Synanon early expansion

Synanon early expansion

by Paul Morantz
(C) may 2011 Paul Morantz

Santa Monica’s effort to evict Synanon led to a foreseeable out pour of sympathy that resulted in weeks of donated furniture, food, money, a refrigerator, a 1957 Plymouth and 40 to 50 money-paying Saturday night square synanon players. There were also the usual concerned parents who announced they were afraid to let their children go to the corner to catch a bus, afraid pushers will arrive and afraid property values will spiral downward.

Synanon sought to expand, to move into new cities. But it seemed wherever it ventured there was an instant replay of Santa Monica.


The Foundation rented a garage in Venice for its vehicles after finding no one would in Santa Monica would rent them one. 26 Synanon residents descended upon it with a hustled steam cleaner, wire brushes and paint. Building inspectors then closed down two offices set up in the building for lack of permits.

San Diego:

In June of 1963 Synanon, with the assistance of a young 24-yeard old Brigham Young University graduate, Robert Driver, took over a 12-room boarding house at 140 Walnut Avenue, in downtown San Diego. Fourteen residents, led by ex musician Arnold Ross, prepared it to house fifty. The club would grow to a membership of one hundred and fifty. Sponsors of Synanon, Inc., spurred by the local District Attorney, raised funds and contributed services from the community. Reid Kimball started having special synanons with the supporters. Approximately 30 rental properties were acquired in the Hillcrest section three miles north of downtown San Diego. Synanon Supply was set up at 39211/2 Fourth Avenue. In 1966 Synanon made plans to purchase the 47-acre St. John’s Seminary at Madison Ave. and Greenfield drive in El Cajon for a Synanon school. The Catholic Church was closing the property which had been vacant for a year after the St. Francis Seminary moved its activities to the University of San Diego campus. The price negotiated was $550,000 with a $65,000 down payment.

But 500 El Cajon residents gathered at a meeting to protest the sale. The opposition was lead by parents of children in a Catholic school across the street, the Convent of the Sacred Heart, and by San Diego County Sheriff Joseph O’Conner, who said children might identify with the image and adults of the proposed school and he doubted that the Synanon drug treatment is a lasting cure. On February 7, 1967, after receiving an opposition petition signed by 200 local residents, the City Planning Commission voted to withdraw the conditional use permit for the proposed school. The City Council upheld the denial in March of 1967. The Rev. William A. Kraft, the Seminary’s administrator, said the Council’s revoking the permit for property that size was “tantamount to condemnation.” Synanon called El Cajon’s reaction the “all too familiar contemporary chain reaction of ignorance breeding fear…” Wilbur Beckham, the San Diego director and Betty Dederich’s brother, said, “We do not wish to subject our children to the hostile environment that has been created by the hate mongers who whipped up hysteria against Synanon in El Cajon.”

One month later the San Diego County Welfare Director Homer Detrich denied welfare applications for 19 families in Synanon under a program designed to reunite families because the money went into a communal fund. Detrich said if these families were eligible he expected another 25 families in Synanon would apply and the total cost to the county would run around $150,000 a year.


An earlier two-year Synanon prison program at Terminal Island failed. Synanon blamed restrictions on the amount of synanons allowed (one per week) and refusal to put the Synanon prisoners in the same cell blocks. Nevada had no such restrictions and rolled out a red carpet.

Nevada Governor Grant Sawyer invited Synanon in 1962 to try to rehabilitate prisoners at the Nevada State Prison in Carson City after a prison psychologist Wes Hyler heard Yablonsky present a paper on Synanon to the Western Psychological Association in San Francisco. With the approval of the warden Hyler moved into Synanon for four days to observe and afterwards Jimmy Middelton led a contingent to open a Synanon Reno Branch at 1035 North Sierra St. in order to run the prison program. They held synanons in a stone cave carved out of the mountain right off the prison yard. Members were tested to make sure they were not just “doing time “and were told “join or get out.” All prison “big shots” were put down in synanons for their image. Those who committed lived together in their own cell blocks. Prison officials were so satisfied with the job Synanon was doing with 40 non-addict felons that in March of 1963 it turned over a small isolated honor farm of 24 inmates in Peaving, northwest of Reno, to Synanon. Ex armed robber and heroin addict Ted Dibble joined Nevada detectives in speaking to citizens. The Nevada legislature appropriated $24,000 to contract with Synanon for further services. However, the Reno Branch, headed by musician Bill Crawford, Synanon’s first non-California facility, almost ended over zoning issues until a “Citizens Committee for Synanon” found two apartment buildings with two acres of adjoining ground in an allowable C-3 zone. Even then letters of protest poured in from scared neighbors and a Reno doctor requested a grand jury investigation. A John Birch Society member, Dr. John DeTar distributed at 25 cents a copy in Reno a 20-page pamphlet, “A Study of Synanon,” showing potential communist ties of people who had given Synanon support and of the potential that the “Synanon-Humanist-Scociometric complex can be used and usurped by the communist.”


