Charles Dederich, founder of cult-like
religious group Synanon, dies at 83

by Matthew Yee
The Associated Press

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What began as a highly praised drug treatment program later became implicated in an attempted murder


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March 5, 1997

Fresno, California -- Charles Dederich, founder of the Synanon drug rehabilitation group that evolved into a cult-like religion implicated in a murder plot, has died at 83.

Dederich died Friday of heart and lung failure.

Dederich, an alcoholic, began Synanon in Santa Monica, California, in the late 1950s and moved it to the Sierra Nevada foothills during the 1970s. His methods for overcoming alcohol and drug addiction won widespread publicity and praise.

A 1962 New York Post profile headlined "Addict's Friend" said Dederich had "the battered face of a professional wrestler, the soul of a philosopher and the command presence of a combat general." It said he had "probably done as much as any man to make dope addicts into 'something else.'"

Tough-love leadership

Synanon members lived together in a commune, dealing with their addiction under Dederich's tough-love leadership. His methods included "The Synanon Game," in which members could say whatever they wanted.

Much of the rehabilitation involved working in gas stations or selling pencils to support the organization and teach the work ethic to the "punk squad" of troubled youths who came to Synanon.

Synanon developed into one of the nation's largest distributors of major brand pens and other items used by corporations to promote their products and services. At one point, a trust deed company in Southern California that was donated to Synanon reportedly generated $18 million in annual receipts.

But things changed by the mid-1970s. Dederich proclaimed Synanon a religion and was criticized for allegedly controlling the actions and thoughts of his hundreds of adherents. About 250 Synanon men had vasectomies on the grounds that the world was over populated.

He also was said to have decided that all Synanon couples would divorce, then form a "love match" with another partner.

In a 1977 interview with The Associated Press, Dederich denied that he dictated lifestyle changes. "I can't demand anything," he said. "All they have to do is walk out."

Then in 1978, a Los Angeles lawyer who had won a judgment against Synanon by some defectors was bitten by a 4-foot rattlesnake in his mailbox. Paul Morantz survived and later charged that Synanon members intimidated and beat numerous people during a "reign of terror" from 1975 to 1978.

In a recording subpoenaed in the rattlesnake case, Dederich allegedly said, "Don't mess with us -- you can get killed dead, physically dead."

Dederich and two assistants pleaded no contest in 1980 to charges that they solicited an assault and conspired to murder Morantz. As part of the plea bargain, Dederich gave up control of Synanon.

He served no jail time, but his prominence and that of Synanon declined after that.

"I obviously didn't agree with whatever circumstances led to the snake incident," said Miriam Bourdette, a former drug addict who joined Synanon and became a close friend. "I do feel he became very paranoid and more authoritarian than he had been in the earlier days of the Synanon."

Bourdette said Synanon disbanded in 1991 for financial reasons.

Dederich is survived by his wife, Ginny, two children and three grandchildren.

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