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Jul 11, 2020

American Rehab Chapter 3: A Venomous Snake

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Reveal’s American Rehab exposes how a treatment for drug addiction has turned tens of thousands of people into an unpaid shadow workforce.

In this chapter: After building a small fortune, Synanon’s megalomaniac leader turns the revolutionary rehab into a violent cult, with mass sterilization, a paramilitary group and a rattlesnake in a mailbox. 

Dig Deeper

• Listen: The American Rehab podcast series
• Read: Reveal’s reporting on All Work, No Pay.
• Learn: American Rehab resources

Credits

Shoshana Walter: lead reporter

Laura Starecheski: reporter, series producer

Ike Sriskandarajah: reporter,  producer

Brett Myers: series editor

Kevin Sullivan: executive producer

Jim Briggs: original score, mix, sound design

Fernando Arruda:  original score, mix, sound design

Katharine Mieszkowski: contributing producer

Amy Julia Harris: contributing reporter

Al Letson: host

Najib Aminy: associate producer, additional mix

Amy Mostafa: production assistant, additional mix

Rosemarie Ho: fact-checker

Matt Thompson: editor in chief

Esther Kaplan: editor

Andy Donohue: editor

Amanda Pike: executive producer for tv and documentary

Narda Zacchino: text story editor

Gabe Hongsdusit: art direction and layout design

Sarah Mirk: art direction and web producing

Erin K. Wilson: original art

Claire Mullen: mix and production help

Hannah Young: director of audience

Byard Duncan: engagement reporter

David Rodriguez: community engagement

Original art by Eren K. Wilson

Special thanks to WHYY in Philadelphia. Recording help from Chris Harland Dunaway, additional archival audio from Coby McDonald.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. This is chapter three of American Rehab: A Venomous Snake. Last time, we started telling you about the first nationally recognized drug rehab. It was called Synanon and founded by a charismatic guy named Charles Dederich.

Charles Dederic...:

We can take credit for literally getting thousands and thousands and thousands of people off of crippling addictions, fatal addictions. We have done that. We have done it here.

Al Letson:

By the late '60s, Synanon was widely respected with a national presence and a celebrated treatment program. It had intake centers in cities all over the country in commune style rehabs. They have improved the lives of many people including John Stallone.

John Stallone:

I was grateful and I still am. It saved my life. I wouldn't be who I am.

Al Letson:

After claiming to have found a cure for drug addiction, Synanon got more ambitious. Could it tackle other problems in society?

Charles Dederic...:

We are an experimental society. I don't know how this is going to come out. I really don't. If I knew how it was going to come out, I would do it.

Al Letson:

This was the golden era of experimental societies, what the rest of us might call cults. Synanon started recruiting people who weren't addicted to join its ranks. It promised a new life for recruits full of all work and no pay. For those at the top, like Chuck, Synanon delivered a lush lifestyle.

Charles Dederic...:

The asshole that's doing all the work, of course, doesn't get any of the pay. That's the way it is all over the world. The people who do the work, they don't get paid for it. That's too bad. I'm glad that the world is full of such assholes, it leaves more for me. I'm quite serious, I'm quite serious.

Al Letson:

Chuck stumbled onto a lucrative model. If you don't pay wages or taxes, you can make a lot of money.

Laura Stareches...:

Why should anyone help Synanon?

Charles Dederic...:

The most obvious answer to that is they might save a life.

Al Letson:

After all, Synanon had been founded to save the lives of people addicted to drugs, but as it careened towards madness, Synanon might take a life. Our team, led by Shoshana Walter, Laura Starecheski, and Ike Sriskandarajah have been investigating work-based rehabilitation and its connection to Synanon for more than a year. Ike has the rest of the Synanon story.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Okay, so John Stallone, the guy who left the narcotic farm in Lexington, Kentucky and landed at Synanon starting off as a milk sniffer, he made a life at Synanon. He got married to a woman he met there, all while staying sober, and he got promoted to a new job.

John Stallone:

Then Chuck came up with a new system. He said, "Synanon is growing topsy turvy, so we're going to have start what we're going to call a Newcomer Department."

Ike Sriskandara...:

John's new job was to head up the Newcomer Department at Synanon HQ in Santa Monica. Because there's so many people at this point.

John Stallone:

Thousands.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Thousands.

John Stallone:

Thousands.

Ike Sriskandara...:

John told me that some of Synanon's Department of Hustlers, that's what they called the people who would scrounge up donated food, were now basically full-time recruiters. They were going around the country to any city with a serious drug problem to get the word out. Synanon will fly you for free to one of our facilities to treat your addiction. At this point, the rehab on the beach had expanded way beyond the beach. How many properties are there?

John Stallone:

Demolish, The Ranch, and Walker Creek. This is just all up in Marin.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Marin County, just north of San Francisco.

John Stallone:

Then San Diego, Santa Monica, Detroit, Oakland, San Francisco, New York, Puerto Rico. There were a lot of facilities.

Ike Sriskandara...:

So many facilities that there was even room for an entire new class of people entering Synanon.

Lynn:

Hello, please come in. My name is Lynn. Come on upstairs, I'll go get Phil.

