Fall of Synanon 5 (The Point Reyes Light)

FALL OF SYNANON 5 (The Point Reyes Light)

(Dedicated to Dave and Cathy Mitchell)

(c) October 2010 by Paul Morantz

Dave and Cathy Mitchell met in the graduate program at
Stanford University and together purchased the Point Reyes Light in
1975. They wanted to be a community paper that aided a community.
Cathy centered on the business end and Dave the editorial work. They had one part-time reporter, little income and lived in the newspaper’s

Point Reyes Station is located in western Marin County, populated by a mixture,
Dave would write, of “longhairs and cowboy hats.” The community ultimately blended hippies, farmers and the free-spirit affluent. It became known for its wooden hot tub lifestyle. Point Reyes was also located close to the doorstep of Synanon.

At this time there was a media fear to write about Synanon as the organization had its own zealot attorneys quick to sue and teach a lesson.

On March 9, 1978, a Marin grand jury report instigated by my legal actions in Santa Monica (see Escape From Synanon II) wrote Synanon had converted to an autocracy refusing to obey the rules of society and noted allegations of child abuse and weapons.

The Mitchells’ investigated and found some support from area residents. But the more government did less, the more Mitchells became obsessed with founding out why. And as they were willing to listen, those who had something to say knew who to call.

For seven months, the Mitchells continued coverage with little corresponding
government action, although they were secretly assisted by Under Sheriff Lt. Disterhefft. Then the rattlesnake blew the lid off the media fear of reporting on Synanon. Where did the media have to go to get information–The Point Reyes Light.

From locals and farmers, the reading list grew to include The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc.

For it all the Mitchells won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for
writing more than 100 articles and editorials on Synanon while major publications hid their heads in he sand in fear.

The first time I met Dave was in my office on a Sunday while he was in Los Angeles to listen to a Synanon press conference suggesting I had framed Synanon. By then we had had countless telephone conversations.

I would visit him from time to time and once met for lunch when he was pitching his book in LA.

But what I remembered most was the sunny afternoon in l980 I lied on a backyard lounge to read the book and came to Dave describing a phone call where I said I had just gotten word I would be next. I apparently asked him to promise if anything happened to me that looked like an accident that he would never stop investigating until the truth came out.

I closed the book then. And for the first time since it all started, I cried uncontrollably.

* * *

From Wikipedia

David and Cathy Mitchell divorced in 1981, selling The Light to Rosalie Laird and her short-term partner Ace Ramos.

David Mitchell spent two years reporting for the then-Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner . In 1982, The Examiner sent Mitchell to Central America for three months as part of a news team reporting on upheaval in the region. Mitchell was assigned to the insurrections in El Salvador and Guatemala.

In 1983, Mitchell, working as a freelancer for The Examiner, returned to Central America during his vacation with his fiancée Cynthia Clark serving as his translator. In El Salvador, Mitchell and Clark observed cooperation between government phone workers and guerrillas[15], and they were caught in a firefight between guerrillas and government forces.[16] In an article on the firefight, Des Moines Register reporter Jerry Perkins described driving through rural El Salvador and coming upon

“Mitchell and Clark standing beside a tree… taking pictures of a Salvadoran soldier, his shirt unbuttoned to the waist, his M-16 blasting away. I thought the guy was just showing off for Clark…. But as we drove closer, the leaves in the tree above the group started to disintegrate. Then Mitchell and Clark jumped behind the tree and crouched for cover…. [and] weren’t touched by the shooting…. Mitchell, a lanky, gregarious Californian, came up with the best story of the trip. He was taking pictures of guerrillas checking cars at a roadblock when a Toyota jeep was stopped. Mitchell thought the jeep looked like it belonged to ANTEL, the Salvadoran national phone company. Mitchell learned that the guerrillas let telephone company employees clear the roadblocks so they can keep the phone lines open in guerrilla-held territory. In return the phone company lets the guerrillas use the jeep at night for road patrols. The guerrillas return the jeep every morning. It’s that kind of war.”[17]

On December 31, 1983, Mitchell reacquired The Point Reyes Light through a default action against Rosalie Laird. He and Clark were married in June 1984. Mitchell and Clark separated in 1995 and subsequently divorced. [18]

During Mitchell’s 27 years of publishing The Point Reyes Light, the small paper won 108 state, regional, and national journalism awards, as well as the Pulitzer Prize. In a July 4, 1989, report on the US First Amendment, Germany’s ARD network reported, “America’s small newspapers top the list of things US citizens can take pride in, and among America’s best small papers is The Point Reyes Light.”[19]

In November 2005, Mitchell sold the weekly to Robert Israel Plotkin of Bolinas, California. The two had legal disputes that settled in 2008.

Mitchell, 65, is retired and still lives in Point Reyes Station, still a rural town of 750 people 40 miles north of San Francisco. He spends much of his time on wildlife photography and on commentaries about the small towns of his area, which he publishes on his blog.

Cathy Mitchell taught journalism for 30 years, first at Santa Rose Junior College and then at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. As a professor, she published a news writing textbook “The News Formula” and a scholarly work “Margaret Fuller’s New York Journalism.” Her latest work is a novel about animal rescue. “Save a Spaniel” tells the story of a dog dropped at an animal shelter and in danger of euthanasia. The dog walks through many lives as she learns to work with people and finally finds a role as a therapy dog in a nursing home. The personal knowledge for this book comes from advanced dog obedience classes and from her work as a volunteer with Boykin Spaniel Rescue.