The rusted gray Toyota suddenly crosses two lanes and lurches into an illegal left turn, ignoring the beeping horns. Its driver, a 66-year-old Sean Connery look-alike wearing a tie-dye shirt, purple cammo pants, and bright red argyle socks, whips the mufflerless car to the curb in front of Vesuvio on Columbus Avenue and kills the engine. He gestures to the three-story building across the street.
“I put in big ventilator fans, blowing out the top,” says Waldron Vorhees. “We'd do the reactions at heavy traffic time — morning and evening.”
Vorhees is enjoying another flashback, telling the oft-repeated story of the “Clearlight” LSD manufacturing operation, for which he worked. From 1970 to 1972, the acid laboratory he helped build occupied the top-floor offices in the heart of North Beach, serving up millions of hits of windowpane to the gaping hippie maw.
Some things never change.
Since the '60s explosion, the Bay Area has remained the epicenter of the world's acid production. And the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has never stopped setting up undercover operations, trying to nail the kingpins and dismantle their labs. With negligible results. According to a 1995 DEA internal document, “LSD remains tightly controlled by relatively small, fraternal California-based organizations that have evaded drug law enforcement operations successfully for over two decades.”
Five years ago the feds thought they had cracked that inner sanctum, thanks largely to the loose lips of Vorhees. He'd already been busted twice for acid, including a '77 sweep that broke up the Clearlight operation. And in the early '90s he had begun talking the talk one more time, giving DEAagents hope that they'd finally found acid's Holy Grail
Once again, however, a costly undercover sting has yielded a mere morsel. After a lot of talk, a ton of money spent by the DEA, and the nabbing of a grand total of two father-son acid dealers who weren't major players at all, the big LSD manufacturers are quietly going about their business, same as before.
It's no surprise Vorhees was targeted again. He can't help talking about the old days. Clearlight is his Achilles' heel. Hubris has made him a natural magnet for narcs. Old acid acquaintances avoid him like the plague, one saying simply, “He's too hot.” His name is as familiar as a box of doughnuts to the local DEA office, and is increasingly popular in the federal penal system.
Indeed, next week he is expected at a prison in Oregon.
A regular fixture at Rainbow Gatherings and other hippie events, Vorhees lives on a communal ranch near Ukiah, repairing cars and running endless errands for friends and ex-girlfriends. Like many of society's runaways who end up in the Bay Area, Vorhees has come to believe his own persona, drowning the shame by embracing the illusion. He's not a restless, job-changing guy from Kansas anymore, he's Captain Clearlight, the acid cowboy who “made 250 million hits.”
The life of Waldron Vorhees has been a whirlwind of reinvention. A former Korean War military engineer, he has had four children from three wives, and held a bewildering series of occupations, including electrician and cowhand, charter boat captain and insurance salesman, computer circuit assemblyman and porn film actor.
“I really was never able to get the financial thing together,” he admits. “I was never successful in my life at anything, except for Clearlight.”
At the time he met the Clearlight group — at Enrico's one night in 1968 — they had been making small quantities of acid in Santa Cruz. They hired him to charter them a sailboat for an evening cruise on the bay, and soon realized he possessed a variety of odd-job skills. The young entrepreneurs were planning on moving to San Francisco and increasing production; the friendly 38-year-old Vorhees seemed exactly what they needed, so they hired him. He would order supplies, deliver suitcases of cash to hotel rooms, and help design and construct their lab equipment. Clearlight's acid appeared on the street as tiny, clear “windowpane” gelatin squares, hefty 250-microgram doses as compared to today's 50- to 100-microgram “disco hits.” Vorhees says he took it every day for five years. It saturated the Bay Area and was distributed around the world.
“Very aesthetic, very pleasing,” remembers a veteran tripper of the Clearlight experience. “No other acid had that quality.”
Vorhees and eight others were ultimately convicted in 1977 for conspiracy to manufacture, distribute, and possess LSD; Vorhees received five years probation. Two years later he would be busted again, the result of an undercover sting targeting his son Greg, who had been dealing acid in Montana. Vorhees told the narcs he was the “LSD King,” and negotiated a deal for them to buy acid from his friends. He was convicted and sentenced to three years at Lompoc.