Phil:

How are you doing? Nice to meet you.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Lynn and Phil are now white-haired grandparents living in a Seattle suburb. In the '60s, they were both living in the San Francisco Bay area where they were going to a lot of the same parties, but really they couldn't have been more different.

Lynn:

I was not going to end up well. I was promiscuous, I was sleeping with anything that walked and not enjoying any of it.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Phil was let's say, shy.

Phil:

I was one of the few people who managed to make it all the way through UC Berkeley in the '60s and was still a virgin at age 23.

Ike Sriskandara...:

In the late '60s, Lynn was a public school teacher in Oakland and Phil the CFO of a ballot counting company. They started going to Synanon game clubs for squares.

Lynn:

I had round corners but I was still a square.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Self-identify as squares?

Lynn:

Oh yeah, crazy as hell but still squares.

Phil:

We even were identified by Synanon as squares.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Neither of them were addicted to drugs, hence the square status. Still, they were disenchanted with the direction of their lives and the direction of the country.

Lynn:

It was a pretty crazy time in the United States, civil rights struggle, Vietnam war heating up, and here was something that was more positive than the United States policy at the time.

Ike Sriskandara...:

As the posters that hung on the walls of Synanon promised, today is the first day of the rest of your life.

Lynn:

The big draw was the game and I think that was the buzz that set this going.

Charles Dederic...:

You can hear the Synanon game sometimes all the way across the street. We've had neighbors complain about the language used in the Synanon Game.

Ike Sriskandara...:

The game, that we told you about in the last chapter. It started off as this revolutionary drug therapy. It was designed to tear down defenses and expose truths about addiction and your own perceptions of yourself. But now, it was evolving into this cultural phenomenon. Synanon was hosting game clubs in big cities as a way to draw in squares like Lynn, middle class professionals who were now playing the game partly as a form of group therapy and partly as a parlor game.

Lynn:

The game offered us stuff you couldn't buy, tremendous humor, a genius language, language under pressure and attack. There's nothing like it.

Ike Sriskandara...:

But I should say, not all the new players found it useful.

Lynn:

It was fun.

Phil:

I hated it.

Lynn:

Yeah, there you go.

Ike Sriskandara...:

You hated it?

Phil:

Hated it.

Ike Sriskandara...:

For Lynn, the game offered an emotional release but for others like Phil, it gave him an emotional black eye.

Phil:

I looked at the game as the price you pay to get everything else. I guess the main draw for me at the time was that we were doing almost everything in life differently. We did sex differently. We did eating differently. We did education differently. We did medicine differently. I was a phenomenally interesting place.

Ike Sriskandara...:

So, like Synanon leader, Chuck Dederich said, experimental society. One thing about communal living, it means lots of intimate aspects of life are known by and influenced by the community. Since Phil brought up relationships, let's talk about it. When Lynn met Phil for the first time, she was already going steady with another square inside Synanon but she caught Phil's eye, they started talking, they had a leisurely meal in a Synanon dining room. They sat at the bar without any booze and Lynn started to get the feeling that she was into Phil, but before she could tell her boyfriend that she wanted to see someone else, she stepped into a game. One where other players had already seen her have this flirtatious meal with Phil, so they laid into her. It was the most gossipy parts of life institutionalized.

Candy Latson:

First the squares just start playing the game and going home. Then the squares wanted to move in.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Candy Latson and other longtime residents like him saw the group they had helped build change before their very eyes. Treating addiction had brought Synanon fame and now Chuck was capitalizing on it. Admitting squares brought in new resources and new expertise.

Candy Latson:

I remember when Milt was their thing. This is what really set Synanon up.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Milt was Milt Cooper, a square who had moved into a Synanon house in San Diego. Milt had been in the advertising and promotions business and as the story goes, Chuck challenged Milt in a game about his commitment to Synanon.

Candy Latson:

Milt left out of the group, went to the Lincoln and the [inaudible] compartment, came back with some papers and turned over the company to Synanon.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Milt's business that he turned over to Synanon used a hot stamping machine to press a company's name on pens and pencils. Before this, work at Synanon was mostly about subsistence. Cooking, cleaning, procuring rotten food. But now, Synanon was entering a really business.

Speaker 10:

The business is providing companies with promotional items bearing their corporate symbols. Making a lot of money had always been a goal of Synanon's reclusive founder, Chuck Dederich.

Charles Dederic...:

One way I've always thought of Synanon is an America money making concern. It's a business.

Candy Latson:

We had crews, and you go into somebody's office. They had this film, they showed a film and you could get a pencil, a lighter, a card with your name and company and dadada on it and they went from Santa Monica to New York to all over.

Phil:

And ended up being the largest customer of the Schaefer and Parker pen companies.

Lynn:

The salespeople were former addicts because they were used to living by their wits and they were high verbal. They had a great, compelling story to tell and were quite persuasive. It was a really art.

Phil:

They were very successful at telling their dope fiend stories and describing how without Synanon they might be outside breaking into the business owner's car.

Ike Sriskandara...:

By subtle threat or artful sales, the novelty business was humming, bringing in serious revenue. Unrestrained by taxes or wages, by the mid '70s Synanon was doing over $5 million a year in sales. That's like $24 million a year today. Meanwhile, donations kept rolling in.

