Everybody, it seems, was watching the little white house on Bollinger Drive: pretty divorcées and kids on bikes, electronics whizzes and the Westside LAPD. Everybody was keeping a lookout for suspicious activity at the request of the owner, a feather-haired lawyer with a shotgun by his bed after the truculent cult he helped expose threatened to pay him a visit. Sure, it sounded melodramatic—killers skulking about a coastal town of rustic stores and quiet streets.

And still there was that lurking, green Plymouth, the one carrying two men up front, plus three associates in the trunk.

A real estate appraiser, who’d just stopped at a nearby corner market for a frosty drink, was the first to sense something was afoul. Here he was, idling behind the boxy sedan at a Pacific Palisades red light, unable after numerous attempts to decipher what appeared to be a vanity license plate: 27 IVC. What narcissistic gloat, he asked himself, could those five characters represent? At twenty-seven I varoomed to California? Something about Ventura County? His puzzle-solving brain worked the variations.

Then, by looking closer, Les Rahymer knew.

This wasn’t cutesy, aluminum-engraved wordplay. This was flagrant deception. Lamely applied classic-blue tape—tape the same ubiquitous hue as the plates’ background—concealed a “4” before the “27” and blurred the “G” into a “C.” Rahymer, a dark-haired thirty-something, sat in his black Datsun 280Z, prickled with goose bumps. What was he supposed to do when the Plymouth motored nonchalantly down Baylor Avenue: tail it like a real-life Jim Rockford (whose series filmed blocks away)? No, he was supposed to glimpse into his rearview mirror, where, by sheer happenstance, a Los Angeles Police Department cruiser was whipping left onto Sunset Boulevard like him.

“Did you see that car with the altered license plates?” Rahymer blurted, after waving the patrol officer over. “Write down these numbers before I forget them.” David Ybarro jotted as told and even sketched passengers’ likenesses from the good samaritan’s account. It was a wickedly hot October afternoon in 1978, a day before the World Series opened at Dodger Stadium amid bunting and beer commercials.

Wait! Did he say a drab, early-seventies-model Plymouth Executive? If so, Ybarro himself had noticed the car earlier while serving an unrelated subpoena, figuring it for an undercover narcotics vehicle.. Dispatch reported back to Ybarra the car was registered to the group Synanon at its outpost in Visalia in Central California, between Fresno and Bakersfield.

Synanon? That Synanon? This could be bad. Especially after the perceptive guy in the sleek, Japanese import took off before Ybarro learned his name.

Ybarro, who walked a beat in this sun-glistened suburb a few minutes from Will Rogers State Beach, hailed for backup. Two LAPD colleagues arrived to hear him out, then departed, apparently unconcerned. Out of precaution, another pair drove past the lawyer’s ranch-style home on Bollinger with bougainvillea out back, observing nothing amiss. Even so, Ybarro couldn’t shake the butterflies that Synanon had set some kind of diabolical event in motion. So, a few minutes later he was on Bollinger, counseling a boy pedaling his bike to immediately call the LAPD if he spotted the Plymouth.

At shift’s end, the officer logged his experience on a form. Only the next day would his report surface. It was in a trash can.

* * *

unknown-2Charles Dederich, Synanon’s bearded, pear-shaped leader, was about the last demagogue you’d want incensed at you. A decade earlier, he’d been a kind of pied piper of clean living, transforming a dingy Santa Monica club that sobered people up through acerbic group therapy into a multimillion-dollar alternative society legitimized by Hollywood and recognized by the courts. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” he told the desperate, pollinating, gruff messiah with Hallmark pitchman. That Dederich seemed unrecognizable as his empire began to crumble. Rather than look inward, he spewed so much paranoid bombast at anyone critical of the sexual control, vendettas, and other excesses he demanded from his flock that he was all but begging for a confrontation with the outside world.

Of all the threats to his precarious reign, no one’s surpassed the pretty boy do-gooder half his age on Bollinger — not self-righteous journalists questioning his methods, not code inspectors probing reports of child-abuse. That’s why Dederich, sixty-five, ordered an exotic delivery for the lawyer. It’d be his way of broadcasting that a dissolute Establishment had no business judging his New Age movement, and if they pushed it too far, they’d be greeted with Old Testament-type vengeance.


At 3:15 p.m., the gas-guzzler with the bogus plates flashed by California Highway Patrolman Donald Growe, then en route to get his car washed. Ping. He followed the car up the California Incline, the steep, hillside access road connecting Pacific Coast Highway with Santa Monica, and toggled his siren. Protocol next: wary approach, boots crunching asphalt, fingers above revolver.

“You, out of the car!”

The driver, Lance Kenton, twenty, was lean, blond, and choir-boy compliant. Joseph Musico, his older, surlier ex-Vietnam Vet associate, went to join him until Growe ordered him to freeze. The patrolman made Kenton pop the trunk. Nothing much was in there, aside from a plain white canvas bag that went un-inspected. Growe next radioed in the plate—the real one—though he’d heard nothing about Synanon’s vendetta (which the LAPD itself had only recently been made aware of). “Some people must have done this so we would be stopped,” Kenton volunteered about the tampered plate. Without asking Growe’s permission, he bent down to start peeling the adhesive off one of the displays while Musico disembarked from his seat to work on the other.

As the pieces fluttered haphazardly in the Santa Anas, Growe weighed his options. While the car’s registration was expired and its plate obviously doctored—both of which were illegal—neither passenger was acting jumpy. Checking warrants and inquiring what the men were doing felt excessive. As far as Growe was concerned, this tape horseshit really could’ve been a practical joke—and juvenile pranks don’t necessitate handcuffs. So, he wrote nothing on his pad and freed them, an act he later mourned as “human failure.”


Paul Morantz, who resembled Mark Spitz and wouldn’t have minded playing Geraldo Rivera, was bored. On and off before that magic Plymouth stalked him, he was leading a perfectly normal life, perfectly uninspired. Could he really have plateaued at thirty-one? Legal crusading had twice thrust him into the spotlight, but that had receded into the nostalgia land of youth.