In 1987, an article appeared in the Berkeley magazine High Frontiers, titled “The Adventures of Captain Clearlight.” Vorhees trotted out the tales about a lucrative lifestyle of fake IDs, fancy cars, flights to Vegas, fucking in piles of money, turning on the world with a cosmic giggle. His stories had become wrapped in his catchy, mythical acid-hero persona. And if anybody needed proof, out came the photo of Vorhees right there with Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who first tripped on LSD.
Some say the article is the single stupidest thing Vorhees has ever done. DEA agents read the interview with great interest. Was Captain Clearlight back in the acid game?
In June of 1991, Vorhees traveled to Lynnwood, Wash., just north of Seattle, to attend a family barbecue hosted by his son Greg, a local car mechanic. Turning the meat on the grill was a friend of Greg's named Bill Pickens, who wore his hair long and his mustache droopy. Pickens had smoked cocaine and pot with Greg for a few years, had a few brushes with the law under his belt, and was telling people he had been running drugs back in Florida. According to court documents, Vorhees and Pickens struck up a conversation, and Vorhees said he was planning to re-enter the LSD business. Vorhees noticed that at the barbecue, as people were taking pictures, Pickens was refusing to be in any of the photos. [page]
Two months later, Pickens called Vorhees at his girlfriend's home in Vallejo, asking for a few favors. Vorhees helped him with a place to live and a car, culled from his fleet of 100 junkers that were rusting in the sun in a Marin pasture. Pickens said he was looking for large quantities of acid, and stressed he was part of a bigger operation.
Vorhees claims he always knew Pickens was a narc. “As far as I'm concerned, anybody that comes to me for acid is a narc,” says Vorhees.
But despite this revelation, he introduced Pickens to his friend Oleg Minakov, a Russian immigrant who often helped Vorhees do car repair and other manual labor. A self-described metaphysician and author of his own phonetic “Earth Alphabet,” Minakov was also once the equipment manager for the '60s band the Charlatans and remains a member of the extended Grateful Dead family. Vorhees mentioned the Dead connection to Pickens, who grew even more interested, and a meeting was set up.
Minakov remembers Pickens, standing in the street smoking a ci-garette: “He seemed withdrawn, standoffish.” Pickens frequently had pot to smoke, according to Minakov, but he also carried a loaded pistol. Others would recall Pickens as looking like a “wild-eyed Charlie Manson clone.”
In reality he was working undercover as a “confidential informant,” and Minakov intrigued him because of his Dead connection — the DEA regularly targeted the group's concert tour schedules.
Sitting with federal agents in a San Francisco Travelodge room, Pickens continued his phone conversations with Vorhees and Minakov, which were tape-recorded. On Aug. 20, 1991, Pickens called Vorhees to get Minakov's beeper number. Vorhees asked if there was anything else he could do. Pickens replied he was “pretty much on a roll.” Vorhees then said:
“My one friend who's doing that sort of thing is down in Santa Cruz. I have a couple of other friends; uh, I'll make a call and maybe call you back.”
“Sounds good, bud,” replied Pickens.
After the two hung up, the DEA transcript for that call ends with the words of Special Agent Ian McKenzie: “That was SRE-91-0016 giving a stellar performance.”
Pickens continued to have conversations with the two, angling for a big acid purchase, with Minakov trying to locate some for him. Vorhees says he never thought Minakov would actually follow through with anything. It was just a game. Everyone would string the narc along and get money and free pot out of him.
Sitting in his messy, junk-filled San Anselmo living room five years later, his four color TV sets flickering in the afternoon light, Minakov is still irritated at his friend for not warning him. “I'm gullible. [He] knows that. They keep coming at you. They don't take no for an answer.”
On Aug. 29 Minakov was in San Francisco, dealing with a towed vehicle with his young son, Minakov's girlfriend, and her father. An afternoon meeting was set up at Zim's restaurant that was then still on the corner of Market and Van Ness. As Minakov entered, Pickens and Special Agents McKenzie and William Etter were already sitting at a table. Minakov settled his family into a table nearby, walked over, and told them his source was ready to “go right now.”
Pickens and Minakov got in Minakov's car and drove around the corner to discuss matters. Pickens was asking a lot of very simple-minded questions about acid. Minakov thought he seemed stupid, but nevertheless left to call his source from a pay phone. Pickens returned to Zim's and sat down with the agents, his recorder still rolling.
