Lessons of the Narcotic Farm, Part Five: Matrix House, continued

From the outset of the Matrix House treatment program, there were concerns among non-medical staff at Lexington that neither Dr. Conrad nor Wildes appreciated the explosive nature of allowing addicts free reign within a building isolated from the rest of society. Before long there were also signs that something was amiss inside Matrix. In my interview with Dr. Jack Croughan, Matrix’s attending physician and the only person other than Dr. Conrad with a key to the Matrix building, recalled meeting a young woman inside Matrix whose withdrawn behavior struck him as odd, particularly given the generally upbeat feel of the place — which he described as “slightly hypomanic.” But with no evidence of wrongdoing – and the denials of the woman that anything was wrong – he voiced no concerns.

Matrix House residents enjoy a little posed quiet time on the front porch.

Some months after that incident, Matrix was shut down in dramatic fashion by the FBI amid allegations that members were being tortured and that bombs were being assembled in the basement. The bombs – it was initially reported – were part of a plot to overthrow the federal government. This turned out to be false; the group was in fact building pyrotechnics for a musical theater production they were intending on presenting later that year.

In April of 1973, however, Jon Wildes appeared in federal court in downtown Lexington to face weapons charges. He was arrested for having a gun on the premises. A handful of former residents showed up on the court steps to voice their support for him, a few of whom had continued to live with him, traveling together as a group from Louisville to New York City to end, finally, in Stamford, Connecticut.

Federal prosecutors – along with an unidentified crowd following behind – arrive at Lexington’s federal courthouse before the sentencing of Jon Wildes.

By the trial’s end it was clear that Matrix was far from the restorative environment it was purported to be. Two men testified that Wildes had sexually abused them. In one searing moment of testimony it was revealed that Wildes had forced a new male recruit to engage in oral sex, threatening him that if he didn’t comply, Wildes, as Matrix’s director, would use his authority to deem this new resident a failed treatment prospect. If Wildes had turned the man away from Matrix, he would have faced a minimum of 10 years in a federal prison for selling LSD to an undercover federal agent. In testimony it also came out that Wildes was also accused of sexually assaulting a young man in front of residents, some of whom aided in the assault. At the time of the assault, where the man was forcibly masturbated by Wildes, the victim was pressed against a wooden cross that Wildes had ordered to be made that morning. The victim, I was later told, was placed on this homemade crucifix because Wildes was punishing him for having a “Christ Complex.” In my interviews with witnesses to the assault, one said the depiction of what happened was exaggerated and he defended Wildes’ actions as useful and appropriate, while another called the punishment “just plain cruel.” Later my reporting would bear out that Wildes – beyond the two allegations of sexual assault – had sexual encounters and even romantic relationships with multiple partners inside the house and had propositioned many, if not most, of the male residents during the two years he was  the group’s director.

Wildes was eventually convicted of 10 of the 12 charges against him and sentenced to five years in federal prison. After his release, he moved to Los Angeles where, according to a childhood friend, he died in the early 1990s. After the Matrix House raid, Conrad was transferred to another federal facility more than one thousand miles from Lexington. As of last year, Conrad was living in an assisted care unit in New Orleans and since suffering a stroke, is no longer able to communicate.

Some ten years ago, when I was beginning my reporting for the film and book The Narcotic Farm, I became intrigued – and quite unsettled – by the shipwreck that was Matrix House. In my search for understanding whether this ill-fated program was effective, I discovered – through my own reporting and the help of a private investigator – that most its hardcore street addicts had died long ago from drug overdoses and/or health issues related to drug abuse. The five “squares” that I was able to interview, on the other hand, appeared to have fared well and were living what they described as successful and fulfilled lives in Idaho, New Mexico, Georgia, Florida and Kentucky.

In my search for insight into how and why the program spiraled downward, I contacted the only administrator – other than Conrad and Croughan, the physician conducting daily rounds – with first-hand knowledge of Matrix House. I wanted to gain understanding on why it was Conrad appeared unaware of these now-documented abuses or unwilling to stop the program when there were indications that something was wrong – Matrix House, after all, was a regular topic of conversation among guards from the time it opened and a source of persistent rumor regarding orgies and, later, sexual torture.

The doctor, who worked directly for Conrad but whom I will not name, stayed on at Lexington through 1975. When I called him at his current job at a VA Hospital he sounded more than surprised. Before I could begin asking questions, he politely asked for my number, telling me, “I’ll call you right back.” He didn’t. After several days, I called his office again and left a second message and my number with his secretary.

Five years later, I’m still waiting to hear from him.

— JP Olsen

One thought on “Lessons of the Narcotic Farm, Part Five: Matrix House, continued

  1. Jon Wildes wrote an article in prison published in the Village Voice on Jan 9, 1978, in which he claimed to have been convicted, ultimately, for living in an openly gay community with several friends, having been brought to trial on trumped up charges. He made no mention of Matrix House.

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