John Van de Kamp
In 1972 veteran public defender David Vinje entered his nightly watering hole, a small bar called Lola’s in the San Fernando Valley. When the bad guys entered with their guns drawn and ordered the patrons to the floor, Vinje, who knew best how dangerous the situation was, had a heart attack and started to moan. He was silenced with bullets.
What does this murder have to do with the story of Synanon? Strangely, both nothing and everything. I was also a Los Angeles public defender at the time and decided to write a story on the incident, raising issues of morality concerning the death penalty. It led to my reputation as an investigating journalist and to other articles being published including a Richard Palmer (not real name) assignment.
Palmer was a catering truck operator wrongfully convicted for a bank robbery due to incidents of police arrogance, including a crime lab director—James D. Bakken—manufacturing evidence often when he concluded a defendant was guilty. Palmer’s fingerprint was copied in Xerox toner and said falsely to be a lift from the bank counter.
Finally, after several years of imprisonment, the Federal Public Defender’s office was formed, and the case was assigned to it. An investigator—named no less than John Bond—proved the frame.
In doing the story for Coast Magazine, I met with a person rather politically unknown who had been appointed as the first Federal Public Defender. He came from a wealthy food family—the Van de Kamp family was famous for its bakeries and Lawry’s Restaurants in Southern California—but John chose another direction. He wanted to serve but not food.
He worked in the Los Angeles U.S. Attorney’s Office from 1960 to 1967, including a stint as U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California from 1966-67. In 1971 he became the Central District’s first Federal Public Defender and established that office.
And so we met in his office. I have never been a fan of politics. In fact, twice politicians solicited my running for office in the 1980s, but I declined determining one could probably do more outside the system, which itself seem based on self-survival and compromise rather than optimum service. I knew how I would respond the first time someone said scratch my back and I will scratch yours.
Van de Kamp, on the other hand seemed sincere, an impressive speaker and his quote to me warning of the dangers when law enforcement becomes blinded by its own arrogance became the lead in my story. He wrote me a note about how much he liked the piece, and I communicated back saying, in substance, “John…I know politics is where you are going and that is not an arena I believe much in. But I do believe in you. Anytime you are looking for volunteers you can call on me.”
A simple interview—a story and a handshake. He never did call. But he would remember three years later.
Ironically, in 1976 Charles Dederich said on tape that Synanon can do whatever it wants because most lawyers working for the government are lazy coffee drinkers wanting to be home by 5 p.m. Then he added, “The exception might be the attorneys working in the Los Angeles’ District Attorney’s Office.” Not only was he prophetic, but when the rattlesnake bit my hand the Los Angeles District Attorney was now John Van de Kamp.
Van de Kamp, knowing the victim, assigned the case full time to two of his best deputies: John Watson and Ronald H. (Mike) Carroll, with assistance from legendary Stephen Trott.
Carroll joined the District Attorney’s Office in 1966. In 1969, while I was in law school, Carroll served as chief prosecutor in a highly publicized trial that grew out of a four-hour gun battle between Black Panthers and police at the Panthers’ Central Avenue headquarters. Later, Mike headed the D.A. drugs section. Now he would head the Synanon case.
It seemed he and Watson, more than just prosecuting, looked out for my safety. Watson would serve as a prosecutor for 21 years before becoming a judge. Trott, I also knew because I once approached him about writing a book on one of his most famous investigations and prosecutions, a murder case where the body was never found.
In what Synanon expert Richard Ofshe called “Raid on Entebbe II,” after the famed Israeli rescue of high jacked airline Jews, Trott led a team involving multiple police forces and state agencies descending on the Badger Home Place on November 21, 1978. The warrant had been signed by the honorable Tulare Superior Court Judge J. Ballantyne earlier that day.
A nervous deputy D.A. Mike Carroll wore a bulletproof vest. As the police were leaving, an officer spied three tapes fallen behind a cabinet. One of them was entitled “The New Religious Posture—Don’t Fuck with Synanon.” The speaker was Charles Dederich.
A criminal complaint was filed and a warrant issued for the Founder’s arrest on December 1, 1978.