The Cult of Synanon

Westport welcomed a new drug addiction rehabilitation center in February 1963. Housed on four-acres the eighteen-room Victorian mansion, known as the Old Bedford house located at 249 Greens Farms Road, had single beds that could hold up to 24 people as well as a fully furnished barber shop on the third floor. The organization known as Synanon was championed by Connecticut’s United States Senator Thomas Dodd calling it, “one of the most dynamic and vital programs that I have experienced.” 

Created in 1958 by Charles Diedrich, a former alcoholic, Synanon was a program for those suffering from drug addiction to rehabilitate themselves through “self-reliance and making the person responsible for his own actions.” The program first began as a small community in California supporting one another, but morphed into a non-profit with 1,300 members and more than $30 million in assets, including property in Santa Monica, ownership of a chain of gas stations and an airstrip by 1976. 

Throughout the organizations tenure in Westport residents buttressed the non-profit with donations of food and supplies as well as solicitations for funding. The Sponsors of Synanon, founded by longtime resident Betty Sobol, was charged with helping underwrite and champion the organization. 

By January of 1966 the Westport house, designed to be Synanon’s stepping stone to the Northeast, faced legal trouble after their facility was found to be in violation of zoning laws. In the Connecticut Supreme Court decision of the escalating case, “the nature of Synanon’s program, which may be meritorious, is not involved as an issue…” the court’s decision was “directed solely to the interpretation and enforcement of the zoning ordinance” that restricted the property to single-family use. Synanon claimed the nearly 30 residents were family as they were all united in a single pursuit—the court disagreed and a month later ordered the non-profit to vacate the property. Synanon’s Eastern Branch Foundation Director, William Crawford, told the media that prior to the trial proceedings the organization was already in the midst of closing their Westport facility. 

Westport’s legal battle with Synanon predated the height of the non-profit’s popularity and subsequent revelation of the predatory and violent actions taken on by the now known cult. Synanon sought religious status in 1974, with Diedrich as its leader. Originally a nonviolent group, Diedrich created the “Imperial Marines” to maintain order—within and outside of the community. Members were brainwashed, tortured mentally and barred from leaving the community—escaped members were subject to beatings. One former member was beaten almost to the point of death when his skull was fractured in 1977.  

October 1978 reached a boiling point when Paul Morantz, an attorney assisting former members and their families in escaping the cult, was attacked. Two members of the Imperial Marines placed a de-rattled rattlesnake into Morantz mailbox. Morantz survived though he sustained long-lasting injuries when the highly venomous reptile bit him. Diedrich was linked to this and multiple other violent crimes and he was removed from power as his health did not permit and lengthy jail sentence. Synanon’s non-profit status was revoked and slowly collapsed before filing for bankruptcy in 1991. 

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