When we went in, he was in a stupor, staring straight ahead, with an empty bottle of Chivas Regal in front of him,” said John Watson, a Los Angeles prosecutor. He, 10 other California law enforcement officers and 20 local deputies had come to Synanon’s new $1 million hideaway in Lake Havasu City, Ariz, to arrest Charles “Chuck” Dederich, 65. The founder and high priest of Synanon, Dederich was charged with conspiracy and solicitation to commit murder and assault with a deadly weapon. It was the lowest point yet in a career that had once brought Dederich international acclaim as the last hope of drunks and junkies, one who succeeded where hospitals, psychiatrists and AA had failed. In 20 years Dederich’s Synanon movement had rehabilitated thousands—and had in turn grown rich through its light industry and real estate holdings. Its assets were once reckoned at $30 million, and Dederich himself became a very rich man.
A reformed alcoholic before he founded Synanon, Dederich had reportedly begun tippling wine during a trip to Italy several months ago. Now the addicts’ savior was too drunk to understand the criminal charges against him. They were based on the bizarre attempt to kill Los Angeles lawyer Paul Morantz last October by hiding a four-and-a-half-foot rattlesnake in his mailbox. Three weeks earlier Morantz had won a $300,000 judgment against Synanon for Frances Winn, who claimed she had been abducted and brainwashed by the organization. (“Brainwashing is a very apt term,” Dederich once observed. “We get very dirty brains in here.”) Two members of Synanon’s security force, the “Imperial Marines,” were accused of attempted murder by rattlesnake, and police put Dederich at the center of the alleged conspiracy.
Dederich opened his treatment center in a seedy storefront in Santa Monica in 1958, and for 15 years after that Synanon seemed to work miracles. Drug addicts were subjected to a “cold turkey” withdrawal, hard physical labor, constant mutual support and lengthy, often brutal group encounter sessions. By 1968 there were Synanon facilities from Malaysia to West Germany. Eventually they attracted “squares” or “life-styler” members, who willingly exchanged their worldly goods for the sheltered life on Synanon’s ranches. Soon the life-stylers outnumbered the addicts.
Then the life-style began to change. Always a benevolent despot, Dederich imposed an increasingly unpredictable will on Synanon. When he went on a diet, so, by his fiat, did his disciples. He swore off cigarettes, and smoking became taboo. He took up whittling, and Synanists whittled. After Dederich’s third wife, Betty, died of cancer in April 1977, he and the movement seemed to deteriorate together. At Dederich’s suggestion, members’ heads were shaved. He declared a policy of mass divorce and mate-swapping, and more than 200 couples complied. When he prohibited any more children, four women had abortions and nearly 200 men had vasectomies—though not Dederich. “I am not bound by the rules,” he said. “I make them.”
Large-scale defections followed, as did press reports on the strange turn Synanon had taken. Its long-standing ban on violence was reversed. Recruits were mustered for the “Imperial Marines” and given intensive training in “Syno-do,” a version of karate. There were rumors of an arms cache worth $300,000, of an “enemies list,” of beatings and death threats. “The word’s getting around,” Dederich said at one point. “Don’t f—k with Synanon.”
Last winter Dederich retired, naming his 27-year-old daughter, Jady, as chairman of the Synanon board. The hard line did not change. A defector’s guard dog was hanged outside his house, and allegations of assaults and abductions continued. Synanon lashed back with multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the press (including Time Inc.) for reporting the group’s activities. All but lost last week was Synanon’s onetime message of hope as Dederich lay in “acute depression” in a Phoenix hospital under heavy guard and $100,000 bond. “It’s really a blow to hear that he was drunk at the time of his arrest,” says a 46-year-old former member who was with him in the beginning. “Synanon was once an answer to the prayers of drunks and junkies. Chuck is going to need a lot more than prayers to get him out of this mess.”