Inside rehab turned violent cult where addicts had heads shaved and were forced into abortions and mass sterilizations

The Sund, UK/April 24, 2020

By Debbie White

An ultra-violent cult brainwashed addicts into shaving their heads, and enforced mass sterilizations in "Gestapo-like" demands.

The psychotic leader of Synanon, Charles Dederich, features in a new series of Oxygen’s “Deadly Cults” which examines how  this tyrant wielded so much deadly power over his many besotted followers.

Cult's start

Recovering alcoholic Charles 'Chuck' Dederich founded Synanon in 1958 to provide substance abuse reform to drug users as well as alcoholics in Santa Monica, California.

The name was chosen when a member slurred the words 'Symposium' and 'Seminar', explains Paul Morantz, an expert on the cult.

The 1950s were a time when incarceration was considered the only cure for drug addiction.

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's services - for a fee of course.

Given its growing popularity, it began to spread throughout California, and Synanon became a counter-culture community by 1964.

It even invited professionals including non-addicts to join.

But there was a catch: new members had to transfer their assets to the organization.

Plus, control freak Dederich wanted even more power.

He aimed to ensnare patients to remain in Synanon forever, and create a utopian society of his own design.

His success in trapping so many people - at its height the cult had more than 1,300 members - resulting in a healthy bank balance, as its assets totaled about $33 million.

And there was no way that its leader was going to share any of that with the taxman.

When California officials set about revoking Synanon’s charitable trust status, Dederich declared Synanon a religion in 1974.

Child abuse

Morantz's website says that babies were taken from their parents and raised in the so-called “hatchery.”

Moms who wanted to spend time with their own kids were callously dubbed “head suckers.”

In lessons, children were taught how to fight the “Holy War" to defend their leader.

Unsurprisingly, abused kids began running away, helped by an 'underground railroad', led by neighboring rancher Alvin Gambonini, who tried to reunite them with their parents.

But, a Synanon mob brutally beat Gambini in front of his family, Morantz writes.

A horrifying newsreel from 1978 shows a frightened young woman telling a reporter that she fled after being punched and beaten as a child, and she saw many other kids being assaulted.

Julie Moncharsh recalled: "One boy, who was mentally retarded, was physically beaten because he did not do the 20 push-ups he was assigned.

"He was beaten, he was hit in the head and then socked in the stomach."

The group said that was a lie, and denied kids were being held prisoner.

After complaints about child abuse attracted attention in the press and visits from the police, Dederich ordered followers in 1976 to stop having kids, saying: “I think children are a very bad investment."

The cult required mandatory abortions and vasectomies for its members, and married couples would accept new partners selected by Synanon every three years.

Vile Dederich declared that, "having an abortion is like squeezing a boil, nothing more."


According to court records, the cult formed a militant branch, known as the “Imperial Marines,” to inflict violence against opponents of the organization.

This included taking vengeance against former Synanon members.

In the 1970s, two men were run off the road near one of their properties.

One, Richard Marino, said they were handcuffed and beaten, and their heads were shaved.

Marino said: "I thought they were going to kill us."

In another terrifying experience, a former junkie wanted to visit the cult, but he took a personal security man, Jack Harding, in case things turned nasty.

Robert Graeme told reporters that upon arriving, the cult's leader threatened him.

He recalled: "Chuck Dederich walked in, and he said 'I'm tired of these guys coming in this place.

'I want you to take these two, I want that one's legs broken, I want this one's legs broken, and I want you to shove him into the back of his car, and run it off the pier'."

Private Investigator Jack Harding said: "They reminded me of a young Gestapo group."

Paul Morantz, an American attorney and investigative journalist has written substantially about the cult - as he delves into brainwashing cases for victims.

But he nearly lost his life as a result of his investigation into Synanon.

“More than 80 people had been attacked by Synanon,” Morantz said.

On September 21, 2008, the Marines tried to murder ex-member Phil Ritter.

He had been trying to get his child out of the cult, and had gone to the authorities complaining of forced vasectomies in Synanon.

The 'marines' retaliated by clubbing him over the head.

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.”

While he was in a rush one day, he arrived home, "put my Synanon evidence books on the kitchen counter", when he noticed "something dark and elongated through the grill of my mail chute".

He wasn't wearing his contact lenses, so wandered over to inspect the "mystery" object, assuming it was a scarf.

But it was something much deadlier - the rattlesnake lashed out too quickly for Morantz to react, and its fangs sank into his wrist.

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.

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.

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