Phil:

We were largely supplied by big donations of all kinds of different stuff. Dutch Boy Paint Company, National Ed Company, gave us an entire city block in San Francisco that they got a tax deduction for.

Ike Sriskandara...:

John Stallone says the Department of Hustlers kept wrangling bigger and better donations.

John Stallone:

Then we had a crew with hustlers and these guys would go to Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and hustle beef on the hoof and then hustle slaughterhouses in the same town and then hustle refrigerated train cars and send one car to San Francisco, another car to LA. Now, we're getting top of the line food, real good stuff.

Ike Sriskandara...:

The Department of Hustlers was so productive, they started distributing their surplus donations to other nonprofits nearby. Food to the Black Panthers and New Balance Sneakers to Jim Jones and his People's Temple.

Charles Dederic...:

Speaking of hustling, boy I'm telling you, it's really something. We're going to run $1 billion worth of stuff through our books in like five years from now in one year, $1 billion. We're going to make the Community Chest and Goodwill altogether look like a little Sunday school garage sale or something. God, it's going to be incredible.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Did you ever wonder when you're at one of the Synanon properties, how does the money all work? You're not getting paid minimum wage, are you?

John Stallone:

$50 a month.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Do you know is that legal?

John Stallone:

That's a good question.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Eventually, the IRS would want to know more about Synanon's finances.

Charles Dederic...:

Synanon has assets of $30 million and it's main lodge is its stock center where careful tabs are kept on investments. It is its tax free status and its business success that has produced some of the criticism. The world can't support all the assholes the way I want to be supported. Not very many people know how to live like I do. They don't, they don't know to be rich, it takes a long time.

Candy Latson:

All that money started coming into Synanon and that's what ruined Synanon because when the squares move in, Chuck used to just make what I would call dope fiend decisions and we understood it but now, the world that we was trying to get away from was now in Synanon and the thinking and action was like the squares and the world that we had left. We wanted to live in the world we had created at Synanon.

Ike Sriskandara...:

In the fall of 1967, Candy decided to leave the world that they had created. He packed up his bag and left Synanon.

Candy Latson:

And I was not going to see Chuck, there wasn't no way in the world. Because I knew if I went to see Chuck, I wasn't going nowhere because Chuck was a master and he could say three words and I'd start crying and I wouldn't go no fucking where. I was not going to see him because I wanted to go. Shit, I'd been there over seven years. When I got off the plane in New York, it was October 26. Chuck had called a meeting and he said, "I lost a friend today."

Ike Sriskandara...:

Candy got an opportunity to help build up a new rehab in New York based on Synanon. Was it similar to Synanon?

Candy Latson:

Yeah, it was the same thing.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Synanon had come a long way, since it was the bet known drug rehab in the country. It inspired and entire second wave of rehabs based on its ideas and more were coming. To remain relevant, the organization doubled down on their new mission, solving the intractable problems of human existence through social experiments. But this new direction produced new problems.

Candy Latson:

That's when it got all fucked up.

Charles Dederic...:

So long as Synanon dealt only with drunks and drug addicts, it's only real problems were with people who didn't want Synanon centers in their neighborhoods. But now it's wealth and it's radical social experimentation have produced much new criticism.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Criticism that would only intensify. After the break, how Synanon the rehab turned into Synanon the religion. This is Reveal.

Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. We continue with chapter three of American Rehab, A Venomous Snake.

John Stallone:

You got another five hours to talk about Synanon one to Synanon two. It was a changing of the whole concept of Synanon.

Al Letson:

Synanon was founded to help guys like John Stallone beat their addictions and graduate to life outside the program, but it wasn't working. In its first decade, only 65 people graduated from Synanon, 65. That's a graduation rate of less than 1%. Others were able to stay off drugs too, but only by staying inside Synanon, so eventually founder Chuck Dederich decided that was okay.

John Stallone:

He said, "You can't graduate from Synanon, it's a lifetime deal."

Al Letson:

Synanon got cocky and wanted to be more than just the most prominent drug rehab in the nation and the wild things that happened next could fill an entire Netflix series. Reveal's Ike Sriskandarajah.

Ike Sriskandara...:

As Synanon reached from rehab to social movement, the goalposts moved with it. You don't graduate from a movement. That was fine for John. He loved Synanon. He was staying off drugs, had a family, a job, and his life had improved so much from those days when he was robbing drug stores and hiding out from the cops in Brooklyn. That is until Chuck implemented another rule that John just couldn't stomach.

John Stallone:

They had cane to the decision that dope fiends were a bad influence on their children, so what we're going to do is, eventually all the children from here are going to be taken up to Tomamas Bay and you would be able to go visit them a couple of times a year.

Charles Dederic...:

Our worst problem might very well be removed, that is the parents. The worst thing that can happen to a child is that it has to have a parent, literally.

John Stallone:

I said, so no more visiting, I'm going to look at my kid through a mirror. I went upstairs and I told my wife, I said, "Judy, I was just in the game man, I'm not going to do that."

Ike Sriskandara...:

In 1972, John decided it was time for his family to leave Synanon.