Another lifetime ago, he’d been a campus celebrity at the University of Southern Californian, studying journalism andunknown whooping it up one merry semester at a time. As sports editor of the Daily Trojan during the late sixties, Morantz enjoyed VIP access to John McKay—the wry, cigar-gnashing, championship football coach—and star players alike. Nicknamed “The Wolf” after a sarcastic column (and his well-known skirt chasing), Morantz was an outlier, whether it was nailing the first local interview of star tailback O. J. Simpson or getting a McKay assistant in dutch for blustering that they’d travel to Cal Berkeley to “burn their barns and rape their women.” The Los Angeles Times, taking notice of his talent, offered him a staff job. His girlfriend, a UCLA grad no less, thought law school a better career alternative for him, as did his middle-class parents. That settled that. Three more years at USC, delaying reality in a topsy-turvy America, it was! Besides, everyone knew journalists earned chump money next to billable hours. Writing—his sacred passion—was something he could moonlight.

Bar exam passed, Morantz found the world was no longer the oyster it’d been at USC. Things didn’t always tilt his direction. The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, in fact, rebuffed him for a starter job, suggesting his tanned, blow-dried style was better suited for “defending the bad guys” than working in its more stoic, Brylcreamed environs. So, a year before he lost his hero—his father, a compassionate meatpacking executive—he joined the DA’s opposite number, the public defender’s office.

Not long after, he began second-guessing his choice. Representing poor, mostly guilty folks didn’t exactly stoke the romanticism of Atticus Finch. Thankfully, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Noel Cannon invigorated his wood-paneled workspace. As Morantz himself wrote in a 1967 profile for the Los Angeles Times, “She kept a live Chihuahua in her courtroom and a mechanical canary in her chambers. She decorated her office in pink to match her endless array of pink outfits and summoned select defendants for impromptu sermons there by her personal preacher, the good Reverend Blackstone…”

Cannon, just the same, was more than a platinum-tinted showboat who periodically waved her derringer. A lot more. She was also a tyrant, habitually jailing public defenders who contested her rulings, including Morantz. Their bickering evolved into bona fide courthouse theater. Then one day she imprisoned a client of his previously arrested for assault and battery, this after the victim recanted and the DA dropped charges. Morantz, the outwardly happy-go-lucky more interior-driven than he let on, could tolerate eccentricity, just not official misconduct. When not handling cases, the first-time lawyer compiled evidence against the veteran Cannon and bundled it off to authorities. The response: crickets.

41mdfweby4l-_sx324_bo1204203200_There had to be something better, and when his boss reprimanded him for freelancing a magazine piece without prior approval about the murder of a fellow public defender at a Sherman Oaks watering hole, he up and quit. Morantz joined his older brother, Lewis, in private legal practice. During off hours, he womanized like a playboy and typed like a fiend. Film interest in his article teased literary fantasies. A year later, the California Supreme Court, aided by his evidence and testimony, took the rare step of removing Cannon from the bench. The young man who idolized Serpico and Davy Crockett was jubilant while it lasted, because litigating ho-hum fender-benders and business squabbles was as un-chivalrous as it got. Back to his Remington typewriter he went for excitement, tapping out a story about a catering truck driver framed for robbery. Again, a movie producer acquired the rights. On its heels came Rolling Stone magazine, which published his feature about Jan and Dean, the kings of sixties surf rock. CBS even planned to adapt into a TV movie of the week. Bang: that was trajectory.

Out of nowhere, a cold call tip from a liquor store owner redirected that path toward downtown’s grim Skid Row. T. J. Renfroe, a sixty-ish alcoholic released from county jail after a public intoxication charge had been kidnapped and “sold” to a Burbank mental-health nursing center. That was the rumor. Over the next weeks, effectively acting on spec, Morantz deputized himself to investigate, smuggling out documents, posing as a patient’s relative, and preserving incriminating records. Afterward, his skepticism about human trafficking at retail prices hardened into Woodward-esque realization that it was all true! Crooked nursing homes were paying $125 per person to middlemen, who would deliver them alcoholics in a scam to bilk Medi-Cal for treatment of fabricated mental disorders. Lest they resist, the “patients” were sedated with Thorazine, a potent anti-schizophrenia drug. Morantz submitted his ample evidence to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. They launched a massive investigation and credited the sleuthing lawyer, who basked in another gratifying puff of local fame.

Two years later, in June 1977, living in a beachside home financed with his cut from the class action suit he’d filed, the lawyer who wasn’t sure he wanted to be one found himself flirting with domesticity. Stability could be all his for the price of a diamond ring. Marrying his girlfriend Trudy—the heart-melting, Cheryl Tiegs-esque woman with kids from a previous relationship—would produce an instant family. The lady’s man had met “the one.” Better yet, he could still play weekend beach volleyball and write when the law made him yawn.

Another mystery abduction that surfaced, however, provided what none of those could: the further opportunity for endorphins slaying hometown injustice.


Charles Dederich entered a world that was always seemed to be abandoning him.

By eight, he’d lost his dad to a car wreck, his brother to influenza, and soured on his mother after she wed a second husband young Charles reviled. The bright, tortured boy made liquor his panacea. He flunked out of Notre Dame, USC’s historic archival, and let alcohol destroy his first marriage. A bout of meningitis next ravaged his appearance, causing the right side of his face to droop and twitch. Migrating to Santa Monica, the disfigured wanderer slept on the streets in his fresh start town. He straightened up enough up to lasso a new wife and job, only to have alcohol torpedo both. Discovered conked out on his kitchen floor, he was told the obvious: without treatment, he’d die before he’d lived.

Bottomed out at forty-three, Dederich began attending Alcoholic Anonymous meetings and devouring Emerson’s Self Reliance along with similar works. In 1956, he volunteered for government-backed LSD experiments at UCLA. Epiphanies cascaded, with Dederich soon preaching about the enormity of human potential and his own, new purpose. He’d get people sober without psychiatry or other traditional methods. Before long, drunks cluttered into his shabby apartment to eat soup and listen to his self-help sermons. His next move proved more seminal in the history of marginalized people. He cashed a thirty-three dollar unemployment check and chartered an AA splinter group from a Venice storefront. Synanon, named by linguistic mash-up of “symposium” and “seminar,” was on to something.

At a new base at Santa Monica’s National Guard Building, Dederich beckoned “dope fiends,” with all their body shakes, barfing and wall climbing, to join his cold-turkey detox. Alcoholics were the ones sacrificed, weeded out by the Machiavellian ex-drinker who’d previously sworn to rescue them from the bottle. Residents unhappy with zombie-eyed rabble wandering their neighborhoods felt betrayal, too, and complained to city hall about public nuisances. Twice Dederich would be arrested, and, in retrospect, he should’ve thanked his jailers for martyring him as a street leader seemingly persecuted by uptight civic officials and NIMBY-minded citizens. Governor Edmund Brown, the father of California’s current governor, believed it, and pulled strings granting the motley bunch wide-ranging code exemptions. That regulatory carte blanche would come back to haunt many.

