Deadly Cults: Inside The World Of Synanon Drug Rehab That Turned Violent

Black and white photo of Synanon founder Charles Dederich
youtube | iilluminaughtii

News & Politics
Sarah Guy

It's safe to assume that those who wandered into Synanon were initially looking for something bigger than themselves. As many were addicts, perhaps they were searching for a sense of belonging or purpose as they pursued their personal efforts to curb their addictions.

However, founder Charles Dederich had another idea in mind. Once members were locked into the Synanon universe, they instead found themselves in a disorienting environment full of control, deception, and violence.

Charles Dederich's Background

Photo of Synanon founder Charles Dederich
youtube | CBS Mornings

Charles Dederich was born in Toledo, Ohio in 1913. While initially raised Roman Catholic, he eventually pivoted his beliefs to atheism after reading H.G. Wells’s "The Outline of History" as a teenager.

He then began drinking and discovered his love of public speaking at AA meetings. This would inspire Dederich to create offshoot groups of recovering addicts, some of which would even call him dad, and provide a new way of thinking for the impressionable group. Soon after, Synanon was formed.

Early Days

Black and white photo of building with Synanon sign
youtube | CBS Mornings

Synanon was created in 1958 by Diedrich and incorporated as a nonprofit. Officially launched from a Santa Monica storefront, he fostered the idea that former addicts could rehabilitate themselves if given the chance.

This concept revolved around “self-reliance and making the person responsible for his own actions" as the program leaned into tough love and quitting cold turkey.

Designing The Experience

California state flag
Shutterstock | 877996

After its formation, the group quickly began attracting thousands of drug addicts and eventually went on to accept juvenile delinquents as well. Eventually, the organization needed to expand and began reaching beyond the Santa Monica area.

By 1964, it had become a counter-culture community, eventually morphing into a utopian community, religion, and even a cult. Over time, Synanon would eventually obtain more than 1,300 devotees.

Life Inside Synanon

Synanon members
youtube | Ghost Town Podcast

While members may have initially joined to curb their drug abuse, the world of Synanon was centered around more than just tackling addiction. Each new member was required to transfer their assets to the organization. Of course, this had the potential to interfere with the group's finances, so in 1974, Dederich decided that Synanon was a religion.

After committing to Synanon, members were also required to do a variety of specific and sometimes odd things, such as shaving their heads, wearing overalls, and living together in the compounds. Throughout it all, they had to obey Dederich as well, who very much required a high level of control in every way.

Reports also began emerging that child abuse was running rampant inside the walls as ex-members recalled being punched and beaten in their youth. Mothers were also allegedly kept from their babies and the children were raised in an area called the "hatchery." After these allegations leaked to the press, Dederich began prohibiting members from having children, even going so far as to enforce mandatory abortions and vasectomies.

Organization Grows And Goals Evolve

Photo of Synanon founder Charles Dederich
youtube | iilluminaughtii

By the ten-year mark, the cult was reportedly bringing in close to $2.5 million a year in donations and owned millions of dollars in real estate. Despite the ever-changing nature of the organization, members continued to donate in droves.

However, the utopian community would soon start to shape-shift. In the 1970s, it morphed from a drug treatment program to a program centered around psychotherapy. To obscure the true intention of the cult, Dederich would simply call Synanon an “experimental society."

Defending The Cult

Newspaper article about Synanon
youtube | iilluminaughtii

Following the disturbing allegations, the cult decided to create a militant branch to defend against opponents. The group, which was called the "Imperial Marines," even developed their own type of martial arts called "syn-do" and hoarded hundreds of guns.

Attacks Begin And Charges Follow

Picture of a rattlesnake
Shutterstock | 4011721

According to Paul Morantz, an attorney and investigative journalist, more than 80 people were attacked by Synanon. After a former member went to the police stating that he had been clubbed over the head by those in the "Imperial Marines," Morantz decided to take the case in 1977.

According to the lawyer, the group then left a rattlesnake in his mail chute. This resulted in a six-day stay in a hospital and made local news after Morantz was bitten by the venomous reptile.

Then, in 1983, three Synanon officials stated that the cult had, in fact, created a "hit list" of enemies over the years, which included Morantz and others. In exchange for immunity from prosecution, the former members revealed that Dederich’s assistant, Walter Lewbel, had approved the list and that security chief Art Warfield had offered to pay for a hitman to kill Morantz. After arresting several additional key players, law enforcement then charged Dederich with conspiracy to commit murder. When they went to arrest him, he was so drunk that he had to be carried to jail on a stretcher.

Dederich's Conviction And Death

Gavel and bag with dollar sign on it
Shutterstock | 190584268

In 1980, Dederich pleaded no contest to conspiracy to commit murder. He was ultimately fined $10,000 and given 5 years probation, only escaping jail after Morantz agreed that his health was too poor for prison. Synanon also had to pay $17 million after its IRS tax-exempt status was revoked. In 1991, Synanon declared bankruptcy and formally dissolved outside of Germany.

As for Dederich, he and his wife, Ginny, quietly moved into a double-wide mobile home before his death in 1997. He was 83 years old.

Read more true crime stories.