I’ve been fortunate in life to have a number of long-term friendships. Paul Morantz, a semi-retired lawyer in Pacific Palisades, is one of them. Paul and I were teammates on Hamilton High School’s “B” basketball team more years ago than I care to admit.
Given his humor I could have imagined Paul becoming a comedy writer. Instead, he had a renowned legal career fighting cults that brainwashed, abused and even kidnapped would be followers. In 1978, Paul did Santa Monica a tremendous favor that almost cost him his life.
In 1958 reformed alcoholic Charles Dederich founded Synanon, a drug rehabilitation organization. Using his $33 unemployment check, he held AA-style meetings in his seedy Ocean Park apartment. But Santa Monica city fathers feared Synanon would attract crime. Little did they know.
Synanon eventually moved to where the elegant Casa Del Mar is today. While it was constantly embroiled with police, Synanon’s popularity grew. Enhancing its fame was a movie, “Synanon,” starring Edmund O’Brien. Through private and corporate donors, Synanon amassed a reported $50 million in assets, including prime Santa Monica real estate.
However noble the intentions, Synanon typified the axiom “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” For example, when Dederich discovered that many Synanon graduates returned to drugs, he declared that no one was to ever leave. (The iconic Eagles’ song “Hotel California” is reportedly about Synanon — “We are all just prisoners here.”)
Imbued with an “us v. them” mentality, Dederich converted Synanon into a church. He also recruited “Imperial Marines,” followers who violently enforced his commands (encouraging abortions and vasectomies and insisting that married couples switch partners).
In 1977, Paul was hired to represent a distraught husband whose emotionally troubled wife had been sent to Synanon. Her head was shaved and she was essentially a captive until Paul and the husband dramatically rescued her. Paul would later obtain a $300,000 judgment against Synanon. This, his rescuing children, winning additional judgments for victims of violence and getting the Department of Health to require Synanon to be licensed, put Paul at the top of Dederich’s infamous hit list.
Paul sensed his life was in danger though even his girlfriend, the love of his life, doubted Dederich’s threats. Non-violent, Paul nonetheless bought a shotgun and, before starting his car, would routinely check for a bomb.
Then one fateful day, Paul returned home from, ironically, a meeting with the Attorney General’s Office about protection. He was about to watch a Dodger-Yankee World Series game when he nonchalantly opened his mailbox and was suddenly attacked by a humongous rattlesnake whose fangs dug deep into Paul’s arm.
The snake had been planted by Imperial Marines who, along with Dederich, would plead “no contest” to charges of conspiracy to commit murder. By then, Synanon had attacked over 80 people during a four-year period and attempted to murder two others.
Through sheer luck Paul survived. (A neighbor was an expert on rattlesnakes.) The shocking story made international news, but Paul’s life would never be the same. For one, his girlfriend, understandably frightened for her two children, ended the relationship with Paul.
Eight years ago, Paul was diagnosed with a blood disorder linked to rattlesnake venom forcing him to live on transfusions. (Paul jokes that he’s developed simpatico with Dracula.) But the excess iron from the transfusions makes his day-to-day physical condition tenuous.
Following the murder conspiracy trial, civil judgments and assisting the Department of Justice in their tax fraud case, Paul helped closed Synanon down. Ending his 14-year ordeal, he had succeeded where Santa Monica had been unable. Indicative of the gratitude of many residents was a neighborhood liquor store owner.
Years later, buying alcohol on his way to a party, Paul was asked by the shopkeeper if he was the Paul Morantz who had battled Synanon, which Paul confirmed modestly. “Your money is no good in here,” the man said appreciatively and described Synanon thugs terrorizing residents for years.
Stripped of the power and money he had so blatantly misused and now wheelchair-bound, Dederich spent the last years of his life in a Visalia, Calif. trailer park. Generously, Paul expressed compassion for the man who had abused his clients and their children. Dederich was a delusional megalomaniac similar to other cult leaders Paul would battle, i.e. Jim Jones of the ill-fated People’s Temple, or The Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church.
But it was Dederich, the man who had ordered his murder, with whom Paul had been so intertwined and continues to be. This Sunday, Paul will attend “The Rise and Fall of Synanon,” a historical look at the Synanon phenomenon.
After a screening of the movie “Synanon,” Paul will be the evening’s guest speaker to explain how Synanon tragically morphed into a violent religious cult. Despite the gravity, if I know Paul, he might sneak in a few jokes.
“The Rise and Fall of Synanon” will be held in the Cinefamily Theatre at 611 N. Fairfax Ave., Sunday, June 9 at 7 p.m. Admission is $12. Cinefamily is at (323) 655-2510. To learn more about Paul Morantz’ remarkable career go to www.paulmorantz.com. Jack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.