Synanon, newly legitimized by state government, caught another break: a knot of celebrities adopted it as a pet cause. Hollywood actors, political figures images-2and pop culture trend-setters found themselves intrigued by its psychology (even if some  just wanted to meet well-known jazz musicians trying to kick wearying heroin addictions). Jane Fonda, Cesar Chavez, Timothy Leary, Charleton Heston, Natalie Wood, Milton Berle, Buckminster Fuller, Ben Gazzara, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Wagner: they all made appearances. Word spread beyond the LA glitterati to the East Coast. To Connecticut Senator Thomas Dodd, the group represented a “miracle by the beach.” A fourteen-page Life magazine photo spread in 1962 about the movement, known for its exuberant, youth dance parties, was tantamount to an infomercial. Most dangerously, starry-eyed reporters accepted Synanon propaganda that its unusual techniques had saved thousands.

AA revolved around God and the twelve-step philosophy. The linchpin here was the “Game,” where group participants verbally unloaded on new “Synanites” by rubbing their faces in the consequences of their destructive, addicitve behaviors. Other than forbidding physical violence, all bets were off. People berated for hours and deprived of sleep invariably collapsed into sobbing, semi-psychotic heaps. Once their “dirty brains” were cleansed, the freshly converted experienced temporary clarity in their exhaustion. The objective of this mishmash psychotherapy, breakdown, ritual, and shaming was, according to Dederich, “to get you loaded without acid.” In his expanding taxonomy were witches (robed ceremonial guides), headsuckers (caring Synanon mothers), trippers (non-addicts seeking enlightenment), and splittees (loathed defectors). Dederich’s knack for proselytizing so many surprised even admittedly bigheaded him. “When I sit down and start to talk,” he observed, “people start gathering.” For him, crime, narcotics, and delinquency, shared a common weakness: an “addiction to stupidity.”

imagesThe group, richer by the day, expanded into the Club Casa del Mar, a vintage, brick-winged beachfront structure, and primped for its star treatment. Columbia Pictures’ 1965-release Synanon, a stark, black-and-white depiction of the “Game” featuring Edmond O’Brien and Chuck Connors, was a global brand-maker. The film had the harsh, nour-ish aesthetic of a Sam Fuller production. Dederich, who came off like a straight-shooting gym coach, was one of the few to know the bombshell at odds with his rocketing fame: statistically, his methods cured addiction no better than licensed rehabs. Eventually, the truth secret would spill.

Worried about that, and influenced by the era’s mounting number of communal living and dropout experimentations, “Big Daddy” around 1967 redrew his conception. Synanon would phase into an alternative lifestyle commune free of society’s psychoactive distractions. That meant heading north of LA to freer spaces and fewer hassles. At Tomales Bay, north of San Francisco, the movement spread out over thousands of acres. At a second location in Tulare County, a rural expanse between Bakersfield and Fresno, it inhabited buildings, an airstrip, and a dump. The state chipped in without asking the right questions, donating an empty San Francisco warehouse. A handful of affiliates from New York to Malaysia began to debut, too, all in an arc resembling pre–Tom Cruise Scientology.

Synanon climbed to its apex as Americans wrestled with Vietnam, Watergate, and the ulcers of early-seventies disenchantment. Ringing its compounds were services at the ready: libraries, offices, a movie theater, sewage plants, medical clinics, barbershops, and hundreds of cars, planes, and boats. Tomales Bay residents accessed horseback riding, swimming, tennis, and bathhouses. Jitneys zipped Synanites between settlements. A one-legged DJ emceed a closed-circuit radio station, KSYN. Its fire department collaborated with the state during emergencies. Among its ranks were bankers, architects, attorneys, and professors, some of them credentialed from Stanford, UCLA, and the Los Angeles Times. These weren’t society’s dregs or hippies. These were people seeking shelter from temptation, from overdosing on freedom. Dederich was ready to oblige them.

Conceptually, his genius for improvisation was rivaled only by his talent for nurturing cash streams. Thirty million dollars in assets (the equivalent of roughly $133 million in 2015) didn’t lie. Red-blooded believers such as Reliable Mortgage’s Ed Siegel donated nearly a million in stock; another deep-pocketed believer handed over the title to his accounting firm. Supplementing benefactors’ gifts like these and member-paid room and board was a line of promotional items (pens, key chains, lighters), gas stations, and philanthropic/subsidy arrangements with much of the Fortune 500. Synanon’s sales pitch: “Buy from us and save a life.” The Hollywood ReporterBillboard magazine, and others anteed up free ad space. Many government types even regarded Synanon’s tough-love treatment as an innovative drug-fighting model. San Francisco Sheriff Richard Hongisto was one enthusiast. “We spend so much on mace, helicopters, clubs, and other devices when money could be spent on programs like this,” he said.

Big Daddy sometimes ridiculed his very kingdom, donning a Hawaiian shirt and crown fashioned from popsicle unknownsticks. Yet there was truth in satire of an aging emperor projecting new battles with old demons—namely fear of desertion—onto his subjects. A 1972 San Francisco Examiner exposé was in the vanguard to question his ideology, baldly accusing Synanon of being the “racket of the century.” Rather than prodding Dederich into a round of soul searching, it shoved him elsewhere: into building a culture of xenophobic overreaction. Addicts had already been prohibited from “graduating” to an outside world the movement scorned as evil. Now, families were consolidated in Marin County; Synanite mothers were restricted from visiting their newborns. The overall trend line was ominous: an off-the-grid utopia of good-hearted, if misled, people were under the thumb of an unhinged ruler dictating their lives by his inner obsessions. When Dederich stopped smoking, his flock had to forego lighting up. When his wife, Betty, dieted, sayonara to everyone’s fatty foods. Zealots once shaved their heads to punctuate their loyalty. (Young filmmaker George Lucas cast some as extras in his futuristic THX 1138.) As Dederich consolidated power, that Manson Family bald chic became mandatory.

Synanon further mutated from its roots in 1974 with its reclassification as a tax-exempt “religion.” Two years later, its secular god, unveiled an Orwellian population control blueprint that would mark the beginning of the end. All men (except Dederich, of course) were required to undergo vasectomies, and any pregnant women, abortions; one had the procedure in the baby’s second trimester. Several hundred acquiesced, yet, tellingly, almost as many bailed over it—Dederich’s brother, William, among them. “I’ll give you my life, Chuck, but not my balls,” one former Synanite wrote in his book. Any lingering doubt that a commune was fast warping into a sect vanished when Betty died of lung cancer in 1977. Dederich, having lost the only person able to restrain his worst megalomaniacal impulses, licensed group libido to compensate. He remarried an acolyte and decreed that all married couples needed to disband every three years to pair with new mates. What sociologists called swinging, Dederich termed “love matches.” Some were teamed through randy auctions.