John Stallone:

I was gone. I was disillusioned.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Lots of other people were disillusioned too. In 1972, Synanon was at its apex with 1700 current residents. But no one knew how far it was about to fall and how far Chuck was willing to push his vision of utopia.

John Stallone:

I didn't know that it was turn into a fucking hellhole. I didn't know it was going to turn into what the fuck it did.

Charles Dederic...:

Our dumb parents won't let their children alone. Of course, the one thing is, they're not their children, they're mine.

Lynn:

It wasn't an open society anymore. It was a closed society.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Some of the people with addictions were getting squeezed out. But dedicated squares like Lynn and Phil Ritter decided to stay.

Phil:

It was articulated that we're done with the dope fiend business. We have had so many other organizations copy their programs on Synanon, that there's no need for us to be in that business anymore. We have a new business to be in, which is trying new social experiments.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Sequestering children from their parents made John want to leave but many of the social experiments were both benign and authoritarian, like when Chuck decided he couldn't smoke anymore, Synanon banned cigarettes for everybody.

Charles Dederic...:

Now is the time to quit smoking.

Ike Sriskandara...:

They lost a lot of people over that rule. When Chuck's wife got diabetes ...

Charles Dederic...:

Now is the time to quit using sugar. If you don't like it, beat it.

Phil:

The first time my gut went off was when we were told we were not going to have sugar anywhere in the community anymore. In fact, we were not supposed to eat anything with sugar in it outside the community, like no more going out to get ice cream.

Lynn:

It was almost like Dederich was saying, I wonder if they'll go for this bullshit.

Charles Dederic...:

You can't eat what you want. No, that's the whole problem. That's the whole problem, you can't do it.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Chuck was comfortable losing people who didn't want to live by his rules. The ones who stayed were the most devoted.

Laura Stareches...:

Lois, you've been at Synanon for 15 years? Where do you place this head shaving in importance?

Ike Sriskandara...:

Head shaving was once a sign of penitence like when John Stallone confessed to being high and they shaved his head. Now, it was becoming a sign of devotion.

Lois:

This is the second most important thing that has happened in Synanon. Our founder, Chuck Dederich said it was, and I just have to trust because this man is such an amazing person. He saw it when it happened that we were ready for it.

Lynn:

I think it was more like an egg in a pot of boiling water, it happened gradually where you just kind of violated yourself.

Ike Sriskandara...:

What came next could also be seen as a profound act of devotion or if you're Synanon management, a clever tax dodge. In 1974, as the IRS was starting to look into the charitable nature of the organization, Synanon declared itself a religion.

Phil:

There was nothing particularly religious about any of the customs or practices that I was aware of after we had filed the papers. Right from the get-go it was kind of ha-ha, we get to do this to deal with the IRS, but we're going to consider the game our religious ritual.

Ike Sriskandara...:

The game was elevated to sacrament. Some residents were true believers, but the top Synanon lawyers, they were more clear-eyed about the maneuver.

Lawyer:

I also thought that the religions, once they get to a certain point in this country have enormous survival value. When people come along and say, you can't keep sitting around in rooms and calling each other motherfuckers, and you say, that's my religion. They say, okay, I understand that.

Ike Sriskandara...:

If I were one of Synanon lawyers, and I had to lay out my plan to avoid taxes, I'd try to turn off the tape recorder first.

Lawyer:

One of the reasons that we're pushing this thing right now because we may want to shut off our books from inspection by government agencies and people that we don't like. That would make it a bit more difficult for the IRS to impose taxes upon us. Then we may be able to set up certain walls around Synanon, which make it more difficult to work with us.

Ike Sriskandara...:

This is when the rehab entered his third and final chapter, The Church of Synanon where Chuck ascended from founder and CEO to god.

Charles Dederic...:

The basic problem on this planet is very simple, it's too many people.

Ike Sriskandara...:

As god, he sought to control life itself. This meant the end of children being born at Synanon.

Phil:

They were planning on doing vasectomies that following weekend on a lot of kids who were just 18.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Which brings us to some of the weirdest tape I've ever heard. This is a recording from Synanon's closed circuit radio broadcast. It's called the Wire.

The Wire:

It's 7:45, you're listening to Gaming and Vasectomy Stew. How's that for a name.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Vasectomy Stew. This cheery drive time radio host would broadcast excerpts of a perpetually running game known as the Stew where in this case, the committed extolled the virtues of getting vasectomies. Hence, the Vasectomy Stew.

The Wire:

Does the new person who is more enthusiastic about a vasectomy deserve to have one before the old timer who has delayed for a year?

Ike Sriskandara...:

They'd play recaps of arguments between old timers and newcomers fighting over who would get to have their vasectomy first.

The Wire:

Rick acquiesced with style and grace and let Andre get on the list before him. That was the outcome.

Ike Sriskandara...:

These broadcasts would get piped into each and every Synanon resident across the country. It all had the feel of communist style propaganda. What you don't hear on the Wire was the extreme pressure and intimidation exerted over those who resisted,

Phil:

In the game, I took the position that number one, I wasn't going to do it and number two, I thought that Synanon was wrong to make people do it.

Ike Sriskandara...:

What did Charles Dederich say?

