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.

Ironically, Dederich admitted in the midst of his organization's collapse that he had no idea how to cure addicts.

His stunning confession came in a pleading filed in federal district court in Washington, D.C., in 1982, where Dederich is quoted as saying, "I don't know how to cure a dope fiend. I never did."

During Synanon's most violent phase in the late 1970s, Dederich moved to the 300-acre ranch in the Sierra foothills east of Fresno, California. There, Dederich began building a community for Synanon's top leadership.

Among those living there for a time were Amity's future managers. At the new community, residents settled into the good life, where the mission had changed from curing drug addicts to reveling in wealth.

A quarter-million-dollar covered tennis court was constructed. A huge meeting room--with a bar as the centerpiece--was built adjacent to Dederich's home. Elaborate dinners lasting for hours concluded each day.

At one time, Synanon owned more than a dozen properties in California and elsewhere. All of the properties were later sold after the IRS revoked its nonprofit status. All of them except for the ranch.

The Sierra foothills ranch is still controlled by what's left of Synanon's board of directors. Dederich, now in his 80s, no longer lives at the ranch. He's confined to a wheelchair and lives in a Visalia, California, trailer park.

The new caretakers of the run-down Synanon ranch are Rod Mullen and Naya Arbiter.

Their living arrangements at the ranch are vague. Arbiter says the couple ran into some Synanon board members who said they could live at the ranch if they maintained the property.

Already, there are signs of Synanonlike resurgence. Buildings are slowly being restored by a handful of people living at the ranch who are trying to kick drugs or meet their parole requirements.

The large living room has portraits of Synanon's founders on its walls--and quotations of their sayings scattered about. The emerging post-Synanon philosophy clearly steers away from Charles Dederich and instead places his late wife as the heart and soul of the organization.

The couple is working furiously on developing a proposal to take over the management of a drug-treatment project at a San Diego prison. The project was started by Amity in 1990, and the contract expires later this year. Bids for the contract are due October 10.

Operating under the name Amity of California, Mullen and Arbiter hope to pick up where they left off before the original Amity's plunge into bankruptcy.

The San Diego prison contract is worth $1 million a year and is for just 200 beds. If Mullen and Arbiter land that contract, it could open the door to a far more lucrative deal.

The California Legislature is impressed with the results so far at the San Diego prison, where Amity says it has cut the recidivism rate in half. The legislature is considering expanding an Amity-type program to more than 5,000 beds during the next five years.

A daylong interview with Mullen and Arbiter at their new home slowly winds down as a full lunar eclipse covers a harvest moon hanging above the Sierras. Mullen steps out on the redwood deck outside his living room.

"The 20th century is a century of cynicism," he says. "Nobody believes anybody."

That mood, plus the reports coming out of Tucson saying he financially mismanaged Amity, threatens to destroy his means of making a living, he says.

"The first thing you need in this business is credibility," he adds. Mullen is asked whether the collapse of Amity could have been just a series of errors rather than a twisted plot to destroy the organization.

No, Mullen says. This was a plot.
"At some point, they said we are going down and there is something in this for us, our partners or whoever," he says.

Mullen's and Arbiter's persistent insistence of a conspiracy to destroy Amity seems amazing given the facts surrounding Amity's collapse--facts that had largely been supplied by them.

But then again, maybe it all makes sense. At least that is what Richard Ofshe of the University of California says.

"You will never be able to tell whether they believe what they are saying or not," Ofshe says about the couple's claims. "That is the product of the Synanon game.

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