Since little of this leaked out publicly, judges and parents continued entrusting Synanon to rehabilitate wayward children, unaware that some were being slammed into buildings or beaten, especially if they attempted escape. Outwardly, Dederich remained the “Great Hope,” his followers regarded as patriotic humanitarians. And many were—redistributing food, clothing, and whatnot to charities in sync with government agencies. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley was duly impressed, naming a day after Betty Dederich upon her passing. Which was why a December 1977 TIME magazine feature portraying Synanon as a powder keg cult hiding in the mainstream was an explosion in the making for everyone. In addition to publicizing Dederich’s sexual preoccupations and generous salary, it revealed his group’s plunging membership (down one-third to about twelve hundred) and a Marin County grand jury child-abuse investigation. Dederich, wearing a hat reading, “I’M THE MEANEST S.O.B. IN THE VALLEY,” believed he’d charmed TIME’s reporters via folksy self-deprecation. “A lot of guys,” he quipped, “could do this from an old Ford roadster. They’re holy men. I’m not. I need a…Cadillac.” Cue the sound of a massive backfire.

TV viewers watching Dederich erupt over what he called TIME’s “contemptible hatchet job” must’ve cringed with déjà vu about another messianic circus bubbling. In a January 1978 interview with CBS Los Angeles’s Connie Chung—whom, privately, Dederich considered a fox—he threatened journalists attacking “religious freedoms,” grumbling that he wanted them “as nervous about the safety of their children and their grandchildren” as he was about his. Looking like a malevolent Burl Ives, he next told Jess Marlow of Los Angeles’s NBC affiliate that, “Bombs could be thrown at…some of [TIME’s] clowns.” He then compared his misunderstood persona to Jesus, who he explained, “ran with a bunch of smugglers, drunks, and crooks.” Of course, Jesus never spoke like him. After the California Health Department announced it would visit Synanon grounds, Dederich barked that his followers would “surround” inspectors with guys “twice their size” and explore which of them practiced sodomy or bestiality. His band of lawyers were equally truculent, filing $400 million in libel and slander suits against multiple defendants: TIME, the health department (for likening Dederich’s threats to Nazism), San Francisco’s ABC affiliate (for a segment alleging Synanon guards “terrorized” neighbors in Badger), Reader’s Digest, and others. It was warfare by docket.

Despite this emphasis on lawyers, guns, and money that better channeled Warren Zevon than a sober paradise, Dederich still believed himself worthy of a Nobel Prize. You didn’t have to be an oddsmaker (or swami) to see a bloody confrontation looming between his world and the outside one. Time was nearing for a a Pacific Palisades wolf.


In June 1977, a depressed, young homemaker decided to visit a Venice health clinic for tranquilizers. Instead of  prescribing Frances Wynn medication, it referred her to Synannon’s Santa Monica reception facility for treatment. After she formally requested help there, she discovered herself sucked into Dederich’s rabbit hole. Her welcoming party mowed her hair with electric scissors and locked her in a basement. The next day, against her wishes, she was transported to Tomales Bay and jettisoned into a tent.

Once he knew where she was, Ed Winn tried repeatedly to secure his wife’s freedom. Her captors stonewalled him, saying the marriage was over. That he should forget about her. He wrote to reporters, politicians, even President Carter for help. His pleas went unheeded. Offhand, an acquaintance mentioned an ex-neighbor of his—the lawyer who had rescued the shanghaied alcoholics. Contacted by Frances’ desperate spouse, Paul Morantz barely hesitated.

Synanon was hardly intimidated. Not only was it belligerent to outsiders like him, it believed itself bullet-proof, exempted from typical state licensing for drug rehabs and mental health providers. Morantz, unfamiliar with the gray-area turf, thought compromise, negotiating a phone call between the Winns.’ On the line, Frances reasserted that she wanted to leave. Synanon, keen to ditch problem clients as the heat against it collected, demanded a waiver first, so Morantz typed up a hollow document that the organization swallowed. Once Frances was safe, Morantz said farewell to her former abductors with a raised middle finger. In doing so, he made enemies for life.

At a foothill ranch outside Visalia three months later, Dederich held court about his movement’s encroaching enemies. While his minions dined, the Ohioan with the low, froggy voice spoke into “The Wire,” the organization’s internal broadcast system. Anyone there afraid of the “Holy War” they were waging should leave, he said, because the “sound of cracking bones” was fundamental to their survival. “Don’t mess with us,” he snarled. “You can get killed. Physically dead…” His Imperial Marines, a private militia Dederich cultivated and expected to grow to two hundred well-trained soldiers, would tolerate no resistance. Who knew the Hells Angels could have competition?

Blood had already spilled earlier that year when two, seventeen-year-old surfers parked near Synanon’s Santa Monica building—famous for its black, rooftop sign—and one of them committed the unthinkable: he peed outdoors on or near the group’s property. A mob of Deliverance-ish shitkickers in overalls and blue shirts descended, joyfully thumping them in a teeth-flying, body-dragging scrum that extended into a parking garage. “This is not the type of place Synanon is,” protested a female devotee trying to halt the pasting. Actually, it was now. Up near Fresno, around Thanksgiving, a redneck trucker named Ron Eidson, who had refused to apologize for a traffic miscue with a Synanon vehicle, could have benefitted from Billy Jack’s services as four goons brandishing sawed-off shotguns appeared at his property. In front of his terrified wife and three children, they pounded and pistol-whipped Eidson into a coma. To confuse him about his assailants at a later police lineup, the marines sent in lookalikes.

Ex-heroin, LSD, and barbiturate addicts dropping by for visits, or to express their dismay about the organization’s violent bent, were greeted similarly. They were bound to poles, interrogated as spies, belittled as “scumbag” defectors, and thrashed with steel-toed boots. Others had their fingers snapped one by one, or were chased into ditches and assaulted; some had their lives threatened to ensure they wouldn’t sue or report it.