Phil:

Never talk to him about it personally because I had a hunch that he would probably be persuasive enough to get me to change my position.

Ike Sriskandara...:

He was that compelling?

Phil:

He could be.

Charles Dederic...:

We seem to be terrified as a people has never been terrified by anything that is strange. Now, I don't why this is.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Phil was revolted by what was happening, of what Synanon was turning into, so he stepped off the compound, went around Chuck's back and sought help from local law enforcement thinking they would be able to stop this madness.

Phil:

The sheriff said, "Let me get this right. You want me to stop Synanon from performing voluntary vasectomies on people who are over 18 years old who want to have the operations. That's what you want me to do, right?" He kind of made a joke out of it. When I was there, the sheriff called Synanon and said, "I have one of your residents here who is telling me this story. Is it true?" They confirmed that it was true and told the sheriff to tell me that I was not welcome to go back.

Speaker 14:

Let me give you a rundown on the last day's events. About 9:40 ...

Ike Sriskandara...:

Among testimonials of the benefits of having vasectomies and news of people leaving in droves, this call from the Marin County Sheriff's Office was actually mentioned over the Synanon wire in a news briefing that went out that day.

Speaker 14:

A few minutes later Richie Gross informed the Stew that Phil Ritter was on the phone, and so a call from the Marin County Civic Center informing us that he was going to seek an injunction for as he saw it stopping Synanon from people in that terrible bind to be clipped or to leave.

Ike Sriskandara...:

In the end, Phil's plea for help failed and the operations went on as planned.

Phil:

They were all done in two days. They had seven doctors all doing vasectomies, one every 15 minutes.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Eventually, over 200 men stepped out of vasectomies stews and into makeshift operating rooms.

Phil:

The thing that I feel the worst about in Synanon in six years was there were a number of people who were already pregnant, expecting to have their babies in Synanon. One of them was almost at full term and was told that she needed to abort or not be able to live there anymore. She and her husband had an induced still birth, basically had a nine-month abortion.

Ike Sriskandara...:

It's really hard to imagine the kind of pressure that would lead people to make that decision. But I guess you have to picture living in a totally encompassing place where you don't have a life outside. In Synanon, skepticism had been removed and compliance over the remaining was total.

Lynn:

Synanon could have been a great place. I think that we flunked many moral tests.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Some were just complicit and others were actively enabling the madness of Chuck Dederich. Are you friends with some of these people, still?

Phil:

I don't talk much to either the lawyers or the doctors because I think the doctors probably should have lost their licenses and that the lawyers should have been disbarred.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Synanon was taking a much darker, menacing tone. A Time Magazine article labeled them a kooky cult and that's an insult Chuck did not take likely. Afterwards, in a television interview, he looked straight at his interviewer and invoked his loyal following against the magazine.

Charles Dederic...:

Synanon has many, many thousands of fans who have been helped by Synanon, whose friends and relatives have been helped by Synanon and I don't know what those people might do, and I have no way of being responsible for it. Bombs could be thrown into places. That's too bad, that's too bad. I would certainly not institute anything like that but I have no way of preventing it, if it would happen.

Speaker 15:

The people at Time Life will undoubtedly consider that a thinly-veiled threat.

Charles Dederic...:

If they consider a thinly-veiled threat, that's their problem. I think it's kind of decent of me to warn them.

Ike Sriskandara...:

In this increasingly paranoid violent atmosphere, Phil left the Synanon house with nothing. He wasn't allowed to return, no suitcase, no goodbyes, he's just out. Lynn, on the other hand, stayed. She even spoke out in a game in support of vasectomies. When Phil was excommunicated, he was still okay with having his young daughter raised there, but he wanted to be able to visit her more.

Lynn:

Well, oh gosh, we were in the middle of a custody battle and I was kind of out of my mind during this period of my life. There was a lot of talk in Synanon about Phil being a splitee and dangerous. Our daughter Miriam was three.

Ike Sriskandara...:

This part is a little messy to understand, but Lynn gave full custody of their child to Phil, then she changed her mind. On one of Lynn's visitation days, she picked up their daughter from preschool, as was the plan, and without permission and without warning, she took her back to Synanon. This quasi kidnapping spooked Synanon's leaders and their solution was to get Lynn and her daughter a plane ticket to a Synanon safe house in New York.

Lynn:

Watching myself put my life into a pencil sharpener, I was just shredding my life, and I said, you could do better than this. Almost anybody could do better than this.

Ike Sriskandara...:

But for Synanon, the days of doing better had come to an end. By 1976, Synanon had amassed a large stockpile of weapons and ammunition and trained a paramilitary group that it called the Imperial Marines. They had already attacked neighbors living near Synanon's main compound in Marin County, California. Now, anyone who opposed Synanon was a potential target including former members, the so-called splitees.

Speaker 16:

In my very last days at Synanon, a really sense of fear. I had the sense that the atmosphere was so volatile that had somebody given the order to a bunch of fanatics to use physical violence on me or any other kind of dissonant there ... I was afraid. I just had those spooky, violent vibes.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Spooky, violent vibes turned to more violence. That's after the break. You're listing to Chapter Three of American Rehab from Reveal.

Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. When Lynn Ritter took her daughter across the country to that Synanon safe house in New York, it forced a confrontation between her husband Phil and the group he had just been thrown out of. Phil went to court and threatened to subpoena Synanon leader Chuck Dederich. He wanted Chuck to answer questions under oath about Synanon's role in helping to hide his daughter as Reveal's Ike Sriskandarajah tells us, Synanon didn't like that idea.

Ike Sriskandara...:

I know this is a painful thing to recount but in as much detail as you're comfortable, could you describe what happens on September 21, 1978?

Phil:

Very short description, I drove into my driveway after work, had a bag of groceries in my hand, got about 10 steps from my car to the front door, two guys came running toward me with stocking masks on so I couldn't recognize them. They both had clubs of some sort and they beat on me until the neighbor heard me screaming and ran them off.

Ike Sriskandara...:

They beat Phil enough to fracture his skull and break his leg in a couple of places. After a few days in the hospital, meningitis entered his brain and Phil went unconscious. In the meantime, Lynn was still hiding out at that safe house in New York where she was within earshot of Synanon's closed circuit radio program, The Wire.

Lynn:

She said, "Lynn Ritter, wherever you are, your husband has been beat up and is in the hospital." I just fell apart. It wasn't my finest hour, kidnapping my daughter and saying too bad you got beat up and almost died.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Phil was in a meningitis-induced coma for about two weeks. Pulitzer Prize winning author, Dave Mitchell of the Point Reyes Light wrote, "There were many moments that brought about the end of Synanon. But in my opinion, the pivotal one was the near fatal beating of ex member of Synanon, Phil Ritter." I just want to know if you agree with that?

Phil:

I think it was one of the pivotal events.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Just a few weeks later, Synanon would strike again. This time against a Los Angeles lawyer who had recently sued Synanon for holding people against their will. Would you say your name for the record?

Paul Morantz:

Paul Morantz.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Paul Morantz had a medical condition that makes him a little hard to hear. I met him at his home in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of LA. His house is a Synanon museum. The walls are covered with framed magazine articles, newspaper clippings, and old pictures of Synanon. Stacks of legal boxes line the walls and they're filled with depositions, transcripts, and case files and it's where many of the Synanon recordings you've heard came from. All of this, a life's work battling cults started with one call from a concerned husband who feared that his wife was being held captive at Synanon. Paul helped get that woman out and won a $300,000 judgment for the family. From then on, he had a reputation.

Paul Morantz:

There's a lawyer, Paul Morantz who will hear you out. All of a sudden, I had all these ex-Synanon people that were coming to my door.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Paul became the go-to guy for Synanon splitees. He was known as a tough lawyer who took each case against Synanon almost personally.

Paul Morantz:

[inaudible] was Synanon's arrogance that they could believe that anybody who lives in their community got cured by osmosis, so therefore, it was justifiable to keep anywhere in there by any means for their own good.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Though Paul suspected an ulterior motive.

Paul Morantz:

It was a way to built the workforce, labor force.

Ike Sriskandara...:

All this made Paul fast enemies inside Synanon, all the way to the top of the organization. Chuck Dederich wanted Paul dealt with.

Speaker 18:

Channel two news first reported the existence of Dederich's suggestion in an interview with a former member.

Speaker 19:

He's talking about this lawyer named Paul Morantz and he's saying that somebody should fix him.

Charles Dederic...:

I'm quite willing to break some lawyer's legs and then tell him next time I'll break your wife's legs, then I'll cut your kid's arm off. Try me, because this is only a sample you son of a bitch. That's the end of your lawyer, that's the end.

Ike Sriskandara...:

To put this militant posture in context, the year was 1978 and that was a very bad year for cults and the people in them.

Speaker 20:

It was the most macabre sight any of the doctors, soldiers, and reporters had ever seen.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Another group, also with headquarters in the San Francisco Bay area would become the symbol of cult madness. Reverend Jim Jones, the founder of the People's Temple, was another paranoid, authoritarian ruler who promised healing to his members, but caused a massive loss of life. The Jonestown massacre left nearly 1,000 people dead in a horrific murder/suicide in rural Guyana. It was the largest loss of American civilian life until 9/11 and it was so massive that it eclipsed Synanon's own final dramatic turn towards violence.

Charles Dederic...:

Our posture is don't mess with us. You can get killed, physically dead. We're going to react to all aggression toward us.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Just a month before Jonestown, Paul had been on high alert, looking over his shoulder and checking under his car for bombs. But one day, he let his guard down.

Paul Morantz:

Opening game of the Dodger/Yankee World Series.

Announcer:

Now the starting lineup, batting first the center fielder, Mickey Rivers.

Paul Morantz:

I wanted to just for the moment forget about Synanon, forget about the shotgun by my bed, and to watch the game.

Announcer:

Batting second, the left fielder, Roy White.

Paul Morantz:

And so, I proceeded back toward my bedroom and reached in my mailbox and pulled out the mail. Then the snakes had came out and bit me. I dropped to the floor.

Ike Sriskandara...:

A rattlesnake, four-and-a-half feet long. Someone had slipped it through the mail flap on his house. When Paul reached inside, it sunk it's fangs into the flesh of his left wrist.

