Newspaper to celebrate 25th anniversary of its Pulitzer for series on Synanon

This Friday, April 16, will be the 25th anniversary of The Point Reyes Light’s winning a Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service. It was the fourth time in the 61-year history of the Pulitzers that a prize in any division had gone to a weekly newspaper instead of a daily.

The prize was for an expose of the Synanon cult, which was then headquartered in Marshall. A reformed alcoholic, Charles Dederich, started the group in Santa Monica during 1958. Dederich had learned to hold an audience as a speaker for Alcoholics Anonymous, warning about Demon rum.

Dederich, who was living on unemployment benefits, allowed his apartment to become a crash pad for a number of derelicts, but while they were under his roof, they had to obey his directives. For their meals, he scrounged old food from grocers.

The group contained several drug addicts, who were not welcome at AA meetings, so Dederich pulled his faction out and started his own organization, Synanon. A master of self-promotion, Dederich managed to convince the public he was doing something no one else could do: cure drug addicts. In fact, 90 percent of those he admitted left before receiving rehabilitation, and of those who completed rehabilitation, only 10 percent demonstrated long-term abstention from drugs.

In 1968, Dederich abolished the idea of residents ever “graduating” to the outside world. Synanon then became an “alternative-lifestyle community,” with former addicts providing a low-paid workforce for the Synanon corporation, which ultimately was focused on a $10 million per year Advertising Gifts and Premiums business. Synanon members simply acted as middlemen between manufacturer and retailers who wanted their logos on promotional knickknacks.

Synanon remained minimally in the treatment business, in part by providing juvenile authorities with a cheap place for dumping troubled kids, but the targets for its recruitment became members of the middleclass, such as doctors, lawyers, and architects. Most turned over all their wealth when they joined Synanon, believing they would be taken care of forever.

Recruiting members

Many recruits were simply people at a transitional point in their lives — loss of a spouse, new job, new city, new school etc. (anything that cut them off from their traditional social network. Synanon members gave them a way to socialize through “game clubs” in which participants took part in light-weight encounter sessions. The “game,” as it was played inside Synanon to keep members in line could, however, sometimes be socially brutal.

In 1977, for example, the game was used to coerce all men who’d been in Synanon five years to get vasectomies. Pregnant women were coerced into having abortions. Couples, even those who had been married for years, were forced to change their partners en masse and to begin immediately sleeping with whomever was assigned to them.

Synanon admits it’s a cult

By 1974, however, Synanon was beginning to have problems with state and county government. The state did not buy Synanon’s argument that its membership was receiving “lifelong” rehabilitation. Meanwhile, county staff kept finding Synanon was building without permits. It also excavated an airstrip without a permit, created a dump without a permit, and was operating a medical clinic without a permit.

To get out from under its tax and permit problems, as memos written by its lawyers revealed, Synanon in 1975 amended its articles of incorporation in order to become the “Church of Synanon.” To buttress this scheme, Synanon lawyers began acknowledging there was a “cult” at Synanon.

In January 1978, Light reporter Keith Ervin reported on an unusual number of children running away from Synanon. The Gambonini family on the Marshall-Petaluma Road had created their own “underground railroad” to help the children get back to their parents.

The real shock, however, came on March 3, 1978, when a county grand jury issued a scathing report on Synanon. It cited the cult’s altercations with the Gamboninis and other neighbors, reports of child abuse, and that over the years Synanon had evolved from a narcotics-treatment program into an “autocracy which refuses to observe the rules of the very society it proposes to help…Obvious changes have taken place, and materialism seems to have altered the underlying philosophy.”

Synanon by then was paying Dederich $75,000 annually, which was a substantial amount in the mid-1970s. In addition, it had awarded him a $500,000 “pre-retirement bonus.”

County denounces grand jury

Because the grand jury report criticized county government for not providing better oversight, a variety of county departments from the Board of Supervisors to the Sheriff’s Office denounced the grand jurors rather than look into the problems.

