Oxygn explores the deadly and dangerous California cult that was Synanon

Charles Dederich, foundr of Synanon
Charles Dederich was removed as head of the Synanon movement in 1980. Pic credit: Charles Dederich

This week on Oxygn, Deadly Cults looks at the rise and fall of Synanon. The group was first founded in 1958 by Charles Dederich in Santa Monica, CA., as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.

“Crime is stupid, delinquency is stupid, and the use of narcotics is stupid,” Mr. Dederich once said. “What Synanon is dealing with is addiction to stupidity.”

However, while Synanon did claim credit for thousands of rehabilitations, over the next couple of decades, it also descended into an authoritarian cult that engaged in violent criminal activities.

Synanon would feed, house, and clothe their members who, in return, would hand over all their possessions and would work for the group.

According to a former member, Beverly Ferderber, Synanon would convince their members that living with the cult was such a superior way to live that that “causes people to do anything that the organization wants them to do.”

Women and children who joined or were brought to the cult would immediately have their heads shaved. Celena Wittman was only four years old when her mother brought them both to the Synanon complex. According to Celena, her mother was no longer allowed to talk or even look at her daughter.

Women were often required to have abortions and male members vasectomy’s. Described as a self-contained “cradle to grave society,” the cult amassed vast wealth, which included ranches, boats, and airplanes, along with many businesses and lucrative enterprises.

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Synanon tried to murder lawyer with a rattlesnake

In 1978 the cult lashed out at attorney Paul Morantz who had successfully brought suit on behalf of people who were being held against their will by Synanon. They put a four and a half foot rattlesnake in his mailbox, which bit the lawyer, causing him to be hospitalized for six days.

Earlier that year, the cult had attempted to murder former cult member Phil Ritter, who had begun condemning the organization to the press. He was clubbed so hard he fell onto a coma.

This incidence led to an increase in public awareness of the group and led to a police investigation. When the LAPD searched one of their ranches, they found a recording of Dederich inciting violence.

Dederich was finally arrested while drunk on December 2, 1978. In 1980 he pleaded guilty to ordering two Synanon members to put the rattlesnake in Morantz’s mailbox.

Dederich was in poor health at the time, so rather than receiving a custodial sentence, he was placed on probation and forbidden from having any involvement with Synanon.

Without its leader, coupled with the loss of reputation, the group struggled to survive. The final nail in its coffin came when the Internal Revenue Service revoked the organization’s tax-exempt status and ordered them to pay $17 million in back taxes.

Synanon went bankrupt and was officially dissolved in 1991.

More from Oxygn

Follow the links to read about more crimes and deadly murders profiled on Oxygen.

In April 2005, Raven Abaroa told police he returned home from soccer practice to find his pregnant wife Janet Abaroa repeatedly stabbed to death.  Raven was lying. He had murdered his wife and left his 6-month old son with his dying mother while he left for soccer.

Donald Bess raped and murdered 20-year-old student Angela Samota in Texas in 1984. He managed to evade justice for three decades until advancements in forensic science sent law enforcers knocking on his door.

Deadly Cults airs Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygn.

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