Escape from Synanon III

Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk

by Paul Morantz
(c) August 2010

In May of l978 I received a phone call from the bravest woman I have ever known which led to the most intense experience I ever had.

Ernestine White was a tough as nails black grandmother who had been written up in the Cong. Rec. as an example of a woman building a successful business, White records, in the middle of Detroit’s ghetto. But a daughter Rita had entered Synanon in l972 to be with her drug addict husband Otis Butler who was seeking help and there Rita died of cancer in l973. Recovered from addiction Otis left Synanon leaving behind 3 kids he did not feel he could raise.

The children—Jay, Neidra (not real name) and Joey– only contact with the outside world over the years was Ms. White who never gave up on her battle to see them. She had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees fighting Synanon for custody and visitation. She had finally obtained visitation rights that allowed limited visits where she could take the children outside of Synanon. She would fly in from Detroit and live in a hotel with the children on these occasions. But Synanon was changing. Now she was being told they did not care about her court order and that she could not remove the children from Synanon for visitation but they would consider her coming on the property.

Like others, one day she heard there was a lawyer in Los Angeles that was the person to speak to concerning Synanon. And so my phone rang. It seemed always everything starts with a phone call.

There were enough phone calls between Ms. White and me to understand the story and the necessity. Jay was now 17 and could be put into the Imperial Marines. Neidra was 16 and could be soon love matched to a stranger. Joey was 15 but word was he wanted out. At first I was pessimistic that anything could be done. I knew that each of the children was old enough to be emancipated, i.e. given early status of adulthood and allowed to make their own decisions. I assumed from past experience if Ms. White tried for custody Synanon would work on the children to hate her. I already knew from my earlier attempts to proceed by warrants to appear in court that Synanon would disobey such court orders, run them out the back door and most likely file for emancipation in a local court (see Escape From Synanon II). I told Ms. White that if she tried for custody and lost the children would be turned against her and they probably would not agree to visit with her.

What we had was that Synanon had purchased $307,000 worth of weapons from a gunshop in Marin in January. It was more armed than local law-enforcement. I figured Synanon would counter in court with stories of vandals and attacks and state the weapons were secured. I feared the courts might by-pass what was indeed a frightening reality. While the intent may have been more to scare people like me the undeniable fact was Synanon was under a complete siege mentality and was preparing for war. Already Synanon played war games and had mock invasions to test security. The roads nearby Synanon facilities in Marin and Visalia were Synanon patrolled and no longer safe. In Santa Monica several who got to close were beaten in the facility basement.

Then something happened that opened the door. Ms. White and her other daughter Barbara Podesta flew north to visit. While Ms. White entertained the children, Barbara returned to their hotel and took from Joey’s back pack his school work and had it copied. The original was placed back and Joey never knew a copy was provided to me. Joey had written a paper for school that stated Charles Dederich was a great man who everyone had to obey. Dederich could tell 1,000 people what to do. Joey wrote that Synanon was a new religion and that everyone would have to learn Syndo (Synanon form of martial arts) and fight the holy war against its enemies.

Joey described Changing Partners where all members of Synanon were, at orders of Dederich, to switch their mates (Dederich’s wife had died and he took a stranger for a new wife and then decided everyone should share in the experience of a new relationship with a stranger every 3 years to avoid the sorrow of death or divorce). Joey described with approval the Ben Parks and Dorothy Reiss incident. A long time couple, Ben and Dorothy had refused to breakup with each other and take a new love partner. As a result Dederich ordered that they be put in a truck and driven off and dumped in a ditch. This event actually occurred, complete with Dorothy being knocked to the ground in the ditch. Joey apparently being taught of the incident as part of school work stated approval in his paper. Joey’s paper was marked with an A+ grade.

The reference to Ben Parks was ironic. Ben’s Dad was a childhood friend of Ms. White and as a teenager Ben worked in White Records with Rita. He was happy to see her again when she moved into Synanon. He had watched her kids grow while in Synanon. After Ben and Dot were thrown into the ditch they became key witnesses for me.

Joey’s school paper, of course, changed everything. I felt there wasn’t a judge in existence after reading it that was not going to put the kids on the first plane heading east. The only thing now was to make a plan. And so Ms. White flew to Los Angeles. There everyone in my office was waiting to see this grandmother who was ready to take on Synanon, Imperial Marines and all.

