Children of Synanon

An acclaimed Tucson drug-treatment program went suddenly, mysteriouly bankrupt. Administrators blame the board of directors. But others are questioning the administrators and their history at the notorious drug-treatment empire known as Synanon.

At one point, Dederich demanded hundreds of married couples split from their spouses and remarry. Nearly every one did, including Arbiter and Mullen, who say they had already separated from their spouses.

In their current assault on the board members, Amity's former managers are using remarkably similar to the game techniques to try to rewrite history.

Smart and beautiful, Naya Arbiter returned in 1980 to Tucson, the city where a decade earlier she was running drugs across the Mexican border and stashing heroin on airplanes bound for Los Angeles.

But those days are past. Having entered Synanon for therapy in 1970, she now is dedicated to helping others kick the drug habit that forever changed her life.

In August 1981, she landed a job as director of a drug-treatment program at Tucson Awareness House, a struggling nonprofit organization dedicated to helping troubled youth.

Arbiter quickly revamped the foundering program, which was called Amity, and began expanding its staff. Among the first people she hired was Bette Fleishman.

Later that year, Tucson Awareness House hired Mullen to take over fund-raising duties. Mullen quickly raised more than $100,000 the first year.

In 1984, the director of Tucson Awareness House resigned and Mullen was named the replacement. Arbiter, Fleishman and Mullen discarded the name Tucson Awareness House, replacing it with Amity.

Amity operated at two Tucson locations, providing residential drug treatment for 75 individuals at an east Tucson ranch called Desert Willow and nonresidential services at a former downtown Tucson fire station.

Amity soon expanded its drug-treatment program into the Pima County Jail, where it was welcomed by Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik.

Positive results at the jail propelled Amity's treatment model to the forefront of national drug-treatment programs. The program created a "therapeutic community" in the jail where inmates searched for the root of their drug addictions.

Arbiter was named to President Reagan's White House Conference for a Drug-Free America, and Amity was later recognized as one of the top three therapeutic communities in the nation.

Former Arizona senator Dennis DeConcini became a strong supporter of Amity, and soon federal grants began trickling in. At first they were small and manageable by Amity's unsophisticated accounting department.

In 1986, Amity received a $200,000 donation and it was used as a down payment on a 53-acre ranch that was the former Westinghouse family winter retreat. The Circle Tree Ranch became home to scores of drug addicts and parolees receiving treatment.

It also became the home for Arbiter and Mullen, who lived rent-free in one of the estate's houses.

Fleishman, meanwhile, lived across the street on Amity-leased property at Desert Willow Ranch, which provided additional live-in drug-treatment programs for women and their children.

In the fall of 1990, Amity landed four federal grants and one California state grant worth more than $6 million a year. Amity was quickly overwhelmed with money and a complex set of rules and regulations on how to spend it.

"We didn't even have a CPA," Arbiter recalls.
All the grants were cost-reimbursement grants that required Amity to pay for the services first, and then seek repayment from the grants. Amity's managers made a crucial miscalculation by failing to realize they would need cash reserves to cover start-up costs that would not be reimbursed for 30 to 60 days.

"As a result, Amity began to experience severe cash-flow problems," says Fleishman.

Not only was Amity being flooded with grants, it was also expanding programs in Phoenix, Payson and Tucson plus starting a prototype drug-treatment program in a San Diego state prison.

"When all those grants hit in 1990, I thought we were going to have tremendous problems in program implementation," Mullen says.

And that is where Mullen, who as the executive director of Amity was responsible for finances, focused his attention.

"By the time I turned around, our business manager was completely over his head," Mullen says.

By the summer of 1991, it was clear Amity was having serious financial problems and was failing to comply with the grant regulations.

"We had more money than we ever had, but were losing more money than ever," Mullen says. "The numbers were different from week to week, from month to month."

By late 1991, Amity's managers--Fleishman, Mullen and Arbiter divided the duties--turned to its board of directors for emergency assistance. Two of those members, Tucson accountant Jon Young and National Bank of Arizona president John Gisi, soon emerged as the board's most active members.

"This is bigger than I am," Mullen says he recalls telling Young and Gisi. "I don't know what I'm doing and I really need a hand."

The Synanon game required participants to gather chairs in a circle. A theme was introduced--ranging from worldly philosophical questions to mundane housekeeping matters--and the attacks would begin.

The verbal assaults--physical violence was forbidden--didn't necessarily have to be based on reality. One person could launch a tirade on another with no foundation. Others in the group generally supported the attacker with comments of their own.

The goal was to dump emotional hangups during the game so people would be happy outside the game. That was the upside. The downside was that it distorted reality and inflicted emotional injury.

"You could accuse a person of anything and everyone else may join in on the attack," says David Mitchell, a California weekly newspaper publisher who shared in a 1979 Pulitzer Prize for reporting on Synanon in the 1970s.

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