Paul Morantz:

I remember going out to the back kitchen door screaming to my neighbor, Edie. I said, "Get me ice. Call 911. Synanon got me."

Ike Sriskandara...:

Synanon pioneered drug treatment in this country inspiring hundreds of spinoffs and it built itself into an empire. But this would be the moment it would be most remembered for.

Paul Morantz:

Then at the hospital, they said to me, "Are you sure it's a rattlesnake?" Then all of a sudden I thought, but there were no rattles. That made me have a moment of doubt. They told me the rattles had been removed.

Ike Sriskandara...:

What do you mean the rattles had been ...

Paul Morantz:

They cut off the rattles so I wouldn't hear it.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Like screwing a silencer onto a pistol, these cartoonishly diabolical assassins had silenced a venomous snake. It didn't take long to track down the would be killers.

Newscaster:

Two members of Synanon, the controversial drug rehabilitation group have been arrested. Synanon was once an organization that tried to help people. It appears to have changed, changed greatly.

Phil:

They did a sworn affidavit, which described exactly who ordered my beating, who ordered Paul Morantz's rattlesnake attack and so forth.

Ike Sriskandara...:

When Phil Ritter was kicked out of Synanon for trying to stop mass vasectomies, he still believed in this communal alternative lifestyle. So much so that he drove up and down California looking for another commune to join, but the '70s decade of experimental communities had come to an end.

Phil:

I missed the timing. If I had been like four or five years earlier, there were a bunch of intentional communities. But by the time I got out there looking, they had all shut down.

Ike Sriskandara...:

In the chaotic aftermath of Synanon, miraculously, Lynn and Phil found each other again and reconciled. They had weathered an excommunication, a near vasectomy, a kidnapping, and even nearer fatal attack, and found a new way to connect.

Lynn:

We fell into the most wonderful group of people in the world. We started going to Quaker meeting. Quaker meeting is silent worship. What could be different than the Synanon game where you're killing one another verbally and here you are with these saintly white-haired Quakers just trying to make your connection to your higher power.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Phil and Lynn have now been married 48 years. They live close to their daughter and grandchildren.

Lynn:

From the ridiculous to the sublime.

Phil:

The game was three hours, the meditation or worship session was only an hour.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Paul Morantz never quite recovered from his battle with Synanon. He says his engagement to the love of his life couldn't weather the intensity of the threats on his life or his obsession with these cases. After the snake attack, Chuck Dederich was put on five years probation and ordered to stop running Synanon. Paul tells me that some members hoped that this would be their chance to make a new future for the group.

Paul Morantz:

But we never got a chance to find it out because I destroyed it.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Destroyed a chance for Synanon to be reborn without Chuck Dederich.

Paul Morantz:

The letter where I destroyed it is in that pink book there.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Paul shows me a letter he wrote to the IRS. Investigators had already looked into the group's questionable finances including Dederich paying himself a $500,000 early retirement bonus. To cover their tracks, Synanon destroyed lots of tape recordings and records referencing violence. Paul's letter argued that destruction of evidence was enough to kill Synanon's nonprofit status. The IRS agreed.

Newscaster:

The IRS says the foundation is not tax exempt and should not be offering tax deductions. Nine high level members are under a 21-count federal indictment for conspiracy to commit perjury, to obstruct justice, and to defraud the United States in a case linked to their efforts to retain tax exempt status.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Not unlike Al Capone, it was the accountants who brought down this empire. The loss of the group's tax exempt status meant Synanon could no longer offer write-offs in exchange for charitable donations. They also owed back taxes on those donations and for all those beautiful scenic properties totaling $55.6 million. Even though Paul bears the emotional scars of his battle with Synanon and helped end its reign, he has awe for what it achieved.

Paul Morantz:

So, it was utopia. Synanon became closest to utopia of perhaps anything ever before.

Ike Sriskandara...:

It was utopia but only for those at the top.

Paul Morantz:

It was sort of a reincarnation of the early Roman days. That was the same thing. Rome was based upon slaves. Synanon was an accomplice with slave labor. You might say, isn't this the American dream? We have to disperse goods and make money, so if we find a method to build a better mousetrap, a better drug rehab, what's wrong with that? Isn't that consistent with the values of America. We get rich by getting everyone else well.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Synanon popularized the model of turning people with addictions into an unpaid workforce. But when Synanon died, the model didn't die with it, it lived on in what Paul calls the clones.

Paul Morantz:

As I said to you, everything that happened at Synanon is happening in the clones.

Ike Sriskandara...:

What are the clones?

Paul Morantz:

Those who are using the Synanon methodology in which to increase their wealth and for the same reasons. That's why I said everything that happened at Synanon is going to happen in those other groups for the same reasons, greed.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Synanon was the singular giant born in a world where giants don't exist, a miracle. It touched the lives of thousands of people addicted to drugs and gave hope to more, but it grew too big, too violent, and its own corruption killed it, but it wasn't alone. It had children, direct descendants spread to all corners of the country and they were just coming into their own as Synanon had its last breath.