I decided that the best course of action was to try not to involve Synanon. The father, Otis Butler, Sr. had actual custody and he lived outside of Synanon. I decided that papers should just be served upon him and to see what his reaction is. Would he turn to Synanon for help? If he agreed even to anything then Synanon would be bound by it. And so we served him with a request for change of custody of the children to Ms. White.

It turned out two Imperial Marines, Lance Kenton and Allan Hubbard, had visited Otis in Los Angeles recently and demanded that he turn over more money to Synanon for caring of his children. He felt he was being physically intimidated. Afterwards, being a religious man, he prayed that the Lord would show him some guidance. He decided when served with the change of custody papers these papers were the answer to his prayers. He contacted me and stipulated to the change of custody of the children to Ms. White.

We now had legal custody but the kids were far from freedom. I could see what would happen. Ms. White would serve the papers on Synanon and Synanon would run them out the back door, hide them and then file for emancipation in some court in Northern California where we would have to go to fight for them. It would be more expensive as we would have to bring many witnesses who resided in Los Angeles up north to testify to Synanon brainwashing and brutality. The answer to all this was we had custody– we could legally snatch them off the streets. But the kids do not go out onto the streets. They remained inside Synanon and were not allowed out.

I went back in front of Commissioner Harris in Santa Monica (see Escape From Synanon II) and once again asked him to sign a pick-them up order. This time the request was for an order that the Marin County Sheriff’s do everything possible to assist in the pickup and transfer the 3 kids to Ms. White per change of custody order. Once again I filed evidence of Synanon’s dangerous conduct to show necessity for the order.

After Comm. Harris signed the order, I then telephoned Lieut. Art Disterheft, the undersheriff in Marin County, to advise of the plan. Art had a handle on Synanon and was an inside source of information to Dave Mitchell of the Point Reyes light and myself at risk of his job. His boss Sheriff Louis Mountanos was elected to office with votes of Synanon members, two Synanon goon enforcers–Buddy Jones and Art Warfield– were deputized and Mountanos had granted Charles Dederich and Dan Garrett, number 2 in Synanon, head of the Synanon legal Department and overseer of the Imperial Marines, gun permits.

Disterheft said don’t come to Marin. He said Sheriff Mountanos would tip Synanon off rather than cooperate in seizing the children. He recommended that I try Synanon’s location in San Francisco.

The San Franciso Synanon House was acquired in February of l971 by a hustler contacting Dutch Boy Paint to score some gallons of paint donation for Synanon. His “save a life” pitch so impressed National Land Industries, which owned Dutch Boy, that it ultimately donated to Synanon a warehouse a square block long in San Francisco Potreo Hill area. It was appraised then at 1.4 million. Synanon immediately remade it into a residential facility and storage warehouse. The state’s governor, Ronald Reagan, along with Oakland’s Mayor John H. Reading, publicly congratulated Synanon for the restoration.

Disterheft now reasoned this location in the middle of a city could be surrounded whereas other Synanon locations in Santa Monica, Marin or Visalia had escape routes.

So back to Commissioner Harris I went this time requesting he order the San Franciso Police Department to do everything in its power to implement the transfer of the children to Ms. White. Per the plan Ms. White began a telephone campaign with Synanon where she behaved very nicely and asked to see her grandchildren in San Francisco saying that she would agree not to take them outside of the facility.

At the same time I had the order served upon the San Francisco Police and made contact with the department. I explained that Synanon was armed and dangerous, describing the arsenal of weapons recently purchased and gave the details of beatings Synanon had committed. I explained that Synanon had trained in elite force called the Imperial Marines which in turn trained another security force called the National Guard.

I advised Synanon would probably disobey the custody order and the San Francisco Police Department had to make a plan to enforce it. And in doing so it had to be prepared that guns might be drawn. Contacts I had in the Calif. State Health Department, who I had been educating concerning Synanon’s unlicensed treatment of ill persons, at my request contacted the San Francisco Police Department and verified what I was saying.

