The drug rehabilitation program in California had started out as a nonprofit run by a former alcoholic who preached tough love and won acclaim for his approach to treating addicts.

Over the years, it evolved into a religious cult called the Church of Synanon with millions of dollars in income, draconian practices that included forced sterilizations and abortions, and its own militia that violently attacked defectors and critics.

In October 1978, two members of the militia, called the Synanon Imperial Marines, attempted to kill a lawyer by placing a rattlesnake – de-rattled to keep it quiet – in the mailbox of his Los Angeles-area home.

Shortly before the attack, the lawyer, Paul Morantz, had sued Synanon on behalf of a couple, winning a $300,000 judgment on claims that the group had kidnapped, brainwashed and tortured the wife after she was referred to Synanon for what she thought would be psychiatric treatment. The 4.5-foot-long venomous snake bit Morantz on the hand, and he was hospitalized for nearly a week.

For David V. Mitchell, the co-owner, publisher and editor of the Point Reyes Light, a weekly newspaper in western Marin County, Calif., this was a local story – but not the kind the community tabloid usually covered. Those included tales about a late-night stampede by dairy cows through the town of Point Reyes Station and a firefighter’s hard-to-explain rescue of a cow from a tree in Hicks Valley.

What made Synanon grist for the Light was that the group had a sprawling compound in Marshall, Calif., about 10 miles northwest of Point Reyes Station. So the paper launched an investigation of the cult.

A series of articles and editorials about Synanon won the Light the 1979 Pulitzer gold medal for meritorious public service, considered the nation’s highest journalism award. For Mitchell, who died at 79 on Oct. 26 at his Point Reyes Station home of complications from Parkinson’s disease, it was the highlight of a career that took him around the country as a teacher and as a reporter and editor for a variety of newspapers.

“It was only the fourth year since the Pulitzers began in 1917 that a prize in any division … went to a weekly,” Mitchell wrote in his blog, titled “Sparsely Sage and Timely,” in 2006. Working with him on the investigation of “the increasingly violent Synanon cult,” he noted, were Catherine Mitchell, his wife and co-publisher at the time, and Richard Ofshe, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley, who served as an unpaid adviser.

A 1980 book by the three of them, “The Light on Synanon: How a Country Weekly Exposed a Corporate Cult – and Won the Pulitzer Prize,” was dramatized in a 1984 movie for CBS titled “Attack on Fear,” with Paul Michael Glaser as Mitchell.

The exposé also led to a landmark ruling by the California Supreme Court in 1984 after Synanon filed a half-dozen libel lawsuits in retaliation against the Mitchells. The court ruled that investigative reporters could keep confidential sources secret in certain libel and other civil cases without forfeiting their defenses against the litigation. The cult ultimately was obliged to pay the Mitchells $100,000, and the Light published front-page photos of Synanon’s checks.

“Dave Mitchell and the Point Reyes Light are synonymous with top-shelf weekly newspapering,” Chad Stebbins, director of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, wrote about a book by Mitchell, “The Light on the Coast,” in 2013. “Dave is one of the few small-town editors ever to win a Pulitzer Prize; his investigation of the Synanon cult is a textbook example of tenacious reporting.”

“David was extraordinarily hard-working,” Ofshe told The Washington Post. “Once he got the idea of what he wanted to do, that consumed his life while he was doing it.”

David Vokes Mitchell was born in San Francisco on Nov. 23, 1943. His father was vice president of a printing company, and his mother, an immigrant from Canada, sold ads for the Christian Science Monitor. At Stanford University, he received a bachelor’s degree in English in 1965 and a master’s degree in communications in 1967.

Mitchell then taught at high schools in New York and Florida and a college in Iowa before beginning his newspaper career in 1970 as a city hall reporter in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He went on to work for the Union Democrat in Sonora, Calif., the Sebastopol (Calif.) Times and the San Francisco Examiner. At the Examiner from 1981 to 1983, he was a general assignment reporter and briefly covered civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala.

In 1975, he and his second wife, Catherine Mitchell, bought the Point Reyes Light for $47,000. At the time it had a circulation of 1,700. They invested in more modern production techniques, built circulation to about 4,000 and eventually were able to turn a small profit, clearing about $17,000 in their peak year.

An angular, imposing man of 6-foot-4, Mitchell presided over a staff of one reporter and wrote much of the paper’s content himself. In later years, the gray-bearded newsman was rarely seen without his corncob pipe.

Even before the attempted assassination by snakebite, Synanon (believed to be a portmanteau of symposium and anonymous) drew Mitchell’s attention. Marin residents were alarmed by its increasing violence against local ranchers and members who left the cult, its arsenal of hundreds of weapons and its plans to build a “city” in the bucolic western Marin countryside for 5,000 of its shaven-headed, overall-wearing adherents, Ofshe said.

The group was led by Charles Dederich, a garrulous drifter from Ohio who moved to Southern California when he was 40, joined Alcoholics Anonymous and formed his own rehab program, initially called Tender Loving Care, in 1958.

He later turned Synanon into a religion to avoid having to pay taxes and obtain licenses for its activities. He expanded his following from down-and-out addicts to middle-class people who could contribute more money, pitching to them a role in creating a utopian community.

By the end of 1976, Synanon had assets worth $22 million; 5,500 acres of property; buildings and compounds in Southern and Northern California, including one with an airstrip; fleets of cars, trucks, boats and airplanes; and $8 million in annual revenue from various businesses, Los Angeles Magazine reported.

At the same time, Dederich was becoming increasing authoritarian and erratic. He declared that his followers should stop having children, calling them “a very bad investment.” Women were pressured to have abortions and men to undergo vasectomies. He also decreed that married couples should divorce and temporarily hook up with other members.

Against this backdrop, Mitchell launched his investigation of Synanon, his weekly consistently scooping dailies. One front-page story in the Light reported that Dederich had “repeatedly called for an attack” on Morantz, the attorney who sued Synanon, in the months before the snake bite.

Dederich was subsequently arrested on a charge of conspiracy to commit murder and pleaded no contest in 1980. He was fined, sentenced to probation because of poor health and ordered to end ties with Synanon, which ultimately declared bankruptcy and dissolved in 1991.

Mitchell and his then-wife, the former Catherine Casto, divorced in 1981 and sold the newspaper. He reacquired it at the end of 1983 and served as editor until 2005, when he sold it again and retired. He continued to write his blog until June 2023, lamenting in his last post that Parkinson’s disease had “substantially crippled me” and that he was “increasingly forgetful” about basic matters.

“Just last week,” he wrote, “I had to tell my youngest stepdaughter that for the moment I couldn’t remember how many times I’ve been married. (Her mother in Guatemala was my fourth wife.)”

His first marriage, to Linda Foor, and his later marriages to Cynthia Clark and Ana Carolina Monterroso also ended in divorce. He and his fifth wife, Lynn Axelrod Mitchell, were married in 2018. In addition to Mitchell, survivors include three stepdaughters and two grandchildren.

He added in his final post that he was starting to take a new medicine that he hoped would be effective against Parkinson’s.

“In the meantime,” he concluded, “I’ll let the curtain close.”

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