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Challenging Synanon can be hazardous to health and wealth

TIME Magazine, USA
Oct. 23, 1978 • Monday October 23, 1978

Attorney Paul Morantz unlocked the door of his house in Los Angeles last week and put his left hand into the mailbox. “I felt a sharp pain, and then it felt as though my hand was in a vise,” he recalls.

When he pulled his hand back, he brought with it a 41/2-ft. diamondback rattlesnake, its fangs buried near his left thumb. He managed to shake off the snake and ran screaming to a neighbor, who applied a tourniquet that saved Morantz from almost certain death. Fire department paramedics chopped off the snake’s head with a shovel, and discovered that the rattles had been removed so that the snake could attack without warning.

Two days later Lance Kenton, 20, the son of Bandleader Stan Kenton, and Joseph Musico, 28, were taken into custody by Los Angeles police in connection with the rattlesnake attack. Both men are members of Synanon, a drug rehabilitation group based in Badger, Calif.

Three weeks earlier Lawyer Morantz had won a $300,000 judgment against Synanon for a married couple who said that the wife was kidnaped and abused by members of the organization. From his hospital bed, where he was listed for a time in guarded condition, Morantz said: “I’ve been told that inside Synanon I’m on their enemies list.” But Synanon Lawyer Dan Garrett insisted that the group had had no part in the rattlesnake attack. Said he: “Synanon does not and will not condone, support or harbor any individual engaged in such activities.”

Still, what happened to Paul Morantz is only the latest in a series of curious misfortunes that have befallen people who have challenged Synanon in court, in print or on the air. Among the other victims:

— Phillip Ritter, a Berkeley, Calif, accountant, who last year won (but later lost) custody of his child from his Syna-non-member wife, was jumped by two men outside his home on Sept. 21 and severely beaten. “It was the usual Synanon method of operation,” says Jack Hurst, a friend and ex-president of Synanon who quit the group in 1976. “The short hair, the baseball bats, the doctored license plates.” Ritter is currently in hiding.

— Patricia Lynch, a producer for NBC, filmed a report on Synanon activities that was aired last June. Later, she says, two men with close-cropped hair and carrying tape recorders and cameras turned up at her Manhattan apartment building, asking tenants about her habits and the layout of her apartment. Since then, she has been shadowed by two men with shaved heads who told her they were from the Synanon Committee for Responsible American Media (SCRAM). She quotes one of them as saying: “The goal of SCRAM is to get your life.”

— ABC President Elton Rule and Chairman Leonard Goldenson were asked by Synanon representatives at the network’s annual meeting last May whether the network had considered hiring bodyguards for them and their wives. Synanon and its founder, Charles Dederich, have filed a $42 million slander suit against ABC and its station in San Francisco, KGO-TV, over several KGO news reports on Synanon.

— Time Inc. Editor-in-Chief Hedley Donovan was approached on Sept. 27 outside his Manhattan apartment building by two men who carried film and taping equipment, and said they represented SCRAM. When Donovan rebuffed their request for an interview, one of the men told him: “We are going to ruin your life, Mr. Donovan.” Synanon this year filed a $76,750,000 libel suit against Time Inc. because of TIME’S Dec. 26, 1977, story about Synanon. The organization’s members and backers have picketed Time Inc.’s Rockefeller Center headquarters, attempted to disrupt the company’s annual stockholders’ meeting there last April, and sent hundreds of strongly worded letters to Donovan and other Time Inc. executives. “I dedicate my life to harassing you and your family,” one writer promised.

Dederich has not commented recently about the alleged harassment or the libel suits. But last winter he said of Synanon’s critics: “I’m going to make them as nervous about the safety of their children and grandchildren as I am about mine. We never start anything. We never do and never have, but nobody’s going to mess with us. Nobody.”

Synanon’s resident population has dwindled from 1,700 to 900 in the past six years. Some former members say they left in dismay at the group’s evolution from an earnest and widely praised rehabilitation organization to a rich (current assets: almost $30 million) but capriciously governed cult.

Synanon announced in January that it had bought $63,000 in weapons and ammunition for its own protection, and ex-members say it has developed a squad known as the “imperial marines,” who are trained in martial arts and commando tactics. Whether some members have decided that those tactics should include assassination by snakebite is a question that may be answered at the trial of Lance Kenton and Joseph Musico.

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