The organization was considerably sweeter to firearms dealers arming it with a virtual munitions depot. Roughly $300,000 worth of rifles, Colt .45 handguns, and automatic pistols, as well as pallets of ammunition that included armor-piercing bullets, stocked its cache by early ’78. Only the bazooka the boss wanted was missing. The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives inquired why a “religion” needed those bulk purchases. Synanon was clammy to answer: the weapons, it said, were self-defense against trespassers, bullies, and other troublemakers emboldened by the sensationalizing media.


Back in his small Brentwood law office near Hamburger Hamlet, our lawyer fielded calls from exasperated parents asking him to liberate their offspring from Dederich’s clutches. When not working those angles, Morantz immersed himself into the Kool-Aid–tinged waters of mass-behavior psychology, reading Mao, Maslow, B. F. Skinner, and Werner Erhard.

He’d had his own earlier brushes with cults that made this all seem more than coincidental. In 1963, at his high school graduation party in Santa Monica, he’d stumbled away from the boozy, hormone-laced crowd and right under the bluff of Synanon’s old headquarters at the National Guard Armory. Newbies shrieking as they were being lambasted during the “Game” reverberated from the building’s illuminated windows, echoing down towards the shoreline and into Morantz’s unfamiliar ears. “It’s a rehab place,” a pal tried comforting him. “That’s Synanon.”

unknownYears passed before he met a conservative, tie-tearing Texan at a part-time job during college selling women’s hairpieces at Contessa Creations at Melrose and La Cienega. After work, Morantz delighted in escorting his Southern friend around to the big city’s bounteous supermarket of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Later he realized his horror. The buddy he’d known as Charles Watson was the killer the world knew as “Tex” Watson, a Manson lieutenant in the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders. Sense the pre-determination?

He still could have walked away from these degrees of separation and into the arms of Trudy, who was anxious about him standing up to zealots with a palpable blood lust. His place on Bollinger—two bedrooms, red brick barbecue, bay windows—was all teed up to be their Shangri-la. In spring of 1978, she illustrated her affection, hosting a dinner to celebrate CBS’s broadcast of Dead Man’s Curve, the Jan and Dean movie inspired by his Rolling Stone article. Ordinary legal work—a film deal or two—could have bankrolled a cushy life knitted around such times.

Except that lifestyle wasn’t enough, not for a restless spirit like Morantz who, inexorably, needed the thrill of a fresh hunt to keep sane. Trudy soon spoke her peace on the subject—just about the time Morantz helped convince assistants to LAPD Chief Daryl Gates to discontinue the department’s “est” seminars, citing what he’d learned about infiltrating brainwashers, Erhard in particular. The couple was at a now-forgotten Washington Boulevard restaurant when she announced she couldn’t marry someone more obsessed with unearthing wrongdoing than burrowing into commitment. Morantz felt clobbered; his Skid Row theatrics brought him a death threat. Trudy’s breakup was a sort of living death.

Deep down, he recognized it was for the best. Who’d want a spouse telling confidantes, “They’re coming to kill me?” Because that was Morantz’s refrain to many after hearing about splittee Phil Ritter. They were coming. The question was how and when.

The Greenpeace’s anti-nuclear activist had never wanted a bitter goodbye. He had logged eight years at Synanon, some of them quite pleasurably as its transportation czar. It was Dederich’s unstable behavior and coterie of toadies and thugs that disillusioned him into leaving. Out, Ritter cajoled authorities to step in—effectively to save Synanon from itself—and successfully petitioned for custody of his child from Synanon’s control, which the group subsequently refused to release. His former cohorts never forgave his disloyalty. Returning to his Berkeley home one night, Ritter heard footsteps behind him. Knuckle draggers were waiting to jump in. Immediately, they started bashing in his skull as payback for his traitorous conduct. He’d likely have been murdered had his screams not drawn neighbors that chased away the assailants, who’d arrived in a Toyota, off the premises. Ritter, miraculously, recovered. But that was as far as it went.

No collective outrage percolated over his attempted homicide, nor the dozens of other Holy War thrashings. Down in Southern California, meantime, detectives were busier than plastic surgeons, grappling with a record murder rate and elusive serial predators (The Hillside Strangler, The Freeway Killer, Rodney Alcala), as well as a bumper crop of hitmen targeting abusive husbands, debonair embezzlers, and others. For the most part, government reacted indifferently, as if Synanon beatings were little more than overheated misunderstandings. The court system dropped charges, reduced them to misdemeanors, or sentenced the offenders to community service and probation. Between its scrappy reputation for helping lost souls and the era’s dalliance with pop psychology solutions, the group was a trusted name. Doubting it was like doubting Monty Hall or Sears.

Contesting the organization without a badge, hence, was not just perilous, but, crusade-wise, isolating. Not that Morantz was cowering. Indeed, just about the time that the Plymouth set out on its  trip to his Bollinger Drive pad, he won a $300,000 judgment against Dederich and company for what a judge deemed Winn’s “unpardonable” treatment. San Francisco cops, due largely to his efforts, had by then surrounded a house to free three adolescent members. But his last action against Synanon was a neutron bomb. At the solicitation of two Marin County Supervisors—up-and-comers Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer—he lobbied against state legislation that would have perpetuated the group’s golden ticket: its waiver from licensing regulations. The bill lost by a single vote.

In the ensuing days, the former college sportswriter lived fidgety with the shadows, cognizant that Synanon threats were rarely empty bluster. At a hick, gun store in the smoggy San Fernando Valley, he purchased a shotgun capable of blistering multiple killers and positioned it bedside. He regularly peered under his Volvo hatchback for explosives before starting it, and fretted about his cherished border collies, Tommy and Devon, knowing an ex-Synanite’s dog was found hanged. Sure enough, Dederich had his public enemy number one. “When is someone,” he vented over “The Wire,” “going to be brave enough to get Morantz?” An outside hitman priced the job for ten large. Leadership, though, hungered to do it in-house. Besides, it was cheaper.

Back in Pacific Palisades, a stressed-out Morantz decided to indulge in some R&R, traveling to Hawaii where he guessed Dederich’s marines were unlikely to venture. Stateside again and still missing Trudy, he hyperventilated while watching USC nip Alabama. On October 5, at a recording studio, he met another dream girl, Australian singer/actress/eye-candy Olivia Newton-John. After letting her know he was the writer behind the Jan and Dean TV movie, flirtatious embers smoldered. Still, who would want to date a marked man? That weekend he drove to San Diego to play some head-clearing volleyball. At a bar later, a friend who heard about his legal and political offensive against Synanon said no wonder he was constantly looking in the rear view mirror.

