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A federal judge has tentatively ordered dismissal of a $12 million lawsuit against the U.S. government, filed by a former deputy marshal who said he was unknowingly drugged with LSD as part of a CIA mind-control program before trying to hold up a San Francisco bar nearly a half century ago.
In earlier rulings, U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel rejected the government's attempts to dismiss Wayne Ritchie's suit and said he had shown that a CIA mind-control experiment code-named MKULTRA was operating in San Francisco in December 1957, when Ritchie says he was drugged.
During the program, which lasted at least a decade at the height of the Cold War, hundreds of unwitting Americans were given LSD and other drugs to study their possible use in behavioral control.
But after hearing Ritchie and other witnesses testify on his behalf at a nonjury trial last week, Patel ruled that Ritchie had failed to prove that LSD led to his criminal and psychological problems.
"It is not clear by a preponderance of the evidence that Mr. Ritchie was administered LSD,'' the judge said at Friday's hearing, according to a transcript obtained Tuesday. "It may be what happened. But this is a court of law. We don't operate on hunches. We have to operate on the facts.''
Federal agents in San Francisco were doing "things that were reprehensible,'' Patel said, but Ritchie was unable to prove that they did anything to him.
She gave Ritchie's lawyer until next Wednesday to file written arguments that might change her mind. The lawyer, Sidney Bender, said Monday that he would argue that the absence of written records to substantiate Ritchie's claims was due to the government's destruction of documents.
"There was a very compelling case for the plaintiff,'' Bender said. He said his expert witness, psychiatrist James Ketchum, a longtime researcher in the field, testified that "the only plausible cause was LSD.''
But Patel said she couldn't fully credit Ketchum's diagnosis because it was conducted so long after the fact. The government said Ritchie was merely drunk that night.
Ritchie, now 77 and living in San Jose, was a 30-year-old deputy U.S. marshal and Marine Corps veteran with a spotless record in December 1957. According to his testimony, he had four or five bourbon and soda drinks over several hours at an office Christmas party, left, and soon started feeling overwhelmed by depression and paranoia.
He retrieved his two revolvers, tried to rob a bar in the Fillmore neighborhood, got distracted, and was hit over the head and knocked unconscious. Ritchie pleaded guilty to attempted robbery and was fined $500.
Plagued by flashbacks and suicidal urges for years, Ritchie spent 34 years as a house painter before retiring in 1992. Seven years later, he read a newspaper article about MKULTRA and concluded he may have been one of its victims.
According to congressional testimony and other records, federal agents started giving mind-altering drugs to volunteers and unwitting subjects in the early 1950s and continued for at least a decade in an unsuccessful attempt to discover methods to control human consciousness.
One subject committed suicide in 1953. The government paid $750,000 to his widow and another $750,000 to nine Canadians who underwent MKULTRA experiments during psychiatric treatment. The government won a New York jury verdict in 1999 in the only other known case besides Ritchie's to go to trial.
Ritchie's case relied in part on a diary entry by an MKULTRA agent, Ira Feldman, that Ritchie's lawyer interpreted as admitting he was at the office party. In sworn depositions, Feldman at first denied that he knew Ritchie, but later referred to "this nitwit, Ritchie'' who "deserved to suffer.'' Patel, in a ruling in May, said the latter statements could be taken as an admission that Feldman had drugged Ritchie.
On Friday, Patel said that Ritchie, who had the burden of proof, had failed to establish at the trial that Feldman or any other agents were at the party. She also said Ritchie's description of his own behavior showed few of the known symptoms of LSD use.
E-mail Bob Egelko at [Email]email@example.com.[/Email]