“If he needs to ask about me or anything — if he wants to know, tell him from the Army,” said Etter.
“He wasn't even concerned about you guys,” said Pickens.
“Anyway, munitions, weapons — stuff like that,” instructed Etter. “Not improvised. Good stuff.”
“To make this healthy meal even healthier,” joked McKenzie.
Minakov returned, and told them the deal would have to go down later. The day continued with a series of back-and-forth phone calls, Minakov trying to track down his acid source, the agents patiently calling back each time. DEA documents include several mentions of Minakov's inefficiency and laziness. If this was the big Vorhees LSD cabal, it was pretty pathetic.
As it turned out, the very next day a meeting was arranged among Pickens, Minakov, and Minakov's son Barton in Occidental, on the Bohemian Highway west of Santa Rosa. The Minakovs sold Pickens 3 grams of crystal LSD, for $8,000, enough to process into 30,000 low-grade doses of blotter paper.
The DEA has not returned phone calls regarding this case, but its documents reveal the operation continued for some time. In an undated hidden-mike conversation at Minakov's home, Pickens stressed that he was looking for even more quantity. Minakov agreed to another transaction.
On Oct. 3. Pickens and Special Agent McKenzie arrived at Minakov's home, the three walked into the garage, and the agents bought 4 grams of crystal LSD, paying $11,500. Minakov thought it was kind of odd that McKenzie reached over Pickens' shoulder to personally hand over the cash, but, again, didn't say anything. The following day, McKenzie met again with Minakov and paid him $150 more, then Pickens and McKenzie both met with Vorhees and paid him $350. The court documents indicate this payment was a finder's fee for referring them to Minakov. Vorhees claims it was money Pickens owed him for rent of a car and storage garage.
Although the DEA had spent $20,000 on acid in the previous 12 months, in addition to expenses and paychecks for Pickens, it still didn't have its lab. Nine months later, in July 1992, Pickens contacted Minakov again, looking for more LSD, but Minakov didn't want any more of it. To him, Pickens was bringing up “names he had no business bringing up.” [page]
He had finally realized they might be narcs.
“I felt woozy inside,” remembers Minakov. “Like I was gonna throw up.”
The next day Pickens called up Vorhees and hinted around about more LSD. Vorhees clearly begged off any involvement. Using the telephone to do deals can add up to four years to a sentence. Pickens asked how long Vorhees was going to be at home. Vorhees said he'd wait for him.
Pickens and Special Agent McKenzie arrived at Vorhees' home in Vallejo, and the three discussed the possibility of another acid purchase. McKenzie said he was cautious because he'd been ripped off for $50,000 in the past. Vorhees said, “I'm sure in no hurry, but the larger, the larger the chunk the sooner you'll get me in action.” He showed them a few of the old wooden boxes used to hold Clearlight acid, then talked on about cars and airplanes, the two listening patiently, before agreeing to introduce them to his youngest son, Adam, who was an acid dealer in the rave scene.
“I wanted Adam to see what cops looked like, because I told him they were cops,” says Vorhees.
Tape transcripts of a subsequent meeting among Vorhees, Adam, Pickens, and McKenzie read like a modern psychodrama. Prices and quantities were discussed, but a disturbing tone infused the conversation. At one point Vorhees said that if they indeed were cops, he knew plenty of people out there who are “really assholes.” Pickens laughed; McKenzie said nothing. Vorhees said he knew where they lived.
Adam cut his father off, reiterating that trust needed to work both ways, and that he couldn't consider fucking around, that he was on the verge of going global. The agents said little, other than to agree. Adam then suggested they all “take a bunch of chemical” together, in order to know each other more, and Vorhees added that “after eight hours the communication is better.” McKenzie said that they might never come back, and laughed. The conversation moved on. Vorhees eventually left the room, and Adam agreed to scare up a gram of crystal LSD for them, with the promise of more on the way.
On July 27, Adam met with Pickens and a female undercover agent at Lincoln and 25th Avenue, next to Golden Gate Park. He was given $2,850 in cash, left on his motorcycle, and returned within an hour with a white sock, containing a film canister with .89 grams of crystal acid. Pickens called Adam later, worried that the canister sounded as though it contained a chunk, rather than powder. Adam assured him it was probably OK.
