The new neighbors
Forty years ago, Lake Havasu City was barely a speck on any existing map. Each of the burgeoning oasis’ 3,700 residents had come from somewhere else, having seen promise in Robert P. McCulloch’s dream of Havasu … but they weren’t the only ones.
Paul Morantz remembers his first visit to Lake Havasu City. Surrounded by sloping red mountains, and sparkling waters, the desert landscape spanned into the horizon as Morantz’s plane approached its destination. A cult had begun to take root in the newly-incorporated city, and several of its members tried to kill Morantz the year before.
Roots in recovery
The 1950s were a time when incarceration was considered the only cure for drug addiction. When recovering alcoholic Charles Dederich founded Synanon in 1958, it was an effort to provide substance abuse reform to drug users as well as alcoholics.
Synanon emphasized “tough love” and a “cold turkey” approach to rehabilitation for substance abusers. The group attracted thousands of drug addicts and eventually accepted juvenile delinquents who were ordered by the courts to receive Synanon services.
With the offer of treatment, Synanon facilities began to spread throughout California, and Synanon became a counter-culture community by 1964. It would eventually invite professionals — even non-addicts — to join. There was an emphasis on living a self-examined life, provided that new members transfer their assets to the organization.
The organization spread, but Dederich wasn’t satisfied. According to statements by Dederich, “graduation” from his treatment program was an illusion. Without continued peer pressure, many former addicts would relapse. The only option, he decided, was for patients to remain in Synanon forever, and create a utopian society of Dederich’s own design.
At the height of its influence, Synanon was an organization of more than 1,300 members. Its assets totaled about $33 million, all of which was exempt from taxation as a charitable trust foundation, and Synanon records showed the organization was receiving $2.5 million per year in donations to treat addiction.
A Cult Following
Concerns by California officials created the potential for Synanon’s charitable trust status to be revoked, Morantz said. To prevent this, Dederich declared Synanon a religion in 1974. Two years later, Synanon facilities stopped accepting children after reports emerged that such children were being subjected to physical abuse. Synanon was reported to have required mandatory abortions and vasectomies for its members; and married couples would accept new partners selected by Synanon every three years.
According to court records, the group also formed a militant branch, known as the “Imperial Marines,” to inflict violence against opponents of the organization – including former Synanon members.
Such acts comprised the bulk of a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by Dave Mitchell, of the Point Reyes Light weekly newspaper.
“More than 80 people had been attacked by Synanon,” Morantz said. “I had my first case in court involving them in June 1977. By July and August, I realized what I’d stepped into, but it was too late to get out of it.”
‘Killing’ Paul Morantz
Morantz remembers walking into a gun store in 1978. He didn’t know what he wanted, so he told the proprietor what he needed: “Something that could stop three to five guys if they crashed through my door.”
He knew he’d invited conflict with one of the West Coast’s most dangerous criminal organizations. But on Oct. 10, 1978, another conflict occupied his thoughts – The first game of the World Series, pitting the New York Yankees against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I was in a rush,” Morantz wrote afterward. “I was eager to forget my troubles and relax in front of the TV with the shotgun by my side … as I put my Synanon evidence books on the kitchen counter, I saw something dark and elongated through the grill of my mail chute. Compounding the problem, I stubbornly refused to wear my ill-fitting contact lenses.
“I thought maybe someone had found a scarf nearby and had stuffed it into the nearest mail chute,” Morantz wrote. “Or maybe it was an odd-shaped package … as I headed back to my room I lifted the grill with my right hand and nonchalantly grabbed the mystery object with my left. It wasn’t a scarf.”
The rattlesnake lashed out too quickly for Morantz to react. Fangs sank into his wrist, and Morantz screamed. He stumbled backward as the four-foot serpent tumbled from his mail chute. The snake’s rattle had been surgically removed.
Morantz spent six days in a hospital, news of which made national headlines. Information from former members of the cult quickly identified two of Synanon’s Imperial Marines as suspects in the snake-attack: Rattlesnake expert Lance Kenton and Vietnam veteran Joseph Musico. Both men were sentenced to one year in prison and were forced to sever their ties to Synanon.
There are easier, far less elaborate ways of attempting a murder, however. According to Morantz, Synanon’s weapon of choice was a matter of cost. According to Department of Justice records, Dederich discussed the possibility of Morantz’s assassination with Synanon Imperial Marines leader Doug Robson.
“(Robson) suggested blowing me away with a shotgun,” Morantz said. “But the hitman would have cost $10,000. Dederich said, ‘Well, what are we paying the marines for’? That decision saved my life.”
Kenton and Musico were able to capture the rattlesnake from a hillside near the city of Visalia in California’s Central Valley.
A warrant was issued for Dederich’s arrest on the charge of conspiracy to commit murder. Dederich was apprehended one month later at Synanon’s new $1 million Lake Havasu City facility.