On Tuesday, October 10, Morantz awoke about 7 am, gulped coffee, and drove to work in West LA like any other day. After lunch, a pair of LAPD intelligence officers and a suit from the California Attorney General’s criminal investigative branch settled into his conference room to discuss a security plan. Morantz, recapping the fatwa against him that he’d gleaned from his sources, requested police protection. Shouldn’t be a problem, they said, once they conducted a formal threat analysis. Morantz, incongruously cocky and cautious, measuring any coming darkness in days, not hours, seemed reassured.


Dederich’s henchmen Kenton and Musico, who were circling his house just then, weren’t the most compatible of killers. Young Kenton approached tasks with Eagle Scout verve, determined to excel in Synanon academics, karate, and outdoor activities. (His father, admired jazz-swing composer Stan Kenton, had entrusted Dederich to keep his boy drug-free while he toured.) Musico, a tough ex–New Yorker and Vietnam vet, was just looking to avoid incarceration; the Pentagon had dishonorably discharged him after his stint overseas, where as a military policeman, he bragged about fragging prick sergeants and stringing necklaces from “gook ears.” Mayhem continued in civilian life, along with a heroin addiction, until his mother interceded. She persuaded the courts to ship him out West for rehabilitation at Synanon, and that’s where he went. In California, Musico actually fit in for a change, women weak-kneed for his rugged good looks, men drawn to his storytelling bluster. But Dederich’s militarization stunted that growth, reawakening Muscio’s natural sadism. Given his choice, he’d take out Morantz, who Dederich characterized as a hunched-over, Jewish ambulance chaser, with a surprise shotgun blast on an LA freeway.

Once they were close to their target, the would-be assassins argued about what to do. Kenton believed they should abort the mission after the CHP’s Growe stopped them for the tampered license plates. Musico countered there’d no turning back, and the two reportedly exchanged punches. Different as could be, they soldiered on with that mysterious bag in the trunk uniting them.

An eleven-year-old boy was outside pedaling his bike as the sedan looped Bollinger on a half-dozen passes. Each time the Plymouth rumbled by Morantz’s place, it slowed disturbingly. The frightened kid, whose brother Morantz sometimes paid to walk his dogs, scurried to his mother. Relax, she shushed him; the car was probably an unmarked police vehicle checking up on the house. Edie Ditmars, on the other hand, remained spooked. The attractive woman, fresh from a divorce, was chummy with her next-door neighbor, so when she heard Morantz’s dogs bark, she beelined to her kitchen window. She felt uneasy noticing an unfamiliar car parked in his driveway. Now a clean-cut lad in a sports coat and tie was marching toward the front door. Ditmars hurried to her living room window for a better view. Fatefully, the angle obstructed her sight line. Next thing she knew, Morantz’s mailbox lid, the one chiseled into his stucco front wall, slapped closed. Ditmars sighed in relief, wrongly assuming it a routine delivery.

A nine-year-old girl across the street also noticed the Plymouth. Remembering the heads-up for vigilance, she crept outside, feeling self-conscious, and ducked beneath a bush to spy the license plate. Before she could make it out, the Plymouth blazed away. She planned to mention it to Morantz when she saw him. There was a lot of that going around.

The main attraction pulled up around 5:30, with Vin Scully’s catchphrase on the brain: “It’s almost time for Dodger baseball.”  The World Series pitted opposing cultures of the two coasts: Tommy Lasorda and the Boys in Blue against the Reggie-Jackson-led Yankees, Lotusland versus the Big Apple. His dogs, per custom, gave him a friendly mauling once he entered, careful first to look for intruders. The collies then loped outside to frolic on the lawn and do their business. Morantz was dressed in his signature button-down shirt, slacks, and cowboy boots. Dorky eyeglasses should have hung from his ears, but his vanity objected and the hipper pair he ordered hadn’t yet arrived.

He plopped the Synanon evidence files he brought home from work on his green-tile kitchen counter. All that lay between him and enjoying the first pitch on his bedroom TV was a menial task: retrieving the mail from his shoebox-sized chute a few feet away. Odd. Blurry vision and all, he could pick out an elongated object stuffed in there. Must be a scarf someone dropped of, assuming it belonged to him (or a girlfriend). His right hand popped the tin cover. His left hand plunged in. But it didn’t grab silk material. It clasped something alive.


The four-and-a-half foot western diamondback rattlesnake now in his left hand was unhappy with its confinement. “Little Chuck,” as the police would tab it, instantly lunged forward with its V-shaped head, sinking its fangs into the edge of his wrist, just below his watch band. Fuuuucck! “Bastards,” cursed Morantz. “They’d really done it.” Why hadn’t he noticed his dogs’ claw marks on the mail canister, where the serpent slithered in wait? And that wasn’t it. All those cops and a block full of observers and this got under the wire in plain daylight? All those warnings of an imminent attack by Dave Mitchell, editor of The Point Reyes Light, a small Tomales Bay weekly that would earn a Pulitzer for its Synanon coverage.

And here he was now, staring at a scaly grim reaper at thirty-three. Waiting for the state’s threat analysis to be finished. Well, they had their results now.

Morantz released the checkered, grayish-brown reptile onto his hardwood floor, where it coiled near his ankles, forked tongue curling, eyes glaring. The crotalus atrox was scared, preparing itself for another defensive strike. His boyhood fascination in herpetology quickly washed back; he’d trapped and kept pet garter snakes as a kid. He knew he needed ice on his wound and had to keep his heart rate down to slow the neurotoxins before traumatic shock overtook him ahead of the venom.

Another crisis brewed, too. From the corner of his eye he saw his border collies galloping toward the house after he’d yelped. In seconds, they’d be tangling with the creature, perhaps to their death. There’d be three corpses then. Morantz juked his head one way, not unlike Anthony Davis used to with linebackers trying to tackle him. The misdirection caused the snake to follow, and in one fluid stroke he stretched his right arm diagonally over it to slam the door closed. Carefully, he edged away.

A moment later he was through his kitchen, pitching toward Ditmar’s house, in the sunshine, almost delirious. He shouted for ice, then crashed his right shoulder into her door, smashing it off a hinge. Outside there, he begged someone to call the police, call the ambulance, just call someone. His hand throbbed as if being pulverized in a vice. Neighbors raced toward the shouting at Ditmar’s house, including Irv Moskowitz, a Caltech electronics supervisor who was home early for Yom Kippur. Weirdly, that very day, he’d finished a CPR course that covered snakebites. He yanked the resistant victim, likely in shock, to the ground. Next he tore off his shirt, wrapping Morantz’s left arm in a makeshift tourniquet while someone piled ice over the fang marks. A jacket was laid over him in the Indian summer swelter.