Three months passed, then, at 8 a.m. on Dec. 8, a SWAT team burst into the San Anselmo home of Oleg Minakov, handcuffed him on the floor of his living room, pointed a gun at his head, and arrested him. Minakov remembers Special Agent Etter saying to him, “We got you dead in the water!” Minakov's son Barton was not at home, but was alerted to the bust and vanished. Simultaneously, Waldron Vorhees and Adam Vorhees were arrested at their homes.
When all three were in custody in San Francisco, Minakov remembers Vorhees telling them, “We were helping The Man. That's our story.”
Vorhees was looking at 10 years in prison, but much to the anger of Minakov, abruptly deviated from the group's planned strategy and changed his plea to guilty, in return for a lighter sentence. Vorhees and his attorney agreed for Vorhees to be wired for sound and walk through the Upper Haight to attract street dealers. None took the bait, but his sentence was knocked down to 30 months, which is due to begin Aug. 26.
Minakov will appear in court for sentencing on Oct. 4. His son Barton remains at large. Adam Vorhees served 10 months in jail, and, after his release in the fall of 1994, got a job at a South of Market stone-cutting business. On New Year's Eve, he was killed when 37 pieces of stone fell and crushed him.
So — after spending thousands of dollars on an undercover operation lasting more than a year, the DEA ended up with a couple of old hippies who worked on cars, with one son dead and one at large. No kingpins, and no LSD lab. Life goes on.
The real world always plays differently than network television. Finales aren't neatly wrapped in the murky, Darwinian world of drug politics, where today's dealer is tomorrow's informant. It's a thin line between lawless and lawful, when people whisper names and phone numbers to coax the right words out of a casual acquaintance. Friends become useful stepping stones to cross the river to freedom. And DEA agents proudly admit they listen to the Grateful Dead in their cars.
The case of Captain Clearlight casts a harsh light of pathos upon Northern California's LSD community. Oddly enough, this sophisticated era of high-tech surveillance and info overload still depends on human betrayal — and gullibility. The DEA believed its informant. The informant believed that Vorhees was the LSD King. Vorhees believed he was Captain Clearlight. And Captain Clearlight still knew enough people who believed in him to bring folks down with him.
When asked why he is so forthcoming about his case, despite repeated warnings from his friends, Vorhees simply shrugs. He is now elderly, a product of 30 years of acid culture, a man suffering from both Lyme disease and prostate cancer, a man with no money in the bank and forever indebted to friends, a man who will soon be sitting in prison for a drug he still reveres. He doesn't have much time left on life's clock. But unlike the past five years of wiretaps, today, in the Mill Valley home of his former girlfriend Marcie, he's clearly happy there's a tape recorder in the room. He leans forward in his chair. [page]
“What I'm trying to tell the world and ask the world is … here, I turned on 50 million people. Why don't you all send me a dollar? I'd like to do an appeal. If some heavy-duty lawyer wants to be associated with the person who turned on 50 million people and probably created a lot of the computers and the virtual reality and all the rest of it. … People come up to me and they say, 'Man, I would never have thought of any of this shit without acid.' The extrapolating, interpolating … nothing connects, but on acid it all connects, you know. Synchronicity and divine intervention and projection.”
Marcie, making iced tea in the kitchen, is getting increasingly nervous at the tape rolling during Waldron's familiar rap. Vorhees has left the room. It's now Captain Clearlight conducting the interview.
“I'd like all the people who took acid to massively write in: 'This is what acid did for me.' And if you had bad experiences, I'd like to hear about those, too. I'd like to build up this giant Internet explosion — of what acid really is. Why it is that they're after the acid people. Why in particular are they after me, when I have not been in the acid business for 20 years? Why is it that the government is allowed to mess with people, hire criminals to make other people look like criminals, so they can put them in jail for doing nothing?”
“You still don't understand, do you?” says Marcie.
Outside the window of Marcie's home on Mount Tamalpais, the air is completely still.
“I think he's going to get in trouble if he keeps talking,” she says.
“I am in trouble,” answers Vorhees. “How can I get in any more trouble?”
“You can find out! When you do braggadocio — and you may be telling the truth, but you're still bragging — the energies today have to make a crime out of it. And there are people out there who are still making a lot of money on acid, and they don't want that kind of attention.”
Vorhees chuckles. “I think they want more attention, so they can sell more acid, personally.”
“I don't think they need any help,” says Marcie. “Acid sells itself.