Children of Synanon

Page 7 of 8

The booming finances of Synanon were starkly contrasted by the living conditions of its members, most of whom shared quarters in downtown boarding houses or in trailer homes scattered across rural ranches. Synanon workers were paid a few dollars a week for their services.

Dederich and the top management of Synanon, however, began to enjoy the wealth flowing into the organization. By the mid-1970s, Dederich started drawing a large salary, including a $500,000 pre-retirement bonus.

"The way Synanon operated for years was to scam whatever they needed and then do with it whatever management wanted to do," Ofshe says.

The massive accumulation of wealth soon attracted the attention of the Internal Revenue Service, which began to scrutinize Synanon's tax-free status as a nonprofit organization granted by the IRS in 1960.

Synanon declared itself a religion in 1975 to solidify its position as a nonprofit organization. In the following three years, Synanon developed a paramilitary organization including two internal police forces called the Imperial Marines and the National Guard. Strict discipline was imposed, particularly at the Synanon school where young children were trained in paramilitary maneuvers.

Synanon members began to violently clash with neighbors, and numerous beatings and assaults occurred. The violence culminated in 1978 when Dederich inspired followers to try to kill an attorney named Paul Morantz, who had successfully sued Synanon.

Dederich had fallen off the wagon and was comatose drunk when he was arrested on December 2, 1978, in Lake Havasu City. He later pleaded no contest to conspiracy to commit murder along with two other Synanon members who had planted a rattlesnake in Morantz's mailbox. The snake bit Morantz, inflicting serious injury to his hand and arm.

Dederich was sentenced to probation and Synanon's lucrative business enterprises continued in operation.

In 1982, the IRS removed the tax-exempt status from Synanon for the fiscal years 1977 and 1978. Synanon sued the IRS to regain its nonprofit status, but lost the case in 1984.

Rod Mullen, Naya Arbiter and Bette Fleishman played a crucial role in the IRS case against Synanon.

The three provided statements to the government that were used to dismiss Synanon's appeal of an Internal Revenue Service ruling revoking its tax-exempt status. The court case revealed that Dederich had transferred $2 million of Synanon funds to himself and family members. Dederich also received noncash benefits, including a residence at a 300-acre ranch near Badger, California.

Throughout the tumultuous 1970s, as Dederich gradually increased his control over Synanon members to the point of dictating their spouses, the three future founders of Amity remained loyal to the Synanon cause.

"If you had been there any length of time and were still in there by '80, '81, you were a real zealot," says Mitchell.

The trio left Synanon only after Dederich's no-contest plea in September 1980.

"Synanon went morally bankrupt," Arbiter says in explaining their departure at that time. "We were idealistic people who didn't believe in violence."

All three acknowledge in separate interviews that Synanon took a turn toward destruction. But all three maintain that for all its ills, Synanon had redeeming qualities that should be emulated.

"The sad part about the whole Synanon thing is when all is said and done, it was an organization that had done a great deal of good," Arbiter says.

Synanon has had a profound impact on drug treatment in America and throughout the world. More than 2,000 therapeutic communities created to treat drug addicts--including Amity--are modeled on 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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty