Charles Dederich Sr., Synanon Founder, Dies

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Charles Dederich Sr., the founder of Synanon who was praised for his drug and alcohol rehabilitation results but later reviled for alleged mind control and violence, including conspiracy to murder a lawyer with a rattlesnake, has died. He was 83.

Dederich, who started the controversial group in Santa Monica, died Friday in Visalia, Calif., of heart and lung failure.

The crusty Synanon guru came to California as an alcoholic in the 1950s. He left behind a strict German Catholic upbringing in Ohio, an aborted career at the University of Notre Dame, two broken marriages and a series of jobs.


Dederich rented a small apartment near the beach, joined Alcoholics Anonymous and sobered up. Somewhere along the way, he realized he had influence over others. Admirers began drifting to his place to drink soup and listen to his advice about abandoning “dumb” addictions to drugs and alcohol.

In 1958, using his $33 county relief check, Dederich rented a storefront in Ocean Park and tacked up a sign, “TLC,” for the Tender Loving Care Club. Fifteen people lived there under his tutelage.

The group was renamed Synanon (from the word “symposium”) and within a year moved to a large brick building in Santa Monica. Dederich’s Synanon irked neighbors and, and he served 25 days in jail for running a “hospital” in a residential area.

But his detoxification results also attracted favorable national attention. With publicity came more followers and funds, and even legislation enabling him to pursue his operation amid objecting neighbors.

Dederich preached only three rules--no drugs, no alcohol and no violence. He invented a detoxification therapy known as the “game,” or “symposium”--a lengthy group encounter that included his caustic, profane and aggressive verbal attacks. Dederich called it tough love.

Wealthy drug and alcohol abusers with profitable professional careers joined, often turning over their entire assets to Dederich. Synanon launched its own businesses, starting with a service station and an auto repair business, to make more money.


The organization became a $30-million, nonprofit, tax-exempt business owning vast California real estate and 450 vehicles, planes and boats. (Its tax-exempt status was revoked by a federal court in 1984.) Chapters sprang up in San Francisco and Detroit, Tulare and Marin counties, even Germany and Malaysia.

But in the late 1960s, Dederich became more controlling, strongly urging that members divorce themselves from families and life outside Synanon and devote their loyalty and property to him. In 1974, Dederich declared Synanon a religion.

But the organization’s sterling image was tarnishing under civil suits filed by former Synanon recruits who challenged Dederich’s dictatorial rule. Violence allegedly became acceptable to ensure loyalty or punish those who opposed him. Guns and munitions were stockpiled.

Dederich also felt freer to dictate lifestyles. He started arranging “love matches,” urging members to dissolve existing marriages and choose new partners for three-year pairings.

Then came the snake incident. Attorney Paul Morantz, who had successfully represented two former Synanon members in civil suits against Dederich, was bitten by a rattlesnake that had been placed in his Pacific Palisades mailbox. The lawyer survived; Synanon’s and Dederich’s already dingy reputation was darkened further.

In 1979, a small Marin County weekly newspaper, the Point Reyes Light, won a Pulitzer Prize for public service for articles critical of Synanon.


That same year, Dederich endured a grueling seven-week preliminary hearing on the rattlesnake incident in Los Angeles County.

Evidence included a tape recording of Dederich discussing how to handle lawyers who opposed Synanon: “I’m quite willing to break some lawyer’s legs, and then tell him, ‘Next time, I’m going to break your wife’s legs, and then we are going to cut your kid’s ear off. Try me. This is only a sample.’ ”

Dederich and two followers pleaded no contest to conspiracy to commit murder, and the Synanon leader was sentenced to five years’ probation and fined $5,000.

More important, the plea bargain required Dederich to give up control of Synanon. Without each other, Dederich and Synanon quickly lost their popularity.