Inside the wailing ambulance, he feared he’d die. He imagined Newton-John’s cherubic face to maintain a measure of calm. He tried pain-relief by self-actualization. Nothing New Age or traditional helped. Maybe this was karma from his USC days, when he pranked that law professor by sending him a big alligator lizard in a registrar’s envelope. Perhaps it was just all inevitable. Double fuuuuuuuuuck!

475c1030782605ac86accb925ded720dTwo firemen soon stood in his entryway, eyeballing the biggest, most badass snake they’d ever seen. It had to die. One distracted it while the other pinned its writhing, muscular body, as thick in spots as Steve Garvey’s bat, with a shovel. Decapitating it through that carbon-fiber-like skin necessitated numerous whacks. After Little Chuck’s head was severed, they flushed it down Morantz’s toilet without contemplating that it could be felony evidence. An LAPD officer, who later saw the animal’s formidable corpse, remembered the squad briefings about Synanon. “(Morantz) should’ve had protection,” he muttered.

Morantz arrived at what’s now UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica in blinding pain. Before he got narcotic relief, things had to get Kafkaesque. The older, hearing-impaired nurse who did his intake needed his insurance information, and the cotton-mouthed patient with the swollen left side and tingling extremities could hardly speak — other than imploring her for drugs. Was he really sure, doctors inquired, it was a rattlesnake? Word by now was spreading at light speed. His friend Nicki, with whom he was supposed to have dinner that night, raced to the ER, where she had a nurse slide a magnet bracelet over Morantz’s wrist for cosmic healing. He was then administered eleven vials of anti-venom, which was made from horse antibodies, and the morphine-like Demerol, which ferried his mind from watching the tail end of the World Series game (which the Dodgers won 11-5) to a hallucinated shoreline.

Three hours later, he was transported to USC County General hospital because of its expertise with snakebites. The LA Times’ Narda Zacchino, one of the few local reporters to write about the true Synanon, squiggled past security. She pecked him on the cheek in sympathy, and said forget she’d been there or Synanon might manipulate it. Through the blur, the best face over him that day wasn’t a journalist or doctor or detective. It was Trudy, whom he’d asked the LAPD to contact. When the doctor ordered everyone to leave, she refused, plunking herself into a bedside chair. When he awoke the next morning, the girl of his dreams was still there.

On the same day Angelenos learned their city would host the 1984 Summer Olympics, the globe learned that reptiles can be weaponized. Walter Cronkite harrumphed on the CBS Evening News about a “bizarre event,” even by cult standards. Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update hyped Synanon’s sale of pre-Christmas rattlesnakes. In this tizzy, a detective working the Hillside Strangler serial killer investigation was assigned to the case that actually wasn’t much of a whodunit. Within days of the attack, Splittees phoned in tips, ratting out Musico and Kenton, who were swiftly arrested up north. Donald Growe, eager for atonement, confirmed they were the two men he’d stopped, but not detained. Ybarro contributed, too. Both wanted another chance at that witchy sedan that had converted so many sharp-eyed people into mushy spectators.

Morantz, a few days later, was rolled out in his bed for a jam-packed hospital press conference reminiscent of John niqneygxx39uxxxtxd0dand Yoko’s 1969 “Bed-in for Peace.” A man normally covetous of public adulation appeared overwhelmed, less mustachioed Sir Lancelot than goldfish-eyed survivor. The horde of media was sympathetic. While it mobbed the hospital for the spectacle of the attack, colleagues were embroiled outside LA in confrontations with Synanon’s do-anything believers. NBC Nightly News certainly understood. After it broadcast a critical series on the group, two men representing “SCRAM” – Synanon Committee for a Responsible American Media – threatened a producer at her New York residence. Not far away, TIME-LIFE’s forty-eight-story skyscraper was evacuated following a phoned-in bomb threat. Hedley Donovan, TIME editor-and-chief Synanon, himself wasn’t even untouchable. He received hate mail warning a “sleeping giant” might kill him. Later, U.S. Customs agents received a tip alleging that Donovan had smuggled jewels and drugs returning from Europe and searched him.

From his titled up hospital bed, bare chest showing, Morantz told journalists what he’d stressed to film producers and cops earlier, largely to tin ears: dangerous cults were everywhere. Wasn’t that evident now? But when questioned if Synanon specifically had planted the snake that bite him, Morantz hesitated, saying he’d only been told he was on an “enemies list.” His rationale: you never knew if Synanon’s “long ears” were present. The group’s lawyer/spokesman Dan Garrett afterwards denied any connection, characterizing Synanon as “law-abiding” in its quest to solve social problems and character disorders. Stories to the contrary, he added, were “inflammatory and irresponsible.” Translation: beware.

Sure enough, too, Morantz’s West L.A. law office was broken into while he was recovering at the hospital, fanning press speculation it was Synanon or another cult he was investigating that was responsible; police, in the end, ruled it a “common burglary” that happened to come at an uncommon time.


imagesSix days after arriving at L.A. County General in an ambulance dressed in his work garb, he left in a crush of TV cameras wearing a plaid-blue bathrobe. What one paper called the city’s “reluctant crusader” had Connie Chung standing in his infamous doorway for an interview, and extensive, white bandaging entombing his arm. It was a whiplash of a homecoming. Partly because of the attack, local TV news stations were rushing to produce series on cults now they were hot again; four years had gone by since the LAPD’s shootout with the Symbionese Liberation Army. In this way, the animal Morantz met in his entryway had raised public consciousness.

Still, it was the private side where lives are won or lost. Here, Morantz’s friends and family worried about how he was psychologically adapting to being the victim of an exotic act of premeditated violence that’d stunned the world. That he was tremendously grateful he’d survived a kill shot wasn’t in doubt. Everything else was more ambivalent living under police protection, with general anxiety and strange kind of celebrity. (A woman he never met wrote him fan-mail that he was “undoubtedly” the most handsome man she’d ever seen). How was he to reconcile that with persisting numbness in his left hand and the urge to cringe when seeing stories about bloodshed, of which there were plenty in 1978? There was, however, one immediate positive benefit. The incident precipitated a reunion with Trudy. A reason for the future.