Ms. White did her part. She got Synanon to agree to produce Jay and Neidra in San Francisco for visitation but Synanon refused to bring Joey down from Visalia. It was a dilemma. We almost called it off. The plan was in force ready to be executed but we risked losing Joey. We wanted to leave no one behind. Finally, I decided that if information was correct that Joey wanted to leave most likely we would get him. Also, at 15, he might be still too young for emancipation. We decided D-Day would go forward.

So on a Friday morning in June of l978 Ms. White arrived in San Francisco and took a rented car to the police department for a meeting. The change of custody order had another attorney’s name on it and not mine as I figured that if Synanon saw my name on the pleadings it would encourage a more irrational response. The police told Ms. White that she would have to go into Synanon and show the order and ask for the kids. They would not act until Synanon said no.

Ms. White drove to Synanon and alone entered the facility, handed over a copy of the change of custody order and asked for the children. She was told no. She retreated outside to a corner where an officer awaited. Upon the news he picked up his walkie-talkie and the next thing was a scene out of some Al Pacino movie thriller. Eleven police cars surrounded Synanon with officers exiting with guns and rifles pointed at Synanon. Officers entered and Synanon handed over Jay and Neidra to Ms. White. The police then advised that unless Synanon agreed to put Joey on an airplane to Detroit from Visalia they would drive in mass to Visalia and invade Synanon to get Joey. Synanon agreed to do it.

Later at my office I telephoned the Airlines for verification Joey was on the plane. I was explained that regulations allowed confirming reservations but not who was actually on board. I told her the story and begged for the information. Finally she said Joey was on the flight and Champagne corks popped throughout by office.

But it was not over. While Ms. White was at work Synanon contacted the kids and promised legal help. Lawyers would help them file for emancipation and Synanon would get them back. They were instructed to harass Ms. White and to call Australia and leave the telephone off the hook. Ms. White countered by bringing legendary deprogrammer Ted Patrick to talk with the kids.

Ted Patrick at the age of 25 during the Los Angeles Watts riots in 1965 helped calm unrest amongst fellow blacks in the Logan Heights section of San Diego See Ted Patrick–The first cult fighter). At age 41, his work got him appointed by Governor Ronald Reagan to a Community Relations post in San Diego in the summer of 1971. That year on Fourth of July his 14-year-old son came home late from the fire works due to being stopped by men with guitars who tried to induce him to join a family called the Children of God. A week later Patrick had information that other children that night had joined and listened to 52 similar stories. Investigating, Patrick pretended to join the group and then escaped.

He kidnapped a child from COG and deprogrammed her. Then he did it again. Other parents who lost children sought his help. Across the country he went, kidnapping and de-programming; physically grabbing a follower and keeping the person under guard while forcing him or her to listen to truth’s about the particular group and confront their family. One after another, aided by those he previously rescued. The Moonies, the Krishnas, Scientology, etc. he continued to snatch, imprison and deprogram. Over a thousand times he did it. Almost always he was successful. He became known as “the Black Devil” and “Black Lightning,” the first cult fighter. In his book ‘Let Our Children Go” he explained when the follower was convinced of a single lie the follower unraveled all lies. He also faced many trials and prison for his acts although usually juries acquitted him on theory you could commit a crime to prevent a greater crime. He created an industry; not one I agreed with because it was taking law into own hands and self deciding who was brainwashed; to be held against their will until they denounced the cult. Yet I met many who claimed he saved their lives. There was no other system through which a parent could seek assistance. Even a judge was known to hire such methods to rescue his son. Eventually a movie was made on Patrick’s life. At this time he lived in hiding. Ms. White hired him and it seemed to pay off although Neidra would later state his assistants in his absence were too rough and found the experience damaging.

Eventually I would dinner with all 3 kids. Initially Jay, the oldest, who would have forever have problems adjusting, stayed in touch for several years. But it was Joey talking that I heard from first. Ms. White called in tears. She had overheard “Joey,” she said, “saying they are going to kill you.” The information she heard from Joey was not new information. She said he said that on the wire they repeatedly talked about going to Los Angeles and getting me. She heard Joey talk about the Imperial Marines and that they went out on special missions against the enemies. He said I was enemy number one and said they knew where I lived. He sounded very certain that they were going to kill me.