In February of 1963, Synanon moved into the Old Bedford House, a 20-room house located on 249 Greens Farms Road in a Westport, Connecticut neighborhood of millionaires, bringing with them 50 addicts from the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx, and the howls could be heard all the way back to the shores of Santa Monica. New York psychiatrist Daniel Casriel, author of the first book on Synanon, and fellow Ivy League university professors rented a $53,000 Victorian mansion for Synanon overlooking Long Island Sound for $400.00 a month. Synanon immediately staffed it with 12 members as its Eastern Branch. Within three months 29 addicts joined, 25 of which remained after three months. But the Westport zoning commission issued a cease-and-desist order as it was violating an ” A single-family zone.” Jack Hurst announced on television Synanon would not obey it. Dederich felt Hurst was a “good general in the European theater of Westport” while the Synanon “Pentagon” called the shots in Santa Monica.

Once again Dederich chose an area illegal for a Synanon. The area was zoned for home occupation, leasing limited to four per room and to only one-third of the building. Zoning official had closed down the previous resident, a skin treatment hospital. As had happened in Santa Monica, the foreseeable effort to evict Synanon led to an outpour of sympathy that resulted in weeks of donated furniture, food, money, a refrigerator, a 1957 Plymouth and 40 to 50 money-paying Saturday night square synanon players. There were also the usual concerned parents who announced they were afraid to let their children go to the corner to catch a bus, afraid pushers will arrive and afraid property values will spiral downward.

One Westport official took notice of the pattern. Synanon, he claimed, was not run by stupid people. Why did they purposefully always choose to set up out of zone, wanting a fight? It brought them, he noticed, on each occasion, attention, sympathy and money. The operation is too slick, the men too articulate, too aware of the publicity value of the controversy to fit the picture of a bunch of reformed crooks who want to help each other…One idea is that they’re after foundation money, another is that they’re fanatics, a cult …there is a sense of mission about the group that’s pretty contagious.”

In April of 1964 Dansbury Common Pleas Judge Michael Rabin dismissed the zoning action finding, in effect, Synanon constituted a single “family.” When informed of the ruling Dederich joked to the media that winning the battle might “make me soft.” But in January of 1966 the Connecticut Supreme Court in a 5-0 decision reversed Rabin’s ruling holding the house use violated the Westport zoning restrictions. Synanon announced it didn’t care anymore as having decided two weeks earlier to move its Eastern Branch to New York.

New York:

The city of New York, overwhelmed by a drug addict population estimated between 30,000 to 50,000, around one/half of the country’s total, was far less resistant than other communities. Already some if it drug addicts were going to Westport and then shipped on to Santa Monica via Synanon’s sole Cadillac. A recruitment center was opened in a three-story house at 2. E. 7th St. on the East Side manned by seven residents. And attorney John Ciampa, chairman of the Legal Committee for the National Council for Synanon, convinced local judges and the probation department to make referrals. By November of 1964 Synanon had received 445 East Coast Addicts in five years claimed to have rehabilitated 54% of them. New York proposed to contract with Synanon for treatment of its addicts, the idea being to send them all to Santa Monica. But Los Angeles County moved to block the plan fearing it might result in an influx of New York’s vast addict population.

In May of 1966 Jimmy the Greek was dispatched in to run a New York Synanon house at 35 Riverside Drive in Manhattan, a four-story concrete and stone town house turned into headquarters for $84,000 plus renovation by 15 Synanites, as the New York Post dedicated its entire second page to Synanon. It was to be a reception-center/embassy, ready to ship addicts out west, as Los Angeles could not block voluntary movement guaranteed by the United States Constitution. As it was, already 245 of Synanon’s then 500 residents were from the East.

New Jersey:

In 1964 a New Jersey Drug Study Commission opted not to give Synanon any funding after reviewing rehabilitation statistics supplied by Synanon Foundation. Out of 1,180 addicts who had entered Synanon in its first five years of operation, only 26 had graduated. It was not impressed.

San Francisco:

Dederich lunched at the Jack Tar Hotel in San Francisco with judges and 150 law enforcement and civic officials in October of 1963 to lay the groundwork for establishing a Synanon house there. He told the city’s leaders that once Synanon opened it would “suck addicts off the streets like a vacuum cleaner.”

In February of 1964 Synanon, with Dederich, himself, along with his daughter Jady and 16 others, moved into San Francisco renting for $650.00 a month an $87,500, complete with swimming pool, three-story brown shingle mansion–the Clay Street House– in the exclusive Presidio Heights section.

In March, Dederich and Betty started having synanons at the house, placing overstuffed sofas in a circle by the fireplace, and invited members of the community. But soon a new battle begun to oust them from the rich neighborhood. Locals became outraged and Dederich claimed he was receiving threats to burn the house down. Synanon children went to school under escort. San Francisco Attorney Richard A. Bancroft asked that people give them a chance, learn of their good works and how peaceful they are.

By now Dederich was more word savvy and claimed they were not violating any zoning laws as they were all one big family. To explain the 19 people living in the mansion he classified, in addition to his and his brother-in-law Wilbur Beckham’s families, three women as maids, two as cooks, three as secretaries and one each as a butler, handyman, plumber and chauffeur. All happened to be former drug addicts.