Weeks later, after the Dodgers blew the series, another messiah flexed his muscle to ruin lives, albeit on a more apocalyptic scale. Over nine hundred members of the People’s Temple lay sprawled in Jonestown, Guyana in a macabre quilt after drinking cyanide-laced punch—a mass suicide orchestrated by the embattled Reverend Jim Jones. Morantz shivered, thinking about his proximity to it. Among those murdered by Jones’ gunmen were two NBC journalists who had attended  his hospital press conference. They’d flown with a California congressman down there to uncover the truth.

Here were his truth-seeking reality: Sheriff’s Department officers living continuously in his house on Bollinger for months while Dederich’s Imperial Marines relentlessly taunted him by phone and through stalkers. If the organization was reeling from the negative attention from planting the “snake in the mailbox” — cultural shorthand for what’d happened — it wasn’t showing. Synanites inquired about where he socialized and his car. They made sure he knew they knew his mother’s address. They harassed him with midnight calls about what they could spy inside his house peering through binoculars. They giggled sinisterly about his love of volleyball. They also promised “another snake” was coming.

And it might! Had Morantz’s standard mailbox been larger, Demerit’s assassins would’ve deposited inside of it all three snakes they’d transported in the Plymouth’s trunk. That’d been their intention: to unloose on the lawyer some fifteen feet of collective snake, a veritable hydra’s worth of venom. For months prior to the attack, the marines had been collecting Badger-area diamondbacks to condition them for the role. Penned in a cool, shallow pit in California’s Central Valley, the snakes coexisted docilely. But that same isolation also bred aggressiveness around foreign heat sources, like a human hand. When Musico and Kenton were unable to squeeze the other two monster-sized snakes into the mail chute, they released them into the Pacific Palisades hills, their fates unknown.

Folks close to Morantz continued to pepper him about when he’d return to any semblance of normally. He couldn’t answer them, psychologically whiplashed, and filled in the blank by stashing a gun under the seat of his Volvo. Early December would become the second full month of his newly discombobulated life, as his wrist healed and his determination to resume his fight against brainwashing started nicking his consciousness. He’d stick with it, which naturally—and decisively—spelled of the end of his brief reconciliation with Trudy. The love affair not meant to be heaped on more living death.

He limped back to Hawaii to grieve, and while he was there, the other shoe dropped. A battalion of cops raided Synanon’s million-dollar hideaway in Arizona’s Lake Havasu. Sitting inside, staring ahead in a stupor, was America’s most famous “reformed alcoholic,” plastered after draining a bottle of Chivas Regal. Dederich needed two hospitalizations to adequately recover before facing arraignment. “Even though he’s drinking now, we have to remember all the good things he’s done,” one acolyte rationalized. Apparently, he’d restarted his addiction on a trip to Italy that summer—the same European trip where Synanon had opened secret bank accounts and Dederich had sanctioned the hit.

Kenton and Musico stared death rays at Morantz during their preliminary court hearing. He had too much invested to let them silence him, and placed a classified ad in the LA Times seeking the identity of the 280Z driver to buttress the prosecution. Because of it, a gas station owner soon recognized the car, and a located Rahymer testified about crossing paths with that slippery Plymouth. The marines ultimately pled no contest, and Morantz acted again, this time from a improbable direction: he urged the judge to show his would-be killers leniency as Dederich’s mind-manipulated victims. It’d be a theme. Both were sentenced to a year in prison. Big Daddy, then in failing health, also pled no contest and was given five years probation, a $5,000 fine, and the stipulation he no longer run his former utopia. That was all. His lawyer had convinced the judge he was too sick to survive in prison.

Out of jail, his hit-men traveled different roads in their post-cult existences. A star actor with a flamboyant affection for cocaine and buxom women eventually hired Kenton as his right hand man. Musico, unable to reinvent himself again, was thrown to his death off a roof in a “pimp-dope” turf war.

But the ghost of Little Chuck was more influential than any human. Trying to put the unsuccessful assassination behind it, the movement’s new leadership dropped its defamation lawsuits, circled the wagons, and tried ingratiating itself in Washington, DC without luck. In 1991, with the FBI on its scent and the IRS’s revocation of its nonprofit status, there was nothing for Synanon to do except close its doors.  A reclusive Dederich died in 1997 of heart failure.

For Morantz, those fang marks were his baptism into a club he’d never leave. By the 1980s he was recognized as, arguably, California’s top legal expert in cult brainwashing practices. He would press muckraking suits against the Church of Scientology and the Moonies. He would challenge the Center for Feeling Therapy (where doctors beat patients or had sex with them) and Bagwhan Rajneesh (whose followers poisoned the salad bars of ten Oregon restaurants). He effected legislation, still got his name in the papers.

Even so, his quest to be somebody not coasting on fumes calcified into a more humble existence, where recovering cult members constituted his new friend circle and a failed marriage gave him a wondrous son unfamiliar with his suffering. Where the Coliseum during USC football games was his noisy sanctuary.

He’d tumbled from hero to newsmaker to historical D-list, a trivia answer — “the guy bitten by the snake” — in a city that often forgot him. The buzz — autograph hounds, media interest, the praise — withered away. In the coming years, Showtime, ABC, and Vanity Fairy all developed feature projects that would’ve reacquainted the public with his stand against Dederich and the Imperial Marines. It wasn’t to be. Media lawyers were too worried about litigation. Unfortunate timing, including 9-11, took care of the rest. As he learned, battling demagogues was a lonely occupation.

At a New Year’s Eve party in the dwindling hours of 1978, before he intuited what the stars intended for him, Morantz shambled outside, a broken soul. Trudy, literary stardom, the remotest definition of normalcy: he’d relinquished them all to joust against the decade’s brainwashing craze. Tears poured down his face and dread blanketed him like an x-ray vest. That’s when he heard the voice he never heard speak before, a voice louder than Dederich’s loony threats. Stop crying, it said. This is who you are.

What’s a wolf to do but oblige?


Copyright Chip Jacobs; strictly enforced.

Sources: From Miracle to Madness: The True Story of Charles Dederich and Synanon by Paul Morantz (Cresta Publications – 2015); Gizmodo; The Los Angeles Times, Escape: My Lifelong War Against Cults by Paul Morantz with Hal Lancaster (Cresta Publications – 2013), The New York Times, paulmorantz.com, Paul Morantz interview September 2015, People, TIME

A shorter version of this story appears in the Rare Bird Books anthology: Los Angeles in the 1970s: Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine (November 2016) The expanded version can be found as a bonus story in The Darkest Glare: A True Story of Murder, Blackmail and Real Estate Greed in 1979 Los Angeles (March 2021).