The late Paul Morantz and I were on our high school basketball team but I hadn’t seen him again until 1978 when he was on the TV news having been nearly murdered in a shocking manner. Paul was a lawyer whose practice involved liberating people kept against their will in cults. One case involved Synanon here in Santa Monica, a so-called drug rehab founded by Charles Dederich. He may have started with good intentions but power and money (estimated as high as $30 million) turned Dederich into a tyrant.
For example, on his order three Synanon residents placed a rattlesnake in Paul’s mailbox with its rattles cut off to avoid him hearing the imminent attack. During the 1978 Dodger-Yankee World Series, Paul retrieved the day’s mail. But when he reached into the mailbox the huge snake bit his arm and wrist inflicting indescribable pain. Inexplicably calm, Paul shut the living room door so his dogs wouldn’t also get bitten.
Paul pounded on a neighbor’s door who, as fate would have it, had just completed a Red Cross rattlesnake course. Otherwise, Paul would never have survived and gone on to compile such a heroic career battling cults.
While the Synanon building is currently the ultra-plush Casa Del Mar Hotel back then it was decaying badly and the area was extremely seedy. The most violent Synanon members, “The Imperial Marines,” often terrorized bike riders and people strolling the boardwalk. By the time police arrived the thugs had sneaked off. However, after 14 years in court Paul eventually caused Synanon to be shut down much to the relief of police and ever-grateful residents.
Years later an example of that gratitude occurred when Paul was in a liquor store on Main Street and Bay buying alcohol for a party he was attending. Examining Paul’s credit card the merchant asked if he was Paul Morantz the lawyer. When Paul nodded the owner handed him back his card, “Your money is no good here. You rid us of Synanon which almost ran many of us out of business.” (In 2013 the City Council issued Morantz an Official Commendation “For his cases against Synanon and dedication to the welfare of others.”)
Paul graduated USC law school and passed the bar but his passion was always writing. In fact he wrote the teleplay for the highly rated “Dead Man’s Curve” about surf singers Jan and Dean. He also had articles published in the “Rolling Stone” and in 2013, co-authored a riveting autobiography “Escape: My Life Long War Against Cults.”
In the book Paul documented his most famous cases including: Scientology, EST, Jim Jones’ The People’s Temple, the Moonies and Nichiren Shoshu in his crusade against scam so-called self help organizations. But it was his very first case that changed his life.
In 1974 Morantz uncovered a criminal conspiracy to kidnap skid row alcoholics and sell them to nursing homes where they were kept sedated while Medicare was billed. Morantz testified at public hearings and aided setting up the District Attorney task force on a myriad of nursing home crimes.
As for the rattlesnake attack, on that particular day, Paul had met with the LAPD to discuss a security plan to protect him. Recently Paul had won a $300,000 judgment against Synanon for having kept a resident against her will and Dederich wanted to exact revenge. He actually announced the threat over the Synanon intercom. Talk about “timing is everything,” or in this case wasn’t, the LAPD security plan for Paul was to go into effect the following day.
Paul made a remarkable recovery from the snake bite, but, rare as it is, the venom can hide in the human body. And so it was a few decades later it resurfaced in Paul. So for the remainder of his life he needed blood transfusions every two weeks. Paul jokingly confessed, “I’ve developed simpatico with Dracula.”
I talked to Paul a few weeks ago and he sounded great. He even e-mailed me his screenplay “Little Soldier Boy” about WWII hero 5’5” Audie Murphy who was also a surprisingly good actor featured in 40 movies. He wanted my opinion but the script arrived the day Paul passed. (A Morantz type joke crossed my mind that wherever he is apparently they had WI-Fi.)
I gather Paul had recently suffered a severe fall in his Pacific Palisades home that may have led to his passing. In addition to the untold numbers of people Paul had helped free, closer to home, he leaves behind his son Chaz, a leading engineer at NASA of whom he was eternally proud.
Paul often responded to my columns. I only wish he could have seen this, or rather, that his final sad circumstances didn’t compel me to write it. (Wherever he is, in case there is Wi-Fi, “Your script was excellent!”)
“Escape: My Lifelong War Against Cults” is available at Amazon. Fascinating video interview with Paul about his life and often dangerous career, go to YouTube “Legally Speaking, Paul Morantz” Jack is at: firstname.lastname@example.org.