In August of 1978 at the request of Marin County I lobbied against a special bill in Sacramento to exempt Synanon from licensing laws. The next month I won a $300,000 judgment for Ted and Terry Raines (see Escape From Synanon I). And on October 10, 1978 I was bitten by a Rattlesnake placed in my mailbox; a crime for which later Dederich, Kenton and fellow Imperial Marine Joe Musico were convicted of.

After recovery, On November 27, 1978, I was forwarded an earlier newspaper column that summer by famed San Francisco columnist Herb Caen belittling the San Francisco Police Department for picking on poor little Synanon. Caen, who wrote his first column in l938, had coined the term “beatnik” in his April 2, 1958 column and popularized the word “hippie” during San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love. In the earlier column sent to me, which appeared in Chronicle prior to rattlesnake, Caen wrote raising the question of what was the SF police doing pointing all those guns at Synanon to enforce a mere child custody order? He quoted Mayor George Moscone as apologizing to Synanon and blaming it all on a Los Angeles attorney named Paul Morantz for inflaming the police department into action, saying SFPD was misguided by my information. Until then it was not clear Synanon even knew I was involved. I could connect the dots to the snake.

It also had crossed my mind Caen may be a little prejudiced. Synanon had copied the beatnik coffee house bongo playing image in late 50’s and converted to the hip style of the 60’s.

So upset I was, on the next day to work I vowed that no one that day would prevent me from speaking to Moscone on the telephone wherein I would tell him off like no one had ever told off a public official. Caen would be next. But before I reached the office I heard on the radio that the night before Moscone was murdered. By the time I reached my office I had my alibi firmly in my head for the prior night.

It turned out Moscone was shot along with San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk in San Francisco City Hall by former Supervisor Dan White on November 27, 1978. White was angry that Moscone had refused to re-appoint him to his seat on the Board of Supervisors, which White had just resigned. Because Milk was openly gay, some considered his murder a hate crime.

White was subsequently convicted of voluntary manslaughter, rather than of first degree murder. The verdict sparked the “White Night riots” in San Francisco, and led to the state of California eliminating the diminished capacity criminal defense and it now only exists where capacity is actually a factor stated in the crime penal code definition. White’s counsel allegedly convinced the jury of the “Twinkie defense,” i.e. White’s diminished capacity was due to the effects of sugar filled junk food.

People Magazine told the Butler escape story before the rattlesnake attack and the author of the story, Karen Jackovich, on the way to a secluded cabin on her honeymoon heard on the radio someone was bitten by a snake in a mailbox. She said aloud it must be Paul Morantz. Her husband of one day then complained she always believed she knew everything and stated it was ridiculous for her to make that conclusion. When they reached the cabin Karen found a note from her editor pinned on the door. It said, “Come back.”

A few years later Ms. White, Joey and I appeared on a CBS morning talk show and told the story to the nation. The episode was called Escape from Synanon. I said I had gained a new family. Ms. White talked of all the lawyers who failed her until she found me. She treated me as a son from thereon. My total bill to her was $500. Other than Jay for a short while, I did not see them after that show although Ms. White would call on occasion to see how I was doing. I know she always loved me and we were connected by an unexplainable bond that can not be understood unless you actually went through an experience like this.

In the summer of 2008 I was reunited on separate events with both Neidra and Joey. Joey showed up at my birthday party and the event was filmed. Both continually visit me. Sometimes I am astonished at the love I receive from both. They treat me as if I was….someone who gave them their life. I do not hear from Jay. Neidra has problems from her Synanon experience, her experience with Patrick and her feelings towards her grandmother are not positive. She is angry at all three. Joey is happily married and doing well in the industry of arts and entertainment which was his desire to be in when he was 15 and escaped from Synanon and had a Michael Jackson resemblance.

A former Synanon member did a study at the beginning of this decade on what happened in general to the children of Synanon. Most, she concluded, did not do well. That fit in with what is now known as to the importance of child attachment in early years. Synanon’s “Hatchery” where babies were kept away from parents and similar Synanon school were disastrous and an ill advised experiment. While an outgrowth of Dederich’s disdain for children ever since his youngest brother died of the flu when Dederich was 8 ( he did not bond with his own children until they were adults), it also kept children from interfering with adult work for Synanon or allowing a relationship to grow greater than one’s love for Synanon, a phenomena typical of most cults.