San Francisco City Zoning Administrator Clyde Fisher responded that was more “domestics’ than allowed and the office on the second floor was illegal. The local Presidio Heights Assn. demanded a reduction of housed residents, including the domestics. Dederich told the press that all the opposition was based on racial overtones, blacks living with whites. Later he withdrew his word game saying, “We don’t have servants in Synanon.”

The incident led to Municipal Court Judge Leland J. Lazarus resigning as President of the “San Francisco Synanon Sponsors” saying whether legal or not Synanon’s move into an area where it knew a problem would arise was a mistake.

Telephone threats to burn down the mansion were received and Dederich posted a 24-hour guard around the house.

The situation in San Francisco changed when Synanon rented the second floor of the Seawall Warehouse in 1964 for it’s center. Located on the waterfront in San Francisco at 110 Lombard Street, beneath the west cliff of Telegraph Hill, it was the cities oldest commercial building. In the 1870’s it was a port for tall merchant ships when the bay extended the building. Despite having been built with lumber from sailing ships abandoned by crews bitten by the Gold Rush bug, it had survived the 1906 earthquake and its companion Great Fire with its sixty feet plus wooden beams in tack, just a few cracks in brick walls. Now it stood as a piece of proud history standing in a rundown neighborhood, its first floor an antique mart. The Seawall had football field size analogous to the structure that could house many in a single room that Thoreau dreamed of in his Walden writings. Jack Hurst moved up north to be its director.

A Synanon Automotive was established at 1755 Folsom Street and seven rooming houses were rented along with six apartments at 939 Eddy Street. But the most meaningful San Francisco acquisition was local attorney Dan Garrett. Known for being a lush, Garrett felt cured of his days as “kind of a rattling around drunk” by playing the synanon in 1964. In March of 1965 he moved in and moved close to Dederich who saw to it Garrett’s $80,000 worth of debts were taken care of. Garrett first became involved with Synanon as a sponsor in 1963 doing pro bono legal work for the Foundation. He was born in San Antonio, Texas, went to high school in Oklahoma and served as a commissioned airplane commander, flying B-17’s and B-29’s missions against Japan during the war before finishing first in his class at Hastings Law School in 1948 and opening a private practice in 1949. Garrett’s voice lacked inflection so in Synanon he was nicknamed the Drone. He terminated his law practice in 1969 to spend full time on Synanon’s legal needs. In Synanon, he became a Wizard conducting philosophical discourses and arguing with who ever wanted to talk. His children moved in too. One day he would be Consigliere and his own son would split and hide fearing his father might have him killed.


At the end of 1964 1180 had joined since 1958 with an average age of almost 30 years. Males made up 77.12 % and females 22.88 %. Spurred by prohibitions in New York against cold turkey kicking, 43.98 % came from back east. The members had been 76 .77 % white and 11.77 percent black. The balance Mexican and other.

Dederich became hesitant at taking in Mexicans as they had the highest split rate. He concluded it was because they were too close to home and found drugs too easily. New Yorkers, on the other hand, he noticed did better as they were transplanted.

Forty members moved in 1964 to a Northern California bay area following Synanon’s most meaningful purchase of land. Dederich finally obtained the rural land he had longed for in Malibu, a place in the wilderness, his own Walden’s Pond. Synanon acquired for $175,000 the 42-acre Bay Ranch at Marconi Cove just south of the village in Marshall on Highway 1, a mile long stretch of mainland that reached Tomales Bay along a narrow ocean inlet roughly 50 miles up the coast from San Francisco with State Highway 1 running along the ocean edge. The peninsula separating the ocean was a natural sea shore with many cliffs and coves below. It was filled with natural hiking areas, bird sanctuaries, sandy beaches and pelicans diving for fish on both sides. Ducks, seagulls, whales, seals and sometimes great whites flirted in and out of view. It was here Dederich announced he would build his utopia, Synanon City, a world without drugs, crime, police of jails, where the incorrigible and misfit will be transformed, ala Skinner’s Box, to the happy and free.

The property, originally built in 1916 as part of radio-telephone link to Hawaii in a failed attempt to lure Guglielmo Marconi to the States, had half a dozen concrete buildings with clay roofs. The 50-room “Inn,” still standing from those days was surrounded by vast cypress and fir trees, had great stone fireplaces and an end-to-end veranda. There were three cottages. High up sat the ten-room Cliff House where Dederich and Garrett lived. The “Power House” named for the generators inside would become the Stew Temple in a few years. The land had several barns. Charlie Hamer was put in charge of the corrals. Chuck proclaimed it “perhaps the most gorgeous site on the planet.”


Two adjacent Marshall purchases would be made when the 1970’s commenced, giving Synanon another 3,306 acres in Marin. There many who had once been called “the scum of the earth” would toil diligently to build Synanon City. And while there was not an abundance of immediate complaining neighbors in 1964, just local farmers, the scattered and sparse populated West Marin Community, one day fearing it might be overwhelmed and taken over, would then commence the longest zoning battle of them all.