It was this reaction that drew The Light into the Synanon story, and it would still be months before the newspaper began to grasp just how criminal the group had become.

On March 20, 1978, a former member of Synanon was severely beaten (for being a “splittee”) during his honeymoon when he took his bride to see where he had once lived on the Walker Creek Ranch.

It then came to light that Synanon members had also bloodied rancher Gambonini when he took down signs they had posted on his land. As it turned out, similar beatings had begun to occur up and down the state near Synanon facilities — in Marin, Tulare, Alameda, and Los Angeles counties. Before long Synanon had created a goon squad it called the “Imperial Marines.”

Other media on story too

As events unfolded, The Light was hardly the only news organization to delve into Synanon’s misdeeds: Time magazine, The Los Angeles Times, KGO television, among them. Initially, Synanon tried to block the coverage by filing lawsuits against the news media, and The San Francisco Examiner settled two of them for $2.6 million.

In the long run, however, the lawsuits proved disastrous for Synanon because they gave the press access through court proceedings to masses of internal Synanon documents. Moreover, Dederich prided himself in running Synanon like a corporation, albeit a nonprofit one, so his members filed detailed reports on anything of significance, including their assaults.

Cult attempts two murders

In an apparent effort to stop the hemorrhaging, two Synanon members on Sept. 21 clubbed nearly to death an ex-member, Phil Ritter, who was a witness for Time magazine. Brain fluid leaked into his spine, and Ritter nearly died of spinal meningitis. He was in a coma for a week.

Then on Oct. 11, two Synanon members, who had been roused by Dederich to take action, tried to kill a Los Angeles attorney, Paul Morantz, who three weeks earlier had won a $300,000 judgment against the cult on behalf of a woman it had abducted.

Member Lance Kenton, son of band leader Stan Kenton, and another member named Joe Musico hid a 4.5-foot rattlesnake, whose warning rattles had been cut off, in Morantz’s mailbox. The snake bit the attorney when he reached for his mail, but a quick response by paramedics saved him.

Synanon’s ‘religious posture’

On Nov. 21, 1978, Los Angeles Police raided Synanon’s facility in Badger, Tulare County, and seized a Sept. 5, 1977, tape recording on which Dederich can be heard addressing his followers. “We’re not going to mess with the old-time, turn-the-other-cheek religious postures,” Dederich tells his followers. “Our religious posture is: Don’t mess with us. You can get killed dead, literally dead.”

Dederich warns he will not let “greedy lawyers” destroy Synanon with lawsuits. “These are real threats,” he snarls. “They are draining life’s blood from us and expecting us to play by their silly rules. We will make the rules. I see nothing frightening about it….

“I am quite willing to break some lawyer’s legs and next break his wife’s legs and threaten to cut their child’s arm off. That is the end of that lawyer. That is a very satisfactory, humane way of transmitting information….I really do want an ear in a glass of alcohol on my desk.”

End of the cult

On Dec. 2, 1978, Dederich was arrested in Arizona — dead drunk. Along with Kenton and Musico, the Synanon founder pled no contest to murder-conspiracy charges. Kenton and Musico went to jail, but Dederich received probation after his lawyers said he was so sick incarceration would kill him.

Synanon itself continued operating for a few years, and in April 1980, Synanon attorney Dan Garrett, after moving out of the cult, told The Pacific Sun, “This is probably surprising to you, but [Synanon's] advertising specialty business did a little bit less last year than it did the year before: $9.5 million or $10 million compared to $11 million. But Synanon actually netted more last year than the year before; it was more profitable.”

Nonetheless, most news coverage of Synanon compared it with People’s Temple and Dederich with Jim Jones. With Dederich barred by the court from running Synanon, and with the Internal Revenue Service taking away its tax exemption, the last of the cult died out in the 1990s. However, as late as 1996, two or three former members tried to resurrect a version of the group at the old Badger facility, but that land ultimately was taken over by the government as well.

Dederich himself died on March 5, 1997, some 17 days short of his 84th birthday. He had been living in a double-wide mobilehome in Visalia in the years before his death.

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