Following the rattlesnake attack Synanon members applauded at the news but reacted silently when first seeing me on Television. They had expected someone old, bent with a crooked nose (like maybe today) and saw instead a young smiling man who spent weekends playing beach volleyball.

Lance Kenton, son of former bandleader Stan Kenton, after getting out of jail for attempted murder by Rattlesnake married a former Synanon member who had had a child with actor Charlie Sheen. The former youngest member of the Imperial Marines has lived a law abiding life and works today for Sheen.

Joe Musico was murdered in 2000, thrown off a roof by a rival pimp and drug dealer.

Later reports varied on actual amount of Synanon’s gun purchase. Synanon claimed it was “only” $67,000. It was not their only weapon purchase. It also had a fleet of cars and motorcycles, an armada of boats and its own planes plus an airfield.

In l982 I was contacted by the Department of Justice to participate in a case for back taxes on theory Synanon retroactively lost its tax free charitable trust standing through a series of acts of terrorism. The case was won on summary judgment motion based on Synanon’s own documents and fact it destroyed evidence. In l985 there were arrests of several of Synanon’s hierarchy for obstructing justice. The liens and penalties finally closed the doors of Synanon in l991 and Charles Dedeirch lived his final years in seclusion cared for by Ginny Schorin until he died in l997.

Karen Jackovich went on to become an award-winning expert in television development, programming, and producing. In 2002, she founded Karen G. Jackovich & Company, an entertainment and media production firm. In 2003, she was named President, Worldwide Television for Sub Rosa Productions, a film, television, and book publishing company, and ran the New York office before relocating to their Los Angeles headquarters in 2005.

Dan White was released from prison in l984 and relocated to Los Angeles where he was constantly followed by the media. He committed suicide in 1985. The events of the Moscone-Milk murders helped bring national notice to then-Board President Dianne Feinstein, who eventually became the mayor of San Francisco and eventually U.S. Senator for California. A movie was made not long ago on Milk’s life starring Sean Penn.

Herb Caen Caen received a special award from the Pulitzer Prize board in 1996 “for his extraordinary and continuing contribution as a voice and conscience of his city.” Ironically Dave Mitchell won the Pultizer Prize for his investigation of Synanon during the same year Caen chided the SFPD for listening to me and surrounding Synanon to rescue the Butler kids. Caen died of lung cancer in 1997. His funeral in San Francisco was one of the best-attended events in the city’s history.

Arising out of public concern following the events of Synanon and the People’s Temple mass suicide,Ted Patrick testified before an ad hoc Congressional committee organized in 1979 by Senator Bob Dole to receive information on the danger of cults. Following periods of imprisonment and besieged by civil suits, particularly one by a Scientologist, Patrick declared bankruptcy in l988 and has lived in quiet retirement from the occupation he created.

Ernestine White died in 1998. Otis Butler died earlier. He never had any real relationship with his kids. Barbara Podesta still keeps in contact with the “kids”. Ben Parks and Dorothy “Dottie” Reiss after being thrown in the ditch and out of Synanon became my best friends during the Synanon ordeal until they finally separated. Ben helped me in getting evidence to get the orders in the Butler case. Later Ben provided evidence and background to LAPD following the rattlesnke attack and still keeps in touch with former officers on the rattlesnake case. Following my release from hospital in October of l978 a Malibu fire threatened Pacific Palisades. Ben organized former Synanon members–The Network of Friends–to evacuate furniture from my house. Ben moved back to Detroit around 1985 not long after my wedding. “Dotti” for a period did my legal typing. Ben keeps in touch by e-mail, occasional phone, but I have never seen him again. Nor have I seen Dottie.

Art Distefheft after the rattlesnake assisted Los Angeles and State law enforcement search warrant raids and investigations on Synanon. He was voted in as the sheriff of Marin County after the Marin public became aware of Mountanos relationship with Synanon. He assisted Los Angeles and State law enforcement search warrant raids on Synanon and supplied information. He was a true cop that did his job every day and sought no fan fare for it. He became known for his role in the search for the Green River serial killer. He died in l991 leaving behind a loving wife and my eternal gratitude.

A second White Records was opened in early 80’s in Detroit Renaissance Center that unfortunately became an economic burden and drain to original store. As the economy resided and the record business declined due to online downloading, White Records eventually closed not long after Ms. White passed.