What Happened to Synanon Founder Charles 'Chuck' Dederich? All About the Cult Leader Who Died in 1997

Charles 'Chuck' Dederich founded Synanon, a group that originally began as a drug rehabilitation program before evolving into a notorious cult in the 1970s

People/April 2, 2024

By Skyler Caruso

Synanon was the brainchild of Charles “Chuck” Dederich.

The infamous cult leader died in 1997, but the story of his reformative-turned-destructive drug rehabilitation organization is now the center of a four-part docuseries on HBO.

Titled The Synanon Fix: Did The Cure Become a Cult?, the series which premieres on April 1 analyzes how the organization’s potential to revolutionize healing spiraled into a catastrophic force. HBO's retelling of the notorious group comes a few months after Paramount+ released Born In Synanon in December 2023.

Founded in 1958, Dederich formed Synanon as an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous. It later became known as the “Church of Synanon" and attracted thousands of followers in the years following.

According to a 2018 Los Angeles Magazine examination of the cult, "Synanon did much to convince the American public that addicts could be saved" using methods like “tough love” therapy. However, Dederich’s grasp on the group and its followers later became manipulative and violent.

Followers were forced to shave their heads and dress a certain way, plus Dederich claimed they had to reside on the compound to receive the appropriate help they needed. Per the outlet, members were "obedient" to Dederich despite his increased brutality and violence.

Who is Charles Dederich?

Synanon founder Charles Dederich, 66, was arrested in Arizona on a California warrant charging suspicion of conspiracy and solicitation to commit murder in the rattlesnake attack of a Los Angles lawyer. A spokesman for the Los Angeles D.A.'s office, Al Albergate, said Dederich was "stone drunk" when arrested at his home in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. he was taken to a nearby hospital. Charles E. Dederich was born in Toledo, Ohio in 1913. He was named after his father and was widely known by his nickname, "Chuck."

When Dederich was four years old, his father — an alcoholic — died in an automobile accident, per Dederich's obituary in the New York Times. When Dederich was eight years old, his brother died. When he was 12, his mom married a man "he loathed."

Dederich, who was drinking heavily before graduating high school, dropped out of the University of Notre Dame after 18 months due to addiction, per the outlet. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous at age 43 before turning his apartment into a "sanctuary" for alcoholics and drug addicts.

How did Charles Dederich start Synanon?

In 1958, Dederich — a recovering alcoholic — opened a storefront drug rehabilitation program in Santa Monica, California. It was intended to offer a welcoming space for addicts to overcome challenges through emotional and verbal catharsis.

Dederich named it Synanon, a name that was "coined when an addict stumbled over the words 'seminar'' and 'symposium,'" reported the New York Times. Eventually, the group drew notable names and non-addicts who donated their time and wealth to the program.

Dederich built a methodology around a therapeutic community — a tough, disciplined, drug-free environment with a dash of tender loving care, reported the outlet, in comparison to Alcoholics Anonymous's emphasis on religion.

The leader had viewed drug addicts as child-like and therefore treated them with harsh discipline that ultimately became violent. Dederich would tell followers: “'Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” according to the New York Times, and believed that drug addiction could be treated — a core component of his recruitment campaign that enticed many of its followers.

What did Charles Dederich make Synanon’s followers do?

Synanon was initially viewed as a model society before its fall. By 1970, the community grew into a social movement across the country, with its many followers claiming the program saved their lives.

As Synanon's popularity increased, so did Dederich's authoritative and dictatorial behavior. In addition to enforcing mandatory head-shaving and dressing in similar garb, he began to implement more extreme edicts.

“There were things that were not right,” Cassidy Arkin, a former member and subject of Born in Synanon, previously told CBS News. “I didn’t realize until I was much older how bad things had gotten.”

Episode 3 of HBO's The Synanon Fix explores much of Dederich's abusive behavior. "He forms a military-like boot camp for delinquent children where corporal punishment abounds," reads the official episode synopsis.

"He mandates vasectomies and abortions and, when his wife dies, he quickly remarries and decrees that all current relationships must end so that everyone can find new partners. Many members divorce and remarry, which some of them later regret," the synopsis continues.

By the mid-1980s, Dederich established “The Synanon Religion” and maintained their tax-exempt status. Among his most abusive behavior was telling his followers that if they should leave the group, they'd revert back to their addictions.

Did Charles Dederich get arrested?

According to the New York Times, Dederich was arrested in Arizona on a California warrant in December 1978.

He was sentenced to five years probation after pleading no contest to conspiracy to commit murder after he and other members placed a rattlesnake in the mailbox of lawyer Paul Morantz, who had filed a lawsuit against the group.

Morantz was bit and spent several days in the hospital, though he survived the snake attack. Eventually, Dederich was banned from leading Synanon.
Was Charles Dederich married?

Synanon leader Chuck Dedrich, 64, stands by his new wife, Ginny, at Synanon branch in Marshall, California, during a recent visit there. Dedrich performed some emotional surgery and now his 3-year "love matches" are blazing through the ranks of his disciples, leaving a trail of happy but broken marriages.

Dederich wed four times, though little is known about his first two wives who left him due to his drinking, per the New York Times. The leader's third wife, Betty, died in 1977.

Later that year, Dederich married Ginny Schorin. They remained married until his death in 1997.

Additionally, he has two children. He welcomed his first child, a son named Chuck, with his first wife. His second child, daughter Jady Dederich Montgomery, was born during his second marriage.

Montgomery, an eventual Synanon leader, is speaking publicly for the first time about her experience in HBO's documentary, The Synanon Fix.

How did Charles Dederich die?

Dederich died on Feb. 28, 1997 in Kaweah Delta Hospital in Visalia, California. He was 83 years old.

The cause of death was cardiorespiratory failure, according to his wife Ginny per The New York Times. Dederich had several strokes prior to his death, beginning in the late 1980s.

Where are Synanon members now?

The Internal Revenue Service later stepped in and led to the demise of Synanon, which officially disbanded in 1991. A federal district judge had rejected the group’s claim to be a tax-exempt religion, ruling that the group engaged in fraud in an attempt to gain the tax benefit.

Former members of Synanon have spoken publicly of their experiences in the years that followed. Now, many are sharing their personal accounts in HBO's docuseries — including Miriam Bourdette, Phil Bourdette, Elena Broslovsky, Marshall Carder, Ron Cook, Rebekah Crawford, Judi Ehrlich, Mike Gimbel, Bill Goodson, Terry Hurst, Norm Johnson, Buddy Jones, Lance Kenton, Lena Lindsey, Rod Mullen, Bob Navarro, Lynn Ritter, Phil Ritter and Josh Silvers.

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