convince authorities the information is legitimate, and Skinner is granted immunity by the head of the criminal division of the U. S. Department of Justice in exchange for his cooperation in the case.
October 23, 2000-DEA agents secretly videotape a meeting between Skinner and Pickard in a California hotel room.
October 27, 2000-DEA agents conduct a walk-through of the Atlas-E missile base to further verify Skinner's information.
October 31, 2000-DEA agents execute a search warrant at the missile base and take chemical samples to verify it is an LSD lab.
November 3,2000-DEA agents accompany Skinner to Tulsa for a prearranged meeting with Pickard and Apperson, who are coming to Wamego to retrieve the lab.
November 4, 2000-Pickard and Apperson arrive at the Wamego missile base, which is under heavy surveillance by DEA agents.
November 6, 2000-Pickard and Apperson leave the missile base in a rented Buick and Ryder truck containing the LSD lab. Kansas Highway Patrol troopers stop the vehicles on Columbian Rd. where Apperson is apprehended, but Pickard escapes into the timber.
November 7, 2000-Pickard is arrested at the farmstead of Bill Taylor on Military Trail Rd. between Wamego and St. George.