Candy Latson:

Well, I left in '67 after seven years and three months.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Candy Latson took what he learned at Synanon and spread the gospel. Along with other ex-members, he helped build a new Synanon-inspired drub rehab in New York. This new rehab like so many others, took the Synanon model of treatment and tried to leave the snakes at the door.

Candy Latson:

All the people that was leaving Synanon got jobs at Phoenix House. They didn't have no skills, they didn't have no degrees, but they knew how to work in a program.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Phoenix House is still around today. It has 97 drug rehab programs across 10 states. Then there was place called CEDU. That's C-E-D University. Incidentally, CED happened to be the initials of Charles E. Dederich. That's where John Stallone went after he left Synanon.

John Stallone:

I went to work for that program, CEDU. The guy hires me, the guy says, "Yeah, we want you to work here." He was like an old game player but he started a program himself.

Ike Sriskandara...:

That wasn't the only spinoff John worked for.

John Stallone:

Don't forget the other place I played the game, they really played the game was Amity, Amity in Arizona.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Amity, Phoenix House, Delancey, Daytop. The list of former Synanon members who went on to start or work at Synanon-inspired rehabs is long and reaches across the country. That's not even counting the entire other universe of teen scared straight programs that Synanon also inspired. By one researcher's count, in the '70s, there were 500 rehabs in technical United States that descended from Synanon. Now, the National Institutes of Health says it spread to more than 65 different countries around the world and so many of them help people in need and save lives, but some also have the original sin of Synanon in their DNA.

Charles Dederic...:

One way I've always thought of Synanon is an American money making concern. It's a business.

Ike Sriskandara...:

The business of turning rehab participants into an unpaid workforce was too tempting for some spinoffs and that includes one place that was founded by a guy that Candy Latson actually met way back in the early '60s. I asked Candy if there was any chance he might remember a guy named Luke.

Candy Latson:

I got something to share with you. I don't know how this happened. I was getting ready to go to bed last night and it was like something that had been repressed in me floated up from my unconscious mind to my conscious mind. What it was, it was about Luke.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Luke was an inmate in Nevada State Prison where Candy Latson had been coming to teach the Synanon method. He taught Luke how to play the game and in return, Luke would sing Candy old cowboy songs.

Candy Latson:

Yeah, inside of Nevada State Prison he wore cowboy boots and dressed like a cowboy and combed his hair like a cowboy and talked like a fucking cowboy and you wouldn't fuck with him because he wasn't scared of nobody and nobody bothered him. Everybody wanted Luke to sing.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Luke Austin, the tall, red-headed cowboy would eventually move on from the Synanon program and start his own program based on the Synanon method. It grew into one of the biggest work-based rehabs in the country.

Candy Latson:

I thought goddamn, I haven't thought about that boy in years, and I could see him with cowboy boots on and jeans, red hair, guitar. He triggered something in me.

Ike Sriskandara...:

I had so many more questions about this game playing cowboy but I never got to ask Candy. This winter before we were supposed to talk again, Candy passed away. Candy in so many ways embodied the best spirit of Synanon. He turned his life around there, became one of the most amazing storytellers I've ever heard. Funny and raw and no subject was off limits. His life also reminds me of the shortcomings of Synanon. After years living and teaching Synanon's methods, he relapsed hard and for years was homeless in LA. Eventually, it was John Stallone who helped get Candy back into a rehab program. After that, Candy started going to meetings, AA, NA and helped other guys going through the same thing. He kept that up until he passed away.

Al Letson:

Candy was 83 years old. For much of his life he taught Synanon's methods to others including that cowboy named Luke Austin. The punishments, the game, the work without pay, they all live on today. They live on at a rehab that Luke founded, the rehab that we're investigating, Cenikor.

Speaker 23:

I was told that you would help me find a job. I wasn't told that I'd be just thrown into a van and hauled off to some job and be told that like it or not, I have to do it.

Al Letson:

Next time on American Rehab, the secret origin story of Cenikor and the conman who cooked it up.

Speaker 24:

I stayed in Cenikor 11 years, 11 years. I stayed there under a dictator named Luke Austin.

Al Letson:

That's coming next week. American Rehab is reported and produced by Shoshana Walter, Laura Starecheski, and Ike Sriskandarajah. Brett Meyers is our editor. This chapter was reported and produced by Ike. Laura is our lead producer. If you are enjoying the series, please do us a favor, leave us a review on Apple Podcast. It really helps spread the word about our show and while you're there, don't forget to subscribe to the podcast so you don't miss the next episode. Amy Julia Harris helped us report the story from the beginning and launched this project. We had additional editorial help from Narda Zukino, Andy Donahue, and Esther Kaplan. Production support from WHYY in Philadelphia, research help from Claire Clark and David Hertzberg, fact checking by Rosemarie Ho. Victoria Barenetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Mowende Inihosa. Our production team includes Najib Ameni, Catherine Miskowski, and Amy Mustafa. Our theme song, Lifeline is by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, Yoaruda. They composed and performed all the music for American Rehab and stick around for the full song after we finish the credits.

Al Letson:

Our CEO is Krista Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor-in-chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reeve and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heizing Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson and remember, there is always more to the story.

Speaker 25:

From PRX.