Warnings for Havasu
Dederich pleaded no contest to the conspiracy charge, and was sentenced to five years of probation, owing to poor health. He was also fined $10,000, and forbidden from having any affiliation with Synanon.
Despite Dederich’s arrest, however, life in Havasu had changed with the presence of Synanon members.
“We were a closer-knit community back then,” said former Lake Havasu City Mayor Chuck Langerveld. “Everybody knew everybody. Their children went to school together, they found jobs, they worked … they helped pioneer this community. We weren’t sure about Synanon when they came here. We knew their reputation.”
According to Langerveld, members of the cult had entered Havasu’s medical profession, ingratiating themselves in the community as they made house calls, performed routine checkups and conducted business in the city.
“About 60 percent of us thought they were bad news,” Langerveld said. “The other 40 percent just thought they were trying to live in this community and were willing to give them a chance. Then they started to get more political, and started buying more real estate here. We thought they weren’t good for the community, and overall, they weren’t going to be good long-term neighbors.”
The organization remained in Havasu even without the organization’s leader. According to Lake Havasu City resident Barbara Masden, now 82, Synanon members were instantly recognizable.
“The women wore long, very plain dresses,” Masden said. “The men’s heads were shaved. They would offer to help people get rid of alcohol and drugs … if you gave them your finances, they would take care of you.”
Synanon’s reputation, however, had preceded it. The community of Havasu was close-knit, Masden said, and everybody knew everybody else. Synanon was a potential threat to their newfound home that residents could not ignore.
By 1979, Synanon members at the time owned 10 pieces of developed Havasu property including two apartment complexes, a warehouse, a motel, a furniture store and a sauna. The group also owned 20 vacant lots in the Havasu area.
“My husband was part of the committee to try and get them out of the city,” Masden said. “We held an assembly at the old junior high school to talk about it. The committee invited (Dave Mitchell and Paul Morantz) to talk about it, and they told the town what to expect.”
Morantz didn’t expect the crowd that awaited him. Hundreds of Havasu residents filled the auditorium. Not all of the event’s guests could fit inside, and speakers were erected in front of the building so that others could hear.
“The whole town was there,” Morantz said. “In a city like L.A., nothing alarms you. You’re used to the insanity. But in this small community, when something like Synanon moved in, it was like Frankenstein’s castle. People were preparing their torches to burn it down. I tried to calm them.”
His meeting with Havasu residents, as well as their reaction, is a memory that’s special to him 40 years later.
“It was interesting to see all of these different people, who came from all over, to find their own piece of utopia in Havasu,” Morantz said. “And then an organization like Synanon comes in … I told them, state law says even this group has the right of association. They have the right to exist. But don’t let them get away with what they’ve gotten away with in other places.”
Havasu residents were wearing specially-made T-shirts in support of Morantz the next day, Morantz said. Each was emblazoned with an image of an image of a snake inside a mailbox, circled and crossed in the manner of a “no smoking” sign.
“They treated me like a hero,” Morantz said. “I remember thinking I could move to Havasu and probably become mayor within the next year.”
Days after the committee meeting to oust Havasu’s cult presence, Masden received a phone call in the middle of the night. She answered, but received no reply.
According to Masden, such calls began to come every few hours. And then more came the following evening – answered only by a menacing silence. On the third night, she spoke with Mohave County law enforcement.
“They asked who I thought it was,” Masden said. “I told them I thought it was Synanon. Their ears perked right up.”
Mohave County Sheriff’s deputies provided Masden with a number to dial when she received another such call. When the calls began again, she did as instructed. The call was traced to a Synanon-owned building on Aviation Boulevard.
“This town got together for a reason,” Masden said. “To get Synanon out. It was a cult. In this little town, we didn’t want anything like that.”
Synanon’s presence in Havasu, however, was part of a larger scheme by the organization. That scheme, according to Morantz, would ultimately become its undoing.
According to Morantz, Synanon’s scheme for Havasu was simple. The organization started a private corporation in Havasu known as Home Place Inc, the intent of which was to conceal its wealth from the Internal Revenue Service.
“Money was taken by the charity put into Home Place Inc,” Morantz said. “Synanon would send people to the compound in Havasu to ‘make them better people’. They received donations from Fortune 500 companies who thought they were helping addicts. Then the money was funneled back into Synanon officials’ salaries. There’s a recording that outlines the entire conspiracy. Eventually Arizona investigated, and a lot of people were arrested.”
In December 1982, an Arizona grand jury indicted Dederich and 12 other Synanon officials on Arizona securities violations, conspiracy and filing misleading information with the Arizona Corporation Commission. According to investigators, the 13 officials were accused of conspiring to sell unregistered Home Place stock over a two-year period, from Sept. 1978 through Dec. 1980.
After Dederich’s arrest, the Internal Revenue Service revoked Synanon’s tax-exempt status and ordered the organization to pay $17 million in back taxes. Synanon appealed the decision, but the appeal was denied in 1984.
Synanon declared bankruptcy and dissolved in 1991.